The Dutch Attempt to Seize Portuguese Macau

Dutch ships firing their cannons in the waters of Macau, drawn in 1665.

Map of Macau Peninsula in 1639, the city now reinforced with walls and forts

The First Fortifications

At first there were no fortifications in Macau. As mentioned previously, the Chinese were suspicious of Portuguese intentions and were careful to prevent them becoming too strong, and a part of this was their objection to the building of forts. The Portuguese controlled the seas and, whether or not they had colonising intentions, they came to realise that direct conflict with the Chinese was not feasible. They therefore accepted the Chinese demands and appeared to coexist peacefully with them.

Dr. Francisco de Sande reported in 1582 that:

The Portuguese of Macao are still nowadays without any weapons, or form of justice, having a Chinese Mandarin who searches their houses to see if they have any arms and munitions. And because it is a regular town with about 500 houses and there is a Portuguese governor and a bishop therein, they pay every three years to the incoming viceroy of Canton about 100,000 ducats to avoid being expelled from the land, which he divides with the grandees of the household of the king [emperor] of China. However, it is constantly affirmed by everyone that the king has no idea that there are any such Portuguese in his land.

As late as 1598 when Dom Paulo de Portugal protested about the Spanish trading at Pinhal,2 he did not feel able to be too forceful, as Macau was an open unprotected place. However, others were a greater threat to Macau.

Portugal’s geographical proximity to Spain became political after the death of Dom Sebastião in 1576. There was no male heir and, after a short period of uncertainty, the claim of the Habsburg King Philip II of Spain was endorsed by the Cortes which in 1581 proclaimed him king. Thus Spain and Portugal shared the same monarch, although the Portuguese fiercely clung to the notion of the countries remaining separate. One negative effect for Portugal was that Spain’s enemies became Portugal’s. These included the Dutch and English who were both naval powers. They were soon attacking Portuguese vessels and between 1623 and 1636 some five hundred Portuguese ships were lost.

Ships were not their only aim but the colonial territories as well. The Dutch first appeared at Macau in 1601 when a fleet under Admiral van Neck approached. They sent a party to take soundings of the harbour but the Portuguese attacked them and eighteen were hanged and two sent to Goa. That did not stop the Dutch, and they returned two years later when two of their ships opened fire on Macau and plundered and burnt a carrack. The next year a Dutch envoy tried to establish trade with China but the Portuguese influence stopped that, at which the Dutch Admiral van Waerwijk set sail to take Macau. He was halted by a typhoon and then driven off by a fleet of war junks. A report by Captain Matelieff in 1607 to the Dutch government confirmed that there was still a lack of forts and walls.

The Dutch were not the only threat as some of the British adventurers also cast their eyes on Macau, but the Dutch were in greater numbers. The Dutch made plans for taking control of Macau and they estimated this to be an easy task. In the instructions to the Dutch admiral, it was stated that:

Macao was always an open place without a garrison, which, despite of its being provided with a few munitions and some shallow entrenchments, could easily be taken by a force of a thousand or fifteen hundred men and converted into a stronghold which we could defend against the entire world.

However, elsewhere in the same document it is noted that some steps had been taken to fortify the city, albeit that the Chinese were still against such works.

Ever since we and the English have traded with Japan with many ships, the population has been greatly alarmed. The place was therefore strengthened with some bulwarks, and they brought twelve cannon from Manila, whence another five guns are expected. They would gladly fortify the city but the Chinese will not allow it, saying that there will be time enough to do so when the enemy actually appear in sight.

Richard Cocks, writing to his employers, the East India Company in London, on 30 September 1621, confirmed the Dutch assessment, stating that:

It is very certen that with little danger our fleet of defence may take and sack Amacon in China, which is inhabeted by Portingales. For the towne is not fortefied with walls; neither will the King of China suffer them to doe it, nor to make any fortifications, nor mount noe ordinance upon any platforme; and ¾ partes of the inhabetantes are Chinas. And we are credably informed that, these last two yeares, when they did see but two or three of our shipp within sight of the place, they were all ready to runn out of the towne, as I have advized the Precedent and Councell of Defence at Jaccatra; and, had but 2 small shipps, as the Bull and Pepercorne, entred this yeare, they might easily have burnt and taken 17 sale of galliotas which weare at anchor, amongst which weare the 6 galliotas which came into Japan, being then full laden; and, had they taken this fleet, the Portingales trade in these parts of the world is quite spoiled, both for Manillas, Malacca, Goa, and else wheare. And the King of China would gladly be ridd of their neighbourhood; as our frendes which procure our entry for trade into China tell me, and doe say that he wished that we could drive them from thence.

Clearly the Portuguese needed to prepare for an attack and, in spite of the Chinese objections, they took steps to improve their security. The first defensive works were probably in the form of simple bulwarks, using guns that could be spared from the ships. As noted above, cannon were also brought in from Manila and some progress had been made in building proper defensive works to house them. Fei Chengkang notes that between 1608 and 1615 the batteries of São Francisco and Bom Parto had been built to protect the Praya Grande and that there was a battery at the entrance to the Inner Harbour. He also notes that a city wall had been started as early as 1605 in the area north of the Jesuit seminary, although this may have been their boundary wall, albeit built with defence in mind.

The continuing Dutch incursions so alarmed the citizens that in 1612 representatives from Macau went to Canton to argue that fortifications were required to defend the territory against the Dutch. There is no record of the Chinese having given any approval, but in the face of the Dutch menace a decision to fortify Macau was made in 1615. By then, in addition to the batteries noted above, the construction of the fort at the Monte was also well advanced. Francisco Lopes Carrasco was the officer charged with building the extended fortifications. He arrived in 1616 and established his headquarters at the Monte Fort, apparently as a guest of the Jesuits, as at that time it was part of their seminary complex. It is not known what plans he drew up or how much work was completed in the early years. However, there were fortunately some effective batteries in place by 1622.

The 1622 Attack by the Dutch

The early preparations were well justified as in June 1622 a Dutch fleet, under Admiral Cornelis Reijersen, was on its way to take Macau. The preparations for the attack were very thorough. Two hundred and one soldiers on board the fleet were formed into three companies and drilled daily under the command of two captains and an ensign. The sailors were divided into six companies of fifty men each, a total of three hundred. These nine companies of European soldiers and sailors were organised into three detachments —advance-guard, main-guard and rear-guard— each composed of one company of soldiers and two of sailors. The detachments were distinguished by red, green and blue flags and each was provided with six hundred pounds of small shot, six barrels of gunpowder and a surgeon. There were also sixty scaling-ladders, a thousand sandbags and three cannon. In addition to the five hundred Europeans there was a Japanese contingent and some Bandanese and Malays, the whole landing force amounting to about six hundred men.

The fleet arrived in sight of Macau on the 21 June where it was joined by the four ships (two Dutch and two English) of Janszoon’s blockading squadron. Reijersen now found himself at the head of a force of thirteen Dutch ships (Zierickzee, Groeningen, Delft, Gallias, Engelsche Beer, Enchuysen, Palliacatta, Haan, Tiger, Victoria, Santa Cruz, Trouw and Hoop) carrying a force of 1,300 men, so that he was able to reinforce the landing detachment by another hundred Europeans. The two English ships — the Palsgrave and Bull — decided not to participate in the attack, because Reijersen, in accordance with his instructions, refused to allow their crews any share in the expected booty.

On 23 June, to distract attention from the intended landing-place, three of the ships — Groeningen, Gallias and Engelsche Beer, anchored off the São Francisco bulwark, which they heavily bombarded during the afternoon. Apart from some material damage the Portuguese did not suffer any losses. The next day the Dutch ships Groeningen and Gallias resumed and intensified their bombardment of the São Francisco bulwark. The Portuguese gunners replied with equal determination and better success, as the Gallias was so badly crippled that she had to be abandoned and scuttled a few weeks later.

Meantime, about two hours after sunrise, the landing force of eight hundred men embarked in thirty-two launches (equipped with a swivel-gun in the prow) and five barges. They steered for Cacilhas beach to the northeast of the town, protected by fire from the guns of two of the ships. Further protection was provided by the smoke from a barrel of damp gunpowder that had been ignited and placed to windward; one of the earliest recorded instances of the tactical use of a smoke screen. About 150 Portuguese and Eurasian musketeers under the command of Antonio Rodriguez Cavalinho opposed the landing from a shallow trench dug on the beach.

From the start luck favoured the defenders. A musket-shot fired at random into the smoke screen struck the Dutch admiral in the belly, so that he had to be taken back to his flagship at the beginning of the action. This did not deter the Dutch and they were able to establish a beachhead. They disembarked their three field-pieces and the rest of their men without serious opposition. The senior military officer Captain Hans Ruffijn then organised two rear-guard companies to stay on Cacilhas Beach, with a view to covering the withdrawal of the main body if the attack on the town should prove unsuccessful. This done, he resumed the advance with six hundred men.

Ljungstedt quotes from an account of the events in the Senates archives as follows:

The Tocsin was rung: our people flew to assist us. The enemy had nearly passed the hermitage of Guia, when a heavy gun and some of less size were fired at them from the Monte. This salute made them stop and finding that a great number of men were in front, the commander apprehensive of being surrounded, sought some strong hold on the declivity of the mountain at the foot of Guia. Of this movement the Portuguese availed themselves, they attacked the enemy in the rear with so much resolution, that the Dutch threw away standards, arms, everything that they might get quickly back to the bay. The two companies stationed at Casilhas, endeavoured to rally the fugitives, when the Portuguese fell upon them so furiously with fire and sword that the enemy were compelled to seek for safety on board the ships. Many tried to reach the boats by swimming; of them 90 were drowned, and almost as many were slain in the field. The Dutch lost five standards, five drums and a field piece, that had just been landed, and more than a thousand arms. Four Captains were slain, and one taken with seven prisoners. Four Portuguese and two Spaniards, with a few slaves were killed. Some Portuguese slaves, who had behaved bravely and faithfully during the action were emancipated by their masters: the Tsung-tuh of Canton, sent them two hundred piculs of rice.

Surprisingly he does not mention that a lucky cannon-ball from a large bombard in the half-finished citadel of Sao Paulo do Monte, which was served by the Italian Jesuit and mathematician Padre Jeronimo Rho, struck a barrel of gunpowder which exploded in the midst of the Dutch formation with devastating results. Nor does it describe the vital part played by the commander of the garrison of the Fort of Sao Tiago at the Barra. He, realising that the main attack was coming from the landward side and that the naval bombardment of Sao Francisco was a feint, sent a party of fifty men under Captain Joao Soares Vivas to help. These reinforcements swung the balance and resulted in the rout of the Dutch.

It is perhaps ironic that Richard Cocks, who a year earlier had written to say how easily Macau could be taken, had to write a report of the battle on 7 September 1622 stating that three to five hundred men had been killed and four ships burnt. It was a great victory but it was not until 1871 that a monument to it was erected in the Jardim da Vitória.


The Battle of Sheipoo

Soon after Vice Admiral Courbet’s proclamation of the blockade of Taiwan, the Imperial Court in Peking demanded action to be taken in order to relieve it. Thus, orders were given to the commanders of the Peiyang and Nanyang districts – Li Hung-chang and Tseng Kuo-ch’uan. After the annihilation of the Fukien Fleet, the Nanyang Fleet was most suitable to lift the blockade of Taiwan, but Tsen Kuo-ch’uan was unwilling to risk ‘his’ warships in the coming operation without participation of the Peiyang Fleet ships. After long-lasting arguments, both Li and Tseng decided to detach five warships from their respective fleets, and send the squadron thus created to the coast of Taiwan.

Tseng Kuo-ch’uan detached the cruisers K’ai Chi, Nan Ch’en, Nan Shui and Yu Yuan as well as the small cruiser Teng Ch’ing for the planned operation. Li Hung-chang ultimately sent only two small cruisers, Chao Yung and Yang Wei, instead of the promised five warships. The two cruisers arrived at Shanghai at the beginning of December 1884. For Li, the situation in Korea was a priority, compared to which the conflict with France was less important. Meanwhile, in December 1884 a pro-Japanese coup d’état was attempted in Seoul. It was suppressed with help of Chinese troops, but the situation was exacerbated to such an extent, that on December 10, Li Hung-chang requested the Tsungli Yamen to relieve both cruisers from the planned mission.

The arguments made for the withdrawal of the two ships were not without grounds. Chao Yung and Yang Wei were, despite their relatively small displacement, very modern warships of substantial fighting strength, so the Tsungli Yamen suggested sending to Korean waters the older vessels Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing. However, Li, not waiting for the Tsungli Yamen’s reply, ordered ‘his’ warships to leave Shanghai, which they immediately did, returning to Port Arthur. Consequently, only the aforementioned five vessels of the Nanyang Fleet took part in the operation against the French squadron blockading Taiwan. Admiral Wu An-k’ang assumed command of the squadron, while Vice Admiral Ting Ju-chang, Li Hung-chang’s ‘man’, detached from the Peiyang Fleet became the second in command.

In preparation for the operation, at the end of December 1884, Wu’s squadron departed Shanghai for Wusung to perform gunnery drill. Soon thereafter, the Chinese warships sailed to Chusan. After two weeks spent on further gun nery practice, at the end of January 1885 they headed south. Admiral Wu was not in a hurry, as a result, the Chinese squadron arrived at Nankou only on January 25. The next day it reached Yuehnan, 200 NM north of Foochow. Admiral Wu next made for Wenchow, which he intended to use as a base for further operations. However, instead of taking decisive action, the Chinese commander began to cruise, unproductively, along the coast of the Chekiang province, clearly in fear of an encounter with the French warships.

At the end of January Vice Admiral Courbet received the first piece of intelligence concerning the dispatching of the Chinese squadron to relieve Taiwan. It was transmitted by Captain Baux, the commander of the armoured cruiser Triomphante, then stationed in Hong Kong. The notification was soon confirmed by news reports, on February 3, so Courbet sent orders to the commanders of Triomphante and Nielly that the French naval forces should be concentrated at Matsu, at the mouth of the Min River, where he arrived himself with Bayard, Ėclaireur, Aspic and Saône three days later. Soon thereafter, that force was joined by the cruiser Duguay- Trouin. Blockade duty at Taiwan was carried on by Rear Admiral Lespès’ squadron composed of La Galissonnière, Atalante, D’Estaing and Volta in the north as well as Villars and Champlain in the south.

Initially the French admiral thought that Admiral Wu’s squadron’s destination was Foochow, hence an order on February 6 for the ships to blockade the mouth of the Min River. On the same day, Courbet acquired additional information about the movements of the enemy squadron that revealed its commander’s passivity. In view of that intelligence, on February 7 the French commander seized the initiative and headed north. On the fourth day of the journey the French reached Chusan.

Since the enemy was not present in the harbour, Vice Admiral Courbet decided to turn back towards the mouth of the Yangtze River. His squadron reached his destination the next day (except Duguay-Trouin, which was running short of coal and had to be sent to Keelung) and dropped anchors at Gutzlaff Island. After contacting the local telegraph station, Courbet received new information concerning Admiral Wu’s squadron (his warships had been seen in Sanmoon Bay a day before) and on February 12 the squadron headed south. This time, the French admiral was almost certain to encounter the enemy. Therefore for the entire night the warships of his squadron were in a state of advanced combat readiness. Indeed, at dawn, on February 13, the cruiser Ėclaireur, steaming at the head of the French squadron, spotted five Chinese vessels on the horizon.

Admiral Wu spent the night of February 12/13 at anchor in Sanmoon Bay at Montagu Island. At about 05:00 his warships weighed anchor and steamed into the open seas, circling the island from the south at which point they were spotted by the French, who were approaching from the north. At that time the Chinese squadron was steaming in two line-ahead columns: K’ai Chi (flagship), Nan Shui and Nan Ch’en formed the starboard column, and Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing, the port.

Although Admiral Wu initially intended to accept battle, upon spotting the approaching enemy, he apparently suddenly changed his mind and ordered the slow Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing to turn back to nearby Sheipoo (Sheip’u). Wu then attempted to escape with the three remaining cruisers. It was 07:00 and both squadrons were no more than 10 NM apart.

After spotting the enemy, the entire French squadron began to chase the Chinese warships. Reaching 13 knots, the French warships were steaming in the following order: Bayard (flagship), Nielly, Ėclaireur and Triomphante (the last cruiser was initially behind the flagship, but was unable to maintain the speed of over 12 knots and gradually fell behind), while the slower Aspic and Saône finished the formation. Meanwhile, K’ai Chi, Nan Shui and Nan Ch’en, capable of reaching 14-15 knots, broke away from the two remaining Chinese warships and headed south-east, while Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing, following Wu’s orders, headed for Sheipoo.

Confronted with that situation, Vice Admiral Courbet ordered the slower Triomphante, Saône and Aspic to deal with the vessels fleeing towards Sheipoo, while he, along with Bayard, Nielly and Ėclaireur continued the pursuit of Admiral Wu’s cruisers. It soon became apparent that the French cruisers were not capable of catching the fleeing Chinese vessels. The situation was exacerbated when the weather soon broke and visibility was considerably reduced. Consequently, Vice Admiral Courbet abandoned the pursuit and, at about 13:00, joined his three remaining warships guarding Sheipoo.

The harbour of Sheipoo was located within a labyrinth of islands, islets and shallows. Four waterways leading to it were unknown to the French. For that reason, although the harbour was not guarded by any fortifications, Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing were relatively safe at Sheipoo, since Vice Admiral Courbet did not dare to venture with his warships into the treacherous, unknown waters. The only thing that he could do was to guard the entrances of the three waterways and that of the nearby Sanmoon Bay in case the Chinese ships attempted to slip away.

During the night and in the morning of the following day, three French steam launches covered by the gunboat Aspic, reconnoitred the waterways and located both Chinese warships anchored between Sheipoo and Tungnun Island. Since it was still dangerous for the French cruisers to close on the enemy, Vice Admiral Courbet decided to send in the steam launches armed with spar torpedoes.

Commanders of the launches which sunk the Chinese cruisers at Sheipoo: Commander Palma Gourdon (right) and Lieutenant Émile Duboc (left).

Two launches from Bayard commanded respectively by Commander Palma Gourdon and Lieutenant Émile Duboc were designated for the action, each armed with one, 1878-pattern spar torpedo with a charge containing 12 kg of pyroxylin. The preparations had been completed by 22:00 and at 23:00 (February 14) both launches, guided by another two launches under the command of the hydrographer Lieutenant Ravel, set off for their mission. The night was very dark, which on the one hand favoured the attackers but also increased the danger of their launches grounding, getting separated or getting lost in the labyrinth of islands. Fortunately for the French, all the launches managed to avoid these dangers. Finally, at 03.00 both torpedo launches, struggling with the strong current, reached the inner roads of Sheipoo, where they began to search for the enemy warships.

As it turned out, finding the Chinese ships was not as easy as had been supposed. The French steam launches performing the reconnaissance of the waterways had been spotted during their sortie. Therefore, before 10:00 the previous day, Yu Yuan and Teng Ch’ing shifted their position and anchored closer to the town. After some time searching, the launch commanded by Gourdon was the first to locate the enemy, namely the Yu Yuan. The French launch managed to approach undetected within 200 metres of the enemy, and at 03:45 they extended the spar torpedo into its combat position and began their attack. They were at that moment spotted from the cruiser’s deck, but it was too late to open fire with the ship’s battery (particularly because the Chinese crews had not maintained full combat readiness) and the launch was instead chaotically fired on with small arms and mitrailleuses. This could not stop the French vessel, which successfully detonated her spar torpedo on the Yu Yuan’s starboard stern quarter and retreated, although not without suffering losses. One sailor was killed and the launch’s boiler was slightly damaged.

The attack of the launch commanded by Gourdon on the cruiser Yu Yuan.

In the meantime, taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, the second French launch commanded by Duboc began her own attack. Practically unnoticed, she approached the Yu Yuan’s port side, but her spar torpedo failed to explode. It seems Lt. Duboc maintained his composure and since there was no time to once again detonate the torpedo at the Yu Yuan’s side (the launch had to keep moving and could not stop or go back), he apparently headed for Teng Ch’ing, anchored slightly further away, and repeated the attack. That time, the torpedo exploded at the side of the enemy vessel and Duboc’s launch retreated suffering no casualties.

Soon after the attack, both French launch es rendezvoused and together (Gourdon’s faster launch towed Duboc’s) set out for the rest of the French squadron. Their return journey was not without adventures – at about 05:00 Gourdon’s launch grounded, but was refloated with help from her consort. At 10:00, after steaming through the channel between the Islands of Kintan and Niumio (Niumiu), the launches reached the transport Saône. At the same time, Lt. Ravel was waiting for both launches’ return at the entrance north-west of Niumio Island. Only at dawn did he gave up further waiting and returned to the armoured cruiser Bayard.

On February 16 it was confirmed that both Chinese vessels had sunk. On hearing the news, the French warships weighed anchor and departed Sheipoo. Triomphante, Nielly and Saône headed for Keelung, while Bayard, Ėclaireur and Aspic steamed to Matsu.

As far as the crews of the Chinese warships were concerned, their losses during the attack were small and were apparently limited to only one man killed on board Yu Yuan8. Following the evacuation to the shore, the Chinese sea men set out for Shanghai. After four days they reached Chenhai, where they encountered the remainder of Admiral Wu’s squadron which had been reinforced with the small cruisers Chao Wu and Yuan K’ai as well as the gunboats Lung Hsing and Hu Wei. Since the French blockaded Chenhai soon thereafter, the Chinese squadron remained trapped until the end of the war.


Banner System (1601-1912)

The banner system was the military, political, and social organization created by the Manchus led by Nurhaci (1559-1626) in the early seventeenth century. It later incorporated the Mongols and the Chinese, acting as the military tool for the Manchu conquest of China and serving as a backbone of the Qing Empire for centuries.

As the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) waned, the Jurchens (Manchus) led by Nurhaci started to consolidate power in northeastern China. Although Nurhaci monopolized the trade in the region, he recognized the importance of creating an effective and powerful military apparatus in order to unify the Jurchens and to realize the goal of empire building.

In 1601, Nurhaci created the banner system by organizing the Jurchens into four banners with four basic colors as identifications: yellow, white, red, and blue. As he recruited more warriors, he created another four banners in 1615: banners with flags embroidered with the four original colors. Historically, this system is called the Eight Banner System.

The banner system was administered through three levels: banner (gusa), regiment (jalan), and company (niru). The whole system functioned as a military force as the banners served as a tool in wars, and a membership in a given banner symbolized the status as a warrior. The stratification of the banner into three levels facilitated effective commandership as all banner men were required to be loyal to Nurhaci. To strengthen fighting capability, Nurhaci’s descendants added eight Mongol and eight Chinese banners in 1634 and 1642.

The banner system was also a political polity as well as a social organization. Principally, all Manchus, Mongols, and the Chinese who surrendered early were banner men. The distinction between soldier and civilian was vague, and they were identical in many cases. At peace, banner men engaged in farming and Banner System I 19 receiving military training; they were dispatched to the front once a war broke out.

When the Manchus conquered China in 1644, the total number of soldiers in the banner system reached 168,900. After 1644, the banner system became a hereditary military caste. By the end of the seventeenth century, the number of banner men totaled a quarter million, a stable figure until 1912. Roughly half of all banner men and their families were stationed in Beijing (Peking) as defenders of the capital. Over 100 banner garrisons were established in major cities or strategic locations throughout the Qing dynasty (1644- 1912), such as those along the Grand Canal and the Yellow River (Huanghe) and Yangzi (Yangtze) Rivers, in the coastal regions, and in the northeast and northwest. A garrison inside a major city was called the “Manchu City” separated from Chinese civilians to avoid direct confrontation. Being in those isolated colonies, the garrisons remained one of the prominent institutions of the Qing dynasty.

Although the banner troops originally were fierce fighters, their life in a new environment in vast Chinese land eventually debilitated their militant spirit. The emperors often issued edicts to remind them of preserving tradition, but the banner system was gradually eroded by banner men’s indulgence in an enjoyable life. In 1735, barely a century after the Manchu conquest, Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ienlung) (reigned 1736-1795) started to rely on the Chinese Green Standard Army to suppress bandits and uprisings. Even though banner men continued to be a state-sponsored military force, they were no longer a regular army.

The banner system proved to be ineffective during the First Opium War (1840-1842) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). As a result, Hunan (Xiang) Army and Anhui Army replaced it. By the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of the New Army (Beiyang Anny or Xinjun) disfranchised the banner system as a military force.

As imperial decay continued, the banner system became a burden to the Qing government, as the state funding diminished. Consequently, banner men lived in poverty and were encouraged to seek self-support. Banner men in urban areas such as Beijing were absorbed into the urban labor force, while those who lived in frontier regions such as Heilongjiang (Heilungkiang) Province became farmers. The Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the abdication of the last Qing Emperor Xuantong (Puyi) (1909-1911) declared the demise of the banner system.

References Crossley, Pamela Kyle. Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. Di Cosmo, Nicola, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Elliott, Mark C. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. Powell, Ralph L. The Rise of Chinese Military Power, 1895-1912. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955. Rowe, William T. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999


Bai Chongxi (1893–1966)

Guomindang (GMD, Kouomintang, Nationalist) Chinese general. Born in Guilin (Kweilin), Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province, on March 18, 1893, Bai Chongxi (Pai Ch’ung-hsi) was a Muslim of Hui ethnicity. He entered the Guangxi military cadre training school in Guilin but on his parents’ request withdrew for a time to study at the Guangxi Schools of Law and Political Science. When the Xinhai Revolution began in 1911, Bai fought in the Students Dare to Die Corps.

In 1914 Bai graduated from the Second Military Preparatory School at Wuchang. Following precadet training, he entered the third class of the Baoding (Paoting) Military Academy in June 1915. Upon graduation in 1916, he returned to Guangxi and served in his native provincial forces. In 1924 Bai cooperated with fellow Guangxi officers Li Zongren (Li Tsung-jen) and Guang Shaohong to create the Guangxi Pacification Army and gain control of Guangxi.

Bai supported the GMD, joining it in 1925 and taking part in the Northern Expedition of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) between 1926 and 1928 while at the same time maintaining his power base in Guangxi. Bai was chief of staff of the GMD army during the expedition and was credited with using speed and maneuver to surprise and defeat larger warlord forces. He also commanded the forces that took Hangzhou and Shanghai in 1927. Bai took part in the purge of communist forces and other leftist elements in Shanghai. He also commanded the advance GMD elements that captured Beijing in June 1928.

In 1929, Bai, Li, and Guang, known as the Guangxi Clique, rebelled against Jiang for having concentrated too much power in his own hands. Although Bai waged a brilliant campaign, the resulting struggle ended in stalemate, as national unity seemed more important with the threat posed by the Japanese following the September 1931 Mukden (Shenyang) Incident. Bai also played a key role in the reconstruction of Guangxi, which boasted a progressive administration. In late 1931 Bai and Li rejoined the GMD, working to create a reformist provincial government and resolving their differences with Jiang. In mid-1936 their forces were reorganized as the GMD government’s Fifth Route Army, with Bai as deputy commander.

In the 1937–1945 Sino-Japanese War, Bai was both deputy chief of staff of the Military Affairs Commission and a member of the National Aeronautical Council, responsible for devising military strategy for the Nanjing (Nanking)–Shanghai area in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province. Given the heavy losses sustained by GMD forces during October and November 1937, Bai opposed the stand at Nanjing and argued for keeping Chinese forces intact. Jiang accepted Bai’s strategy, known as “trading space for time,” and moved the GMD government to Chongqing (Chungking), Sichuan (Szechwan) Province.

In Chongqing, Bai continued to participate in strategic planning that led to the first Chinese victory in the Tai’erzhuang (T’ai-erh-chuang) Campaign of March–April 1938 in Jiangsu. That July, Bai commanded the Fifth War Zone, covering Shandong (Shantung) and part of Jiangsu north of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River. In December, Bai personally commanded Chinese forces that were to halt the Japanese drive on Guangxi. Failing to accomplish that, he was recalled in January 1939.

Bai remained in Chongqing until the end of the war as deputy joint chief of staff, director of the Military Training Board, and chairman of the Military Inspection Commission. Despite his growing opposition to the Chinese communists, he strongly supported the protracted war strategy developed by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in 1940 to fight the Japanese. Bai’s Quangxi soldiers were regarded as some of the most effective Chinese troops in the war against Japan. Jihad against the Japanese was declared a religious duty for Chinese Muslims.

During the 1946–1949 Chinese Civil War, Bai, first as defense minister and then as director of the Strategic Advisory Commission, grew frustrated by Jiang’s refusal to yield any authority and by his military policy. Bai resigned in 1948. He returned later that year to command an army group of four armies in central China but again disagreed with Jiang’s military policies that led to the disastrous defeat of the GMD. Bai joined other Chinese leaders in demanding that Jiang step down in order to allow a peace agreement with the communists.

When World War II ended, the United States was anxious to avoid a renewed civil war in China between the Communists and the Nationalists. General George Marshall, one of America’s most respected generals, went to China to try to negotiate a peaceful compromise between the two sides, but his efforts were doomed by the deep suspicions on both sides based on their long history of lethal conflict and feigned “cooperation.” Having suffered through an eight-year war that left twenty million Chinese dead and millions more wounded, sick or starving, the Chinese people desperately wanted peace. But Chiang Kai-shek was not about to tolerate an independent Communist army in China, and Mao would never again agree to lay down arms and trust the goodwill of Chiang.

On paper, the Nationalists had about a four-to-one advantage in numbers of armed troops (four million to one million); overwhelming technical superiority in terms of tanks, aircraft, and weapons; and the clear and strong support of the United States, which provided Chiang’s forces with about $2 billion in military aid from 1946 to 1949. But Chiang was overconfident in thinking the United States could not and would not let him lose a shooting war with his Communist rivals. Against American advice, Chiang used U.S. air transport to fly his best forces into northeast China and Manchuria in 1946–1947 in order to try to prevent the Communists from taking the Japanese surrender and establishing Communist power in those areas. When full-scale civil war broke out in early 1947, the Communists abandoned their wartime capital of Yan’an, scattered into the countryside in classic guerrilla fashion, and renamed their forces the People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese Communist forces had moved into Manchuria with some tactical help from the Soviet Union (which had also sent troops into China on the request of the United States when the overwhelming concern was to force Japan’s quick surrender). In mid-1947, the Communists seized the initiative in Manchuria, surrounded the Nationalist forces in the cities, and cut railway and communication lines. Chiang refused to recognize the looming defeat of his troops there and sent in reinforcements. In late 1948, the Communist general Lin Biao led a final massive assault in Manchuria, capturing in two months’ time 230,000 rifles and 400,000 of Chiang’s best soldiers.

Even then, the Nationalists still enjoyed numerical superiority in men and a virtual monopoly on tanks and planes. That changed in the central Yangzi valley battle of Hwaihai (Xuzhou) from November 1948 through January 1949. When the Nationalist general at Hwaihai found himself encircled and cut off by Communist forces, he heard that Chiang Kai-shek was preparing to bomb his troops to keep them and their equipment from falling to the Communists. He quickly surrendered his force of 460,000 troops to the People’s Liberation Army. The Nationalist effort was further undermined by rampant inflation that swept through Nationalist-controlled territory with the force of a hurricane. From January 1946 to August 1948, prices multiplied sixty-seven times. In late 1948, all confidence in the Nationalist government collapsed. Prices multiplied 85,000 times in six months, and the Nationalist currency became as meaningless as a Qing dynasty copper coin. Chiang Kai-shek fled first to Sichuan Province in the far west and then to Taiwan, along with nearly two million Nationalist troops and officials and their families. (Taiwan, a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, had been returned to the Republic of China upon the surrender of Japan in August 1945.) On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of Beijing and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

At the end of 1949 Bai fled to Taiwan (then known as Formosa), where he became vice chairman of the Strategic Advisory Committee and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the GMD until his death in Taipei on December 2, 1966. Bai was one of the finest generals on either side during the Chinese Civil War and was also a highly effective military strategist whose excellent advice was often ignored.

Further Reading

Chassin, Lionel Max. The Communist Conquest of China: A History of the Civil War, 1945–1949. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Cheng, Siyuan. Bai Chongxi Chuan [The Biography of Bai Chongxi]. Hong Kong: South China Press, 1989.

Melby, John F. The Mandate of Heaven: Record of a Civil War, 1945–1949. London: Chatto and Windus, 1989.

Tang Armies

The Iron Mountain campaign spelled the end of the Eastern Turk qaghanate and marked the beginning of half a century of Chinese dominance over the Mongolian steppe. Most of the remaining Turk leaders soon surrendered to Tang, and one of them delivered the fugitive Xieli into the hands of Tang officers on May 12, 630. A few groups of Eastern Turks continued to hold out in the far northwest, but the major power north of the Gobi was now Taizong’s ally, the qaghan of the Xueyantuo. After considerable debate at the Tang court, a decision was made to settle the surrendered Turks on marginal lands along the northern border, with the majority apparently concentrated in the Ordos region south of the Yellow River bend. The surrendered Turks were treated with great care. Although nominally organized into prefectures and protectorates within the Chinese administrative system, the tribesmen actually remained under the authority of their own chiefs, who received official appointments and other honors from the emperor. “Those of their chieftains and leaders who came to submit were all appointed to be generals, generals of the palace gentlemen, and other officers. More than one hundred of them were arrayed at court as officials above the fifth rank, and as a result several thousand families of Turks came to dwell in Chang’an.” Their presence contributed to the exotic, cosmopolitan flavor of the Tang capital, which was renowned for drawing people, goods, and fashions from many parts of Asia. They also made a major contribution to the military power of Tang China. A number of the Turk leaders who had been made generals of the imperial guards later commanded Tang armies on campaign and played a major role in the subjugation of peoples farther to the north and west. The armies they commanded would include large numbers of their fellow Turks.

The sources do not provide us with many details regarding the composition of the Tang army that defeated the Eastern Turks, but it must certainly have included a large number of soldiers from the regimental headquarters (fubing). The system of locally based territorial regiments, the mainstay of the Northern Zhou and Sui military, had collapsed together with the Sui dynasty, as various contenders for power “privatized” the units under their command, but the Tang leaders began to reconstruct it in Guanzhong as early as 619 and then extended the system to other regions. This task was nearly complete by the early 630s. The Tang fubing system probably differed very little from the Sui system under Emperor Yang, but far more is known about the workings of the Tang system. The structure rested on several hundred military units of approximately 800 men each, based in designated prefectures and locally recruited. After a great many changes in nomenclature, these units, which had been known as “soaring hawk regimental headquarters” under Emperor Yang, received the lasting designation of “assault-repulsing regimental headquarters” (zhechong fu) in 636, when their commanders became “assault-repulsing colonels” (zhechong duwei). Each regiment was affiliated with one of the twelve imperial guard commands in the capital, where its men were supposed to perform one-month tours of guard duty according to a complex schedule of rotation. The more distant a unit from the capital, the greater the number of shifts into which it was divided and, consequently, the less often each individual soldier’s turn would come up. Regiments within 166 miles of the capital were divided into five shifts, for example, while those between 166 and 333 miles away were formed into seven shifts. The number of “guardsmen” (weishi) present in the capital at any given time may have been in the neighborhood of 50,000. Guardsmen might also be sent to frontier garrisons for periods of up to three years, but this sort of duty was neither as universal nor as systematic as the regular rotational service in Chang’an.

When not on guard duty or campaign, the soldiers were expected to support themselves through farming. In exchange for limited exemption from taxes and corvée, they were supposed to furnish all of their own provisions and much of their own equipment. Men were enlisted as fubing at the age of twenty-one and continued to serve until sixty. The local civil authorities selected new soldiers every three years from among the eligible males in the community on the basis of the three criteria of wealth, strength, and number of adult males in the household. The intention was evidently to place the burden of military service on those who could best afford it. However, some prefectures had so many regiments that it would have been impossible for them to meet their quotas had they not been able to induct young men from poor families. Surviving Tang household registers from the northwestern frontier area of Dunhuang indicate that guardsmen from the lowest socioeconomic strata far outnumbered those from better-off families. Nevertheless, service as a fubing must have had some attraction for ambitious men from wealthy families. In addition to the local prestige and status that came from serving the emperor as guardsmen, they also had the opportunity to acquire honorific ranks through their exploits on the battlefield, ranks which entitled them to hold more land than would normally be allotted them by the state under the “equal-field system” of land tenure.

Due to the fact that they combined military service with farming, the fubing have sometimes been characterized as a “militia” by Western authors. With its connotations of low quality and ineffectiveness (especially on account of the implied contrast with a “professional” soldiery), this term is rather misleading when used in connection with the fubing. Given their life-long military service and the training they received over that period, it would be more accurate to view them as a special type of professional soldier. Each man is supposed to have been fully equipped with a panoply that included armor, bow and arrows, saber, and lance. He was expected to practice certain martial skills, such as archery, on a daily basis, and every winter, during the agricultural slack season, he would join his comrades for an intensive period of organized drill during which the regimental commander would deploy the men in battlefield formations, hold mock combats, and teach cooperation and coordination by leading them on large-scale hunts. There is little doubt that the fubing were highly effective on the battlefield during the seventh century.

The number of fubing regimental headquarters changed over time. The maximum of 633 regiments (approximately 600,000 soldiers) was attained in the early years of the eighth century, when the system was already in decline. A modern authority on the fubing has argued that only 353 regiments had been created by the year 636. The great majority of these were concentrated in areas close to the capital, while vast stretches of central, eastern, and southern China were almost entirely without regimental headquarters. Of the 353 regiments, no less than 261 were located in the Guanzhong region, and many of the remaining 92 were probably situated in nearby areas such as Hedong (modern Shanxi province), the original base of the Tang founder Li Yuan. Of the more than 320 prefectures that made up the Tang empire, more than two-thirds never contained as much as a single regiment of fubing. Those that did, however, were often home to a great many of them. This was especially true in Guanzhong, where the metropolitan prefecture around Chang’an eventually contained 131 regiments and several other nearby prefectures were also very heavily burdened. Even in regions with relatively few regiments, those units tended to be geographically concentrated. All of the regiments in Henan, for example, were located in Luoyang or adjacent prefectures, with none established in the plains to the east. The burden of service was thus very unevenly distributed. Inhabitants of prefectures without regiments were never called upon to serve as fubing, while in some of the more highly militarized prefectures in the northwest it would seem that almost every able-bodied adult male was a soldier.

No Tang source provides a clear rationale for this highly imbalanced distribution of fubing. Explanations proposed by modern scholars include the necessity of protecting the approaches to the capital and the need to make sure that enough troops were available within a reasonable distance to provide an adequate pool of manpower to support the system of rotational guard duty. It has also been argued that this pattern was simply a historical legacy of the Tang regime’s origin in the northwest; most of the men of the original Tang armies came from Guanzhong and Hedong, and regimental headquarters were set up in their home communities to accommodate them when they returned from the civil war. Continued adherence to this pattern even decades later, however, suggests that the Tang founders – northwestern aristocrats and the political heirs of Yuwen Tai’s Guanzhong-based regime of the sixth century – simply did not trust the people of the eastern plain. This impression is reinforced by the distribution of the few regiments that were set up in the east and south. There is a very high correlation between the locations of the regiments and areas that were early centers of support for the Tang cause or served as headquarters for Tang regional commanders during the pacification of the east and south. In other words, these were relatively loyal and reliable forward bases from which the surrounding areas – with no regularly established military units of their own – could be dominated and policed.

This would not have been the only respect in which the early Tang military system placed a strong emphasis on control. The mechanism of rotational service itself guaranteed that the generals of the imperial guards would have no opportunity to establish lasting personal ties with the guardsmen passing through the capital on their one-month tours of duty, and therefore would not have the means to pose a threat to the dynasty. Other checks and safeguards were established to insure that the local regiments could not be used against the center by local leaders. The mobilization and deployment of troops from one of the “assault-repulsing regimental headquarters” normally required the dispatch of tallies from the capital. The tally was made of copper, in the shape of a fish, and carried the name of the regiment and its parent guard command. One half was kept by the Credentials Office of the imperial Chancellery, the other was kept by the regimental headquarters. When the tally arrived from the capital it was matched with the local half in the presence of both the regimental commander and the prefect, and only then were troops sent out in accordance with the accompanying imperial order. A commander who moved as few as ten men without permission was subject to one year of penal servitude, while a colonel who mobilized an entire regiment of 1000 men might face death by strangulation.

The method of forming campaign armies also worked to prevent generals from turning the troops under their command into personal followers. When the situation demanded, ad hoc “expeditionary armies” (xingjun) were assembled from the local regiments and various other troop sources and placed under the command of generals dispatched from the imperial guard headquarters at Chang’an; once the emergency was over, the troops returned to their prefectures and the generals to the capital. Expeditionary armies ranged in size from about 3000 men to upwards of 100,000, depending upon the anticipated difficulty of their assignments. The largest such forces consisted of several separate columns, each with its own “expeditionary army commander” (xingjun zongguan). One of them would be designated as “expeditionary army commander-in-chief” (xingjun da zongguan) with overall authority to coordinate the operations of his fellows (it was in this capacity that Li Jing was sent against the Eastern Turks in 629). The soldiers of the expeditionary armies were drawn from several sources. The “assault-repulsing regimental headquarters” were one of these sources, but too much use of fubing threatened to disrupt the schedules of rotation and weaken the garrison of the capital. For this reason, the fubing were often supplemented with short-term conscripts. These troops, known as “conscript-recruits” (bingmu), were usually drawn from those prefectures without regimental headquarters, which helped to spread the burden of military service a little more evenly among the population. They represented a far more flexible form of military manpower than the fubing since they could be called up in any numbers desired, often from areas nearest the scene of hostilities, and served only for the duration of the campaign. A third major source of manpower for the expeditionary armies were tribal allies and auxiliaries, including the surrendered Eastern Turks. These warriors served under their own leaders, retained their own form of organization, and were responsible for their own equipment and supplies. They were especially valuable – even essential – in campaigns against other steppe peoples, and accounted for the great majority of some expeditionary armies. In 651, for example, 30,000 Chinese soldiers and 50,000 Uighur tribesmen were mobilized to attack the qaghan of the Western Turks.

An invaluable source of information on the functioning of the expeditionary armies and early Tang military practices in general is a treatise written by the great Li Jing himself. It no longer exists as a complete work, but large extracts have survived through their incorporation into the Tong dian (Comprehensive Canons), an encyclopedia of institutional history compiled by the scholar-statesman Du You in the second half of the eighth century. The relevance of this material is not limited to the second quarter of the seventh century, since Li was almost certainly describing many practices that were not new in his own time and continued to be followed long afterward. Part of Li’s work consisted of rather general advice on strategy; here he included many quotes and paraphrases from the military classics of antiquity, and seems to have been operating entirely within the intellectual framework established by Sunzi. For example, great emphasis is placed on determining when the enemy is most vulnerable, in order to be able to choose just the right moment to engage him in a decisive battle. More interesting, because of their uniqueness and the unimpeachable authority of their source, are the passages that provide detailed information on army organization, combat drills, battlefield formations, scouting, signalling, basic tactics, march orders, and camp layouts. According to Li Jing, a typical expeditionary army might consist of 20,000 men, broken down into seven divisions (jun) of between 2600 and 4000 men each. Only about two-thirds of the soldiers in each division – 14,000 for the entire army – are to be used as combat troops, with the balance left behind to guard the army’s camp or baggage train. All of the divisions contain the same mix of specialized troops and weapon types, including archers (a total of 2200), crossbowmen (2000), and cavalry (4000). Li Jing’s descriptions of infantry drills suggest that the remainder of the troops are probably supposed to be foot soldiers armed with spears. Perhaps 60 percent of the total force of 20,000 is provided with armor. At the time that Li was writing, the fubing regiments were divided into three to five battalions (tuan) of 200 men, each of which was further subdivided into two companies (lü) of a hundred men, four platoons (dui) of fifty men, and twenty squads (huo) of ten men. The only one of these units that plays a meaningful tactical role in Li’s treatise is the dui, which suggests that most levels of the fubing organizational hierarchy – including the regiment itself – were used mainly for personnel management rather than battlefield command and control.

For Li, the fifty-man platoon is the fundamental, irreducible unit for all deployment and maneuver. It has a full complement of five officers (commander, deputy, standard-bearer, and two-color guards), and it is the smallest unit to be provided with a flag. It has a fixed battle formation five ranks deep in which each man has his assigned place; led by the flag, it is expected to advance, retreat, and maneuver as a body. Though capable of independent manuever, a single dui of infantry was clearly too small to operate effectively by itself. Hence, it was brought together with other dui to create larger formations on the battlefield. While Li Jing’s standard drill formation calls for the deployment of two lines of dui in a loose checkerboard pattern, he also gives instructions for joining varying numbers of dui more tightly together to form larger groupings of 150, 250, 450, and 500 men. Six dui made a 300-man tactical unit called a tong; with one dui told off to guard the baggage, the remaining five could be deployed in several different configurations and assigned different combat roles on an ad hoc basis. When the entire army was deployed in a standard battle formation, the infantry was formed in two lines or echelons of equal strength while the cavalry was positioned to cover the flanks. 65 According to Li Jing, the cavalry were the army’s “eyes and ears” and could also be used to pursue fugitives, exploit openings, and ride down dispersed enemy troops, while the infantry formed the stable core around which the cavalry could maneuver.

Tactical commands were relayed to the troops by means of drums, horns, bells or gongs, and flag signals. Just as in antiquity, the beating of drums was the signal for an advance, while gongs or other metallic instruments signaled a halt or withdrawal. Li Jing provides the following example of signaling in his description of a military drill:

At the end of the fourth sounding of the horn, the men of all the dui simultaneously draw in their spears and kneel on the ground. Their eyes watch the great yellow standard of the commander-in-chief, their ears listen for the sound of the drum. The yellow flag points forward, and the drum begins to beat; they shout in unison, “Wu-hu! Wu-hu!” and move forward together to the center line . . . When they hear the gong sound, they must stop shouting and fall back, carrying their spears on their shoulders.

The commander of a Tang expeditionary army was supposed to have five flags, one in the color of each of the five directions, with which he could direct the movements of his troops. When two flags were crossed, for example, the dui were supposed to respond by combining into larger formations.

Some sections of Li Jing’s work touch on prohibitions and punishments. These could be extremely harsh, with many offenses punished by decapitation. The soldiers of Tang expeditionary armies were forbidden, on pain of death, from spreading superstitious rumors or bringing women into the army’s camp. A standard bearer who damaged his unit’s morale by failing to hold his flag straight was subject to decapitation, and any soldier who failed to advance when the signal was given was to be killed immediately by the man behind him. The first men to begin plundering after a battle was won also faced execution. This last prohibition dovetails with the concern, repeated many times in Li Jing’s work, that the army never relax its guard and expose itself to surprise, ambush, or sudden counterattack. In battle, troops were often divided into two echelons, with one assigned to attack the enemy while the other was held back to maintain a secure defensive position should the attack go awry. When the enemy retreated in battle, the Tang infantry were allowed to advance only a short distance. Then, if the retreat appeared genuine and not a ruse, the cavalry would be ordered to continue the pursuit. When a Tang expeditionary army was campaigning in hostile territory, mounted scouts were sent out to the front, rear, and both flanks. In each of these directions, there were two men at a distance of five li, two more at ten li, and so on – out to a distance of thirty li (or ten miles). These vedettes were to use flags to signal the approach of the enemy, a method that would have been quite effective in the open grasslands of the north and west where so many of the early Tang expeditionary armies campaigned against a variety of peoples including Turks, Tuyuhun, and Xueyantuo.

The contents of Li Jing’s manual are remarkably similar to what we find in Byzantine military treatises such as the Strategikon traditionally attributed to the Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) and the Tactica of Emperor Leo VI (r. 886- 912). The Strategikon, believed to have been written between 592 and 610, possibly by Maurice or a close associate, is a near contemporary of Li Jing’s military writings. It shows the same concern with battle formations, marching order, camp layouts, scouting, and discipline. Some prescriptions are almost exactly the same. For example, both Li Jing and the author of the Strategikon recommend the execution of soldiers who break ranks to engage in plundering. Also noteworthy is the overall approach to battle. Like Li Jing and his intellectual antecedents, the author of the Strategikon urges caution when deciding whether or not to join battle: “To try simply to overpower the enemy in the open, hand to hand and face to face, even though you might appear to win, is an enterprise which is very risky and can result in serious harm.” Raids, ambushes, and all manner of tricks and stratagems are recommended instead. The Byzantine author of the Strategikon is if anything more cautious than Li Jing, suggesting that battle should be avoided entirely if one’s aims can be accomplished by other means.



Chinese regular soldiers photographed during the Sino-French War.

Operations of the Sino-French war (1884–85)

Soon after Beijing succeeded in eliminating-for a time at least-Russia’s intervention into the Chinese colony of Xinjiang, the Qing faced a new Imperial challenge to its authority: French efforts to break away and dominate China’s southern tributary state in Annam (Vietnam). The Sino-French War in Annam (1884-85) was China’s second anti-imperialist confrontation after Ili, and was a war that China lost. While China now used some modern weapons for its infantry, the recently constructed but largely untested Chinese Navy proved to be no match for the French.

Annam was under Chinese influence as early as the reign of Han Wudi (140-87 bc) and remained a Chinese colony until after the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Thereafter, unlike Xinjiang’s later colonial status, Annam’s troops successfully defeated Qianlong’s armies and so Annam did not fall under direct Qing control, but was considered instead to be an autonomous tributary state. Beginning in the seventeenth century, western influence increased following the arrival of the Jesuits. By the mid-nineteenth century, France sought to use its self-declared position as protector of Catholicism to add Annam to its colonial empire.

France’s opportunity to absorb Annam appeared in 1859, when antimissionary riots provided the French with an excuse to send troops. This action quickly led to the French acquisition of Annam’s three southernmost provinces in 1862. Later, in 1874, the French government completed the task of turning Annam into a protectorate when it obtained the right to navigate the Red River in northern Annam. By 1880 it had troops stationed as far north as Hanoi. Faced with this western threat, the government of Annam sought Chinese assistance. Responding favorably to its tributary’s request, Beijing agreed to dispatch troops to Hanoi in 1883.

Increasing tensions between the Chinese and French troops stationed in Annam led to open conflict in 1884. Although China’s Navy was well on the way to becoming modern, it was still no match for the French. During the summer of 1884, the French fleet attacked Fuzhou, in southeast China, and quickly sank most of China’s southern fleet. They also destroyed the Fuzhou Navy Yard, which France had originally helped China to build. Eventually the French forced Beijing to negotiate peace, and in June 1885 China recognized the French treaties with Annam that turned it into a protectorate.

China’s loss in the Sino-French War forced her to concede the tributary status of Annam and to acknowledge that the region was a French colony. This defeat had immediate consequences throughout southeast Asia, as Britain soon challenged Burma’s tributary status. China conceded Burma without a fight in 1886. What is more important, France’s success undoubtedly prompted Japan to make similarly aggressive moves to the northeast of China in its Korean tributary.

Historians have claimed that Annam’s loss also “signaled the failure of [China’s] twenty-year-old self-strengthening movement.” However, this assertion largely overlooks China’s long string of military successes in suppressing the Taipings, the Nian, and the various Muslim rebellions to the south and west. It also completely ignores China’s diplomatic success in recovering Ili from Russia without resorting to war. Therefore, a more sympathetic appraisal of Chinese self-strengthening is that while China proved to be sufficient to oppose and defeat civil, ethnic, and religious unrest within the borders of the Empire, it was insufficient to halt foreign expansion into its traditional system of tributary states in southeast and northeast Asia.

In fact, it would take China an additional seventy years of military development and modernization before it was capable of reinserting itself once again into the affairs of these tributary states, as the People’s Republic of China was to do in the Korean War during the 1950s, and the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Before China was once again able to play a role in these tributary states, however, it lost control over enormous sections of its former Imperial territory, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria. The Sino-French War proved to be an important precedent, therefore, since it was the first Qing confrontation with a foreign power that resulted in the loss of a tributary state.

The origins of the Sino-French War, 1859-83

China influenced Annam as early as the third century bc, and conquered Annam during the Han Dynasty. Even the name Annam is Chinese, from the term meaning south-pacifying, or an-nan campaign, during the Tang Dynasty. Although Annam gained its independence from China in 938 after the Tang collapsed, it remained a Chinese tributary state. This tributary relationship proved to be especially important during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and according to one account, Annam sent approximately fifty tribute missions to Beijing during the period 1664 to 1881.

France began to form relations with Annam when the Jesuits became some of the first westerners to enter Annam in 1615. French trade with Annam was initially opened by the French East India Company during the late seventeenth century, but was not a financial success. Fearful of China renewing its southern military campaign, Annam’s leaders sought outside allies. Although French officers thereafter helped Nguyen Phuc Anh found the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), once he became Emperor Gia-Long and realized that China was occupied with domestic and ethnic rebellions he quickly spurned his French benefactors. 180 In a classic case of Asian power politics, however, Annam’s new `friend’ turned out to be worse than its traditional “enemy,” since once the French were invited in they refused to leave.

French missionaries and Vietnamese converts had enjoyed a long and generally productive relationship in Annam, but under Tu Duc’s (1848-83) xenophobic rule, anti-Catholic riots became more common and widespread. This proved to be a perfect excuse for Napoleon III, who was also urged by his Catholic wife Eugenie to send troops to Annam. In 1858, Napoleon ordered the military to intercede. 181 By 1859, a French force seized Saigon in southern Annam and garrisoned it. Supported by twenty-seven French warships and some 3,500 troops, the French used their superior weaponry to break through a Vietnamese blockade. Soon, they controlled Saigon and the three surrounding provinces.

A temporary French peace was achieved with the Vietnamese Emperor, Tu Duc, in June 1862. The resulting French-Annam treaty granted a US$4 million indemnity, trade privileges, and religious freedom for Annam’s Catholic minority. This treaty went much further by also ceding France outright the three southern provinces of Gia-dinh, Dinh-tuong, and Bien-hoa-the French called them Cochin China-and prohibited the Vietnamese from sending any troops into these provinces. Although Tu Duc criticized the terms of this treaty and called the Vietnamese negotiators who signed it “criminals,” Mark McLeod has suggested that Tu Duc secretly gave his approval to these important concessions while publicly condemning his officials as scapegoats.

French domination of Annam expanded throughout the 1860s, and by 1874 a second French-Annam treaty was signed that made Annam a French protectorate. This agreement not only confirmed French possession of Cochin China and asserted French control over Annam’s foreign affairs, but it also added the important right of navigating the Red River in northern Annam. This provision made the French domination of northern Annam possible. By 1880, the French had erected forts along the Red River and had stationed troops as far north as Hanoi and Haiphong.

Annam now turned to China to halt French expansion. Despite French opposition, the Annamese government sent tributary missions to Beijing in 1877 and 1881. It also requested help from the Black Flag Army, a pirate army associated with the Heaven and Earth Society (an offshoot of the Taiping movement). The Black Flags were commanded by Liu Yongfa, a Hakka Chinese who was from Guangdong Province. Liu reportedly dreamed as a youth that he would become a famous “General of the Black Tiger” and so used a black flag as his banner.

The Black Flag troops began to arrive in Annam during 1882. For over a year before China declared war, albeit unofficially, they opposed French forces throughout the Tonkin area. The Black Flags were noted for using a variety of military strategies, ranging from defensive entrenchments to the cunning ambush of French troops. According to Spencer Tucker, their understanding of modern weapons was poor: “They had artillery but they seldom used it, and they were very poor marksmen, preferring not to fire their rifles from the shoulder in aimed fire.” Although outnumbered by the French, the Black Flag troops made effective use of guerrilla tactics. Many of these tactics would be seen once again almost eighty years later during the US-Vietnamese conflict.

From 13 to 16 December 1883, the French launched an offensive against the Black Flag base in Sontay and routed their forces. Four months later, the French occupation of Bacninh, just north of Hanoi, forced Liu Yongfa to order his troops to withdraw back to China. Even though many members of the Black Flag Army had formerly been followers of the Taipings, Beijing could not ignore the Black Flag’s plight. Beijing responded to Annam’s pleas by sending troops in 1883. Stationed close to the Sino-Annam border, at Lang Son, the Chinese troops were more numerous than their French counterparts. Tensions increased between the opposing French and Chinese troops and fighting soon broke out. Although the Chinese weapons were modern, the Chinese troops’ training would still prove to be largely inferior to that of the French.

The birth of the Chinese Navy, 1870-83

Unlike earlier nineteenth-century conflicts, the Sino-French War was the first war during which China possessed a modern navy. Credit for this development largely goes to Li Hongzhang who, during 1870 to 1895, was governor-general of the northern province of Zhili, and a primary sponsor of China’s modernization. Not only was Li still considered to be the head of the Huai (Anhui) Army, which had born the brunt of fighting against the Taiping, the Nian, and the Muslim Rebellions, but he soon became responsible for forming the Beiyang Navy in China’s northern waters. The Chinese government ordered the development of three other modern fleets as well, based at Guangzhou, the Fuzhou Naval Yard in southeast China, and along the Yangzi River.

China’s need for a modern navy was first revealed during the Opium War, but was dramatized in 1873 when Japan claimed the Ryukyu (Okinawan) Islands as Japanese territory. These islands had become a Chinese tributary in 1372, but from 1609 were slowly dominated by the Satsuma feudal state in Japan. The incident that sparked Japan’s action was the 1871 massacre of fifty-four shipwrecked Ryukyu sailors by Taiwanese aborigines. When Beijing refused to take action in what was technically a part of China, the Japanese launched their own expedition in 1874 and sent troops to Taiwan. Lacking an effective navy to counter the Japanese force, China was forced to pay Japan an indemnity both for its expedition and to compensate the murdered sailors’ families. Beijing also agreed not to dispute Tokyo’s claim to the Ryukyu Islands. In 1879, Japan formally annexed these islands and changed their name to the Okinawa Prefecture.

Beijing could not counter foreign aggression from the sea without a modern navy. Previously, funds for building a navy were particularly scarce because of the military demands of opposing the Muslim rebellion in Xinjiang and resolving the Ili Crisis. In addition, the Manchu Court decided in 1874 to use scarce funds to rebuild the Summer Palace; although widely condemned by westernizers as a waste of money, the construction of a new Summer Palace was intended to prove to the Han Chinese that the Manchus were still firmly in control, and so had important domestic consequences.

Li Hongzhang was the leader of a group of Qing officials who pushed for building a proposed forty-eight-ship navy. He argued persuasively that Beijing was vulnerable mainly from the coast, not from the western borderlands. Still, although Li obtained permission to purchase ships from abroad beginning in 1875, only two million taels were set aside for this task. This amounted to just a fraction of the sum Zuo Zongtang received during the same years to fund his Xinjiang expedition.

As John Rawlinson recounts in great detail in his study of Chinese naval development, Li had a particularly difficult time deciding whether China should build ships herself or should buy them from British, French, and German shipbuilders. As a result of his indecision, by the early 1880s the various Chinese fleets were far from being standardized and so experienced great difficulty working together as units. Accordingly:

In that disordered buy-and-build situation, there was no plan, no grasp of the problem. There were only varying degrees of hostility to China’s several external foes. Much money was spent, but with little effect. The variety of equipment, which reflected the political compartmentalization of the coast, contributed to the lack of coordinated action and grand strategy. Li Hongzhang only added confusion with his wily and opportunistic purchasing of ships and arms.

By 1882, the Qing Navy consisted of approximately fifty steamships. While China built half of these at either the Shanghai or Fuzhou shipyards, the government purchased the other half abroad. For example, China ordered four gunboats and two 1,350-ton cruisers from England, while ordering two other Stettin-type warships and a steel cruiser from Germany (the German vessels, however, did not arrive in China until after the Sino-French War was over).

Not surprisingly, considering Li Hongzhang’s political power, many of the best and most modern ships found their way into Li’s northern fleet, which never saw any action in the Sino-French conflict. In fact, fear that he might lose control over his fleet led Li to refuse to even consider sending his ships southward to aid the Fuzhou fleet against the French. Although Li later claimed that moving his fleet southward would have left northern China undefended, his decision has been criticized as a sign of China’s factionalized government as well as its provincial north-south mindset.

While China possessed much of the equipment for a modern navy by the early 1880s, it still did not have a sufficiently large pool of qualified sailors. One of the major training grounds during the early 1870s was at the Fuzhou shipyards, which had hired foreign experts to conduct training classes. By the late 1870s, many of the foreigners had left Fuzhou, and a new naval academy was opened at Tianjin, in northern China. This academy lured many of the best-trained Chinese sailors away from southern China.

By 1883, therefore, at the outset of the Sino-French War, China’s navy was poorly trained, especially in southern China. Although many of China’s modern ships were state of the art, the personnel manning them were relatively unskilled: according to Rawlinson, only eight of the fourteen ship captains that saw action in the war had received any modern training at all. In addition, there was little, if any, coordination between the fleets in north and south China. The lack of a centralized admiralty commanding the entire navy meant that at any one time France opposed only a fraction of China’s total fleet. This virtually assured French naval dominance in the upcoming conflict.

The Mawei Battle [Battle of Fuzhou]

The Chinese flagship Yangwu and the gunboat Fuxing at anchor off the Foochow Navy Yard on the eve of the battle.

The Chinese flagship Yangwu and the corvette Fuxing under attack by French torpedo boats No. 46 and No. 45. Combat naval de Fou-Tchéou (‘The naval battle at Foochow’), by Charles Kuwasseg, 1885.

Spurred on by their defeat at Baclé, the French decided to blockade the Chinese island of Taiwan (Formosa). Beginning on 5 August 1884, Admiral Lespes bombarded Taiwan’s forts at Jilong (Keelung) Harbor on the northeast coast and destroyed the gun emplacements. However, Liu Mingchuan, a former commander of the Huai Army, successfully defended Jilong against an assault by Admiral Lespes’ troops the following day; the French abandoned this attack in the face of the much larger Chinese forces. While the Chinese Army enjoyed limited victories in Annam and on Taiwan, the Chinese Navy was not so successful. On 23 August 1884, a French fleet of eight ships under Admiral Courbet challenged and destroyed all but two of the eleven modern Chinese-built ships at port in Fuzhou Harbor. The heart of the French force was the 4,727-ton Triomphante, which led the artillery attack. Within the space of only one hour, naval bombardments destroyed not only the cream of China’s southern fleet but also the Fuzhou shipyards, which had been built with French aid beginning in 1866. This attack left approximately 3,000 Chinese dead, and damages have been estimated as high as fifteen million dollars. Rawlinson has discussed this naval battle at some length, and has concluded that the “French advantage was not overwhelming” and that: “Had they been decisive, the Chinese might have seized a last opportunity.” The French took advantage of the swift tides in Mawei Harbor to move against the Chinese ships, which were still moored in their docks. Beginning with the deployment of their torpedo boats, the French then used their heavy 10-inch guns to destroy first the Chinese fleet, and then the neighboring dockyards.