Imperial China: War and the Military II

The Opium War between Great Britain and Qing dynasty China began because the Chinese prohibited the sale of opium by foreign, mostly British, merchants. European demand for Chinese goods—silk, porcelain, and tea—which had begun in the seventeenth century increased dramatically in the eighteenth century. The British came to dominate this trade, as tea in particular developed into a daily necessity. Lacking goods to exchange with the Chinese for these commodities, Europeans spent enormous amounts of precious metals, mostly silver, to obtain them, resulting in a significant trade deficit. In the late eighteenth century, the British began to trade opium, produced by their colonies in India, as a substitute for silver. The damaging effects of opium on the Chinese population prompted the Qing authorities to ban its trade.

Banning opium would have undermined not only Britain’s now favorable trade balance with China, but also the economics of its larger international trading system. When the Qing authorities confiscated and destroyed the opium held by British merchants to enforce the ban, the British government went to war to obtain reparations and force the Qing government to permit the sale of opium. The Qing army and navy were badly outclassed, and lost a series of battles. The two sides signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which provided reparations for British merchants, and cession of the island of Hong Kong to Britain. The opium trade was officially legalized at the subsequent Treaty of Tianjin in 1858.


One of China’s most significant contributions to human civilization is the invention of gunpowder and the gun. Something like gunpowder was known as early as 808 CE and, by the late tenth century, the Song dynasty had a separate office responsible for gunpowder production in the imperial workshops. The first formulae for gunpowder were set down in writing in a military encyclopedia, The Comprehensive Essentials from the Military Classics, in 1044. Those three formulae required a fairly high percentage of saltpeter in their mix, though in this early stage gunpowder was used to make incendiary projectiles for trebuchet (the overall scale of production at that time is unknown). Keeping in mind that China in the eleventh century was undergoing both an institutional shift in government to a tax state, and an economic revolution toward what would be a proto-industrial revolution, it is not surprising that gunpowder production rose dramatically. By 1084, a shortfall in sulfur production required the importation of 660,000 pounds of sulfur from Japan. The scale of demand suggests large-scale production and, presumably, use of gunpowder weapons, but unfortunately the records don’t allow us to determine whether this was a rare incident or part of a more regular trade relationship.

Gunpowder weapons, grenades, bombs, fire-arrows, and flame-thrower-like devices were produced in significant numbers by the beginning of the twelfth century, but were not yet effective enough to overcome the power of northern steppe groups like the Jurchen and then the Mongols. Even if they had been, the technology quickly spread across borders, though the challenges of producing sufficient saltpeter and sulfur, as well as the weapons themselves, confined most gunpowder weapons to siege and naval warfare. At least initially, gunpowder was used for its incendiary effects and the explosive potential of confining the gasses produced by burning in a container until it burst. The exact date when that same explosive force was used to propel a single projectile from a barrel remains unknown, but by the late thirteenth century the Song government was producing thousands of anti-personnel handguns. (The Chinese did not have large cannon in the thirteenth century for punching holes in fortification walls.) Although these handguns had very slow rates of fire, limited range, and were inaccurate, by the wars of the fourteenth century that established the Ming dynasty they were widely used.

Guns were invented and developed under the auspices of the Song government, during the period it transitioned first to a tax state, in the eleventh century, and then a fiscal state, in the twelfth century. (A tax state obtains more revenue from taxing non-agricultural activities than agriculture, while a fiscal state can use fiscal innovations like credit to obtain still greater revenue.) By the late fourteenth century, gun development had apparently come to a virtual halt, probably as a result of the Ming founding emperor’s destruction of the fiscal state. Hongwu sought to impose a much simpler social and economic system on his empire, one which was much less dependent upon a cash economy and fiscal techniques. As with modern countries, the development and production of military technology required a government with sufficient resources and orientation to exploit the productive capabilities of its economy.

By the time the Ming dynasty shifted its economic policies in the sixteenth century, Chinese gun technology had fallen behind Europe. As Europeans established contact with China, bringing in more advanced guns, China became a recipient, rather than a producer of new gun technology. Its inferiority in military technology with respect to the West and to Japan remained a critical weakness through the end of the imperial era. Just as importantly, Manchu Qing dynasty military practice and government institutions had great difficulty incorporating European weaponry, which had been developing at an increasingly rapid rate from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, making adoption expensive and frustrating. Given the lag time between European developments and that technology reaching China, it was impossible to keep up. This resulted in European global military dominance in the nineteenth century, which ramified into economic superiority as well. Defeat in the Opium War, due in part to inferior military technology, has been seen in twentieth- and twenty-first-century China as the beginning of a “century of humiliation.”

Military Thought

Chinese military thought was sophisticated, pragmatic, and highly developed even before the imperial age. Most military writings were emphatically non-mystical, though there was an important strand of divination and military magic in some works, and straightforward in their advice. The most important work, “bingfa,” translated as “The Art of War,” or more recently by Victor Mair as “Military Methods,” was by the mythical strategist Sunzi (also known as Sun Tzu). Although copies of The Art of War have been recovered from tombs dating to the third century BCE, the first “biographical” information about Sunzi is contained in Sima Qian’s The Records of the Grand Historian (completed about 94 BCE). Sunzi’s The Art of War and the Master Wu by Wu Qi (also known as Wuzi, 440–381 BCE) became the foundation texts on strategy in China. By the eleventh century CE at the latest, Chinese scholars recognized that Sunzi, or Master Sun, was a fictional military exemplar because, despite the importance of the work attributed to him, he is never mentioned in any history before Sima Qian’s. Wu Qi, on the other hand, was a historical figure. A successful general in the states of Lu and Wei who later served as prime minister in Chu, he stressed the role of the general as a strategist rather than a fighter.

As in the West, it is almost impossible to connect directly military works and the prosecution of specific campaigns or battles. What is clear is that the works of Sunzi and Wu Qi were consistently studied for advice on military strategy before Sima Qian declared them exemplary strategists. Cao Cao’s commentary on The Art of War in the third century CE began an intellectual tradition of scholars interested in military thought commenting on Sunzi. These scholars were civil officials who sought to explain various passages in Sunzi through either antiquarian clarification or historical examples demonstrating the practice of strategy. Even Cao Cao, who would go on to be one of the most famous, or infamous, warlords in Chinese history, wrote his commentary while he was still a civil official. This tradition of commentary culminated in the thirteenth century with the collection of eleven commentators into the canonical Sunzi with Eleven Commentaries. Unfortunately, the compiler of this work is unknown, as are his reasons for embarking on the project.

A similar process of canonization occurred in the eleventh century with the creation of The Seven Military Classics. Beginning in the 1030s, the Song court began to debate the necessary intellectual requirements to pass the military exam and become an army officer or military official. While the physical component, primarily skill in standing and mounted archery, was quickly resolved, the question of which texts a prospective general should study took decades to work out. Ultimately Song emperor Shenzong (1048–85, r. 1067–85) decreed what would be taught in the military academy and tested on the exam. The resulting textbook, The Seven Military Classics, included Sunzi and Wu Qi’s works, and the eleventh-century forgery, The Tang Taizong-Li Weigong Questions and Replies. It established the core of Chinese military thought from then on, even though Sunzi continued to receive the overwhelming majority of attention when it came to the art of war.

War and the military have been as much a part of Chinese history as anywhere else. What distinguishes imperial Chinese history even from pre-imperial history, however, is that war was repeatedly harnessed to create Chinese ecumene-spanning empires. Imperial ideology was able to incorporate war and the military into a functioning political framework flexible enough to withstand centuries of change under a single dynasty. Previous studies of imperial Chinese history have stressed the centrality of “Confucian” officials in building and maintaining these dynasties, and downplayed the use of war and the military in support of those goals. While it is certainly true that the sources for Chinese history themselves, written by civil, “Confucian,” officials emphasized the role of those officials, modern historians have also generally preferred that explanation of why Chinese empires lasted for so long. From this perspective, dynasties rose and persisted because of a fundamental cultural orientation toward cohesion, not because of contingent military and political events. Chinese empires “naturally” rose, declined, and rose again.

A similar perspective was impossible for Chinese rulers, would-be rulers, and their officials. Dynasties did not arise by themselves, and political and cultural cohesion was created by hard work and a large measure of violence. A greater portion of the population participated in the military than in education, and military culture likely pervaded popular culture. This is not to say that the average farmer would not have preferred to have been able to study and become a civil official, or that military service was not harder, more dangerous, and less respectable. Rather, it is important to recognize that educated elite culture and values were necessarily not synonymous with those of the general populace. Commoners faced very different choices and understood very explicitly the state’s use of the military to maintain order through violence.

Imperial Chinese armies were also consistently large, requiring the sort of bureaucracy that China became famous for. Highly developed government bureaucracies were responsible for important technological advances. For example, during the Song dynasty, it was the state’s ability to collect resources and drive military innovation that led to the invention of the gun. This was an invention of the Song state, its tax system, its economy, and its army. But imperial armies could be organized in a variety of ways to support a particular ideological, ethnic, or security concern.

All successful dynasty-founding armies had to transition from conquest to maintaining order, and then defending against invasion. The half-dozen major dynasties managed to keep order and fend off outside forces for several centuries before political and military decline left them incapable of surviving. Still, military decline and political ossification were not always causally linked. They might reinforce each other, or contribute to the other, but military weakness was not the direct product of the moral decay of the imperial family and its officials.

Sometimes dynasties rose and fell simply because an army or armies succeeded or failed on the battlefield. The short-lived Chinese polities, which often only controlled parts of the Chinese ecumene, provide many examples of the failure of arms to achieve Chinese imperial ideals. There were far more failures than successes in establishing a long lasting, ecumene-spanning polity. Yet China is distinguished by the small number of successes, and the effective combination of war and politics to achieve them. Historians and unified Chinese states, including modern China, have emphasized the great successes of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties rather than all of the failures. This stance is, however, due to ideology rather than a balanced perspective on the nature of Chinese history.