Major military engagements of the Taiping Rebellion


The Xiang Army recapturing Jinling, a suburb of the Taiping capital, July 19, 1864.


The Taiping Rebellion devastated the landscape of southern China, causing widespread bloodshed and famine.


Detail from The suppression of the Taiping Rebellion.


Imperial troops during the Taiping Rebellion, China the wounded musketman is a Taiping rebel.

One of the primary goals of the Taipings was to create a Christian kingdom in China. Clearly, this was an ideology that originated from the West. Therefore, like the British, the Taipings had first to face and defeat the Manchu Dynasty. Unlike the British, the Taipings’ goal was not treaty revision but was political in nature—taking control of China. The military overthrow of the Manchus, and the establishment of a new Han Chinese Dynasty to take its place, soon became the single most important ideology uniting the Taipings.

To carry out this goal, Hong Xiuquan and his cousin Feng Yushan soon realized the need for a strong military. In 1844, the two men traveled to Guangxi Province to look for a suitable base for the future Taiping Army. Feng is also given credit for devising a military system, supposedly based on the military administration of China’s founding Qin Dynasty, in which fixed armies of 13,155 men were subdivided into divisions, brigades, companies, platoons, and squads. In addition to the military command, which had administrative and training responsibilities, there was a separate strategic “army inspector” who could issue orders to the army commander. When several armies were gathered, a commander-in-chief gave the orders and reported to his superiors, who in turn went up the chain of command to the Heavenly King, Hong Xiuquan. Discipline was strictly enforced by corporal punishment, public shaming, beating, or loss of rank, and the Taiping troops were regulated by a strict code composed of sixty-two rules, most of which emphasized loyalty to the movement and its leaders.

Even the Taipings’ enemies, such as the Imperial commander Zeng Guofan, came to admire the Taipings’ military structure and determination. According to Jen Yu-wen, the secret of the Taipings’ military success was their common religious beliefs:

The whole army kept up the religious practices of their early days as God-Worshipers, assembling to worship God in the morning and evening, saying prayers before meals, gathering to listen to sermons on Sundays, kneeling in prayer before going to battle, etc. This was the real secret of their strength—a secret known to the Imperialists but dismissed as a kind of witchcraft.

In the beginning, the very weakness of the Taipings also forced them to be innovative, such as allowing Hakka women to fight with the men. They appealed to patriotic Han Chinese to join them in overthrowing the Manchus, and the Taiping army quickly grew to 50,000. In battle, the Taipings also made use of a wide variety of military technology. For example, when they attacked Guilin, the Taipings used towering siege equipment, ladders, and rockets. When besieging Chuanzhou, they tunneled beneath the city wall and blew it up with gunpowder.

The Taipings employed diverse offensive strategies. For example, in taking the small town of Yung’an Zhou on 25 September 1851—the first walled town to be controlled by the Taipings—the Taiping commander, Lo Dagang, ordered his troops to light firecrackers and throw them over the city wall as if they were explosives. In the midst of the ensuing panic, the Taipings scaled the city wall and occupied the town virtually unopposed. Eighteen months later, while advancing down the Yangzi River on Nanjing, the Taipings filled empty ships with mud and rocks and sent them downstream past the Imperial garrisons. Only after the Imperial troops exhausted their ammunition on the decoys did the real Taiping ships appear. In traditional Chinese fashion, based on Sunzi’s Art of War, the Taipings also took care to use the terrain to their advantage. Once they were forced to evacuate, the Taipings ambushed the Imperial forces along narrow mountain paths, where their superior weapons and horses did them little good.

Although the Taipings did not carry out their original strategic goal of moving quickly against Changsha, the capital of Hunan, they did settle temporarily in southern Hunan in the smaller city of Daozhou, from where they reorganized and strengthened their army to include about 70,000 troops. After failing to take Changsha, they marched south and west, eventually taking the city of Hankou by the end of December 1852. Linking boats to form a bridge across the Yangzi River, the Taipings laid siege to Wuchang for twenty days, finally conquering it on 12 January 1853. From this position, the Taipings virtually controlled the upper Yangzi River and its trade, thus cutting off China’s interior from the coastal regions.

Although they considered heading straight for Beijing, reports of a large Imperial force blocking the way persuaded the Taipings to turn to the east. Since Wuchang was a good strategic base from which to attack down river, the Taipings decided to attack and consolidate their control in Nanjing, the heart of the Yangzi River valley. This decision has been criticized by one military historian as “one of the greatest strategic errors in the history of the movement,” since the Taipings threw away their first, and best, chance of marching on Beijing and overthrowing the Manchus. It is important to note that seventy years later, during the Nationalists’ (Guomindang or GMD) Northern Expedition to oust the Beijing warlords, the GMD leaders copied this strategy almost step for step, and also based their new capital in Nanjing. Some of the significant differences between the Taipings and the Nationalists included the GMD’s adoption of a nationalist ideology, as versus religious ideology, its willingness to make and break political alliances with western powers—especially the USSR—and, most importantly, its more highly modernized military structure.

On 8 February 1853, the Taipings’ estimated 500,000-strong force left Wuchang, crossed the Yangzi River, and burned their floating bridges after them. This action was not merely symbolic, but delayed an advancing Imperial army under the commander-in-chief of Hubei Province, Xiang Rong. Splitting into two groups, a small land-based force on the northern shore forged ahead to clear the river of obstacles, while the majority of the Taiping Army floated down river in the 20,000 boats they had requisitioned and provisioned in Wuchang. Virtually unopposed, the Taipings easily took Jiujiang, in western Jiangxi Province, and Anqing, the capital of Anhui. After reprovisioning from the abandoned Imperial storehouses, the Taipings moved on to Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province.

By the time the Taiping Army reached Nanjing on 6 March 1853, their numbers had swelled to three-quarters of a million. Although poorly defended, the enormous city wall kept the Taipings at bay for thirteen days, during which time tunnels were dug. By 19 March, with explosives prepared in three tunnels under the wall, hundreds of Taiping paper effigies carrying torches appeared riding by the western end of the city. Not until it was too late did the defending troops realize that this was merely another Taiping ruse to draw as many opponents on to the wall as possible. Two massive explosions soon breached the city gates, while a third tunnel exploded late, killing many advancing Taipings.

Although there were sufficient defenders to stop the Taipings’ attack, the chance death of the Imperial commander, Lu Jianying, demoralized his troops and they fled in panic. After taking the outer walls of the city, the Taipings advanced on the inner Imperial City—also known as the Manchu City—on 20 March. Refusing to surrender, the 40,000 Manchu Bannermen and regular troops inside the Imperial City fought desperately, but quickly fell before the human waves that the Taipings were able to send against the inner city’s walls. This offensive ended in massacre, with about 30,000 Manchu deaths.

The battle for Nanjing was over quickly, and resulted in a major Taiping victory after a relatively short siege. One possible reason for this rapid victory may have been the Taipings’ use of spies, since about 3,000 Taiping troops successfully entered Nanjing disguised as Buddhist monks. This tactic closely followed Sunzi’s advice to use spies and unorthodox methods: during the city’s siege, these Taiping supporters set fires and signaled to the outside forces where the weak points were along the city walls.

Soon after the Taipings took Nanjing, the cities of Zhenjiang and Yangzhou fell without opposition. This gave the Taipings control over the Grand Canal, “the great medium of communication between the southern provinces and the capital, and the route by which all of the grain supplies were conveyed to the north.” Although the Taipings quickly organized and dispatched expeditions to the north and west, Nanjing itself was soon surrounded and besieged by Imperial troops. However, by incorporating elaborate defensives, and a military communication system based on flags and drums, the Taipings survived three Imperial sieges and held Nanjing for the next eleven years.



The Xiang Army recapturing Jinling, a suburb of the Taiping capital, July 19, 1864

Taiping soldiers, male and female, outside Shanghai

The Taiping “Rebellion” (1851–64), or “Revolution,” was a religious-based domestic uprising with ethnic—Han versus Manchu—overtones. Fought mainly with traditional Chinese weapons and tactics, it corresponded and overlapped with the Arrow War (1856–60), or second Opium War, which was China’s second anti-foreign trade war. The Manchus lost the Arrow War, but in the interim created China’s first modernized armies—the “Ever-Victorious Army” and the Xiang Army—in order to defeat the Taipings.

Although the military aspects of the Taiping and Arrow conflicts differ greatly, they will be treated together for several reasons. First, both conflicts owed their origins to the first Opium War. Second, both involved the use of military forces to oppose the Manchus’ Qing Dynasty in Beijing. Third, the Manchu Dynasty succeeded in using trade—in this case, the opium trade—to convince the foreign powers to oppose the Taipings, and in so doing retained their political domination over China.

The origins of the Taiping Rebellion can be traced to Britain’s victory over the Manchus in the Opium War, which revealed the Qing Dynasty’s internal weakness. The British victory gave Han Chinese hope that the Manchus had finally lost the “Mandate of Heaven” and that a new Han Dynasty might soon take its place. The effect of the Opium War on the Han Chinese leader of the Taipings, Hong Xiuquan, was especially profound: while Hong appears to have blamed himself for failing the Imperial Examinations three times during the 1820s and 1830s, after failing for the fourth time, in 1843, he angrily vowed to overthrow the Manchu government. Hong’s subsequent conversion to Christianity and the Taipings’ adoption of a unique mixture of Christianity and Confucianism also suggests the important impact of the Opium War on the Han Chinese people’s perception of westernization—in this case Christianity as the symbol of European culture—as a means of obtaining their political and cultural liberty from the Manchus.

The Arrow War similarly owed its origins to the Opium War. Unlike the Taiping conflict, the underlying issue in the Arrow War was the defense of foreign trade in China by insuring the safety of foreign ships from Taiping pirates. To guarantee free trade required treaty revision, prompting Great Britain and France to launch a military campaign, their main goal being to obtain greater trade privileges from the Manchus. In a marked departure from the Opium War, the Manchu Dynasty proved willing for the first time to adopt western military methods. During the Arrow War, the major military engagement—and one of the few in which the Chinese were victorious—was called the “Dagu Repulse.” However, in the long run the foreign forces outmaneuvered and defeated the Manchu military, even sacking and burning the Summer Palace during the fall of 1860.

Faced with international and domestic foes, the Manchus adopted a policy of playing the western nations against the Taipings by making major trade concessions—including legalizing opium in 1858. This was in marked contrast to the Han Chinese leaders of the Taipings, who, for religious reasons, adamantly opposed the importation and sale of opium. In return for trade concessions, therefore, the foreign powers sided with the Manchus and used their superior military might to oppose the Taipings.

By pitting the two sides against each other, the Manchus were able to defeat the Taipings while granting to the western nations only nominally greater trade advantages than they had held before. From a purely military viewpoint, the Manchu Dynasty in China was far too weak to oppose effectively any alliance between the Taipings and the western nations; but by exploiting the opium trade as its key negotiating point, Beijing not only kept the two groups apart, it eventually pitted them against each other. This policy ultimately led to the total defeat of the Taipings and to the formation of a new modus vivendi based on free trade with the western nations. The trading system that was put in force following the Arrow War would continue unchallenged for the next half-century. China’s diplomatic victory also gave new life to an Imperial dynasty that had seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

Death toll
With no reliable census at the time, estimates are necessarily based on projections, but the most widely cited sources put the total number of deaths during the 15 years of the rebellion at about 20–30 million civilians and soldiers. Most of the deaths were attributed to plague and famine. At the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864, more than 100,000 were killed in three days.
The rebellion happened at roughly the same time as the American Civil War. Although almost certainly the largest civil war of the 19th century (in terms of numbers under arms), it is debatable whether the Taiping Rebellion involved more soldiers than the Napoleonic Wars earlier in the century.

Battle of Talas River – Redux



In 751 a Tang (T’ang) dynasty army commanded by Gao Xianzhi (Kao Hsien-chih), military governor of Anxi (An-hsi) in the Western Regions, met an Arab army in battle at Talas River near Samarkand. The Chinese were defeated. Although this was not a major military confrontation, it had great consequences.

Tang power and prestige stood at their zenith up to 750. Tang military forces had scored major successes and secured the frontiers from Tibet to Central Asia; the northern steppes were under a friendly semi-sedentary people called Uighurs, while the Khitans in the northeast and the Xixia (Hsi Hsia) in the southwest were contained. International trade flourished by land along the Silk Road, and by sea routes. However soon all would change. The aging Emperor Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung), infatuated with a young concubine, the Lady Yang (Yang Guifei), had been neglecting his duties while her corrupt family and favorites dominated the government. The military system that had made the empire strong during the previous 100 years was deteriorating. Many of the frontier garrisons were manned by nomadic mercenaries and commanded by non-Chinese generals. Meanwhile Muslim Arab power had been expanding eastward.

The conflict began as one between two local states, Ferghana, a Chinese client state, and Tashkent. It led to battle between Ziyad bin Salih, governor of Samarkand under the Ummayyad Caliphate, assisting Tashkent, and General Gao Xianzhi and his Chinese forces. Gao was badly defeated when his ally the Western Turks defected to the Arabs and retreated across the Pamir Mountains. The battle was not significant in the short term, because the Arabs did not press eastward to threaten China, but because of what followed in the long term. In the same year, nearer to home, the aborigines in Yunnan in southwestern China revolted and declared independence, creating a state called Nanzhao (Nan-chao).

Finally in 755 the Turkic general and once imperial favorite An Lushan (An Lu-Shan) began a rebellion that captured both Tang capital cities and threatened the throne. The immediate result of events in 755 was the recall of Chinese forces from Central Asia, creating a political vacuum. That left the Arabs in a strong position. Likewise the power vacuum enabled the Tibetans and the Xixia people to expand their power at China’s expense. Even as an ally the Uighurs expanded their power at the Tang’s expense. Without Chinese military protection the Buddhist states in Central Asia would fall to the rising power of Islam. Chinese power would not return to the region for another 600 years.

Further reading: Beckwith, Christopher I. The Tibetan Empire of Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987; Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes, a History of Central Asia. Trans. by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.


T’ang armies

The Sui dynasty was founded in northern China in 581 AD and had reunited the whole country by 589. Initial successes were followed by a disastrous war with Koguryo and several rebellions. A military family from the northern frontier succeeded in establishing the new T’ang dynasty, which united China by 623 and extended Chinese frontiers further than ever before. Sui and early T’ang armies were based on the fu-ping militia system, both infantry and cavalry being conscripted but thoroughly trained. The system could not cope with prolonged service on distant frontiers, however, and the militias were progressively replaced by professional troops until being abolished in 753. Some T’ang armies in the steppes were composed entirely of cavalry, though such armies were usually mostly Turkish auxiliaries. Other T’ang armies in Central Asia had all their infantry mounted. Sui armies must use infantry.


T’ang infantry were divided into pu-ping “marching infantry” and pu-she “foot archers”. Classification is awkward because it was the ideal that all troops should carry bows – even, apparently, if also armed with spears – but it is not clear how far this ideal was achieved. Some Sui cavalry carried lance, others sword and shield. Under the T’ang, most heavy cavalry were armed in originally Turkish style with lamellar armour, lance and bow; but occasional sources show lances only. Sui armies used wagon-laagers and chevaux-de-frise against Turkish cavalry, and T’ang forces also occasionally used defences. Mo-ho are the Manchurian tribes called Malgal by the Koreans. Some fought for the Sui against Koguryo and against Chinese rebels, and for the T’ang against Turks, Tibetans and Silla.

Imperial China: War and the Military I

There was a persistent military, cultural, and political conflict between various nomadic and semi-nomadic groups living in the steppe, and the sedentary, agricultural Chinese for most of imperial Chinese history. Steppe people were dependent upon their horses, which they used to drive their herds from pasture to pasture as the seasons progressed. The steppe grasslands did not support a high population density, but the groups who lived there had such a facility with horses that it amplified their military potential tremendously. It was also difficult for large infantry armies to campaign in the steppe because they were neither fast enough to overtake steppe cavalry armies and their mobile families, nor were they able to carry sufficient provisions for such long expeditions. Steppe living was more precarious, however, and bad weather or being driven from a critical pasturage could impel a mobile group to seek food or resources from the sedentary Chinese population, whose agricultural system produced food surpluses that could be stored. Even in good times, most manufactured goods and luxury items were only available from China.

Chinese farming populations were also much denser and fixed in place. It was easier for imperial authorities to maintain political authority over its farmers, and to extract taxes, than for steppe leaders. Where farmers would starve if they left their crops, the mobile people of the steppe could ride away from men seeking to control them or obtain resources.

War was the primary method of creating, maintaining, and destroying dynasties, but historians and political leaders seeking to claim divine sanction and moral legitimacy for a ruling house downplayed this obvious fact. Chinese leaders were able to make war serve their political purposes and establish dynasties with authority over the Chinese ecumene a half-dozen times. Even before the imperial age, war was fought on an immense scale. Dynasties consistently maintained complex and sophisticated military machines, and waged war across the whole of China. Necessity produced several significant inventions during the imperial period, including the stirrup, gunpowder, and guns. For much of its history, China had one of the most technologically, strategically, and operationally advanced military cultures in the world.

The political use of force fell on the law side of the morality-versus-law spectrum of ideal rule. Moral rulers were allowed, and even encouraged, to “punish” those resisting their correct rule, but theoretically a sage ruler would not face this choice. Unfortunately, whatever the idealized Ruist perspective suggested, China was first unified by a government, the Qin, that emphasized rule by law. Not surprisingly, they brought China together through war, rather than moral suasion. Because the Qin dynasty was short-lived and the account of its rise and fall was written in the long-lasting Han dynasty that followed, it has always been easy to criticize Qin rulership as overly dependent upon law. That explanation of why the Qin fell so quickly became an accepted part of Chinese political thought. Reliance upon strict laws was not only morally reprehensible, it was the road to destruction as well.

A strong and usually dominant strand of Chinese political ideology assumed that the naked use of force, either in establishing or maintaining a dynasty, was only useful for brief periods and that real, stable rule required non-violent governance. In the Han dynasty, Lu Sheng asked the first emperor, “Your Majesty obtained the empire on horseback, can you rule it from horseback?” Chingghis Khan received a similar comment almost a millennium and a half later: “I have heard that one can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it on horseback.” Civil officials did not contest the need for war to establish a dynasty, but they were insistent that an empire could only be run effectively and sustainably by civilian government. 

Dynasties were always born of war. Their founders had to be good generals, or at least employ good generals, to overthrow the old order and establish a new one. Consequently, generals were both a necessity and a threat to any political order. Those who were loyal and effective were a precious commodity. Far more than civil officials, the creation and maintenance of a dynasty was dependent upon managing generals. Mismanagement could either foment rebellion or preclude an effective response to rebellions and invasions.

War also determined the borders of a dynasty or Chinese state. There were, however, relatively few demarcated external borders for Chinese empires (as discussed in the previous chapter). Not only did Chinese empires not want to acknowledge that there were in fact specific territorial limits to their power, they also lacked the ability to delineate and patrol exact borders. Power tapered off quickly beyond the reach of an imperial army, something that could be as true of lands within the empire as those outside it. Dynastic authority, the ability to obtain resources and carry out the imperial will, was the product of direct military force or the reasonable threat of that force being used. Its absence did not necessarily immediately result in invasion or rebellion, of course, but the presence of a responsive force could dramatically alter the results in either case.

The army was also responsible for maintaining civil order. Soldiers policed the empire to apprehend criminals as well as rebels. Local magistrates were usually civil officials tasked with administering laws, civil and criminal, but in the main it would be soldiers who carried out their orders and enforced government authority. Front-line expeditionary troops did not usually serve as local military forces and vice versa. It was very difficult to maintain soldiers and officers effective in these widely disparate tasks since, for example, a capable expeditionary commander and his army would likely be generally ineffective at criminal policing. Extended periods of peace might improve the capability of an army’s policing skills, and promote officers good at maintaining civil order, but undermine its battlefield effectiveness. As a result of these dual functions, states constantly struggled to balance the divergent demands on its personnel.

Military Technology, Society, and Politics

By the beginning of the imperial period, chariots driven by aristocrats had given way to cavalry—though still without stirrups—and mass infantry armies drawn mostly from the farming population across the empire. Shock cavalry, horsemen who relied upon using the force of their mount to drive home an attack, developed in the third century, and then disappeared after the introduction of the stirrup in the fourth, a shift which remains unexplained. Mounted archery, on the other hand, was a near constant in imperial China until very late in the nineteenth century. Armies were dominated by infantry, equipped with bows, crossbows, spears, and swords. Although there were some significant shifts in weaponry over time, the distinctions in modes of warfare remained stable: mounted archers, usually steppe, and infantry, usually Chinese.

Naval warfare was equally important for commanders seeking to conquer all of the Chinese ecumene. Any attempt to create an empire like that of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, or Qing required crossing major rivers—the Yellow, Huai, and Yangzi, as well as many others. Crossing those rivers, and campaigning in south China as well, required a navy that could maintain riverine control long enough to transport land forces and to keep them supplied. Cao Cao, who nominally sought to preserve the Han dynasty in the early third century, was unable to move south to consolidate power after his famous defeat at the naval battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208–9. His initial successes had supplied him with a navy, but his commanders and soldiers were not sailors. They were defeated on the river, and then fell back to an anchorage where they chained their ships together. An attack by fire ships destroyed Cao Cao’s closely packed fleet and killed many of his troops. Though he would retain power in the north, his naval defeat left China divided into three kingdoms—in the north, south, and Sichuan. Just as it had frustrated Cao Cao, the Yellow River frequently marked the farthest southern border for raiding or invading northern steppe armies because they lacked naval expertise and resources.

Another distinct and important aspect of Chinese imperial warfare was the centrality of siege engineering. Just as no army could conquer all of China without naval capability, no army could conquer much at all without the ability to capture fortified cities and, in turn, the ability to build and defend fortifications. All significant urban centers were surrounded by thick walls built with pounded earth, and some also had moats. In later times the walls were often faced with brick as well, partly to strengthen them, and partly to prevent erosion. Pounded earth walls are relatively thick for a given height, at least compared with medieval European fortification curtain walls, which were comparatively thin, high, and brittle. In Europe, fortification walls only began to resemble those in China after the introduction of the cannon. Some scholars have suggested that the nature of Chinese walls retarded the development of the cannon because the weapon did not prove nearly as effective against them. Although plausible, this was not the reason the development of the cannon slowed after the thirteenth century (a subject we shall return to later in this chapter). It is worth noting, however, that Nanjing’s fourteenth-century city walls were a significant obstacle even for the Japanese army in 1937.

The most famous Chinese fortification is what, in modern times, has been called “The Great Wall.” Some form of long walls and other fortifications marked the northern edge of Qin dynasty territory, but the current structure dates from the middle of the Ming dynasty (and the parts most frequently visited by tourists today are substantially late-twentieth-century reconstructions). Like many aspects of imperial China, it was more important in historiography than in history. Even for the Ming, who developed it more extensively than any other dynasty, though initially in a piecemeal fashion by local commanders, the wall was a temporary expedient that evolved into a partly effective defense against low-level threats, like small Mongol raiding parties. It was never a continuous and consistent tool of Chinese strategy for the simple reason that it couldn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to defend the northern border against steppe invasion. The various long walls built at various times on the northern border, and even the Ming dynasty wall, did not mark the northern edge of the Chinese border. Functionally, northern border fortifications were at best tactical expedients, rather than strategic tools.

The shift during the Han dynasty from focusing on consolidating rule across north China to defending the northern border against steppe incursions reflected the pattern that would persist for most of imperial Chinese history. When large steppe polities consolidated under an effective leadership, like the Mongols under Chingghis Khan, they could launch large-scale invasions of sedentary Chinese states, even overthrowing and replacing them. This was relatively rare, however, and smaller steppe polities were caught between fighting other steppe polities, trading with China, working as cavalrymen for China, or raiding China for resources. When they did invade, their highly mobile armies of horse-archers made them hard to contain, but they had great difficulty capturing well-prepared, fortified positions.

Cavalry armies were very good at attacking, but tended to withdraw when faced with superior force or the need to capture a fortified position. The only time the northern border was not a chronic military issue was when the steppe itself was politically divided, or a steppe group ruled China. Although often defeated by Chinese forces, they were always a concern.

Non-Chinese groups in the south who were outside China gradually found themselves engulfed by Chinese empires. These groups in what was, or was becoming, southern China were less organized and less mobile than northern cavalrymen. Southern indigenous populations occasionally resisted the Chinese state as it advanced into their territory, but rarely with much success. Chinese farmers migrating south gradually displaced native groups from the most productive farmland, and relentlessly ground them down through economic and demographic superiority. Unlike the northern steppe peoples, the non-Chinese in the south never presented an existential threat to the Chinese state. The greatest difficulty for Chinese armies campaigning in the far south was tropical and jungle diseases, which caused far more casualties than any battle.


Imperial Chinese armies were extremely large in comparison to those of most pre-modern societies. Even before the imperial era, Chinese field armies had grown into the tens of thousands, necessitating the employment of skilled generals, sound logistics, and highly organized bureaucracies. Early imperial armies were usually hybrids incorporating professional soldiers alongside militia. The latter provided the bulk of armies, and the former a stiffening of cadres and the actual striking edge in battle. The Chinese ideal was the farmer-soldier, a man who labored on his farm until becoming a soldier when needed in war. Once the war was over the soldier returned to his farm, thus avoiding the need for an expensive, politically dangerous standing army. Even steppe forces, whether working for a Chinese dynasty or in the steppe itself, usually drawn from the male population of various steppe groups, were effectively militia, albeit with highly developed skills in riding and shooting. This shifted in the middle of the Tang dynasty, with the imperial army changing to a force made up of professionals, and militia confined to local defense. Their successors, the Song, also maintained a professional army, though a nostalgia for the farmer-soldiers of classical antiquity, and even the early Tang, continued to haunt government policymakers. Repeated efforts to revive the farmer-soldier ideal were always taken seriously, despite the fact they failed to produce effective troops every time. Song statesmen feared the threat to the throne posed by a professional army, recalling the An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) that had briefly driven the Tang court from its capital and nearly destroyed the dynasty. They also lamented the cost of such an army. A farmer-soldier army, on the other hand, offered the chimera of a large, inexpensive, and loyal force able to defeat the Liao and Xixia.

Foreign rulers of China tended to keep their Chinese subjects out of military affairs, relying upon their ethnic compatriots to form primarily cavalry armies. However, a continual friction between steppe occupiers and the sedentary occupied made policing difficult for non-Chinese rulers; there was simply too much territory and too many people to suppress resistance for very long. The solution was to enlist local elites and give them a stake in the ruling dynasty’s power but, as always, the difficulty was in retaining the loyalty of those empowered elites.

The Mongol rulers of China formed armies by drafting specific groups with particular capabilities: Mongols and other steppe groups supplied most of the cavalry striking forces; Muslim siege engineers working for the Mongols in the thirteenth century brought counterweight trebuchet—a swape beam with a weight on its short arm—to China; Chinese sailors working for the Mongols manned the riverine naval forces that attacked the Southern Song dynasty, and then, along with Korean sailors, tried to invade Japan; Chinese infantry fought within China, and other local forces were brought in as the Mongols rode across Eurasia. Unlike the Song army, the Mongol military did not systematically recruit men and then train them as soldiers. Unfortunately for the progress of military technology in China, they did not support the same kind of military bureaucracy that the Song had either, and the end of that bureaucracy sharply curtailed the advancement of gun technology.

After the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the Ming initially tried a new military system, permanently enrolling soldiers and officers as military families and assigning agricultural lands to them to provide for their upkeep. In theory, this would maintain a large and functional army at little or no cost to the central government’s coffers; families would provide sons to the army as needed in return for their land. In practice, however, the soldiers quickly became more focused on farming, and military readiness declined sharply. So much so that, in the sixteenth century, military units composed of hereditary soldiers were completely ineffective in fighting the Wokou pirates, forcing generals to raise and train new units outside the system. Hereditary officers were no better. This would have been bad enough if the economy and the threats to the dynasty had remained static, but with changes in agriculture, society, and culture, as well as new threats forming in the steppe, the military declined in effectiveness just when a strong army was critically important. The military decline was not universal, however, and some armies and generals were episodically functional, effectively dealing with many significant threats. New Western weapons began to be adopted by the Ming in the early seventeenth century, but they were not enough to stave off growing Manchu power in the steppe.

It was the Qing dynasty that truly confronted the West and modern weaponry. In 1644 the Manchus invaded China, the Great Wall proving an ineffective defense against large forces, and replaced the Ming dynasty. Beijing, the Ming capital, had already fallen to a bandit army before the Manchus arrived, but the imperial family and the ruling class of the Qing dynasty would all be Manchus. Some of the best Ming armies joined the Manchus against the bandits, and then continued to serve the Manchus once it was clear that the Ming dynasty was finished.

After Britain badly defeated Qing forces during the Opium War (1839–42), and the Qing military failed to stop the Taiping rebels at the beginning of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), halting steps were taken to adopt Western arms and organization. At the very end of the imperial era, some new Qing forces were organized and armed according to Western practice, and some naval forces were likewise emulating their Western counterparts. However, the modernizing military was unable to handle mounting domestic and foreign pressures, and the Qing fell in the wake of a failed mutiny.

Imperial China: War and the Military II

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

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


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

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

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

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

Military Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Suppression of Piracy in the East Indies and the South China Sea, 1855–69

As trade between Europe and the Far East developed, so did piracy, on a scale that dwarfed the activities of the Caribbean buccaneers of the previous century. It has been suggested that the pirates of the East Indies, now Malaysia and Indonesia, and of the South China Sea, were simply fishermen impelled by hardship to seek a dishonest living. An examination of the facts, unfortunately, suggests that fishing was a last resort when their activities brought commerce to a standstill. The truth was that in both areas pirates operated in fleets large enough to intimidate the local authorities and were just as much a menace to their own people as they were to European traders.

In the East Indies the pirates’ favourite vessel was the rakish flying-prahu, 50 feet long and with a 14-foot beam. The prahu had a high poop and a long bowsprit, and was steered by two oars, one on each quarter. The bipod mast, mounted well forward, carried a jib and a lug-lateen mainsail, with a similar but smaller sail being carried by a mizzen. Usually, one or two heavy swivel guns were mounted fore- and-aft. While this does not seem particularly dangerous, the prahu was the fastest thing afloat and, acting with others in a pack, could easily run down a merchant vessel or escape from a pursuing warship. The pirates of the Indies were a notably savage lot who would willingly slaughter everyone aboard any vessel that offered the slightest resistance, regardless of age or sex.

Small wonder, then, that the appearance of prahu sails struck terror into every merchantman sailing the waters of the Indies. The Dutch, having extensive possessions in the area, strove to contain the menace, as did the Sea Service of the Honourable East India Company in its time, and, of course, the Royal Navy. The pirates quickly learned that even if they felt strong enough to challenge small warships their prahus were soon knocked to pieces by the dozen, with heavy loss of life, so they avoided direct contact as much as possible. The difficulty lay in getting at them, for their lairs lay in fortified villages up rivers too shallow for conventional warships to navigate. Naval landing parties therefore had to proceed upstream in the pulling boats, being sniped at from the jungle-covered banks the while, and sometimes being treated to a dose of grape or langridge from a cannon sited in a cleared fire-lane. As they approached the village, they might find the channel closed with piles and have to proceed on foot. Finally, they would have to storm the stockades of the village itself, supported by nothing heavier than the boat guns. This could involve heavy hand-to-hand fighting against invariably superior numbers. Generally, however, the pirates, more used to butchering helpless victims than confronting disciplined aggression, disliked the experience and took to their heels. Their village was then burned, as were their prahus, and their guns were taken out to sea and dropped into deep water, beyond hope of recovery.

While such punitive raids would put a pirate community out of business for a considerable time, other communities would gladly cash in on the vacuum so created, until they in turn were neutralised. Furthermore, it was inevitable that the landing parties would incur unwelcome casualties. However, the arrival of Crimean gunboats in the area accelerated the rate at which law and order could be imposed, as they could not only proceed further up rivers than conventional warships, but their impressive firepower often broke the enemy’s will before the landing parties could launch their attack.

As might be expected, piracy in the South China Sea was even more of a menace and much better organised. It was, in fact, very big business with long-term financial strategies and entire fleets at its disposal. During the early years of the 19th century a widow named Ching Shih became the most powerful pirate leader ever, having at her disposal no less than 800 junks, about 1000 smaller craft and some 70,000 men, organised efficiently into six squadrons which operated in designated areas. She was quite beyond Imperial control, any naval mandarin who fell into her hands being roasted alive or treated to the Death of One Thousand Cuts. In due course her squadron commanders fell out and came to blows. One, having offered himself and his ships to the Imperial government, was rewarded with the rank of naval mandarin. Others, including Ching Shih, seeing which way the wind was blowing, did likewise, until all the more prominent pirates became nominal members of the Imperial Navy.

That did not mean the end of piracy. Ching Shih’s fleet had simply outgrown itself to the point that it could no longer be sustained with adequate plunder or even sufficient rations. Thereafter, pirates continued to operate in smaller, more manageable numbers. Unlike their brethren in the East Indies, who sought immediate gain, the Chinese preferred to maintain the flow of commerce, charging junk owners protection money or impounding ships, cargoes and important passengers until they were ransomed. The difficulty facing the Royal Navy was that, initially at least, it was unable to engage even the most obvious pirate junk unless it was caught in the act of interfering with British shipping; nor could it mount punitive raids into sovereign Chinese territory in time of peace, despite the wishes of the local population and the mandarins’ inability or deliberate reluctance to tackle the problem themselves. The despatch of Commander E. W. Vansittart of the sloop Bittern, written off the mouth of the River Min on 1 March 1855, illustrates the point perfectly:

The neighbourhood seems infested with pirates; miserably poor boats followed the brig begging assistance; one village sent me a well drawn up petition; another a present of waste paper and joss sticks; fishermen, and passage boats, small traders, all telling the same pitiable story. Landing on Hootow, I was quickly surrounded by peasantry. Desiring the interpreter to ask them why so many fine looking fellows permitted strangers to molest them, they declared it was useless to resist pirates, and so whenever pirates came they, the villagers, ‘hid themselves and cried’. I could not offer any direct support, but trust good may arise indirectly. At various points along the coast we sighted small knots of piratical craft, but without information against them of their interference with our Flag, I could not act.

Having run up the river to within eight miles of the city of Wanchow, I learnt that a portion of the West Coast Pirate Squadron that had detained the English schooner Zephyr was still higher up. I detached the Second Lieutenant with four boats and a strong party to push past them with the flood tide in the grey of the morning, bringing them between the boats and the ship until I communicated with the mandarins. This was fortunate (as) the pirates were thrown off their guard although found with guns crammed and matches lighted. Three were captured without resistance; two escaped inland (i.e. up-river); the five or six others had put to sea shortly before our arrival. The Chief and many of the crews got away, but the 64 remaining Canton men were secured and will be delivered up to the authorities here. The Toutai and Chinese admiral at Wanchow were evidently so powerless that it appeared useless to remonstrate on the permitted outrage against a British vessel almost under their walls, but I thought it well to bring the point forward and was met with pretty sayings and civilities. They informed me that they had lately entered into engagements with these very pirates, on which I offered to hand them over. This the mandarins declined, saying it would be better to carry them to Foochow, and thanked me for taking them.

Given the Imperial authorities’ apparent impotence, much of which can be attributed to piratical threats or bribes, it is hardly surprising that warship captains, free from immediate political restraint, began to take the law into their own hands. On 20 October 1858 Admiral Seymour received the following despatch from Captain Nicholas Vansittart of the Magicienne, following her return to Hong Kong:

I have the honour to inform your Excellency that I arrived at the port and anchored off the town of Swatow in HM ship under my command, on the 13th inst, finding there HMS Fury. Commander Leckie having informed me that he was in communication with the Chinese authorities, with Mr Barton, Agent to Messrs Dent, and Mr Sullivan, Agent to Messrs Jardine & Matheson, concerning 2200 bags of sugar that had been piratically seized on or about the 21st ult from the English brig Pantaloon by a large force from the town of Sow-ah-pow, a well-known piratical town some miles up the narrow channel on the opposite side of the town of Swatow, I requested Commander Leckie (as I was under medical treatment) to continue his inquiries and exertions towards the recovery of the sugar and that I would remain there in case it should be necessary to use force.

On the 15th inst the mandarin of the village near Sow-ah-pow having informed Commander Leckie that the pirates refused to give up the sugar and that he was unable to force them, on the next morning the 16th inst, the Marines and boats of this ship, with those of the Fury, started soon after daylight for Sow-ah-pow, but, although I went myself, I left command of the expedition under Commander Leckie as originally arranged.

Upon our arriving off Sow-ah-pow shortly after 8 a.m., not only was there no mandarin to receive us (information having been given that the boats were coming up to inquire into the transaction), but many hundreds of men, armed chiefly with matchlocks and some gingals, had come down near the water at Sow-ah-pow, which was 1200 yards inland, the men all in good position on the heights, under the lee of the dikes of the water courses, and in among the sugar cane. They immediately opened fire on us and jeered us to come on. The boats returning the fire for some minutes, orders were given by Commander Leckie for the Marines and a party of seamen to land, when the pirates kept up a continual fire, retreating and taking up other positions as they went.

Having taken possession of the heights, the other positions, and advanced to within 50 yards of the town, driving the enemy before us into the said place, Commander Leckie, Messrs Barton and Sullivan and also myself were of the opinion that a good bombardment, from the boats, would be more advisable and more likely to be the means of recovering the sugar than if we went in and set fire to the town. Orders were sent down to that effect, the force that was landing taking up a commanding position at 100 yards from the town. The bombardment was most successful, the shell firing from the boats being perfect, as was also the rocket practice. Another letter having been forwarded to demand the sugar, stating that if they still refused, a second visit would be paid and the town not spared, the expedition returned to their respective ships the same afternoon. The casualties on our side were two severely wounded, both belonging to HMS Magicienne.

Having remained at anchor off Swatow, until their answer should arrive, which I am happy to say is to the effect that they are willing to hand over the sugar and come to any settlement, I left the said anchorage on the 19th inst, leaving the further arrangements to Commander Leckie.

It took the British authorities in Hong Kong some time to discover that the proximate cause of much piratical activity lay right under their noses. One of the biggest of the Mr Bigs in the business ran a successful barber’s shop in the mercantile quarter of the city. There he picked up information regarding the sailings of valuable cargoes and their destinations, which he supplied to the pirates at a price. Other sources of income included protection, extortion and blackmail. It was difficult for Europeans to penetrate the local community, and informers from the latter, if discovered, received short shrift from the triads, the Chinese secret societies that existed to protect and advance sectional interests. To some extent, British registered shipping could be protected by sailing in escorted convoys, although the Royal Navy could not be everywhere at once. The pirate barber, however, was playing a dangerous game in which it was inevitable that he made enemies, and in due course he was obliged to leave the colony for the good of his health.

Rear Admiral Hope relieved Seymour in April 1859 and on 11 March of that year issued an order for a sweep against the pirates. The results of this were recorded by the senior officer involved, Captain Colville of the Niger, in his despatch of 16 March:

Acting on information received at Macao, the whole of the 12th inst was spent in searching for a fleet of piratical vessels cruising in the vicinity of the Tang Rocks, but failing to discover them I weighed towards evening and anchored late off Koolan, with the intention of visiting Tsu-chung, under whose batteries a formidable fleet of piratical junks was known to be lying, the depredators of several valuable cargoes, an owner and Master of two of the captured junks acting as pilots under the able and effective assistance of Mr Caldwell, Register-General.

Accordingly, at seven on the morning of the 13th, I proceeded with the boats in tow of the gunboats Clown and Janus and after a run of 14 miles came within sight of a large flotilla of heavily armed junks and row-boats hauled under the protection of what we subsequently discovered to be regular defences consisting of a water stockade with a double ditch and high stockaded embankment armed with 36 guns protecting the whole sea face of and flanks of Tsu-chung.

Directing Lieutenant Wells in the ten-oared cutter to examine a suspicious junk to windward whilst the Janus overhauled two others to leeward, I took the remaining boats directly in towards the central force of junks, leaving the Clown to cover our movements but with peremptory orders to fire only in case the shore batteries opened on the boats.

However, it soon became evident that the enemy were prepared for a determined resistance; the crews of the junks joined the villagers, who with violent ejaculations and waving white flags on which the character ‘Hoong-Kin-Wong’ (a triad king) was prominent, invited us on, at the same time a heavy fire of round and grape opened on our advance. Forming behind a knoll of land, insulated by 500 yards of shallow water from the left extreme of the stockade, leaving the pinnace to cover the landing, and much assisted by the very excellent shell practice of the gunboats, the storming party dashed waist deep at the stockade and receiving a fire of grape entered the embrasures of an eight-gun battery, bayoneting the defenders who crowded the inner ditch and appeared paralysed by the vigour of the proceedings! After a short hand-to-hand encounter they retired precipitately, and now was seen the extraordinary sight of sixty bluejackets and Marines chasing 500 armed men through brakes and narrow acclivities for nearly two miles in the rear of the works! In this movement great numbers of the enemy were killed and it had the effect of turning the sea defences thus rendered comparatively harmless.

The storming party were now joined by the men under Lieutenants Blake and Wells, who by a judicious detour to the right had materially assisted to the discomfiture of the pirates. Every house in the town was a magazine in which large quantities of arms and munitions were stored. I consequently directed the village to be burned, eight large piratical fighting junks and eleven fast boats shared a similar fate, their guns having previously been sunk in deep water. The thirty-six guns of the land defences were also destroyed. Considerable resistance was offered by two of the junks, the boats being repeatedly hulled.

When I bring to Your Excellency’s notice the very large force of men consisting of at least 1300 effectively armed, with a necessary perfect knowledge of locale and the determination they evinced in opposing our landing, I cannot but feel astonished at our good fortune – not a casualty occurred whereas the loss to the enemy could not have been under 180 men. After communicating with a mandarin junk force just arrived from Macao with the information that seven pirate junks were at anchor off Li-wan-mun opposite Moto, the boats returned to the ship at Koolan.

On the 14th, having despatched the Niger to await my arrival at Macao, I proceeded with the whole boat force to examine the numerous crannies to the west of Broadway en route to Li-wan-mun. In Sykee, a bay opposite Koolan, four piratical junks, with guns numerically formidable, were driven on shore and burnt by Lieutenant Villiers. In the largest an English Red Ensign was found. In a deep inlet to the north of Soochow three others were captured and destroyed.

Arriving at Li-wan-mun, I was informed that seven junks had slipped a few hours previously and run higher up the creek. The villagers in pointing out their position were graphic in their account of the barbarities they were committing and hailed our arrival with the most enthusiastic rejoicings. A hamlet had been sacked and a passage boat taken that very morning. Advancing until dusk, I anchored and prepared, by getting pilots, for prosecuting my search in the morning.

On the 15th we weighed at daylight and piloted by boatmen who had been robbed by these pirates on the evening of our visit, threaded the remainder of the tortuous reach connecting Broadway with a river running in a parallel direction. The piratical squadron were shortly discovered ahead using every effort to escape. When the sternmost mounting 24 guns was brought to, she proved to have been a rice boat captured in January from the Hong Kong Chinese merchant who accompanied Mr Caldwell. I caused her, therefore, having previously removed the guns, to be restored. Seven large passage boats were likewise released.

The gunboats were now unfortunately taking the ground. I despatched the boats to capture the remainder, a service I am bound to add most ably executed, the pinnace under Mr Blake, the senior lieutenant present, after a running fight of one hour and a quarter driving one of nine guns on shore, her crew being immediately pounced upon by mandarin soldiers. Another junk of 12 guns, after a vigorous resistance in which two stink-pots were thrown into the boats of Janus under Lieutenant Knevitt, was carried by boarding, and three others mounting respectively seven, nine and 22 guns were captured and burnt by Lieutenant Villiers with the two cutters in co-operation with the Clown.

Exclusive of the crew who fell into the hands of the mandarins, 21 pirates were killed on this occasion by the fire of the boats, and the guns, mostly 18- and 24-pounders of American manufacture, were sunk beyond means of recovery. I then returned to the ship at Macao, arriving at midnight, from whence I proceeded this morning to join your flag.

Given repeated hammerings such as this, the pirate menace would probably have been solved even earlier than it was, save that the débâcle at the Pei Ho River a few months later not only reduced the number of gunboats available but also demonstrated that the Royal Navy was fallible. The losses, however, were quickly made good. The replacements had conventionally shaped hulls and were thus less lively in heavy weather. They included several slightly larger barque-rigged gunvessels, up to 185 feet long with proper holds and improved accommodation, armed with one 68-pounder rifled muzzle-loader and four 24-pounder howitzers.


Once a gunboat had been sent to the Far East it was Admiralty policy that she should end her days there, with any necessary repairs being carried out at Hong Kong. Commissions lasted between three and four years, with replacement crews being sent out aboard transports or troopships. Service aboard gunboats was uncomfortable and so cramped that tall officers shaved with their heads through the skylight and their mirrors propped up on deck. The food was dreadful and the ships themselves notoriously bug-ridden. Nevertheless, the service was popular. It provided junior officers with a real chance to distinguish themselves, and it gave the crews a far more interesting life than they would ever have had aboard the spit-and-polish battleships of the Home Fleet. It did not matter whether a man was serving aboard a gunboat, a gunvessel or a sloop – being a gunboat man indicated a special state of mind involving the use of personal initiative and action, and that set him apart from the rest of the Navy.

Gunboat service could also be lucrative. Long before, the Admiralty had introduced an incentive known as Head Money, awarded as a bounty to crews in proportion to the number of slaves freed from captured slavers, and pirates killed or captured. For example, the crews of Niger, Clown and Janus shared £1600 for the actions of March 1859 described above. Once the Second Opium War was over, the gunboats returned to the suppression of piracy with a will. Kestrel, repaired after her battering at the Taku Forts, received £1400 for actions on 23 and 25 July 1860 and 18 November 1861. The gunboat squadron’s biggest earner was undoubtedly Opossum, whose crew received £1000 for nine actions between 29 October 1864 and 17 October 1865; £1000 for two actions in February 1866; shared £2000 with Osprey for an action on 18 July 1866; shared £1715 with Cockchafer, Haughty and Algerine for various actions between October 1863 and March 1868; and shared £2500 with Janus, Bouncer, Leven and Haughty for actions between May 1865 and June 1869. As a commander earned £301 per annum, a lieutenant £200, a mate or sub-lieutenant £66, a midshipman £31, and an ordinary seaman £23, these figures are impressive, especially when one takes into account the small size of a gunboat’s crew. Altogether, a total of £56, 238 was paid in such bounties between 1851 and 1869, indicating the scale of the problem, the principal beneficiary being the sloop Bittern which, prior to the arrival of the Crimean gunboats, earned £10,000 between June 1854 and March 1856. Complaints that the system was open to abuse by the over-enthusiastic may have been justified in some cases, but it produced results. By 1869 coastal piracy was all but dead, leaving the gunboats free to concentrate on maintaining order on China’s rivers, along which trade was steadily expanding inland.

Pirates were not the only problem facing the gunboats. Quite apart from its troubles with foreign powers, the Chinese Imperial government was engaged in a protracted and bloody civil war with the Taiping rebels, who wished to place their own candidate on the throne. Officially, the United Kingdom played no part in the conflict, but when British interests in Shanghai were threatened by the Tai-pings, Admiral Hope threw the Royal Navy’s weight behind the Peking authorities. On 10 May 1862 the Imperial army launched an attack on Ningpo, off which was anchored a small Allied naval force under Captain Roderick Dew of the sloop Encounter. Several Imperial junks deliberately placed themselves close to the Allied ships, so that the latter were also treated to some of the defenders’ fire. Dew, a fire-eater, promptly retaliated by ordering all his ships, including the gunvessel Ringdove, the gunboats Hardy and Kestrel and the French gunboats Etoile and Confucius, to open fire on the walls of the city, which were then stormed by the grateful Imperial faction. Taking the Hardy and Confucius with him, Dew proceeded up the Yangtse and began interpreting neutrality in his own fashion, forming a naval brigade which assisted an Imperial force in the capture of Kahding on 24 October 1862. For Whitehall, already embroiled in a dispute with the United States over the British-built and crewed commerce raider Alabama, this was one exercise in personal initiative too many, and Dew was recalled early the following year. Curiously, command of the rag-bag Chinese force, designated the Ever Victorious Army by Peking, was given to a seconded officer of the Royal Engineers, Major Charles Gordon, who we shall meet again.

No summary of gunboat operations in Chinese waters would be complete without mention of an unusual squadron known as The Vampire Fleet. This was nominally part of the Imperial Navy and consisted of seven former British ships, including the gunvessel Mohawk and the gunboat Jasper. The Vampires were commanded by Captain Sherard Osborn, now a Chinese admiral, but soon established a reputation for doing just as they pleased, which sometimes lay well beyond any recognised definition of law and order. One of his subordinates, Captain Hugh Burgoyne, VC, another veteran of the Azov Flotilla, went off to become a blockade runner for the Confederacy; returning to the Royal Navy, he lost his life when his ship, the experimental battleship Captain, capsized while on manoeuvres with the Channel Fleet on 7 September 1870. Osborn resigned command of the Vampires when Peking suggested his ships be placed under the control of local mandarins, believing that the latter would simply use them in their own petty squabbles. To prevent their falling into pirate or Taiping hands, the British insisted that they were sold outside China.

As has already been mentioned, the wooden Crimean gunboats had been rushed into service and obviously they would not last forever. Their bigger replacements, of composite iron and wood construction, began entering service in 1867. They had a barquentine rig and, depending upon their class, were driven by either single or twin screws at a speed of nine or ten knots. Armament consisted of two 64-pounder muzzle-loaders and two 20-pounder Armstrong breech-loaders; in the 1880s some were rearmed with 4-inch and 5-inch breech-loaders. New gunvessels also began entering service in 1870. Some, with twin screws, were designed specifically for work in Chinese rivers; others, with a single screw, were intended for ocean-going service. Their common armament was one 7-inch rifled muzzle-loader between the funnel and the mainmast, and two 68-pounder muzzle-loaders or two 64-pounder breech-loaders, one at the bow and the other at the stern.

In 1860 there were 24 gunboats and six gunvessels serving on the China Station. Thirteen years later there were only three gunboats and eleven gunvessels present, proof enough that the Chinese equivalent of the Jolly Roger had been driven from the seas, although the great rivers of China could never be regarded as being completely safe from gentlemen of fortune. They required constant patrolling by the gunboats of the Western nations but, by and large, a form of stability had been imposed that would last until the ancient empire was swept away by revolution.

Late Medieval China


A Chinese cavalryman c. 1260 is shown firing on a Mongolian warrior. The huo qiang or fire lance, which may date back to the 10th century. It was essentially a hollow tube made from thick layers of I paper, inside which was put a charge of gunpowder and shrapnel pieces. When the huo qiang was lit, it blasted out a jet of flame and projectiles, the flames having an endurance of several seconds and reaching out to a range of 9ft (3m). In a sense, here was the earliest hand-held flamethrower.

Under both the Tang and Song (Sung) Dynasties (960-1279), China experienced widespread economic growth, which in turn gave birth to a Chinese golden age. This success was based upon the development of the agricultural potential of southern China, most significantly in the production of rice in the Yangtze (pinyin, Chang) River Valley. The future of China would now be determined by the link between the bureaucratic north and the agricultural south. To solidify this crucial relationship, the government constructed the Grand Canal, a magnificent civil engineering project that was, in its time, the largest human-made waterway in the world. The canal increased transportation throughout the country, both accelerating trade and creating a sense of unity. The maintenance and protection of the Grand Canal became a major focus of the Chinese military. In times of conflict, this waterway allowed the emperor to move troops swiftly to any trouble spot.

With China’s great economic success came a softening of Chinese society, widespread political corruption, and a series of weak and incompetent emperors who eventually sapped the energy of the empire. In particular, the effectiveness of both the bureaucracy and the military was decreased, helping to create the conditions for the Mongol conquests at the beginning of the thirteenth century. These nomadic warriors first entered China at the invitation of the declining Song Dynasty. The emperor hoped that they would engage and destroy the Jürcheds and the Jin (Chin), two northern nomadic tribes that threatened to invade China. In 1234 the Jin were defeated by a Sino-Mongolian military alliance, but then, in direct violation of that agreement, the Song attempted to occupy the newly conquered land and extend their empire into the northern territories. This action shattered the alliance and set in motion the Mongol conquest of China and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

The Mongols would have a significant impact upon Chinese history. They established their capital at Beijing and abolished the bureaucracy based upon Confucianism and the examination system. These actions were taken specifically to negate the influence of the scholar gentry. The Mongols eventually adopted many aspects of Chinese culture and aggressively promoted its literature and art. Despite this openness, the Mongols were never able to find a solution to the Sino-Mongolian ethnic rivalry. Most of the intellectuals from the gentry class considered the Mongols to be uncouth barbarians. This ethnocentricity was exacerbated by the gentry’s resentment of the abolition of the state examination system, which blocked the gentry from gaining access to the highest levels of political power.

After the death of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Yuan Dynasty fell into a period of decline. There were essentially four reasons that this took place. First, the southern region was occupied by a large number of activists who had remained loyal to the Song Dynasty. As the Yuan declined, many of these disenchanted groups were emboldened to take political action that eventually resulted in an empire-wide revolt. Second, Yuan military prestige also suffered a severe blow from two disastrous military expeditions against Japan in 1274 and 1280. Third, Yuan military failures were founded in the general weakness of the post-Kublai Khan government that was beset by deep-seated corruption within the political bureaucracy. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Mongol government was far too weak to maintain its control over all of China. Fourth, the increase in peasant uprisings and the rise of secret revolutionary societies resulted in a series of disastrous insurrections that finally forced the Mongols to withdraw to their ancestral homeland.


Military Achievement

After he had secured the eastern border, the Tang emperor returned his attention toward the west. From 736 to 755 a series of successful campaigns extended the borders of the empire to the Pamir range, bringing the Tang to the frontier of Islamic civilization and placing these two great eighth century powers on a collision course. This Sino-Islamic crisis reached a flash point at the Battle of Talas River (751), a bloody confrontation that lasted for five days. The armies of Islam ultimately defeated the Chinese forces, ending Tang westward expansion.

This defeat marked the beginning of the Tang Dynasty’s decline. Decades of military campaigns had taken a toll on Chinese society, and the losses in both revenue and productivity were significant. These problems led to widespread civil unrest, which devastated Chinese society. For more than one hundred years, the emperors and their bureaucracies had failed to return the empire to a state of normalcy, and by 884 the Tang Dynasty was shattered.

With the final collapse of the Tang Empire in 907, China fell into a chaotic intermediate period referred to as the time of the Five Dynasties (907-960). None of the dynasties was able to unify China, and order was finally restored in 960, with the establishment of the Song. Most historians refer to the Song as the world’s first modern state, and its emperors were traditionally antimilitary. The government, in constant fear of an armed takeover, made strong efforts to limit the army’s power. The Song created a military model that placed their generals under the control of the civilian bureaucracy, resulting in the military’s lowered prestige and appeal for the aristocratic class. In time, the military came to be dominated by the lower echelons of Song society, and by the middle of the eleventh century enlisted men were receiving one-tenth of their former wages. This lowered pay caused great economic hardship, and mutinies became commonplace.

The Song government was faced with significant financial difficulties. The population of China had reached 140 million, and vast amounts of money had been set aside for the construction of large-scale irrigation projects. The empire had to import the vast majority of its cavalry horses, which also cost a considerable amount of money. China’s underfinanced military was grossly ill-equipped to meet the security challenges of the nomadic horsemen of central Asia. The Song bureaucracy responded to this problem by adopting a military philosophy based upon the concept of strategic defense. Money was allocated for the construction of massive fortifications that would frustrate the light horse cavalry tactics of the nomadic armies. The military theory that all defensive structures are eventually neutralized by an opposition force came to pass in the last years of the Song Dynasty. When the Song-Mongol military alliance broke down, the aggressive Mongol warriors quickly defeated the demoralized forces of the emperor and established the Yuan Dynasty. Between 1200 and 1405 the Mongols conquered Tibet, Russia, Iraq, Asia Minor, and southern and eastern Europe.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan Dynasty began to decline. Years of famine gave rise to peasant unrest, and a secret religious sect known as the White Lotus spread anti-Yuan propaganda concerning the reestablishment of the Song Dynasty. In turn, the White Lotus also supported a peasant rebel organization known as the Red Turban movement. Fighting broke out between the Yuan forces in the south and the rebel armies. The success of these armies was primarily due to the fact that the Yuan had failed to keep the system of defensive walls under repair. The Yuan’s nomadic heritage and military success were based upon swift cavalry movements, and a defensive mindset was totally alien to them. Eventually, the Mongols were able to defeat the rebel armies, but they were never able to regain complete political control of southern China.

From 1351 to 1368 the Mongols were involved in a series of military campaigns against Chinese forces in the south, in which they suffered a series of disastrous setbacks. The Mongols decided to abandon much of their territory and returned to their ancient homelands in the north. This strategic withdrawal marked the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644).

The new Ming emperor and his intellectual elite modeled themselves after the Song Dynasty. Like the Song the Ming adopted an isolationist policy that kept the government’s focus on protecting the homeland.