Hua Mulan

The Chinese heroine Hua Mulan is one of the oldest and most enduring examples of a woman who becomes a warrior because of her role as a daughter.

Scholars have argued for centuries over whether or not Mulan was a historical figure. At some level, it doesn’t matter as far as piecing together her story is concerned. The available information about her life is scarce to nonexistent, even by the often-shaky standard of what we know about other women warriors of the ancient world.

Our oldest source for her story is the “Poem of Mulan,” which appears in a twelfth-century poetry anthology compiled by Guo Maoqian, who attributes it to a sixth-century collection that no longer exists. The poem is anonymous, undated, and three hundred words long. A few details, such as the use of the title “khan” rather than “emperor,” suggest the poem dates from the Northern dynasties period (386–581 CE).

For the most part, I chose not to discuss the stories of mythical women warriors, because there are plenty of historical examples to consider. But Mulan is a special case. She is as well known in China as Joan of Arc is in the West. Despite the absence of biographical details in the original source, several regions of China claim her as their own folk heroine.

Mulan’s story is familiar to American audiences thanks to the 1998 Disney film Mulan. But the Walt Disney Company is simply one in a long tradition of Mulan adapters, and by no means the most fanciful in its interpretation. Over a period of 1,500 years, Mulan’s story has been told in Chinese operas, plays, folk tales, and now video games.

While the versions differ in the details, the basic structure of the story remains the same: Threatened by invaders from the north, the emperor (or the khan) conscripted soldiers to defend the country. Because her father was too old to fight and her brother too young, Mulan purchased a horse, weapons, and armor; disguised herself as a man; and joined the army to fulfill the family’s conscription obligation.

The original poem gives us a brief, vivid impression of Mulan’s life as a soldier, but no details:

She did not hear her parents’ voices, calling for their daughter,

She only heard the whinnying of Crimson Mountain’s Hunnish horsemen.

Myriads of mile: she joined the thick of battle,

Crossing the mountain passes as if flying.

Winds from the north transmitted metal rattles,

A freezing light shone on her iron armor.

A hundred battles and the brass were dead;

After ten years the bravest men returned.

This is war from the common soldier’s viewpoint, stripped down to misery and poetry. Later versions of the story fill this space with heroic deeds, gender-problematic romances, and, in the Disney version, a smart-mouthed dragon sidekick.

At the end of their tour of duty, Mulan and her comrades met with the emperor, who offered them honorary ranks, appointments at court, and rewards “counted in the millions.” (In one late version, the emperor discovers her gender and offers to make her his consort. She tells him she would rather die.) Mulan refused everything; all she wanted was a fast horse (or sometimes a camel) to take her home. Once there, she went into the house and put on a woman’s clothing and makeup. When she came back out, her army buddies were flabbergasted by the truth. During the ten (or sometimes twelve) years she served in the army, none of her fellow soldiers suspected she was a woman.

In Mulan’s story, the link between being a daughter and becoming a soldier is direct and irrefutable. Chinese readers/listeners/viewers would understand her action as an extreme act of filial piety. In fact, in one version of the story she receives the posthumous title Filial-Staunchness. Filial piety—respect for and obedience to one’s parents—is the foundation on which Confucian society stands. Children are loyal to their parents. Wives are loyal to their husbands. Subjects are loyal to the ruler. The ruler is loyal to the kingdom itself. If everyone performs their duties to those above them in the hierarchy, society flourishes. If duties are not faithfully performed, chaos reigns, the emperor loses the mandate of heaven, and dynasties fall. It is an alien concept for those of us who grew up in a culture defined in terms of rights rather than social duties. But it is as powerful a fundamental social principle as “all men are created equal.”

Seen through this lens, Mulan became a warrior in order to protect her father, her family, and the social order as a whole. She preserved society’s norms by stepping outside them.

Warrior daughters fought for a variety of reasons. Some, like Mulan, fought to preserve their society. Some fought to overturn it. Some fought simply to escape the narrow framework of what society expected of women. But whatever their reasons, most historical warrior daughters shared one common characteristic: they went to war as a result of their relationships with their fathers.

The warrior daughter is not an obvious outcome of the father-daughter relationship in most traditional societies, in which the male head of the family, extended or nuclear, exercised political, social, and economic power over other family members. While the details varied in different times and places, the basic outlines of the roles of fathers and daughters are remarkably consistent across those preindustrial societies for which data exists. Marriageable daughters were the ultimate trade good of the gift economy—an idea that survives in residual form in the ritual of “giving away” the bride. Royal families exchanged daughters to cement power alliances or to establish peace between hostile nations. (In medieval England, such women were called “peace-weavers.”) Wealthy merchants, cattle farmers, and plantation owners exchanged daughters to seal business alliances, consolidate holdings, or gain access to new markets. Well-to-do peasants and their urban counterparts included their daughters in the complex economic calculus that drove the exchange and/or acquisition of land, cattle, or other property. Whether payments took the form of a dowry, in which a bride brought goods or money into the marriage, or a bride-price, in which the groom’s family paid the bride’s family for a bride, at base these transactions treated women as commodities to be exchanged/given/taken/traded, based on their potential to produce children, food, status, connections, or domestic services. In such societies, daughters were more apt to be “daddy’s little asset” than “daddy’s little girl.” Even in places where the literal exchange of a daughter was a thing of the past, her legal identity was often an extension of her relationship first with her father and then with her husband. (As late as 1972, tennis star Billie Jean King could not get a credit card without the signature of her husband—an unemployed law student.)

By comparison, in traditional societies, past and present, sons have value in and of themselves. Families needed sons to carry on the name, the family business, the dynasty. (Henry VIII of England, who married and remarried in his desire to father a male heir, is perhaps the most famous example of how far this perceived need could drive a man.) Men desired sons to perform religious rites in honor of ancestors, or carry on blood feuds to avenge a family’s honor, or inherit the family farm.

In the absence of a son, a daughter could be used to “purchase” a son-in-law to serve as his successor. Or a nephew, cousin, or brother could step into the role that would otherwise be filled by a son. But in some cases, the lack of a son opened up opportunities for daughters. The chance to receive an education. To inherit a business. To inherit a kingdom. In extreme cases, a son-shaped hole allowed, or forced, a woman to step outside her expected roles and go to war in place of her father, by the side of her father, or in emulation of her father.


Several hundred years after Hua Mulan, or perhaps a generation or two depending on which date you accept for the “Poem of Mulan,” a woman warrior led a rebel army against the Chinese empire on her father’s behalf and helped found the Tang dynasty, which is considered China’s cultural and artistic golden age.

Princess Pingyang (ca. 598–623 CE) took up arms in the reign of the Emperor Yangdi, second (and last) emperor of the Sui dynasty.

Yangdi took the throne in 604, after assassinating his father and older brother. By 613, his ambitious and expensive imperial projects—including building the Grand Canal, expanding the Great Wall, creating a secondary capital in the western empire, and launching repeated military expeditions into Vietnam, Tibet, Central Asia, and Korea—made him unpopular with peasants and nobles alike. Disastrous military expeditions in 612 and 613 against the kingdom of Koguryo, in what is now North Korea and southern Manchuria, were two foreign wars too many for China’s overburdened, overtaxed citizens. Peasants rose in revolt across the empire. The revolt soon spread to members of the aristocracy, many of whom controlled large personal armies. By 615, every province of the empire was in turmoil and the imperial army was engaged on a dozen fronts.

While his generals battled to contain the rebels, the emperor purged his government of any nobles whose loyalty he questioned. Pingyang’s father, Li Yuan, was one of the nobles the emperor feared most. Li Yuan was a successful general and a powerful warlord. He controlled the region of modern Shanxi, a strong tactical position from which to attack the Sui capitals at Chang’an and Lo-Yang. That was sufficient reason for the beleaguered emperor to suspect treason, but the main reason the emperor feared him was less rational. In 614, a ballad that predicted the next emperor would be named Li became popular throughout China. In 615, a soothsayer took up the thread and warned Yangdi that someone named Li would soon become emperor. In 617, the increasingly paranoid emperor began to execute people with the Li surname—a step that ensured the prophecy was fulfilled. After Yangdi ordered the execution of another high-ranking general named Li, Li Yuan decided his best chance of survival was rebellion. He sent secret messengers to his son and to Pingyang’s husband, Cai Shao, asking them to join forces with him to overthrow the emperor.

Li Yuan did not ask for help from Pingyang. He got it anyway.

Pingyang and her husband lived in the primary Sui capital, Chang’an, where Cai Shao was head of the Sui dynasty equivalent of the Secret Service, responsible for protecting the crown prince. When he received Li Yuan’s message asking for his help, Cai Shao hesitated. On the one hand, he feared taking Pingyang with him would cause suspicions in the royal court and end the rebellion before it began. On the other hand, he feared that if he left Pingyang behind she would be in danger once the emperor learned he had joined the rebellion. Pingyang, however, had no doubts about what they should do. She told her husband to join her father. She could take care of herself.

After Cai Shao left to join forces with her father, Pingyang fled to her family’s estate in Shanxi. She found the region suffering from a severe drought and widespread starvation, which the imperial officials were either unwilling or unable to alleviate. She fed the starving from the family granaries, then sold what remained. With the family’s wealth turned into hard cash, she assembled an army. Members of the families she had fed were the first recruits who joined what came to be called the Army of the Lady. After arming her newly formed peasant force, she made alliances with groups of dissidents, bandits, and neighboring warlords, one of whom brought a personal army of ten thousand troops to fight under Pingyang’s banner. Eventually she commanded a force of seventy thousand.

Dynastic histories emphasize that Pingyang kept strict discipline over her troops. Unlike many historical military leaders, she forbade looting, pillaging, and rape by her troops and punished offenders with a heavy hand. When her forces took control of a new area, she distributed food to the local people, ensuring they greeted her army as liberators rather than conquerors.

After repeated victories against the emperor’s armies in Shanxi, Pingyang joined up with her father and her husband. Together their forces encircled the Sui capital, which they captured within a year.

Yangdi fled the city and was later killed by his own men. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, which would rule China for three hundred years. Her father gave Pingyang the official title of princess, the honorific title zhao, meaning wise, and the military rank of marshal, which gave her the right to military aides and staff. Despite the rank and honors, she retired from military life, presumably because the national crisis had come to an end.

Pingyang does not reappear in the dynastic histories until her death in 623 at the age of twenty-three. According to the official accounts, the struggle to win the throne for her father had exhausted her. Her grief-stricken father, now the Emperor Gaozu, broke with tradition and insisted her funeral procession include a military band and other martial honors. The official in charge of court ceremonies remonstrated with the emperor because a military band at a woman’s funeral was not an accepted practice. The emperor put him in his place, saying, “A military band plays military music; since the princess raised and commanded armies in the past in response to the righteous calls of dynastic change, she earned military merits. . . . The Princess’s achievements matched those of a minister, and she should not be compared to ordinary women. How could her funeral have no military band!” He then increased the size of the band to make his point.


Chinese Women Warriors

Seven hundred years before young Scythian women died in battle and were buried with weapons as grave goods, General Fu Hao (ca. 1200 BCE) flourished and fought to defend the Shang dynasty in Bronze Age China (ca. 1600–046 BCE)—the earliest woman warrior I know of for whom we have a name and a story. She was one of three major wives of the emperor Wu Ding and a successful military commander in her own right. Traditional Chinese histories, written centuries after the fact, tell us that Wu Ding, the twenty-third ruler of the Shang dynasty, was a powerful emperor who ruled for fifty-nine years, but they don’t mention Fu Hao at all. We know her history from a true primary source: inscriptions on some 250 oracle bones, the earliest Chinese written records.

Various oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang period refer to Fu Hao as a royal consort, a general, and a landholder in her own right. She led military campaigns and presided over sacrificial ceremonies in the emperor’s name. Some oracle bones, inscribed during her lifetime, ask questions regarding her health or the tactics to pursue in a specific military campaign. Others, inscribed on behalf of the emperor, ask whether he should send Fu Hao or another general on a specific campaign, or if he should assume command himself. The inscription on one oracle bone suggests she led a force of thirteen thousand men on a campaign—an interpretation some scholars contest, since most Shang forces ranged from three thousand to five thousand troops. Other oracle bones document sacrifices made on her behalf after her death.

Chinese archaeologists established Fu Hao’s place in history without doubt in 1976, when a team under the direction of Zheng Zhenxiang discovered an undisturbed Shang tomb near Anyang, the site of the Shang capital in modern Henan province—the same region where most of the oracle bones were found. Because it had never been looted, the tomb included a larger quantity of grave goods than any previously excavated Shang tomb. At first, the richness of the grave goods and the large number of weapons led archaeologists to assume it was the tomb of a male ruler. Inscriptions on some of the seventy bronze vessels found in the tomb identified the site as the tomb of Fu Hao. Her grave goods included more than a hundred weapons, as well as thousands of ornamental objects in bronze, jade, bone, opal, and ivory, and the remains of sixteen slaves, buried with her to serve her in the afterlife. The bronze goods alone totaled 1.6 metric tons.

Scholars have pieced together a picture of Fu Hao’s career from sources that were never intended to provide a narrative. It appears she not only directed her own troops but also served as the ancient Chinese version of a task force commander in campaigns that included forces led by other generals. She participated in virtually every important military campaign at the height of Wu Ding’s reign. She led an army against the Tu Fang, a tribe of invaders from the north who had been a problem since the beginning of Wu Ding’s reign. For a year and a half, Fu Hao and other Shang generals, including Wu Ding himself, led repeated assaults against the Tu Fang. With the Tu Fang defeated, Fu Hao then led Shang forces against three more attacking forces: the armed horsemen of the Qiang Fang in the northwest, the Yi Fang in the southeast and southwest, and, sharing the command with her husband, the Ba Fung in the southeast. Soon after she returned, victorious, to Anyang, Fu Hao fell ill. She died shortly thereafter.

Fu Hao was not the only woman warrior during the Shang dynasty. The oracle bones give us the names of at least a hundred women who were active in Shang military campaigns. Most were the wives of Shang kings or powerful local lords or officials. Unless (until?) we find one of their tombs, we are unlikely to know more. It is not impossible. In 2001, Chinese archaeologists reported the discovery of a tomb of an unnamed woman who was buried with a large cache of weapons, dating from the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–1071 BCE).

After her death, Fu Hao vanished from Chinese history until Chinese scholars discovered that oracle bones were historical documents in the late nineteenth century, but the idea of the woman warrior never entirely vanished as a possibility. From the Warring States period (246–221 BCE) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese women§ led armies in unsettled times, with the expectation that once the crisis was past they would return to their traditional roles as daughter, wife, or mother. Some were teenage girls; some were tough old broads. They defended the border against invasion by barbarians and, like their counterparts in other times and places, organized the defense of besieged cities. They led peasant uprisings and helped put them down. (One woman who led a peasant revolt declared herself empress.) They helped defend existing dynasties and establish new ones. They raised armies and inherited them. Sometimes they held official ranks in the Chinese military or government. Qin Liangyu (1574–1684), for instance, began her military career by following her husband as the “pacification commissioner” of Shizhu, an area in modern Sichuan province, and eventually attained the rank of regional commander, the highest military rank under the Ming dynasty. More often, their heroism was recognized after the fact with a commemorative title—at least if they were on the winning side.

The stories we know are shaped by the sources in which they appear. Many of these examples were included in collections of biographies of “exemplary women” rather than in the official Chinese histories. One such collection includes short biographies of fifty-five “remarkable women,” most of them women warriors. These accounts are closer to parables with morals than biographies as we know them today: the women who are highlighted fit a number of standard categories, such as filial daughter or chaste widow. As a result, we get incidents, or a series of incidents, in which a seeming transgression of the social norm is shown as being rooted in Confucian ethics of filial piety and loyalty. Most of the examples we know begin their military careers as the mothers, wives, or daughters of Chinese officials, and they either fight beside their kinsmen or in place of male relatives who are unable to carry out the tasks.

China also produced women warriors who were less malleable. Lady Qi Wang (c. 1530–1588), for instance, who led the defense of a coastal fort against Japanese pirates in 1561, was described by her contemporaries as “rude, unreasonable and aggressive”—not an exemplar of Confucian ideals of womanhood.1 The stories of rude and aggressive women don’t make the collections of exemplary tales; instead they are hidden in plain sight in the biographies of others.

The Origins of Chinese Strategic Thinking

For the past three millennia, the Chinese have looked inward, presumed and cherished their moral superiority, and disdained but feared outside marauders and invaders. Here, of course, one has to distinguish ethnic Han emperors from the Khitan, Mongol, and Manchu rulers who imposed their dominion on the Middle Kingdom for many centuries. Yet even non-Han emperors embraced the Middle Kingdom’s security assumptions and fear of collapse wrought by “inside disorder and outside calamity.” They saw no need to conquer “barbarian” territories beyond the empire but only to manage nearby neighbors as subservient vassals against more powerful, distant foes. Except when directly menaced by non-Han “barbarians,” Chinese rulers regarded these neighbors as a part of the nation’s security belt. In exchange for exacting loyalty and tribute from vassal states, the emperors pledged to protect them. Over many centuries, Chinese emperors typically regarded the use of force as the last resort.

At the strategic level, the dominant Chinese philosophy created a culture characterized by “strong secularism, weak religiousness,” “strong inclusiveness, weak exclusiveness,” and “strong conservativeness, weak aggressiveness.” These features wax and wane in a twentieth-century China wracked by war, revolution, and globalization, but the Chinese now appear to believe they are in the ascendancy and in the recent past have given primacy to diplomacy in resolving disputes. In today’s China, leaders draw on the traditional code of conduct that “peace claims precedence” (he wei gui). From Mao to Deng, Jiang Zemin, and now Hu Jintao, he wei gui is invoked to justify diplomatic negotiations and the avoidance of war. In the tradition, peace and stability ensured progress and heaven’s blessing, while war could unleash decades of strife and usher in centuries of foreign rule. That tradition finds an echo in modern Beijing’s political and military councils, and we shall encounter it again at the end of our inquiry.

The dangers of war and the opportunities wrought by enduring tranquility required skilled statesmen and prudent policies, and the Chinese held that the writings of ancient, revered sages were must-read texts for all aspiring leaders and youthful cadets in training. Those steeped in the wisdom of treasured ancestors would be best equipped to guide the ship of state away from impending disasters and toward a common ideal.5 Whether one speaks of the Mandate of Heaven or the authority of Party cadres, the subject always begins with learning from the past and heeding its supposed lessons.

For those charged with guarding the nation against foreign incursions and internal strife, the place to begin was Sun Tzu, the Middle Kingdom’s renowned military strategist. His Art of War, written about 500 B.C., during the Spring and Autumn years of the Zhou dynasty, summarizes the classical notion that the best prepared for war either will win without fighting or will fight and win. War must be studied. Its basic rules and principles are universal and, taken together, are an art that can and must be learned. Sun Tzu urges leaders to think boldly but to act with extreme caution because war is “a matter of life and death, a road to safety or ruin.” As Confucius later declared, “The cautious seldom err.”

In essence, the art of war is a battle of wits, and those who master the art have the best hope of winning without fighting. That mind-against-mind struggle is characterized by brilliant stratagems, active diplomacy and deception, and judicious intimidation. Yet, armed struggle sometimes cannot be prevented, and Sun Tzu’s guidance for generations of generals stipulated the priorities for achieving victory or avoiding defeat when war occurs: “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. Next best is to disrupt his alliances by diplomacy. The next best is to attack his army. And the worst policy is to attack cities. . . . Those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. . . . Therefore, I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”

The art of war blends the skills of statesmanship and generalship, though Sun Tzu warned, “He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.” Historians also record stories of the ruthless side of Sun Tzu that transcend this warning. One story illustrates his fierce insistence on submission to command. When challenged by the king of the state of Wu to demonstrate his skills by drilling the palace concubines, Sun Tzu divided the women into two groups and explained his demand for absolute obedience and the penalties for failure. When his new recruits merely giggled and ignored him, Sun Tzu selected the king’s two favorites and had them beheaded. The giggling ended. “In the tumult and uproar, the battle seems chaotic, but there must be no disorder in one’s own troops,” Sun Tzu wrote. From empire to revolution to the Korean War, Chinese soldiers have fought in the certain knowledge that iron obedience is their only option.

Sun Tzu’s dictums are echoed in the texts of Confucius. Wise leaders, Confucius held, must constantly reflect on war and prepare for it. The most consequential national security decision comes when selecting a military commander. A nation’s leader must pick as his generals or members of his national security team, as Washington would put it, those who understand the right mix of political and military preparations for war, approach the coming battles prudently, and act with caution. Overconfident generals or ineffectual security advisors can bring ruin to the strongest state. For Confucius, a qualified commander “must be afraid of the assignment he is going to undertake” and must be able to win by prudently planned strategies that outmaneuver and outthink an adversary.

Chinese traditionally deemed the symbols of force—swords, guns, trophies, and war medals—inauspicious. A Chinese maxim says, “Those good at war do not speak about war” (shan zhan zhe bu yan zhan). For generations, the best generals shunned boasting about their military skills and did their utmost to avoid an armed struggle. Should war break out, they would pursue and bring victory because they had so diligently made ready for it politically, psychologically, and militarily. In modern times, they typically denigrated the West’s “stress on military force” (shangwu) and adopted a “force avoidance” (rouwu or “soft military”) or low-posture stance. Veiled threats and brief-strike military “lessons” reflect this classical legacy in modern-day China. The culture disparaged the race to war and lauded its avoidance as marks of wisdom and moral strength.

The Contrast of American and Chinese Military Philosophies

Chinese strategists draw on these classical perspectives to study and assess potential adversaries, extrapolating military philosophies from their conduct on the battlefield. The didactic process of comparison and assessment of perceived differences has helped chart the equation of liabilities and assets underlying each side’s doctrines and set the stage for pitting strategy against strategy. This constitutes an exercise in the great tradition of Sun Tzu and a prelude to directing the complex process from national command decision to battlefield tactics.

Lodged in military academies and command-and-staff colleges, these comparative studies start with the basics, sometimes exhibiting considerable insight and often simplistic and biased distillations. They begin with assertions about concepts of basic human nature, and though they speak somewhat grandly of the “West,” they most often mean the United States or their characterization of its beliefs and biases. For the West, so these uniformed academics say, human nature is deemed to be evil, causing its citizens to exaggerate the importance of the law and to rely on courts for punishments and redress of wrongs to individuals. Chinese in the mainstream Confucian tradition, by contrast, hold that human nature is good or perhaps just neutral and can profit from education and the collective wisdom of the past. For Chinese, court-imposed enforcement, except to protect the state, is a last resort or a foreign artifact to be scorned. Translated to the level of strategic culture, Western strategists rely on power politics, stress individual as opposed to social misbehavior, and threaten forceful retaliation to back up negotiating demands. Chinese, generally speaking, prefer recurring rounds of diplomacy, insist on consensus building especially on matters of general principle, and consider harmony reached through negotiations and compromise to be the epitome of diplomatic skill.

This presumed or alleged contrast in worldviews applies to the exercise of military power as a means to accomplish political and economic aims. Compared to leaders in the West, the Chinese profess to place a higher strategic, even moral value on tranquility and peace, a condition long absent in their own modern history. This difference, however, could help explain why the Chinese often yield to pressures from the outside world, especially in the early stages of a crisis, and only suddenly and unexpectedly resort to force as a crisis unfolds and a head-on conflict appears inevitable. According to Chinese military scholars, Westerners often prematurely terminate talks in favor of military action and, comparatively speaking, more often refuse to patiently explore promising areas of potential agreement.

Holding the view that “offense is the best defense,” Westerners, so the Chinese argument goes, too readily have adopted an aggressive stance in order to seize the initiative, while Chinese traditionally “forsake offensive actions in favor of defensive postures” (fei gong), an approach underlying one of their basic strategic doctrines, “active defense” (jiji fangyu). An oft-used Chinese character for “force” (wu) reflects the culture’s ambivalence toward its use: the defining component or “radical” part of the character is zhi, meaning “stop,” while the second component, ge, is the name for an ancient dagger-axe. Such contradictions flourish in the Chinese language and speak in subtle ways to what is sometimes interpreted as “inscrutable” Chinese behavior. As this study proceeds, however, we shall encounter signs of that behavior changing under the demands of military modernization and the complexities of the Taiwan and American challenges.

In the language of the war room, the Chinese stress intentions, while Westerners focus on capabilities. Sometimes this Chinese emphasis is phrased as a strategy of looking for an adversary’s weaknesses as opposed to the West’s fixation on an adversary’s strengths.

In recent decades, Westerners trumpet their prowess in science and technology—their hardware—though any disparities in this respect would seem to be rapidly eroding as the Chinese scramble to achieve scientific and technological excellence and seem to rely less on the wisdom of the ages. Still the distinction between a “hardware” orientation and one proclaiming the virtues of the intellect or “software” does reflect variations in national culture, not just in the stage of development. The tradition of Chinese intellectuals to “attach importance to self-cultivation but neglect technology” (zhong dao qing qi) may be waning, but the signs of its influence are far from disappearing.

Indeed, zhong dao qing qi figures in many current internal critiques of Chinese military thinking. Military leaders and planners tend to criticize the influence of the concept for their failures to forge the People’s Liberation Army into a more capable fighting force and for the persistence of a bias that inhibits an uninterrupted concentration on advances in technology. Although technological inferiority purportedly causes PLA planners to adopt more creative strategies than their adversaries, that inferiority also reduces strategic options and magnifies the importance of strategic failures.

Finally, the two cultures face in unlike directions. China looks inward, exhibiting a certain smugness, while the West looks outward and seems restless to expand and control. It would be hard to find an American whom the Chinese have not called impatient or worse. In strategic terms, this also reflects a land-sea dichotomy, at least in modern times. For generations, Western strategists called for dominance of the seas and more recently of the air and outer space. Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu to Beijing’s generals, by contrast, have been guardians of the land. They have paid closer attention to domestic political challenges than to international crises. Foreign conflicts and crises seldom take precedence over internal stability and the political power of the established rulers.

China’s sea, air, and strategic missile units belong to the People’s Liberation Army and have never achieved genuine equality with their brothers and sisters in the ground forces. Even in the age of long-range aircraft and missiles, China’s large landmass is still thought to provide a strategic advantage even though the PLA abandoned the doctrine of “luring an enemy in deep” in the 1980s. China is essentially a continental economy, its soldiers mostly hail from landlocked villages, and alien regimes one after the other have been swallowed up in China’s vast territory. These become significant data points when explaining the Chinese military’s strategies from People’s War to “active defense under modern conditions.”

Old Ideas Versus New Concepts

Today’s Chinese strategists acknowledge and seek to modify a number of behaviors that accompany the traditional outlook. Three such unwanted behaviors stand out. First, these strategists have begun to reconsider the long-held article of faith that China has always been the innocent victim, the passive target of foreign aggression. Indeed, Mao Zedong interpreted all modern Chinese history in this light and called for the people to “stand up.” Moreover, he perpetuated both the leadership’s proclivity toward preparing for the worst when making policies in crises and its allergy to taking the initiative. In 1955, he admonished his associates, “[We] will not suffer losses if we always take into account the worst scenario,” and subsequent generations were taught to take his admonition to heart. Driven by repeated setbacks of the revolutionary years, worst-case planning carried over to the People’s Republic and only in the Jiang Zemin era in the 1990s and beyond seemed to be dying out.

From their stronger, more self-confident positions at least for the moment, Western leaders are said to be more inclined to consider a wider range of options and regard the worst case as only one of several possibilities. Where once the PLA belittled the West in this regard, it now privately admires it and increasingly strives to emulate it.

A second behavior is implicit in the first: extreme “cautiousness toward the first battle” (shenzhong chuzhan). Tradition teaches Chinese to fear that round one of the fighting could decisively influence the war’s final outcome. From their perspective, Western strategists by contrast are inclined to believe that a nation’s military superiority can compensate for any initial strategic mistakes and that by seizing the initiative they can define the battlefield and determine the nature of the battles to come. This implies that the Chinese, comparatively speaking, may be less inclined to take risks before launching major undertakings or an armed conflict and could be less flexible after the outbreak of a war. Throughout China’s nuclear test program, for example, getting it right the first time translated into far fewer tests. Some explain this by pointing to China’s poverty, but the attitude, as we shall see in our later discussion of the Vietnam border war of 1979, reflects culture as well as money. As the Chinese come face to face with modern warfare, risk taking and seizing the initiative, we shall also suggest, may become mandatory, and rising domestic prosperity may well ease the change to a more “Western style” of military conduct.

The final unwanted behavior that we should note is one of methodology more than style. PLA strategists attach importance to macroanalysis, and believe that their counterparts in the West pay closer attention to microanalysis. The variations in approach to science and technology are deemed part of this behavioral disparity, as are outlooks toward human nature, matters of principle, and negotiating techniques. Nevertheless, Chinese hold that this methodological bias is based as much on necessity as on choice. Neither quantitative nor qualitative methods alone, they acknowledge, can yield a complete and adequate strategic picture, and achieving a balance between the two methodologies in today’s world is not easy.

For the moment, the Chinese military lacks sufficient sophisticated technical means for the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for accurate quantitative judgments or the nuanced human intelligence for complete qualitative assessments. China’s technological inferiority, military leaders have concluded, has crippled or delayed their plans for the nation’s security. The PLA urgently seeks to acquire those means.

In the traditional and revolutionary-era military cultures, the Chinese formulated strategic doctrines first and then determined the type, scope, and pace of weapons programs. Their lack of resources then narrowed the range of choices and the margins for error. To this day, antecedent strategic guidelines, always controversial and painful to formulate, tend to dictate the direction and scope of most arms programs and place a premium on weapons procured to match specific priorities. This approach limits the procurement of weapons optimized not only for immediate needs but also capable of flexible modification to deal with unexpected contingencies over the full lifespan of the weapon. It makes it more difficult to consider interrelated weapons systems and makes R&D on them depend principally on analyses of past Chinese and foreign conflicts, much less so on future unknowns.

While “fighting the last war” and adopting technologies developed elsewhere are not unique to China, the People’s Liberation Army only recently has begun to recognize that the profound post-Vietnam change in the U.S. military, which seeks to leapfrog over next-generation weapons and tactics, is made possible by an active synergy between imaginative battlefield theories and innovative technologies. Neither doctrines nor weapons programs necessarily comes first. Each can drive the other, a reality that has only recently been understood and embraced in the People’s Republic.

What we are seeing is that the cultural differences, so important in earlier years, have begun to narrow and their continued influence often disgusts younger, better-trained PLA officers. The reasons for this continuity, to be sure, may stem in some degree from shortages of resources as much as of vision, though examples such as the air force rejecting cheaper, more advanced satellite-based air traffic control systems in favor of outmoded radars in the 1990s suggest that the problem is one of mind-set as much as money.

The evolution that is occurring in China’s military hardware and doctrines has resulted largely from the direct application of military experience from Korea to Vietnam, from planning for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and from the dramatic lessons provided by the wars fought by the United States since the debacle of Vietnam. The worst-case planning, aversion to risk, and preference for qualitative or macroanalysis persist as do the artificial boundaries between military doctrine and weapons procurements, but as the chapters that follow will show, the Chinese are rectifying the problems born of rigid thinking and are steadily modifying their approach to war, making it more refined and flexible.

In the course of these changes, the critique of outmoded concepts has become more direct and open. In 2001, a senior PLA general echoed Sun Tzu’s declaration that national strategy is a matter of “life and death” and a road to “safety or ruin.” He castigated the nation’s think tanks for their failure to devise that strategy for the new century.

In response, senior military strategists began a systematic review of the “six domains” of strategy: politics, military affairs, economy, science and technology, culture, and society. They argued that China faces severe challenges in all six areas and outlined five strategic goals in the decades ahead: safeguard territorial sovereignty and “rights”; maintain domestic stability and a stable environment in the Asian-Pacific region; promote economic growth; oppose hegemony and power politics; and build a new international political and economic order.

War Junks

There are many types of sea-going Chinese Junks. They usually have a high stern and overhanging bow, square on deck but fine at the waterline. They have no keels but a deep rudder lowered in a trunk, and from two to five masts and lug sails stiffened with battens which can be quickly reefed. The hold is divided into water right compartments and let out to merchants. The inland river trade of China is also carried by junks of many varieties. In 1851 the Great exhibition was visited by the Keying, a junk of 400 tons sailing from Canton to Landon via New York.

Asia and the Indian Ocean, had their own traditions of naval warfare. Most of this took place in coastal or inland waters and was a direct adjunct to land warfare. By the time a permanent Chinese navy was founded by the Song dynasty in 1132, China had an array of diverse vessels including paddlewheel ships, galleys, and sailing ships. Exploiting the resources of a prosperous and populous state, China became the world’s greatest naval power, although Europeans knew little or nothing about it. In the early 15th century the Ming dynasty embarked on naval power-projection on a vast scale with the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, who took a fleet of massive war junks around southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean as far as east Africa. The decision of the Ming to withdraw from such maritime adventures after the 1430s was one of the turning points of world history.

The Pagoda, Whampoa, China. Whampoa is located to the south of Canton. The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, one of the treaties forced on China at the end of the First Opium war (1839-1842) conceded Treaty Ports to European powers, including Canton. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Chinese developed a range of warship types with different tactical roles. These included large multi-deck war junks and “tower ships” with portholes through which crossbows could be fired and lances thrust, and often carrying varieties of catapult. Smaller vessels included “covered swoopers,” fast assault ships covered with thick hides to protect against missiles and incendiary devices, which were designed for aggressive “swoops” on the enemy. “Flying barques” were fast moving galleys with more oarsmen than usual and a smaller-complement of soldiers-comparable to the Greek trireme in concept. Paddle-wheel craft, initially introduced in the 8th century, became of paramount importance under the Song dynasty. The wheels were driven by treadmills inside the hull typically operated by the leg-power of crews of 28 to 42 men. Large vessels might have 23 wheels-11 on each side and one at the stern-and measure up to 360 feet (110 m) in length. One type, known as a “seahawk” ship, had a low bow and a high stern, a ram at the prow and iron plates for armored protection. Used on rivers and lakes, the paddlewheel craft were extremely maneuverable, capable of traveling forward or backward with equal ease. On-board weaponry ranged from crossbows and lances to catapults and, later, primitive cannon. Gunpowder became a common element in missile warfare in the Song period. It could be wrapped in small packages around arrowheads to make fire-arrows, or used to fuel a fire-lance-a kind of protoflamethrower-or made into explosive grenades or bombs. Many Chinese naval battles were decided by ships being set on fire.

A Chinese War Junk exploding under fire from the East India Company British iron steam warship HEIC Nemesis in Anson-‘s Bay-, near Canton-, 8 January 1841. Steamers with shell-firing guns enabled the British to take their power close inshore-, opening rivers and harbours to the full weight of naval firepower. In this war the object was to increase trade.

As early as the 8th and 9th centuries CE, China was using massive multi-deck ships for river and canal trade. With hundreds of crewmen (and women), who often were born, lived, and died on board these massive vessels, these ships plied the inland waters of the empire. Other, foreign ships would travel as far as Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) from their ports in south China. Soon, the Chinese themselves began using similar large ships to ferry grain from south to north China, and by the 9th century the Chinese began building their own huge ocean-going ships, designed to extend the reach of the empire’s commercial and military power. Great battles soon followed, between rival Chinese factions and other Asian powers; in 1161, for instance, the Sung Dynasty defeated the Jin Empire in a massive naval battle off the Shandong Peninsula, gaining control of the East China Sea. The Sung themselves fell to the Mongols under Kubilai Khan in 1279, in a campaign where Mongol sea power played a large role.

The Mongol warships of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries had four masts, more than sixty individual cabins, and crews of over 300 men. These ships were trading, transport, and war vessels rolled into one. The Ming Dynasty which came into power in the later 14th century continued this maritime tradition at first. Around 1405, Admiral Zheng He led an expedition of some 37,000 men into the Indian Ocean, with a huge fleet of Chinese warships. The largest of these vessels were 500 feet long, up to five times the size of comparable Western ships of the era, and had watertight compartments, not introduced in West until four centuries later. This mighty fleet sailed unopposed throughout the Indian Ocean and southwestern Asian waters until 1433, a tribute to the might of China. Though the Chinese navy would thereafter begin to decline, at it apex its fleet of “Flying Tigers,” large warships that carried the spirit of the empire in their fore-and-aft rigged sails and large crews, was a force to be reckoned with.

Chinese battleships, those ocean-going junks of immense size and power, carried troops, traders, and diplomats, and sported cannon and soldiers for attack and defense. Powerful in battle, they were also most useful as spearheads of diplomatic forays or military invasions. Able to defend themselves, attack other fleets, and deposit troops onto unfriendly shores, the Flying Tiger Warships were a versatile and powerful addition to the Empire’s military system. Cresting the horizon in distant seas, a force of dozens or even hundreds of these vessels no doubt created fear and confusion in China’s enemies, and impressed China’s friends.

In Qi’s [16th century] system a war junk had 55 troops divided into five units. Two units used arquebuses, two used cannon, flame-throwers and rockets, and one unit used other types of gunpowder weapons. Naval combat required firearms by this point, a marked change in warfare.

Old China developed over the centuries a rich naval history with an entirely different technology from that used by the European West. Whole cities, whose citizens lived afloat on moored boats, were founded in the ocean. Most coastal warlords raised navies. Fleets of buccaneers banned from all ports roved the China seas. These dreaded raiders, knowing they would receive no mercy if taken, fought with a fanatic skill and courage. As the colonial period opened in the Far East, intrepid captains from the Western powers came to China’s exotic ports, lured by fabulous trade opportunities. In their wake came the adventurers, warships, and more pirates. China’s coast soon swarmed with all manner of shipping, and East met West with occasional violence. The struggle for dominance eventually climaxed in the “Opium War”.

Chinese Ships

The most obvious difference between Chinese and Western ships is that of size. Even ocean-going war junks were small compared to European ships of the line. Chinese captains insisted that their craft be able to operate in the many rivers, canals, and shallow bays that lined China’s coast. After all, some of the most important water trade took place a thousand miles from the ocean, up the broad Yangtze to the port of Ichang. Ships needed to be small and have shallow draft to navigate these waterways, especially during the winter drought.

Chinese ships evolved with unique means of propulsion. The Chinese shipwrights used square lugsails battened with bamboo and hung from a yardarm roughly two-thirds of the way up the ship’s mast. The bamboo battens held the sails rigid and flat even in high winds, which allowed the ships to tack at angles that amazed European sailors. These battened sails continued to function even when perforated and torn. Sailors climbed the battens without the use of ratlines found on Western ships. And Chinese sails could be raised and lowered rapidly because they simply folded, rather like huge Venetian blinds. Most ships could also be poled in shallow water or driven with sculling oars.

A lorca had the body of a Western frigate, brig, or corvette, but with a reinforced hull and Chinese sails. The Kiangsu and Pechilli traders were common merchant ships and also were in common use by Chinese pirates. River junks carried no sails and, despite their label, were often used on the ocean near the coast. The crooked junk was scarcely bigger than a gunboat and was limited to oared movement; its stern was designed to allow for the use of an oar sweep in rapids. Opium clippers are Western-built ships specially designed to smuggle the drug past Chinese government warships. They combined the best of both worlds, being able to out-sail most European vessels and outgun most Chinese in the South China Sea.

The Chinese never developed naval artillery, weaponry, or tactics to any great extent. Most of their combat took place in rivers, where the enemy would lie straight ahead or behind where a “broadside” could not reach. Most Chinese ships that carried cannon had only a few, and these were typically haphazardly placed on the main deck. Instead of cannons, the Orientals developed their own weapons, mostly intended to aid in the boarding actions that usually decided the fight. Stink bombs, fireships and torches, anti-boarding spikes, and mines were common. These devices, which are described in detail below, can be used by any Chinese ship.

Stink Bombs: Chinese sailors made small bombs by packing clay pots with gunpowder, nails, sulfur dust, and any malodorous substance they had available. These were to be thrown onto the decks of enemy ships. Sailors in a boarding action hurled their bombs by hand, making stink bombs.

Mines: These were small gunpowder charges designed to be floated downstream with time fuses.

Fireships: The Chinese devised a special form of fireship. Two small boats were tethered to one another by a long length of chain. When an enemy ship struck the chain, the fireships swung in to lay along her hull.

Spikes: Some Oriental ships mounted sharp stakes along the hull to discourage ramming and boarding. The Koreans refined this practice and continued it even after they developed ironclads.

The Opium War

The most dramatic encounters between European and Chinese wooden warships happened during the Opium War of 1839-1842. European naval technology had advanced in the interim, but the Royal Navy was slow to adopt these changes, and even then did not dispatch its newest ships to China. The primary British squadron in Chinese water during the war consisted of Alligator (26-gun frigate), Blenheim (74-gun common SQL), Blonde (42-gun frigate), Conway (26-gun frigate), Druid (44-gun frigate), Hellas (an opium clipper chartered by the Royal Navy), Volage (26-gun frigate), and Wellesley (74-gun SOL).

In defense of the right of British smugglers to operate, these ships blockaded the Chinese coast and also made forays upriver. The blockade intensified in June 1840 when Captain Smith outlawed all native Chinese navigation and ordered his fleet to seize all Chinese vessels. In reaction, the Chinese government offered bounties on Englishmen. One could claim the equivalent of $100 for a captured sailor ($20 for just his head), $5,000 for an imprisoned ship captain, and up to $10,000 for burning a European ship. Despite this incentive, the English almost always overwhelmed their opponents. Most of the action was confined to desperate, single-ship fighting. The only true battle occurred when Hellas was sweeping the mouth of the Yangtze. Chinese locals had cleverly placed underwater stakes to prevent her from turning. Eight Pechilli [trade] junks sallied from the river to attack her with stink bombs and boarding actions. They were driven off, but Hellas also withdrew to replenish her crew.

For more technical information on Chinese vessels, consult The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze by G.R.G. Wocester (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1971). For information on the Opium War, I suggest The Chinese Opium War by Jack Beeching (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

Tang Taizong

Tang Taizong, second emperor and co-founder with his father of the Tang dynasty, demonstrated a combination of military and political skill that made him one of China’s great emperors. His mastery of the nomadic threat is especially notable.

Tang Taizong: “Questions and Answers”

Tang Taizong, the second Tang dynasty emperor, was a skilled military leader as well as civil administrator. His military leadership came from practical experience and through study of the Chinese military classics. In the following selection, the emperor engages in discussion of his military experience with Li Ching, possibly the Tang dynasty’s most successful military commander, who was also deeply knowledgeable regarding the military classics. The emperor wishes to place his military experience in the context of the ancient Chinese military classics.

The Taizong said: “At the battle in which I destroyed Song Lao-sheng, when the fronts clashed our rightward army retreated somewhat. I then personally led our elite cavalry to race down from the Southern plain, cutting across in a sudden attack on them. After Lao-sheng’s troops were cut off to the rear, we severely crushed them, and subsequently captured him. Were these orthodox troops? Or unorthodox troops?”

Li Ching [one of Taizong’s generals and strategists] replied: “Your majesty is a natural military genius, not one who learns by studying. I have examined the art of war as practiced from the Yellow Emperor on down. First be orthodox, and afterward unorthodox; first be benevolent and righteous, and afterward employ the balance of power and craftiness. Moreover, in the battle at Huo-I the army was mobilized out of righteousness, so it was orthodox. When Jian-cheng fell off his horse and the Army of the Right withdrew somewhat, it was unorthodox.”

The Taizong said: “At that time our slight withdrawal almost defeated our great affair, so how can you refer to it as unorthodox?”

Li Ching replied: “In general, when troops advance to the front it is orthodox, when they [deliberately] retreat to the rear it is unorthodox. Moreover, if the Army of the Right had not withdrawn somewhat, how could you have gotten Laosheng to come forward? The Art of War states: `Display profits to entice them, create disorder [in their forces] and take them.’ Lao-sheng did not know how to employ his troops. He relied on courage and made a hasty advance. He did not anticipate his rear being severed nor being captured by your majesty. This is what is referred to as using the unorthodox as the orthodox.”

The Taizong said: “As for Huo Qubing’s tactics unintentionally cohering with those of Sunzi and Wuzi, was it really so? When our Army of the Right withdrew, Gaozu [Taizong’s father and the emperor] turned pale. But then I attacked vigorously and, on the contrary, it became advantageous for us. This unknowingly cohered with Sunzi and Wuzi. My lord certainly knows their words.”

The Taizong said: “Whenever an army withdraws can it be termed unorthodox?”

Li Ching said: “It is not so. Whenever the soldiers retreat with their flags confused and disordered, the sounds of the large and small drums not responding to each other, and their orders shouted out in a clamor, this is true defeat, not unorthodox strategy. If the flags are ordered, the drums respond to each other, and the commands and orders seem unified, then even though they may be retreating and running, it is not a defeat and must be a case of unorthodox strategy. The Art of War says: `Do not pursue feigned retreats.’ It also says: `Although capable display incapability.’ These all refer to the unorthodox.”

Tang Taizong

Tang Taizong (T’ang T’ai-tsung), meaning “Grand Ancestor of the Tang,” is the title of the second ruler and real founder of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in China (618–909). Born Li Shimin (Li Shih-min), he was the second son of Li Yuan, the duke of Tang, who was an important governor under the Sui dynasty. Taizong’s achievements and the policies that he laid down would make the dynasty the most powerful, successful, and prosperous since the Han dynasty. The Li family was descended from Li Guangli (Li Kuang-li), a famous general under Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty. As most aristocratic families in northern China, it had intermarried with nomads who had settled in the region; Taizong’s mother, the empress Dou (Tou), came from a powerful Turkic clan.

In 617 the Sui dynasty was collapsing and revolts were widespread. Eighteen-year-old Li Shimin maneuvered his father to revolt and played a leading part in defeating numerous other contenders to establish him on the throne of the new Tang dynasty in 618. Li Yuan is known in history as Tang Gaozu (T’ang Kao-tsu), meaning “High Ancestor of the Tang.” As second son, Shimin was the object of jealousy of his older brother, the crown prince, who planned to murder him. In a final showdown in 624 the crown prince was killed, Shimin became crown prince and de facto ruler, and two years later Gaozu retired and Shimin ascended the throne.

Brilliant and precocious, he had by his late teens mastered the Confucian Classics and literature, had gained experience in administration and martial skills, and had led men into battle. A dashing and fearless leader who placed himself at the forefront of cavalry charges and who excelled in hand-to-hand combat, he boasted that he had personally killed over 1,000 enemies before taking the throne. Taizong was immediately confronted with a crisis along the northern frontier. Taking advantage of China’s internal chaos the Eastern Turks had launched massive annual expeditions along the borders beginning in 623, to plunder and also to instigate revolts against the new dynasty. The one in 626 reached within a few miles of the capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an). Only three weeks on the throne Taizong, who was a man of imperial and intimidating bearing, led his men to confront the enemy and secured their retreat with a combination of bravado and bribes. His long-term response was to train and bolster his army, which allowed him to launch a massive six-pronged offensive with 720 miles separating the easternmost and westernmost columns in 629.

A combination of superior Tang tactics and internal disaffection among the Turkic tribes resulted in a one-sided Tang victory at the battle at Iron Mountain in which some 10,000 nomads were killed and more than 100,000 surrendered. This campaign ended the Eastern Turkish Khanate and established Chinese dominion over the Mongolian steppes. Taizong was acknowledged “Heavenly Khan” by the Turks, the first Chinese ruler to hold that title. The surrendered Turks were treated with kindness; many were settled along the Ordos region of the Yellow River and other borderland areas. Thousands of others settled in Chang’an and served the dynasty. Peace would reign in the northern borders for 100 years.

Other campaigns broke the power of the Western Turks; established Chinese power throughout Chinese Turkistan, across the Pamirs into Afghanistan to the border of Persia; and also brought Tibet under Chinese suzerainty. The marriage of a Tang princess to the Tibetan ruler, the first of several throughout the dynasty, would bring Chinese culture to that land. In 648 a Chinese force, with Tibetan assistance, crossed into India and brought an Indian rebel who had assassinated King Harsha Vardhana of India (Taizong and Harsha had diplomatic exchanges thanks to the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s [Hsuan-tsang’s] journey to India) to Chang’an for punishment. Taizong also sent two expeditions to Korea in the 640s but failed to bring the king of Koguryo to heel. Taizong rode six horses to battle. Relief carvings of all six, with accompanying inscriptions detailing their names and deeds, decorate the entrance to his mausoleum.

Taizong was a rationalist and believed that men, not heaven, determined the course of history. He was conscientious and hardworking, was concerned with the welfare of the people, and respected the opinion and sought the criticism of his advisers. He surrounded himself with able ministers. Wei Cheng was the most fearless of his critics, yet never suffered from his blunt rebukes of the emperor. Taizong called Wei his mirror for showing up all his blemishes and mourned Wei’s death as a great loss to good government. Because the basic institutions of the Tang were already in place when he ascended the throne, Taizong’s task was to consolidate, rationalize, and improve where necessary.

He halted the growth of the bureaucracy, redrew the empire’s administrative units, and continued the codification of the laws but lightened many punishments. His economic policies led to recovery and prosperity after the wars that marked the end of the Sui dynasty and led to surpluses that financed his military expansion. He established a network of granaries that provided against natural disasters and stabilized the prices. He also extended and improved the militia system begun by his father.

Taizong’s last years were marred by poor health; the death of his wife, the Empress Zhangsun (Chang-sun), who had been his wise and able adviser; the demotion of his heir for plotting against him; and rivalry among his other sons for the succession. He finally settled on a younger son by the empress, who would be known as Emperor Gaozong (Kao-tsung). But in death his reputation would grow and he would be acknowledged one of the greatest rulers of all Chinese history. His reign came to represent exemplary civil government, unrivaled military might, and unmatched cultural brilliance.

Further reading: Adshead, S. A. M. T’ang China, the Rise of the East in World History. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004; Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300–900. London: Routledge, 2002; Wechsler, Howard J. Mirror to the Son Of Heaven: Wei Cheng at the Court of T’ang T’aitsung. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

THE TANG, 618-907

The Early Tang: Challenges and Successes

Seizing on the Sui disasters, Li Yüan, a high-ranking Sui general, rose against the emperor and went on to establish the Tang dynasty. The men under his command on the day of his revolt totaled roughly 30,000, both infantry and cavalry. Like many of the generals who hoped to replace the Sui, he was able to enlist the aid of several thousand Turkish cavalrymen. By the time Li Yüan had captured the city of Changan, which was proclaimed the Tang capital, he had picked up an additional 200,000 men. Many of these were men who had deserted the Sui army during and after the disastrous Korean campaigns. Li Yüan divided this force into twelve divisions, each led by a trusted general, for there was still much fighting to come before China was securely in Tang hands.

These were true divisions, expected to be able to operate on their own with a full complement of various types of weapons and soldiers, both infantry and cavalry. In addition, the soldiers were allotted lands on which their families were to be settled. The production of these lands was to make the divisions self-sufficient in supplies, an institutional continuation of the Northern Wei and Sui military systems. Like the Sui founder, Li Yüan and his son and successor, Li Shimin, understood the importance of pacifying both China and the lands to the north. This was why Li Yüan took such care to settle large numbers of his soldiers on lands near to the steppes. Li Shimin, better known by his reign title of Tang Taizong, was particularly successful at this, using both military and diplomatic strategies to become not only emperor of the Chinese but Qaghan (essentially, “Emperor”) of the Turks as well.

Unlike members of the traditional ruling classes of southern China, but like Tang Taizong, many of the leading figures of the early decades of the Tang were very comfortable with steppe traditions such as hunting and the relative freedom of women-a result of the intermingling of Chinese and nomadic peoples during the period of disunion. Applying this knowledge, Taizong took advantage of disunion among the various steppe tribes to insinuate himself into their politics and feuds. The result was that many of the nomadic tribes became an arm of the Tang military system. Taizong thus solved-at least for a time-the main problem plaguing Chinese armies since the Zhou period: the lack of horses, needed to create a credible cavalry arm. The nomads made up the bulk of the Tang cavalry during the reign of Taizong, and they were called on at times to assist in his campaigns for the consolidation of Tang rule within China proper. Those few times steppe tribes refused to heed his orders, he sent Tang armies, aided by other steppe cavalry, to bring them to heel.

Taizong was accepted due to his adaptation to steppe traditions, especially his knowledge of steppe politics and military tactics. Frequently, he led his soldiers in person, often when outnumbered by enemy forces, reportedly having four horses shot out from under him during the course of his campaigns. He was also acquainted with the steppe military tactic of the feigned retreat, adapting this tactic successfully from its use with cavalry forces to use with primarily infantry forces.

Later Tang emperors were unable to maintain the sort of personal authority that was necessary to control the steppe nomads. But nomadic internal rivalries allowed the Tang dynasty to keep its northern frontier fairly secure for a few decades after Taizong’s death. Even after Tang control on the frontiers weakened later in the eighth century, the dynasty could often call on nomadic armies for assistance. But Tibetan invasions and the An Lushan Rebellion in the mid-eighth century, coupled with ongoing transformations of the Chinese economy and society, would finally destroy the almost symbiotic system of nomadic cavalry alongside settled Chinese infantry.

The Tang Army

The Fubing System The Tang dynasty, especially from the time of Tang Taizong, consciously worked to create a system whereby the dynasty was primarily defended by citizen-soldiers. Like the Han dynasty, the Tang was suspicious of large professional armies, believing that skilled professionals were much harder to control or to keep loyal than an army composed of free citizens. The Tang also believed that some skilled professionals were necessary, especially for the expeditions the dynasty planned in both the north and south and as a mobile strike force. As we have seen, the cavalry arm was primarily made up of nomadic horsemen who could be both used as a buffer and called on to assist in military expeditions. In the next section, we will discuss the skilled professional force that was kept near the capital. In this section, we will focus on the large forces of citizen-soldiers called the Fubing Army.

The term Fubing has been translated in various ways, the most common being “militia.” This is not satisfactory. Militia usually refers to men who are soldiers only part-time or part of the year; the rest of the time, they engage in their primary occupation. The members of the Fubing, however, were primarily professional soldiers, members of a standing army who spent all or nearly all of the year in military units, training or engaging in security duties.

The confusion in meaning comes from how the Fubing were recruited, and, sometimes, the Chinese sources from the Tang period are themselves unclear as to what the functions of the Fubing were. Nonetheless, in tracing the evolution of the Fubing, we learn that in the early Tang, at least up until the end of the eighth century, it was the most effective part of the Tang military, maintaining the security of the Tang frontier and assisting in several of the early Tang military expeditions. The Fubing commanders were some of the best in the whole Tang military.

Li Yüan established the capital of Tang China at Changan, located in the Guanzhong Province. As we saw earlier, by this time, he had over 200,000 men in his command. Although more fi ghting would be necessary to establish control over the rest of China, Li Yüan needed to ensure that the northern frontier was secure. To that end, many of these soldiers and their families were settled in agricultural communities. When additional soldiers were needed for his armies, Li Yüan had these families furnish them, along with their equipment and weapons. As these communities were expected to be self-supporting, the Tang court was spared a large expense. When this system-obviously extensively copied from the Sui military system-was expanded to include all ten of the provinces under Tang Taizong, the Tang had seemingly solved all three of the main Chinese military concerns. That is, there were military forces on the northern frontier to protect against nomadic threats; scattered military units were available for internal uses; and, because all these forces were self-supporting, there was little drain on imperial finances.

When the Fubing system was established, there were 623 communities, each with 800-1200 soldiers plus their families, making a total military force of well over 600,000. While the soldiers trained, their families were required to work their assigned lands, much as in the Sui and the Northern Wei earlier. But a key difference was that during the Tang dynasty, little private landownership was allowed in China, and all land was divided up according to a very complicated formula. This Equitable-Field system was implemented throughout the early Tang and was the basis for the Fubing military system. Those communities classifi ed as military were allotted a certain amount of land, which in the early decades of the Fubing system was quite large. In return for providing soldiers and supplying military needs, these communities were exempted from many taxes. Officers from the Imperial Guards in the capital were dispatched to the Fubing communities to oversee the administration of the lands and to lead the soldiers when necessary. This was to prevent local commanders from bonding too tightly with their men and gaining too much independent power, though lower-ranking officers usually came from within the ranks.

Recruitment was not by universal conscription, nor was it a strictly hereditary duty as under previous systems such as the Sui. Instead, roughly once every three years, officers of the Imperial Guards would circuit the Fubing communities and recruit, choosing on the basis of wealth, physical fitness, and number of adult males in a military household. Though the age of recruitment varied over time, generally a man was enlisted from age 20, and he would serve until age 60, when he could retire. Membership in the early decades was considered an honor, and those families with wealth and influence were able to get a higher proportion of their sons accepted. It is not clear how rigidly the physical requirements were enforced, but recruits were supposed to be in good health and were tested on physical strength. Those from frontier communities were also tested on their horsemanship.

After being accepted as a Fubing soldier, the new recruit and his family were expected to provide all of his rations, armor, and weapons. Groups of families were required to provide horses, mules, or oxen for use by the Fubing. This was a relatively cost-free way for the Tang to maintain a standing army, its only expense being the allocated land.

The three main duties of the Fubing were, in order of importance, garrison troops on the frontier, guardsmen in the capital area of Changan, and combat troops on expeditions. Local commanders of the Fubing were expressly forbidden to move their troops out of their camps without authorization from the court. There were exceptions in emergencies, but a commander who did move his men without prior approval had to notify the court immediately. Punishment for failing to follow these rules was exile or even death for the offending commander. Throughout the seventh century, the Fubing acquitted itself well along the frontiers and also maintained the Tang hold over the newly unified southern territories.

Guard duty in the capital area was considered a particularly important function of the Fubing by the Tang court. A complicated rotation system was devised to determine which Fubing units had guard duty and when. At any given time, there were tens of thousands of Fubing soldiers in various defensive positions in Changan and the immediate area. They were not the only military forces in the capital, but they were considered a check on the Palace Army that was supposedly the personal military force of the emperor.

Taking part in Tang military campaigns was the third duty of the Fubing. Rarely did the Fubing campaign on their own. Most often, they went into combat with large numbers of other Tang military units. The Korean campaigns, for example, were manned primarily by troops recruited from regions near Korea, but the Fubing were often the backbone of the expeditionary force. Also, an expeditionary force sent to subdue the kingdom of Nanchao (the present-day Chinese province of Yunnan) contained a large number of Fubing soldiers.

There is general agreement that through the 600s the Fubing were a competent, efficient military force that remained loyal to the Tang court. However, changes in Tang China’s economy and society in the early- to mid-eighth century led to the decline of the Fubing. The Equitable-Field system was without doubt the foundation of the Fubing military system, but in the early 700s, aristocratic families, government officials, religious orders, and others with influence were gaining effective private ownership of land. Many of the Fubing lands passed into private hands, and many military households saw their share of land reduced drastically. Service in the Fubing became less prestigious, and families increasingly saw classification as a military household as a burden and attempted various means to have their status changed to civilian. Many families attached themselves to Buddhist temples or religious orders as a quick way to relieve themselves of the burden of supplying the Fubing. Many others fled to newly reclaimed lands, becoming tenant-farmers or laborers on the lands of the wealthy in preference to service as a Fubing household, testament to how burdensome that service had become. Reports in the 740s told of massive desertions from the Fubing armies, at the same time that fierce Tibetan armies were raiding the northern and northwestern frontiers. The Fubing system was formally abolished in favor of a system of voluntary, recruited soldiers in 749.

The Palace Army In addition to the Fubing units that were expected to be composed of citizensoldiers, the Tang maintained a professional force at the capital of Changan, designed as the personal army of the emperor. This was the Palace Army, composed originally of those units used by Li Yüan in his revolt against the Sui dynasty. Often, this army is called the “Northern Army” because it was originally posted in a defensive position just north of Changan, as well as in the northern sector of the city. By Tang Taizong’s time, nearly all of the soldiers in this army were from noble or wealthy families located in the capital region.

At its height of effectiveness in the late seventh century, there were probably no more than 60,000 men in the Palace Army. In this early period, it was the core of Tang military strength and even included a cavalry element. Members of this army trained constantly together, and those who were tall and strong and showed ability at horse-archery were admitted to the cavalry, commanded mostly by specially recruited Turkish officers.

Other than some of the cavalry officers, most officers in the Palace Army came from the Imperial Guards. Indeed, most of the top Fubing officers were also Imperial Guardsmen. The Imperial Guards were recruited exclusively from the families of nobles and former high-ranking officials, and some have seen this as a modified version of the “hostage system” that had been used by the Han dynasty to maintain some measure of control over powerful families. As long as membership in the Imperial Guards was esteemed, there was a constant flow of competent, energetic officers for both the Palace Army and the Fubing. But by the late seventh century, the Imperial Guards- and therefore the Palace Army-had become involved in imperial succession struggles, and their effectiveness had diminished considerably.

The empress Wu (690-705) greatly expanded the Palace Army, enlisting men from outside the traditional recruiting grounds. This could have been an invigorating move that revitalized the military efficiency of the Palace Army; but, instead, a major unit of the Palace Army was used in 705 to depose the empress, and various other units later were frequently called on to assist in court intrigues. During the outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, the Palace Army simply melted away as the rebel forces approached. Only 1000 of the supposedly elite force were left to accompany the emperor as he fled the capital.

The Decline of Tang Military Efficiency

New Frontier Armies Constant and growing threats from a newly unified Tibetan kingdom in the late seventh century demonstrated the increasing feebleness of the Fubing military system. The Tang relied to a large degree on their Uighur and Turkish nomadic allies, who by this time could no longer be considered even remotely under the control of Tang China. The Uighurs had been especially effective in assisting the Tang, but they did not come cheap. By the 670s, vast amounts of silk and other goods were necessary to buy Uighur assistance. When the payments slacked, the Uighurs would strike within China to exact payment and, since the Fubing garrisons were significantly weakened, their raids were often successful. To lessen reliance on the hired Uighur cavalry and protect the frontier, the Tang replaced the Fubing system with one of long-serving volunteer frontier armies, led by imperially appointed military governors possessing a good deal of civil as well as military authority.

For military encampments for these new troops, the Tang constructed massive fortresses across the three provinces that bordered the steppe frontier. The frontier fortresses were connected to and communicated with each other and the capital by post roads and beacon towers. In some cases, the fortresses were constructed on former Turkish territory. While the Turks were away in battle with tribes further west, the Tang army moved in swiftly to secure the area, constructing fortresses and denying the Turks some of their prime pasturelands. By the 720s, there were well over 65,000 soldiers with 15,000 horses stationed in Guanzhong alone, with comparable numbers in the adjoining two provinces.

This entailed an enormous expense, and, though the Tang was a fairly prosperous time in China’s history, this level of outlay proved difficult to maintain. Unlike the Fubing forces, these frontier armies were not self-supporting, nor could they be, with many of the soldiers posted relatively far north in lands less suited to settled agriculture. The difficulty of paying these forces prompted dangerous political arrangements. Taxing authority was given over to the military governors, who increasingly ruled independently of the court.

Until 750, the system appeared to be working. Tang China faced a series of ups and downs in terms of security along their frontiers, but none of the problems they encountered was very serious. Trade through the Tang possessions in Central Asia continued fairly smoothly, and the nomadic peoples on all fronts were, if not fully pacifi ed, at least not of serious concern. But the year 751 saw three major military disasters for the Tang. The first occurred at the Talas River on the western frontier, where a major Chinese force under the veteran Korean general Gao Xianzhi was decisively defeated by a combined Arab-Turkish force. Another Chinese army, on the northeastern frontier, led by the Turkish-Soghdian general An Lushan, was decisively defeated by a predominantly Khitan nomadic force. Then, a major Chinese army was defeated and wiped out in an invasion of the Nanchao kingdom in the southwest, leaving the Sichuan area of China vulnerable to renewed Tibetan attacks. The combination of defeats seriously destabilized the dynasty.

Transformation and Decline The Tang dynasty faced two big problems in trying to rebuild its military forces after the disasters of the mid-700s. First, although the large frontier armies did not fare well in combat against foreign forces, internally, their commanders continued to accrue tremendous independent power. The threat to central authority posed by military commanders and the great warrior aristocracy became acute in the 800s as commanders gained control of the civil government in their provinces and won the right to hereditary succession to their commands. In the end, independent warlords brought down the dynasty-a development that would significantly influence the military policy of the succeeding Song dynasty.

Second, the increasing demographic and economic influence of southern China in the empire as a whole had significant ramifications for the social and military structure. The south was even more unsuitable terrain for raising horses and maintaining cavalry traditions than the north of China. As a result, Chinese reliance on nomadic tribes for cavalry became even greater at the same time as the rulers of China became even more distanced from the culturally syncretic milieu that had produced the leaders of the early Tang. Thus, Chinese control over their nomadic allies waned, and cavalry warfare became more and more divergent from native Chinese military traditions. This, too, would fuel the Song reaction against great warrior aristocratic families, who most strongly embraced those traditions.

Events reached crisis proportions because of the independent power of military commanders. An Lushan, the most powerful Tang general and a court favorite, rebelled in 755. After seven years of chaotic fighting, the various rebel forces were finally defeated, but only with significant aid from nomadic Uighur horsemen, who became a problem in turn. A succession of emperors rebuilt a central army around the core of a loyal frontier army; this Shence Army was led by eunuchs, reflecting an effort to solve the problem of commander loyalty. Though temporarily successful-the Shence Army was instrumental in putting down another rebellion by military governors in 781-the institution had little success controlling the nomadic frontier because of its central location in the capital. Further, its power was steadily diluted by aristocratic infl uence, money shortages caused by the independence of the military governors, and involvement in court politics. Increasingly enfeebled, the Tang dynasty finally fell in 907, ushering in several decades of warfare that would accelerate the underlying changes in China’s political, social, and military structure.

Thunderbolt in Chinese/Taiwanese Service

P-47D-23-RA Unit: 11th FG Serial: P-47014 Kangwan Field, Shanghai, circa 1947.

P-47D-30-RA Unit: 43rd FS, 11th FG Serial: 432917 (44-32917) Circa 1947.

P-47D-28-RE “Lady Maurene” Unit: 43rd FS, 11th FG Serial: P-47036 Nationalist’s P-47s were used during the Chinese Civil War.

P-47 Communist China CPR

ca. 1954, Taiwan — Pilots Looking at Instructions — Image by © Horace Bristol/CORBIS

After World War II, the Chinese Nationalist Air Force received 102 P-47Ds used during the Chinese Civil War. The Chinese Communists captured five P-47Ds from the Chinese Nationalist forces. In 1948-57, the Chinese Nationalists employed 70 P-47Ds and 42 P-47Ns brought by Taiwan in 1952. P-47s were used extensively in aerial clashes over the Taiwan Strait between Nationalist and Communist aircraft.

Although P-47 production ceased just weeks after Japan’s surrender, Thunderbolts (re-designated as the F-47) continued to serve for years (and in some cases decades) after World War Two. America pulled the plane from front line service in 1949, but NATO allies like Turkey, Portugal and Italy maintained squadrons of Thunderbolts into the 1950s, as did Iran. Taiwanese F-47s routinely engaged communist fighters off the coast of China. Surplus models were also liberally distributed throughout Latin America during the same period. Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic all maintained fleets for years. Peru didn’t retire its Jugs until 1966. When designing its formidable A-10 tank buster in the early 1970s, engineers at Fairchild Republic tore a page from history and dubbed their new twin-engine attack jet the Thunderbolt II in honour of the P-47. Today, at least 15 original wartime Jugs are still airworthy and can be seen on the North American air show circuit each summer.

Republic of China Air Force [ROCAF] General HQ was established in June 1946. Starting in August 1948, the Air Force started moving its equipment and institutions to Taiwan. This operation alone was a massive one. It took what is today the Air Force Institute of Technology 80 flights and three ships over four months to relocate. This did not include the other academies, training facilities, manufacturing plants, radio stations and military hospitals, which moved separately.

Chin-chang Chen writes that during this period, an average of 50 or 60 planes flew daily between Taiwan and China transporting fuel and ammunition.

By May 1949, the Air Force Command Headquarters was operating out of Taipei, having transported 1,138 officers, 814 pilots, 2,600 family members and about 6,000 tonnes of equipment and classified documents. The last group of pilots barely made it out of Shanghai as the Communists stormed the airport. Other military branches made their exits as key locations in China fell.

In October 1949 five battalions of the PLA’s 61st Division began an assault on the Nationalist-held Dengbu Island. But even with their crushing superiority, the PLA units could not prevent the introduction of enemy reinforcements by sea, and after suffering 1,490 casualties, the Communist troops retreated  in defeat. Later that same month, the PLA Tenth Army attacked the island of Quemoy, and again lost the battle at sea. It could not reinforce the initial invasion force. Taking more than 9,000 casualties, the stranded force perished, and ever after its defeat for lack of sea and air support constituted an oft-repeated “bloody lesson”.

From 1946 to 1948, during the Chinese Civil War, the ROCAF participated in combat against the People’s Liberation Army engaging in air-to-air combat on at least eleven occasions in the areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait. The ROCAF reportedly enjoyed a 31:1 kill ratio against the PLA. GHQ was evacuated to Taiwan along with the rest of the ROC Government in April 1949 following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. The ROCAF assisted in halting the PLA advance at the Battle of Kuningtou on Kinmen the same year.

The ROCAF regularly patrolled the Taiwan Straits and fought many engagements with its Communist counterpart (the PLAAF).

Bestfong decals: Airplane 1930~1950 ROCAF

ROCAF Combat Losses 1950-7 [F-47 = P-47]

11/05 34 Sq 3 POW B-26 Downed in
Fujian. The
crew were
released 8
months later.
07/01 3 Sq KIA F-47N “699” Downed by
04/15 12 Sq KIA RF-84F Crashed
to South
pursuit by
11/10 6 Sq 9 KIA C-46 Downed by
PLA MiG in
an airdrop
mission over
06/22 Spec. Op.
11 KIA B-17 Downed by
PLA MiG-17
in Jiangxi
07/16 1 Sq KIA F-84G “118” Downed by
near Kinmen
06/27 12 Sq KIA RT-33A “7” Downed by
PLA MiG-15 off coast of
02/20 3 Sq KIA F-47N “142” Downed by
PLA Navy
01/21 43 Sq KIA F-47N “209” Downed by
PLA Navy
01/19 1 Sq                            KIA F-84G “315” Downed by
First jet
aircraft lost.
11/17 12 Sq KIA RT-33A “2” Crashed into mountains in
when evading PLA MiG-15
11/01 5 TFG KIA F-47N “380” Crashed in a
mission in
10/15 27 Sq MIA F-47N “227” Failed to
09/12 35 Sq 9 KIA PB4Y “12” Downed by
near Xiamen
09/04 8 Sq KIA F-47N “369” Damaged by
PLA AAA in a
Crashed near
07/06 43 Sq KIA F-47N “313” Downed by
PLA MiG-15
06/03 26 Sq KIA F-47N “222” Downed PLA
05/26 Spec. Op.
4 KIA B-17 Downed by
over Fujian
03/18 26 Sq KIA F-47N “219” Downed PLA
02/09 27 Sq KIA F-47N “267” Downed by
12/17 26 Sq KIA F-47N “193” Downed by
over Jejiang
07/16 41 Sq KIA F-47N “335” Downed by
11/08 41 Sq MIA F-47N “129” Failed to
return from a
recce mission
07/29 41 Sq KIA F-47N “126” Downed by
over Xiamen
04/02 22 Sq KIA P-51 Downed by
stationed in
03/16 23 Sq KIA P-51 Downed by
03/14 12 Sq 6 KIA F-10 “07” Downed by
PLA aircraft

ROCAF Combat Losses Since 1950