The Battle of Red Cliffs

The Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs) between Cao Cao and the coalition of Liu Bei and Sun Quan took place at Red Cliffs (present-day northeast of Jiayu, Hubei Province) in AD 208. Cao Cao whose courtesy name was Mengde was born in the Qiao County (present-day Bozhou, An- hui). His father, Cao Song who served in the court as the grand commander was the foster son of Cao Teng who in turn was one of the favorite eunuchs of Emperor Huan. At the age of twenty, Cao Cao was recommended for a promotion to northern district commander of Luoyang. When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out, Cao Cao was recalled to put down the rebels. He was successful in his military exploits and was promoted to dianjun xiaowei (a military position). Cao Cao, intelligent and courageous, was well versed in both polite correspondence and martial arts. He liked to enlist the service of capable people, and there were many brave and talented men working for him. Later, the warlords formed a coalition with Yuan Shao against Dong Zhuo, and Cao Cao joined their cause. He was assigned to be the magistrate of Yanzhou Prefecture in AD 192. After defeating Yuan Shao at Guandu, Cao Cao conquered other warlords and united the north of China.

After uniting the north, Cao Cao prepared to march south to unify the country. The overlord of Jinzhou Prefecture, Liu Biao, had just died after a period of illness. Under pressure from Cao Cao’s forces, Liu Cong, Liu Biao’s younger son and successor, quickly surrendered. When Jingzhou fell, Liu Bei and Liu Biao’s elder son Liu Qi immediately led about twenty thousand soldiers to Xiakou (present- day Hankou). Although Cao Cao claimed that he had eight hundred troops at his disposal, Zhou Yu estimated Cao Cao’s actual troop numbers to be closer to two hundred and twenty thousand after conquering Jingzhou. Cao Cao’s army was advancing from Jiangling down the Yangtze River toward Xiakou. Liu Bei’s main advisor Zhuge Liang was sent to negotiate the formation of an alliance against Cao Cao with Sun Quan.

Sun Quan was from Fuchun in the Wu Prefecture (present-day Fuyang, Zhejiang Province) and called himself Zhongmou. His father, Sun Jian, and elder brother, Sun Ce, were famous generals. In the last years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Sun Ce acquired six prefectures southeast of the Yangtze River with the support of influential families. In AD 200, the eighteen-year-old Sun Quan inherited land from his brother. Sun Quan, under the tutelage of Zhou Yu, Zhang Zhao, and other able advisors, continued to build his power base along the Yangtze River. When Cao Cao led his army to pacify the south, Sun Quan was twenty-five years old. He was aware of the fact that his regime would be in danger if Cao Cao got a firm foothold in Jingzhou. In the end, Sun Quan decided to oppose Cao Cao. He sent generals Zhou Yu, Lu Su, and Cheng Pu with 30,000 soldiers to form a coalition with Liu Bei’s troops, which numbered 20,000.

The supreme commander of the united forces was Zhou Yu, whose courtesy name was Gong Jin, a native of Shu County, Lujiang Prefecture (present-day Shucheng city, Anhui Province). He was the chief general of the Wu state. Zhou Yu was born into a bureaucratic family, and made close friends with Sun Ce at a young age. Zhou Yu later helped Sun Ce to conquer the six prefectures southeast of the Yangtze River and was promoted to jiangwei zhonglangjiang. Zhou Yu was called Zhou Lang (gentleman) by the local people, as he was young and handsome. Sun Ce died at a young age, and Zhou Yu and Zhang Zhao were entrusted to assist Sun Quan. Zhou was appointed as qianbu Dadudu. Zhou Yu and Lu Su were boldly advocating war against Cao Cao. The combined Sun-Liu force sailed upstream to the Red Cliffs where they encountered Cao Cao’s vanguard force. Cao Cao’s men could not gain an advantage in the small skirmish which ensued, so Cao Cao retreated north of the Yangtze River and the allies pulled back to the south.

Cao Cao had moored his ships stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness in his naval troops, who were mostly northerners and were not used to living on ships. Observing this, Zhou Yu’s divisional commander Huang Gai feigned surrender and prepared a squadron of capital ships. The ships had been converted into fire ships by filling them with bundles of dry reeds and oil. As Huang Gai’s “defecting” squadron approached the midpoint of the river, the sailors set fire to the ships before escaping in small boats. The unmanned fire ships, driven by the southeastern wind, sped toward Cao Cao’s fleet and set it ablaze. As all the ships were moored together, it was impossible for the ships to sail away. Within a short time, smoke and flames stretched across the sky and Cao Cao’s fleet turned into a sea of fire. Soon, the raging flames extended to the camps on the bank. Many men and horses were either burned to death or drowned. Unfortunately for Cao Cao’s army, the allies, led by Zhou Yu and Liu Bei, gave chase over land and water. Due to famine, disease, and skirmishes along the way, many of Cao Cao’s remaining forces perished. Cao Cao then retreated northward and was not able to dispatch military expedition to the south. In AD 220, Cao Cao died of illness. His son Cao Pi deposed Emperor Xian of Han and proclaimed himself emperor of Wei, making Luoyang his capital. With Zhuge Liang’s assistance, Liu Bei occupied most of the Jingzhou Prefecture. Shortly after that, he expanded his territory westward and seized Liu Zhang’s Yizhou Prefecture. The year after Cao Pi proclaimed himself emperor, Liu Bei declared himself emperor of Han, which was historically known as the Kingdom of Shu or Shu Han, and made Chengdu its capital. Sun Quan had further strengthened his force in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. In AD 229, Sun Quan named himself emperor of Wu and made Jianye (now Nanjing) the capital. This was the start of three kingdoms: Wei, Shu, and Wu.


Emperor Yongle and Admiral Zheng He


Zheng He’s Voyages, 1405-1433 Admiral Zheng He led a Ming-dynasty fleet on seven different voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and the East African coast. Although the voyages covered 7,000 miles (11,000 km), the sailors were not exploring but traveling on well-known hajj routes from China to Mecca and from Mecca to Mozambique. The route from the Arabian peninsula to China was the longest sea route in regular use before Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492.

Large oceangoing sailing ships were being developed in China as early as the tenth century CE. During the thirteenth century the Venetian traveler Marco Polo reported seeing four-masted merchant ships during his long stay in China. In 1973 a large thirteenth-century ship was found at Houzhou; it was about 35 meters long, with a keel and double cedar planking on the hull. Writings from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) describe the voyages of Zheng He in a fleet of nine-masted ships 120 meters long, although researchers have found no such ships. Chinese shipbuilding was suddenly ended in 1550 with an imperial ban on overseas commerce.

The autocratic turn in Chinese politics has been laid at the feet of the Mongol emperors who ruled Yuan China, yet emperors Hongwu and Yongle were decisive in hollowing out the core Confucian values of obligation and reciprocity that the Ming regime might have nurtured in the restoration of the old imperial system.

Yongle completed his revamping of the regime by moving the central administration back north to the old Mongol capital, Beijing (Northern Capital). Serious construction began in 1416, and on October 28, 1420, the city was formally designated as the dynasty’s capital. Nanjing (South- ern Capital) was demoted to the status of secondary capital.

The stench of illegitimacy being strong, Yongle had to mobilize every device he could think of to mask it. One was to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. This located the political center in his base area; it also implicitly aligned the Ming with the warrior traditions of the Jurchen Jin and the Mongol Yuan rather than with the literati traditions of the Song. Yongle looked to Khubilai for his models. Another was to announce to the maritime world, as Khubilai had done, that he was now emperor. This he did by dispatching a series of trusted military eunuchs at the head of diplomatic missions to tributary states around Southeast Asia. Best known of these is the Muslim eunuch who led six of these missions, Zheng He (1371-1433). Zheng’s first expedition between 1405 and 1407 got as far as the southwest coast of India before turning back to the Ming. Zheng He’s first voyage included more than 27,800 men and 317 ships; his largest ships measured 400 feet long and had nine masts (by comparison, the USS Constitution, built almost four hundred years later, was only 204 feet long).

Five more expeditions followed in 1407-1409, 1409-1411, 1413-1415, 1417-1419, and 1421-1422, all on a grand scale and at great cost to the Ming state. With Beijing simultaneously under construction, the financial burden was severe. A seventh was ordered, but after a fire burned three buildings in his newly constructed palace in 1421 (conventionally a sign of Heaven’s disapproval), Yongle suspended that plan and died before another could be launched. Under the advice of fiscally responsible officials, subsequent emperors agreed that the state should stop building the enormously expensive “star-guided rafts” or “treasure ships,” as his great vessels were variously known, and put the state’s re- sources to better use than sending out inflated overseas missions to impose the dynasty’s will and acquire mere exotica.

There has grown up a curious urge to view Zheng He as China’s antecedent to Christopher Columbus: as an intrepid explorer who, were it not for the penny-pinching bureaucrats back home, would have gone on to discover the Americas long before Columbus. This urge has led to much fantasizing among amateur historians, but it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the voyages of both Zheng and Columbus. Columbus was not an explorer. His voyages were vehicles of speculative commercial investment aimed at establishing direct trade links with China, a notion he was able to float to his backers in part on the basis of his reading of Marco Polo. He sailed west because he thought this route would get him there. His principal backers were the king and queen of Spain, who were able to raise the funds by siphoning off some of the money expropriated from Spanish Jews in the great expulsion of 1492. Their interest in the voyages was principally financial, not diplomatic or political or intellectual. Columbus was crossing the ocean to trade, not to colonize, though he did leave groups of men behind to establish toeholds to supply future voyages.

When Columbus is viewed this way (rather than as the heroic explorer who “discovered” the Americas and changed the world), Zheng He be- gins to emerge from the mist of misrecognition as more his opposite than his avatar. Zheng’s purpose was diplomatic: a mission to declare to all tributary states known to China that Yongle was now the emperor and that they should send him tribute to acknowledge the fact. He took with him a sizeable military force to make sure that the rulers on whom he called did not refuse his command, but he was not intent on conquest. China had an interest in lubricating commercial links throughout maritime Asia, and its fleets helped Chinese merchants to enlarge their trade circuits, but the voyages were not targets of investment. Nor were they expected to produce the stunning returns in gold that Columbus promised, and consistently failed to deliver, to Ferdinand and Isabella. Finally, Zheng’s ships did reach places to which no Chinese officials had ever traveled, notably on the east coast of Africa, but they were sailing known routes that Muslim traders in the Indian Ocean had long been using. Chinese mariners may have been unfamiliar with some of these places, but they were not in any sense “discovering” them. They were simply adding them to the roster of states that should acknowledge Ming suzerainty. Zheng He was not an explorer-entrepreneur out on the ocean to discover the world; he was an imperial servant sent to get the one thing that his usurper-emperor craved: diplomatic recognition. This was political theater, and no less important for being so.

Admiral Zheng He’s fleet must have impressed everyone who saw it. Over twenty-eight thousand men staffed the full fleet of over three hundred massive wooden ships. The biggest Chinese ships-200 foot (61 m) long “treasure ships”- were the largest ships in the world at that time. In 1341, at Calicut, Ibn Battuta had praised Chinese ships for their wooden compartments that offered individual travelers privacy; Zheng He’s sailors filled similar compartments with fresh water and stocked them with fish for their dining pleasure.

In most cases, the ships landed at a port, gave gifts to the local ruler, and left, but they intervened in local affairs if the ruler did not obey them. In 1411, the Chinese forces took the capital city of Sri Lanka, defeated the local armies, and captured the ruler, whom they dispatched to Nanjing. They replaced him with a puppet ruler loyal to Chinese interests.

The farthest they went was more than 7,000 miles (11,000 km) to the coast of East Africa, which they visited in 1418, 1421-1422, and 1431-1433. The ships broke the long journey into smaller legs by stopping frequently at ports along the way. In leading China’s navy to India and Africa, Admiral Zheng He was following well-established hajj routes taken by both pilgrims and Muslim merchants. His route from China to East Africa was simply the mirror image of Ibn Battuta’s from East Africa to China. Although they covered enormous distances, Zheng He’s ships never ventured into unknown waters. They were not exploring: their goal was to display the might of the Yongle emperor.

One of Zheng He’s men, Fei Xin (1385-ca. 1436), recorded what he had been able “to collect as true facts from the explanations” of others about Africa. Much more detailed than Zhao Rugua’s 1225 descriptions of Africa are Fei Xin’s descriptions of Mogadishu in modern-day Somalia: “This place lies on the sea-shore. Piles of stones constitute the city-wall. . .. The houses are of layers of stone and four or five storeys high, the places for dwelling, cooking, easing oneself [going to the bathroom], and entertaining guests all being on the upper floors.” * Fei Xin’s informant describes what he saw from on board ship; the Chinese did not venture inland.

Because Zheng He’s ships also engaged in trade, usually giving suits of clothing in exchange for horses, animal skins, gold, and silver, his men were well informed about local trading conditions. The commodities traded at Mogadishu included such things as “gold and silver, colored satins, sandalwood, rice and cereals, porcelain articles, and colored thin silk.” Fei Xin’s description of the known world ends with a description of Mecca, an indication that his account, although written in Chinese, was modeled on the Islamic genre of rihla travel accounts used by Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Fadlan, and Ibn Battuta to record their journeys, further evidence that the Chinese of the Ming dynasty inherited the cartographic knowledge of the Mongols, who had learned so much from Islamic geographers.

The Chinese voyagers who participated in the trade did so as members of the imperial navy, not as independent entrepreneurs. When the Ming government suspended the voyages in 1433, the year Admiral Zheng He died, the trips to Africa came to an abrupt halt. Placed in storage, the treasure ships subsequently rotted away. The Ming dynasty shifted its resources from the sea to the north and rebuilt the Great Wall in the hope of keeping the Mongols from invading.


There has been a pronounced reassessment of the great voyages of the eunuch Zheng He (1371-1433) in the early Ming. Leaving aside the questionable conclusions of writers such as Gavin Menzies about Zheng’s status as the early modern world’s greatest explorer, specialists in the field have drawn attention to the underlying purpose of these missions as being a form of maritime force projection by the usurper Emperor Yongle (r. 1403-24), who was eager to legitimise his rule and assert the symbolic (and to some extent real) hegemony of Ming China over its neighbours. Thus, while contemporary Chinese politicians such as Jiang Zemin have been wont to extol Zheng’s supposedly peaceful intentions and engage in what some political scientists have dubbed `Zheng He diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia, “his policy was implicitly one of force. Beneath any moral gloss, his immensely powerful fleets formed what today would be called an oceanic strike force”. 6 Such statements are reified by the fact that Zheng’s fleets did intervene on multiple occasions in local power disputes to further Ming interests. Of course it is without question that the general military and commercial orientation of the Ming temporarily shifted away from the sea after the deaths of Yongle and Zheng He owing to internal political debates that prioritised the Mongol threat in the northwest and augmented by the subsequent related prohibitions of maritime trade

Capture of the Taiwan

Japanese troops occupy Taipei, 7 June 1895

The most important territorial gain acquired by the Japanese by the power of the treaty signed at Shimonoseki was the island of Taiwan. The moment it was signed and later ratified at Chefoo, the power was still exercised by the Ch’ing administration, while the Chinese garrisons were stationed in the towns of Taiwan. In that situation the condition of the Treaty of Shimonoseki caused outrage of the native population, which on May 23, 1895, forced the local authorities to declare independence of the island. Tang Ching-sung, the former Chinese Governor of Taiwan, became the President of the self-proclaimed state, while the capable and distinguished General Lu Yungfu, veteran of the war with France, became the commander-in-chief of the military forces.

Preparations to repulse the inevitable Japanese invasion became a matter of the utmost importance for the authorities. However, it soon turned out that this task exceeded the capabilities of the island’s administration, which was led by the old Ch’ing dignitaries, who had no faith in victory and devoted all their energy to ensure a safe escape route to China for themselves, their families and possessions. The officers and a majority of regular army troops were of the same attitude, and therefore two `Black Flag Army’ battalions redeployed to the island in January 1895, along with Lu Yungfu, soon became the only real military force in Taiwan. Admittedly, the formation soon grew in strength to around 12,000 troops. These were, in the main, enthusiastic but poorly trained and armed, and realistically unable to face the Japanese army in an open combat.

The Japanese invasion of Taiwan began at the end of May. Taking into account the likely resistance of the Chinese population, they thoroughly prepared, assigning the select 1 st Imperial Guards Brigade under command of General Prince Kitashirakawa to the task. Naval support would be provided by the cruisers Yoshino, Matsushima, Chiyoda, Naniwa, Takachiho and Sai Yen (the ex-Chinese Chi Yuan, captured at Weihaiwei). The Imperial Guards were embarked on 16 transports. Vice-Admiral Arichi Shinanojo, promoted to a higher post in Vice-Admiral Ito’s General Staff, became the commander of the entire armada. He flew his flag on board the cruiser Yoshino. Rear Admiral Togo, commander of the cruiser Naniwa, became his second in command. One of the transports held Vice- Admiral Kabayama, appointed to the post of a military governor of the island.

On 25 May, after three days of steaming, the leading cruisers, Naniwa and Takachiho, arrived at the mouth of the Tamsui River. They were soon joined by the remaining Japanese forces. The primary objective of the invasion force in the initial stage of the Taiwanese campaign was the capture of the island’s capital town of Taipei. On the following day, in order to find a suitable area for the landing of the Imperial Guards, Rear Admiral Togo took the Naniwa and the Matushima towards the harbour of Keelung. Near Cape Santiaochiao, 55 km from Keelung, he spotted a beach which was suitable for the landing. Togo’s plan was accepted by Arichi and Kabayama and on 1 June, over 6,000 Japanese troops landed unopposed at Santiaochiao. They immediately double-marched towards Keelung, arriving there the following evening. The cruisers Naniwa and Matsushima had been providing cover for the landing at Santiaochiao, after which they arrived at Keelung at around the same time as the troops. On 2 June, they were joined by the Takachiho and the Yoshino.

In the early morning of 3 June, the Japanese attacked the Chinese positions around Keelung. This was preceded by a naval bombardment of the harbour and the coastal fortifications by the Japanese cruisers, which, taking advantage of the darkness, approached to 16 cables (2.9 km) from the shore. Soon thereafter the Imperial Guards attacked, quickly taking the key positions of the Chinese defence. By the evening both the town and the harbour were in Japanese hands. The self-proclaimed president Tang, who remained in the town during the assault, managed to escape at the last moment on board a German steamer along with a group of his closest associates.

Following the capture of Keelung, Taipei became the next objective for the Japanese troops. On 4 June, the Imperial Guards departed for the town while the Japanese cruiser Naniwa and Takachiho arrived at the mouth of the Tamsui River on 7 June, establishing a naval blockade of the capital. The escape of the president and high-ranking Taiwanese dignitaries so disorganised the defenders that Taipei was captured by the Japanese almost without a fight. On 17 June, after pacifying the remains of the Chinese resistance, the new Japanese Governor of the island, Vice-Admiral Kabayama arrived at the capital of Taiwan. Slightly earler, the Chinese delegation, which had accompanied the invasion force from the start, officially handed over power to the Japanese. This was agreed on board the transport Yokohama Maru, anchored in the Keelung roadstead.

The formal takeover of the island by the Japanese administration did not put an end to the ongoing military operation in Taiwan, despite the escape of the civilian authorities of the self-proclaimed republic and the capture of the northern part of the island by the Japanese. The `Black Flag Army’, supported by some regular troops and local people, put up an unexpectedly strong resistance in the south and in the centre. Therefore, the Japanese land troops took the main burden of the military operations. They slowly advanced south, engaging in heavy fights with the Chinese. The offensive was hindered by difficult terrain and climatic conditions, as well as by equipment inappropriate for the hot tropical climate. Combat losses and epidemics of malaria and dysentery soon decimated the forces of the 1 st Imperial Guards Brigade and forced the Japanese command to reinforce the island. In October 1895, the infantry regiment from the Pescadores arrived, followed in January 1896 by the infantry regiment from the 7 th Brigade of the 4 th Division.

The Japanese navy forces stationed in Taiwanese waters were also reinforced. At the beginning of June 1895, they were joined by the cruiser Akitsushima, which arrived from Japan. Both she and the remaining warships mainly conducted reconnaissance missions for the army, repeatedly shelling coastal towns controlled by the enemy and often sending small landing parties to pacify pockets of the Chinese resistance. The final large operation undertaken by the Japanese navy in the Taiwanese waters took place from 15 October 1895, when the cruisers Yoshino, Naniwa, Akitsushima and Sai Yen bombarded Takao, preceding its later capture by the landing troops. On 21 October, the same warships shelled Anping, which was also soon captured by the Japanese landing force.

In the later period, the activities of the Japanese warships around Taiwan were limited to patrolling and providing occasional artillery support to the fighting troops (usually by single warships). At the end of October, Vice-Admiral Arichi was called back to Japan, followed by Rear Admiral Togo in the middle of November. Due to the fact that the military operations had moved deep inland, the majority of warships stationed in the Taiwanese waters were also called back to the home country. Fighting on land continued for some time. Defeated Taiwanese insurgent troops, taking advantage of the support provided by the native population, turned to guerrilla warfare. Finally, by the end of 1896, the island had been pacified.

The Japanese losses in Taiwan were quite substantial. In combat with the insurgents the army lost a total of about 700 killed or wounded. Significant losses were also caused by various epidemics which broke out repeatedly among the fighting troops. It was estimated that a total of almost 20,000 Japanese troops and workers brought to the island either died or were hospitalised due to those causes. The losses suffered by the Japanese navy were less significant by comparison, mainly limited to loss of torpedo boat 16, which sank with all hands in a storm near the Pescadores on 11 May, 1895.

Nationalist Chinese Army

Sun Yat-sen’s decision to develop the Guomindang KMT’s own military force led directly to the founding of the Chinese Nationalist Party Army Officer Academy in 1924. The choice of site was determined by Sun’s own limited power base, which at that time barely extended beyond Canton (Guangzhou). The academy was located on Huangbu Island near Canton (with the name Whampoa derived from the Cantonese pronunciation). Chiang Kai-shek acted as commandant, and the school’s military curriculum was set up under the guidance of the Soviet advisory group, utilizing the latest military theories and techniques, albeit with a distinct Soviet flavor. Unfortunately, the exigencies of the revolution severely limited the time available for training, so the emphasis naturally had to be on the practical knowledge and skills required on the battlefield. Like all other Chinese military schools, Whampoa was influenced by Japanese models. There was, however, one way in which Whampoa differed from the other schools: From the very beginning political instruction played a major part in the training. All told, there were more than twenty topics covered in the political curriculum, including Sun Yat-sen’s own ideology of the “Three Principles of the People” (San Min Zhuyi), the anatomy of imperialism, Soviet studies, comparative political systems, revolutionary history, and the study of student, peasant, and labor movements. Further reflecting the Soviet experience, the Whampoa school also established a political bureau and arranged for a system of party representatives (in this case from the KMT) who were modeled after the commissars of the Red Army. They supervised day-to-day administration, participated in management decisions, directed party activities, and personally took charge of political training in their units. In general, they were responsible for ensuring that all military training and combat missions were completed, and to that end, all orders issued by military commanders had to obtain the endorsement of the party representative before implementation.

As commander of the Whampoa forces, Chiang Kai-shek often boasted that his troops were the first in China to have a party commissar system. Despite his later break with the Communists, Chiang was always a supporter of an effective commissar system and political training for his troops. In his drive to turn the KMT force into a Chinese version of the Soviet Red Army, Chiang stressed the use of Sun’s Three Principles of the People as the basis for political indoctrination. This commissar system was preserved even after the success of the Northern Expedition, the split with the CCP, and the reunification of the country, with special party bureaus being retained in all formations above the divisional level. Unfortunately, over time the system lost its effectiveness as more and more party representatives were appointed from above as opposed to being elected from members within a given military unit. That, coupled with the fact that the appointees were often full-time party workers with other more pressing responsibilities, ensured that the system gradually lost its coherence and eventually came to exist in name only.

In the first eventful years of its existence, the Whampoa-based military arm of the Guomindang underwent numerous changes. In late 1924, only a few months after the school had opened, the first training regiment was activated. School instructors led this regiment, and the very first graduates acted as platoon commanders. The bulk of the ordinary soldiers were selected from the hodgepodge of other units loyal to Sun Yat-sen in the greater Canton area. As more cadets graduated, Sun added a second training regiment and officially christened the academy force the Guomindang Party Army. Sun himself acted as generalissimo, and appointed Whampoa commandant Chiang Kai-shek as his military secretary. In April 1925 Chiang was appointed commander of the constantly expanding Party Army, and in August of that same year, the Military Affairs Committee of the KMT announced the organization of a National Revolutionary Army, with the two Whampoa training regiments joining to form its first division. From this point on, all units under the jurisdiction of the Nationalist regime were collectively known as the National Revolutionary Army.

The first Whampoa graduates gave an excellent account of themselves during the Eastern (1925) and Northern (1926–1928) Expeditions. Although Sun’s warlord allies did much of the fighting, the students and staff played an important role in both campaigns, and to a certain extent their determination and daring compensated for the tactical inexperience of some of their commanders. Although they were often at odds with Chiang Kai-shek and his staff over both strategic and tactical issues and considered the much-celebrated attack on Huizhou (during the Eastern Expedition) to be an unnecessary waste of lives, even the hardened Soviet advisors were impressed by the performance of the Whampoa units. They displayed a level of esprit de corps and combat tenacity that had largely been absent from the internecine squabbles of the warlords, and their enemies generally gave way before the firebrands from Whampoa. Indeed, many of the students and staff went on to play important roles in modern Chinese history. By the end of the 1940s, many of those who had once held positions on the school staff were serving as commanders-in-chief, provincial governors, or heads of central government ministries. Many Whampoa graduates, particularly those from the first four classes, went on to hold command positions at the division and corps level. These former students and staff were often seen as an elite group within the military, and were generally referred to as the Whampoa clique.

With the success of the Northern Expedition and the reunification of most of the nation, the military academy followed the KMT government to the new capital at Nanjing, and in March 1928 the new school was officially renamed the Central Military Academy. In the aftermath of unification, faced as they were with a bewildering array of disparate local and regional forces, the new government had to deal with the difficult task of standardizing both military education and military organization throughout the country. The Central Military Academy played a crucial role in this process, becoming in effect the breeding ground for the officers-cum-agents of centralization that were posted to every unit across the country Chiang Kai-shek’s task was made somewhat easier through the assistance of a quasi-official German military advisory group that came to China in the early 1930s, and the quality of the officers who graduated during this period was considered quite high.

Unfortunately, the small numbers of advisors and the demands of the ongoing anti-Communist campaigns made it difficult to expand the school quickly enough to meet the demand for junior officers. Between 1928 and 1937, the Central Military Academy only graduated 10,731 officers, a number that fell far short of even the peacetime requirements of an army as large as China’s. With the outbreak of the Anti-Japanese War in 1937, the high number of casualties and the rapid expansion of the army essentially prevented Academy graduates from exerting any decisive influence on the quality of Chiang’s troops. In the furious fighting that followed the outbreak of the war with Japan, the attrition rate for lower-level officers was extremely high. For example, during the fighting in and around Shanghai in late 1937, which saw Chiang Kai-shek commit his crack German-trained divisions to a battle of attrition with the Japanese, almost 10,000 lower-level officers were lost in a single three-month period. With no way to replace losses on that scale, a vacuum quickly developed. The demand for new officers grew quickly, and lowering the threshold entry requirements turned out to be the easiest way to bring in more candidates.

Prewar regulations had stipulated that only high school graduates could sit for the Academy’s entrance exams. Starting in 1937, however, those standards were lowered to include junior high graduates, and it was not unheard of for some who had not even attained that level of schooling to gain admission. Prior to the war against Japan, the pay and benefits of officers had improved to the point where they were considered quite good, and as a result there were large numbers of applicants for the limited positions in the Central Military Academy and the school could afford to be selective. For example, when the school started looking for students for the twelfth class in 1935, the acceptance rate was only 7 percent. Due to the large increase in the number of students needed after the outbreak of the war with Japan, the acceptance rate rose dramatically. According to the records for the Number Six Branch School of the Military Academy, the acceptance rate in 1940 was as high as 87 percent. Not only were more candidates being accepted, both the curriculum and the training period were reduced. During the war, the time cadets spent at the Central Military Academy and its various branch schools, including the period spent on basic training, was at most two years and seven months, with some courses lasting less than nine months. The constant pressure to produce more officers in less time was exacerbated by wartime shortages of funds and equipment, and the lack of a rigid quality-control system inevitably led to a decline in the quality of the graduates, thus undoing much of what had been accomplished in the prewar period.

Most of the original commanders of the National Revolutionary Army were graduates of the Baoding Military Academy founded by Duan Qirui in 1912. By the time of the outbreak of the war with Japan, the place of these Baoding graduates had been taken over by the new Whampoa officers. This trend was clearest among those officers who actually exercised direct control over troops, such as corps and divisional commanders. Most of those wartime general-level officers had graduated from the earliest Whampoa classes, receiving only an abbreviated course of training (six months to one year), and therefore their basic military education was limited. The Army War College was the main organization responsible for providing further in-depth tactical, strategic, and administrative training for commanders, but the number of graduates was far too small to have any significant impact. By the end of the war with Japan, there were only 2,100 War College graduates throughout the army, and most commanders had not been to the school. In the armies of most advanced nations, officer academy graduates were able to further their military education through a carefully planned rotation system among different positions, units, and specialized schools. This ensured that those officers who rose to high rank were well versed in their own trade and familiar with the workings of other branches. Officers in the National Army rarely had that opportunity, and this was reflected in their generally low level of professional knowledge.

Following the founding of the National Revolutionary Army, the steady succession of campaigns and the high number of casualties among the Whampoa officers—who tended to lead from the front in the early days—resulted in excessively rapid promotions and a corresponding decrease in opportunities to gain necessary experience at every level. These factors conspired to prevent Chiang Kai-shek from improving the quality of his commanders, and it is not surprising that at a conference in 1938 Chiang himself pointed out that in terms of military knowledge and skills his commanders were inferior to officers in Western armies, and were not even comparable to their counterparts in the Japanese Imperial Army. He even went so far as to say, “We who are commanders-in-chief are only comparable to their regimental commanders, and our corps and division commanders are only fit to act as their battalion or company commanders.”

The poor quality of Chiang’s commanders was compounded by the lack of a sound general staff system. Although the quality of staff officers had improved by the end of the war, and most of the general staff officers in the various war zones and group armies above the rank of colonel were graduates of formal military schools or the War College, many local units lacked a sound staff system. All too often these units adhered to the old notion, “If someone is literate, then he can be a staff officer; if someone is illiterate, then he can be an aide-de-camp.” Literacy, while essential to staff work, is hardly in itself an adequate substitute for a solid foundation in administration, logistics, operational planning, or even the elementary military skill of map reading. By way of comparison, during the war 35 percent of the Japanese general staff were graduates of Japan’s Army War College. The Japanese staff system had been created along German lines, and had been in place for far longer than its Chinese equivalent, so it is not surprising that the Japanese staff corps was superior to that of the Nationalist army throughout the war.

As one might expect, the dramatic increase in the demand for lower level officers during the war led to a corresponding increase in the number of men commissioned from the ranks. While this had been a common practice in the prewar army, with the statistics from 1930 showing that 29.1 percent of the total number of officers in the Central Army had been commissioned from the ranks, this number was bound to increase in response to the huge losses suffered in the opening stages of the Anti-Japanese War. Officers from the ranks were not necessarily inferior to their academy-trained counterparts; while acting as the vice chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commission, the wily former foot soldier and warlord Feng Yuxiang went so far as to claim that 85 percent of the bravest and most talented fighting officers came from the ranks. As the number of officers commissioned from the ranks increased, the percentage of military school graduates correspondingly decreased. In 1930, 70.9 percent of the officers in the Central Army were graduates of military schools. By 1944, the percentage of lower-level officers who had passed through some sort of formal military school had dropped to 27 percent.

The factor that most affected the quality of middle- and lower-echelon officers was the kind of education they received. Following the founding of the army, the official tactical doctrines and training standards were changed frequently, which naturally resulted in some confusion in the schools. For example, while still in Guangdong prior to the start of the Northern Expedition, the army used verbal commands derived from Japanese along with Soviet-style training and organization. During the Nanjing period, the Central Military Academy adopted German tactical doctrine, while the Infantry School continued to follow the Japanese model as laid out in the manuals published by the Inspectorate General for Training. The War College simultaneously used both German and Japanese doctrine. Following the start of the war, Japanese doctrine remained influential, but it was increasingly mixed in with Soviet, German, and American doctrine. Wartime military journals reveal that army officers studied doctrine from many countries, with no one system predominating, but these imported ideas had only a superficial impact on the Nationalist army. Although in the later stages of the war troops trained in India, Yunnan, and Guilin all embraced American doctrine, other units continued to do as they pleased. This lack of standardization, which extended even to the terms the army used in its day-to-day operations, naturally had a deleterious effect on troop training.

The lack of standardized doctrine was but one of the many organizational problems that plagued the Nationalist army. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, organization and equipment varied widely, and the steady stream of provisional reorganization plans flowing out of Nanjing did not help this situation. Far more important, while the skills emphasized in the schools were usually taught using the most current equipment, it was nearly always the case that when the students graduated and were posted to their units, they would discover that their troops possessed neither modern nor standard equipment. As one horrified observer noted, many supplies and materials were stored like junk in an old warehouse, with no two pieces of equipment identical. As a result, the new officers often felt that the skills they had learned at the various schools were irrelevant to the actual problems they faced once posted to their units. The lack of equipment and logistical support, the high level of illiteracy among the troops, poor morale, and a high desertion rate all combined to thwart even the most motivated of junior officers. In addition, like the higher echelon officers, mid- and low-level officers of the Nationalist army had to spend much of their time on duties beyond the scope of their normal military responsibilities.

As the army found itself moving into areas either previously beyond the reach of Nanjing or simply overlooked by the resource-starved government, officers found themselves forced to take on the civil duties of an army of occupation in their own country. Only rarely could officers devote themselves exclusively to their military duties, and the need to assume civil administrative functions impaired their ability to fight. Most units considered themselves lucky if they could devote three days a week to training. Even if they were free to focus on their military duties, officers were burdened with an administrative system that was a nightmarish web of overlapping jurisdictions, infested with petty tyrants who wielded power out of all proportion to their actual rank. When it came to dealing with the various organizations that controlled money and supplies, all but the most powerful officers were forced to grovel. In order to get the resources needed to survive on a day-to-day basis, let alone fight, officers had to be willing to appear subservient before even the lowliest of clerks. As the power and position of those they were dealing with increased, so too did the time and effort officers had to expend to obtain what would have been considered normal administrative and logistical support in any other army. Even the relationships with their own immediate superiors could be burdensome in terms of time and money. Reflecting the influence of traditional Chinese bureaucratic practices, officers were expected to socialize with, or perhaps more accurately, court, their superiors or anyone else who could expedite their career progression.

If the officers in the Nationalist army had to concern themselves with so many things tangential to their main duties, how could they be expected to realize their full potential as military commanders? Even if an officer was talented, the conditions that prevailed in the Nationalist army made it unlikely that he would get a chance to prove himself. An American military officer who was in China for many years during the war pointed out that if an officer in the Nationalist army could perform well in China, he would surely also perform well abroad. The historian Ray Huang, himself a graduate of the Central Military Academy, claimed that if Chinese officers were given a chance to go abroad and command English or French troops, they would surely prove to be first-class officers. This was in fact the case when Chinese troops were dispatched to Burma to participate in the Allied campaigns there. Once freed from the political, economic, and administrative constraints that existed in China, the Nationalist officers proved to be every bit as competent as their Allied counterparts.

Aside from suffering from a scarcity of resources and an undertrained, undersized officer corps that was handicapped by a Byzantine bureaucratic culture, the Nationalist army also suffered from a chronic shortage of suitable recruits. Prior to the war, the Nanjing regime relied on a volunteer recruitment system that was essentially identical to that of the earlier Beiyang Army. Individual units were required to send out teams to their favorite hunting grounds to seek recruits, which accounts for the distinctly regional flavor of many regiments. In 1933, as part of a German-inspired plan to modernize China’s defense preparedness, the government promulgated a conscription law; however, the law was only put into effect following the outbreak of the war with Japan. According to available statistics, China conscripted a total of 14,049,024 men between 1937 and 1945. This seems like a rather impressive number, but given China’s large population it does not represent a high degree of mobilization. F. F. Liu compared the mobilization figures for all of the major powers during World War II, and he calculated that China’s mobilization index (average number of men mobilized per year as a percentage of the total population) was only 0.4 percent. That figure falls far short of Japan’s 1.3 percent, England’s 1.4 percent, the United States’s 2.4 percent, Russia’s 3.0 percent, and Germany’s 3.8 percent.

China’s failure to achieve a degree of mobilization comparable to the other combatants was in large part due to the fact that Chinese society failed to meet many of the basic preconditions for the successful implementation of compulsory service. First, China lacked a sound household register system, and without detailed population records it was very difficult to track down all the draft-eligible men. The Nanjing regime had been trying, but following the Japanese attack and the government’s retreat into the interior, they found themselves cut off from precisely those areas in which they had made the most progress. Second, the successful implementation of the conscription law depended on the cooperation of cadres at the lowest levels, and many of them were simply not interested in actively enforcing an unpopular law. Sometimes cadres were understandably reluctant to draft their friends and relatives. On other occasions they were threatened by local bullies, and chose discretion over valor in the absence of any concrete help from the central government. Often the cadres simply accepted bribes from local notables, agreeing in exchange to pass over their relatives or accept illegal substitutions. Third, household incomes were generally low throughout the country. The wartime pay of conscripts was appallingly low, even by contemporary Chinese standards, and if the draftee happened to be a key breadwinner or vital source of farm labor, his household could quickly find itself in trouble. The serious economic consequences for families of draftees led many to view military service as the first step on the road to ruin. Finally, the low level of literacy in China and the parochialism it fostered meant that many Chinese simply did not understand the need for conscription during the war, especially if they lived outside the war zones. Military service still suffered from image problems associated with the wanton looting and destruction of the warlord period, and the notion that “good men do not become soldiers” was pervasive in Chinese society. This in turn encouraged the practice of draft avoidance. Because the literate (who presumably knew what was coming), the wealthy, and the powerful could avoid conscription by flight or corruption, most of those ensnared were illiterate peasants from poor households who were often in poor physical condition.

Most military authorities are of the opinion that peasants are possessed of many military virtues, such as simplicity, sincerity, bravery, obedience, tenacity, and the ability to stoically endure great hardship. According to one prewar American military observer, the Chinese peasant was excellent soldier material, having infinite patience, a natural deference to authority, and a robust physique. If provided with suitable training and equipment, enough to eat, and clothes to wear, the Chinese would make good soldiers even by American standards. It was also noted that although most Chinese soldiers were illiterate, their learning ability was quite impressive. An Allied observer noted that whereas it took American GIs four or five days to master the intricacies of the flamethrower, Chinese troops required only two or at most four days to master the same weapon. As was the case with their officers, it seemed that when Chinese troops were freed from the limits imposed on them by their own straitened circumstances, they were capable of performing as well as their Allied counterparts.

Sadly, for the majority of the Nationalist troops who were not part of American training programs after 1941, conditions continued to deteriorate. As China’s financial situation worsened, the resources available to the army began to shrink, and this had a negative impact on its fighting strength. The soldiers, who had never really enjoyed an abundance of food, began to manifest signs of malnutrition. In 1944 an American expert undertook a medical inspection of some 1,200 Chinese soldiers from throughout the army. His findings revealed that fully 57 percent of those he examined were undernourished. Prolonged malnutrition, coupled with poor sanitation and a shortage of medical services, resulted in a large number of cases of preventable diseases, such as night blindness, trachoma, scabies, anemia, and parasitic infections. The Nationalist army had only one doctor for every 1,700 to 3,400 men, as compared to one for every 210 men in Britain and one for every 150 men in the United States. This critical shortage of doctors and the primitive state of medical facilities made it impossible for the army to gain the upper hand in its fight against these preventable illnesses.

The real income of the soldiers also experienced a rapid decline, which exacerbated already poor morale. Up until the outbreak of the war, the army’s pay and benefits had continued to improve. Relatively high rates of pay and good benefits, coupled with the flowering of Chinese nationalism during the 1930s, meant that the army enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Even many students indicated their desire to pursue a military career, and one survey showed that military officer ranked higher than both doctor and lawyer on a list of desirable professions. This popularity was fleeting, however, and by the time the war had entered its middle stage after a long succession of embarrassing defeats, an army career had lost its appeal for most Chinese youths. Military pay and benefits declined drastically, and by the midpoint of the war they could not even compare with the earnings of coolies and rickshaw drivers (in 1943 a second-class private earned a monthly salary equivalent to only 7.5 American cents). By the end of the war, the military’s position in society had declined so far that common soldiers were seen as little better than beggars.

As serious as the Nationalist army’s financial and personnel problems were, its supply difficulties were even greater. Following the establishment of the Nationalist army, its organization and training models changed with bewildering rapidity, leaving weapons-procurement policies in a state of continuous flux. As had been the case with all previous Chinese regimes, the Nanjing government found itself unable to produce domestically the type and quantity of weapons required by its ambitious rearmament program. It was also unable to purchase all that it needed from overseas, and as a result the army was saddled with a collection of unstandardized weapons drawn from every conceivable source. They ranged from centuries-old spears and lances to the very latest automatic rifles and antiaircraft guns. It seemed that no weapon was too old or too exotic for the Chinese, and they had in service at any given time weapons from countries such as Japan, Germany, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland, along with the products of their own diverse arsenals. As the army planners were well aware, such a hodgepodge of weapons made for a logistical nightmare.

When war broke out, the army found itself dependent on large-scale imports of munitions from Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia. This diversity of weapons meant that ammunition and parts were not interchangeable, and that in turn greatly increased the burden on the already overstrained supply system. For example, those units that were lucky enough to receive American weapons during the latter stages of the war enjoyed a marked increase in their firepower and mobility. However, when the American government imposed a weapons embargo on Nanjing following the end of the Pacific War (the American intention being to force a reluctant Nationalist government to abandon a military solution to the CCP problem in favor of a negotiated solution), the combat effectiveness of those same units deteriorated rapidly. In 1947 a reporter visiting Nationalist units at Shenyang discovered that the cargo trucks, armored vehicles, and other transport belonging to some mechanized units had been abandoned at various barracks due to a lack of spare parts. Exposed to the elements, these hard-to-come-by assets were quickly being reduced to piles of rust. In another case, an artillery regiment that was equipped with powerful American 155mm howitzers had been crippled by ammunition shortages and could no longer scrounge sufficient gasoline for the trucks needed to move the guns. Despite their superior equipment, they were less effective than another regiment armed with older, mule-drawn Japanese 150mm guns, which could be supplied from the ample ammunition stockpiles left behind after the war.

Aside from their dependence on external sources of supply, the Nationalist army confronted yet another major logistical problem. China’s poor interior infrastructure and the widely scattered battle lines meant that the army had to rely on human labor for many transport and construction tasks. As with its attempts to conscript soldiers, the Nationalist army encountered many problems in trying to raise the necessary civilian levies. The pay offered to the civilian laborers was excessively low, insufficient even to support the workers, let alone compensate them for the cost of whatever tools they may have contributed. Civilians generally recoiled in apprehension at the prospect of serving, and few stepped forward of their own volition. Many simply fled, while others went so far as to destroy their own tools. This stands in stark contrast to the success the Communists enjoyed in mobilizing civilians. According to the memoirs of one Communist commander, one of the key factors in their success at the Civil War battle of Huai Hai (November 1948-January 1949) was the huge number of large and small carts provided by the peasants. During the course of this long battle, the Communists claim to have mobilized more than 5 million civilian workers in five different provinces. Utilizing 230,000 stretchers, 800,000 carts of various types, and their own backs, they moved 110,000 casualties, 342 million kilograms of food, and 3.3 million tons of ammunition. There is still an ongoing debate as to whether their success in mobilizing this type of civilian support was due to their organizational expertise or the allure of their land reform program, but it is an indisputable fact that their ability to evacuate their wounded and maintain a constant flow of supplies to the front contributed in no small measure to their victory.

Qin Wars of Unification (230–221 BCE)

Map of Zhou China c.400 BC

The Late Zhou period also heralded the ‘Warring States Era’ which saw almost three centuries of bitter rivalry and warfare between a mass of fractured Chinese kingdoms. Eventually the kingdom of Qin, on the western edge of early China would conquer the rest, while the Shu and Ba people were also brought into the kingdom for the first time.

Combatants Qin vs. Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, Qi

Principal Commanders Qin: King Ying Zheng (Emperor Qin Shi Huang), Wang Jian, Wang Ben, Li Xin

Other States: King An, King Qian, Li Mu, King Fuchu, King Xi, King Jia, Xiang Yan, King Tian Jian

Principal Battles Daliang

Outcome The seven states of central China are formed into one state. The short-lived Qin dynasty gives its name to China and establishes the concept of a unified state


The Qin Wars of Unification of 230-221 BCE were the direct result of the efforts of King Ying Zheng of Qin (later emperor as Qin Shi Huang) to control all northern China. Born Ying Zheng in Handan in 259 BCE, Qin Shi Huang (Ch’in Shih-hung) was nominally the son of the king of Qin but may have actually been the offspring of his father’s powerful chancellor, Lü Buwei. Regardless of his patrimony, Ying Zheng succeeded to the throne at age 13 in 245 on the death of his father and assumed his personal rule at age 22 in 231 when he seized full power and dismissed Lü Buwei, who had been acting as regent.

As ruler, Ying Zheng put down a number of rebellions. He also built up the army, emphasizing the cavalry, and carried out a number of reforms, especially in agriculture. The king was determined to expand Qin territory. Most of the smaller states of northern and central China, such as the Ba, Shu, Zhongshan, Lu, and Song states, had already been absorbed by their more powerful neighbors, and by the time Ying Zheng had come to the throne there were seven major states in northern China: Qin, Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, and Qi. Having consolidated his own kingdom, Ying Zheng now proceeded to conquer the other remaining feudal states of the Yellow River and lower and middle Yangtze River valleys in a series of campaigns from 230 to 221 BCE. His strategy was to attack and defeat one state at a time, described in one of the so-called Thirty-Six Stratagems as “befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” This meant first allying Qin with the Yan and Qi states and holding at bay the Wei and Chu states while conquering the Han and Zhao states.


Han was the weakest of the seven states and had previously been attacked by Qin. In 230 led by Minister of Interior Teng, a Qin army moved south across the Huang He (Yellow River) and invaded Han. Cavalry played a major role in the campaign. That same year the Qin army captured the Han capital of Zheng (today Xinzheng in Zhengzhou in southern Henan Province). With the surrender of King An of Han, the whole of Han came under Qin control.

Zhao was the next state to fall. Qin had invaded Zhao before but had not been able to conquer it. Zhao, however, was struck by two natural disasters-an earthquake and a famine-and in 229 the Qin armies again invaded, this time in a converging attack by three armies on the Zhao capital of Handan. Capable Zhao general Li Mu avoided pitched battle, however, choosing to concentrate instead on the construction of strong defenses, which indeed prevented the Qin armies from advancing farther. Ying Zheng then bribed a Zhao minister to sow discord between Li Mu and Zhao King Qian, who as a result came to doubt his general’s loyalty. Indeed, Li Mu was subsequently imprisoned and executed on King Qian’s order. Learning of Li Mu’s execution, in 228 the Qin armies again invaded Zhao. After several victories against the Zhao armies, Qin troops captured Handan and took King Qian. Ying Zheng then annexed Zhao.

That same year, 228, Qin general Wang Jian prepared for an invasion of Yan. Ju Wu, a Yan minister, suggested to Yan King Xi that he ally with Dai (present-day Yu, Zhangjiakou, in Heibei), then ruled by Prince Jia, the elder brother of the former king of Zhao, and also Qi and Chu. Crown Prince Dan opposed this course of action, however, believing it unlikely to succeed. Instead he sent an emissary, Jing Ke, to Qin with the head of a turncoat Qin general and orders to assassinate Ying Zheng. The assassination attempt failed, and Jing Ke was killed.

Using the attempted assassination as an excuse, Ying Zheng then sent an army against Yan. The Qin defeated the Yan Army, which had been strengthened with forces from Dai, in a battle along the east ern bank of the Yi River. Following their victory, the Qin army occupied the Yan capital of Yi (present-day Beijing). King Xi and his son Crown Prince Dan then withdrew with the remaining Yan forces into the Liaodong Peninsula. Qin general Li Xin pursued the Yan forces to the Ran River (present-day Hun River), where they destroyed most of the remaining Yan forces. To save his throne, King Xi ordered the execution of his son Crown Prince Dan, then sent his head to Qin in atonement for the assassination attempt on Ying Zheng, who accepted this “apology” and made no further military effort against Yan at this time.

In 222, however, Wang Ben led Qin forces in renewed warfare against Yan. The Qin army invaded the Liaodong Pen insula and captured King Xi. Yan was then annexed to the expanding Qin Empire.

In 225 Qin moved against Wei, first sending an army under Wang Ben that reportedly numbered 600,000 men to take more than 10 cities on the border with Chu in order to prevent that state from invading while the attack on Wei was proceeding. Wang Ben then moved against Daliang. It had natural defenses in that it was located at the confluence of the Sui and Ying Rivers. The city also had a very wide moat and four drawbridges that provided access to the city proper. Given the difficulties of taking Daliang, Wang Bei decided on an attempt to redirect the waters of the Yellow River and the Hong Canal in order to flood Daliang. It took his men more than three months to accomplish this considerable engineering feat while at the same time maintaining the Siege of Daliang. Wang Bei’s plan worked. Reportedly, more than 100,000 people lost their lives in the flooding of the city. King Jia of Wei then surrendered, and Wei was added to Qin.

Chu was next. In 224 Ying Zheng called a conference to discuss the plans for the invasion. General Wang Jian said that no fewer than 600,000 men would be re quired, but General Li Xin claimed that 200,000 men would be sufficient to conquer Chu. Ying Zheng then appointed Li Xin and Meng Wu to lead 200,000 men in two armies against Chu, while Wang Jian retired from state service, supposedly the result of illness.

The Qin armies enjoyed initial success. Li Xin’s men took Pingyu, while Meng Wu captured Qigiu. After then taking Yan (all three cities in present-day Henan), Li Xin led his army to rendezvous with Meng Wu. However, the Chu army, under Xiang Yan, had been avoiding a decisive encounter and was waiting for the opportunity to launch a counterattack. Xiang Yan’s army now pursued Li Xin during a three-day period, catching up with him and carrying out a surprise attack, joined by forces under Lord Changjing, a relative of Ying Zheng, a descendant of the Chu royal family. The two Chu armies effectively destroyed Li Xin’s army.

Informed of the crushing Chu victory over Li Xin, Ying Zheng then traveled to his retired general Wang Jian’s residence and personally apologized for having doubted his advice. Wang Jian agreed to return to government service, this time in command of the force of 600,000 men he had initially recommended. Meng Wu became Wang Jian’s deputy.

In 224 Wang Jian’s army invaded Chu territory and made camp at Pingyu. Chu general Xiang Yan assembled the entire Chu army and attacked the Qin encampment but was repulsed. Wang Jian then held his position, refusing to attack the Chu force as Xiang Yan had wanted, and it subsequently withdrew. As the Chu army was doing so, Wang Jian launched a surprise attack and then pursued the Chu army into Qinan (northwest of present-day Qic hun County, Huanggang, Hubei), where it was defeated and Chu commander Xiang Yan was killed in action.

In 223, Qin forces again invaded Chu and captured the capital city of Shouchun (present-day Shou in Lu’an, Anhui). King Fuchu of Chu was among those taken prisoner. Qin then annexed Chu. The next year, Wang Jian and Meng Wu attacked the Wuyu region (present-day Zhejiang and Jiangsu). It became part of the Qin territorial holdings.

In 221 BCE, Qi was the only state of north China not conquered by the Qin. Ying Zheng had early on bribed Qi chancellor Hou Sheng into advising King Tian Jian of Qi not to assist the other states, which were being conquered by Qin. Too late, King Tian Jian recognized the threat and sent his army to the border with Qin. Ying Zheng then used the excuse of Tian Jian’s refusal to meet with the Qin king’s envoy as justification for an invasion.

Avoiding the Qi forces massed on the border, commander of the Qin invasion force general Wang Ben moved his army into Qi from Yan territory. The army there fore met little resistance before arriving at the Qi capital of Linzi (north of present day Zibo, Shandong). Taken by surprise, King Tian Jian surrendered without a battle. Qi was then absorbed by Qin.

Qin expansion had, however, eliminated the buffer zone between the Chinese states and the nomadic peoples of present day Inner and Outer Mongolia, thus creating the need for the system of defensive fortifications known as the Qin Great Wall.

Upon absorbing Qi, Ying Zheng established the Qin dynasty, assuming the throne name of Qin Shi Huang (meaning “First Emperor of China”). As the first emperor of China, he had an enormous impact on the future of China and on the Chinese people. A reformer but also a strong-willed autocrat, he and his chief adviser Li Si pushed through a series of changes designed to solidify the unification. To diminish the threat of rebellion, the emperor required members of the former royal families to live in the capital of Xianyang, in Shaanxi Province.

Qin Shi Huang also abolished feudal ism and divided his territory into 36 prefectures and then divided the prefectures into counties and townships, all of which were ruled directly by the emperor through his appointees. A uniform law code was established, and Qin Shi Huang decreed a standardized system of Chinese characters in writing. A new tax system was put in place that is said to have exacted a heavy financial toll on the Chinese people. Qin Shi Huang also established a uniform system of laws, weights and measures, and coin age. In an attempt to silence any criticism of his rule, in 213 Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all books in the empire and records of all other dynasties and the execution of those scholars who opposed him, along with their families. Stories that he ordered some 460 Confucian scholars buried alive in Xianyang are probably not true, however.

Qin Shi Huang and Li Si also undertook a series of mammoth construction projects, including setting hundreds of thousands of men to work building the great defensive wall that incorporated older walls. This wall served as a precedent when later re gimes, most notably the Ming, also built systems of fortified walls as a means of defense against nomadic peoples to the north. The emperor also oversaw construction of a system of new roads designed to unify China economically and facilitate the passage of goods and troops radiating from the capital of Xianyang. Qin Shi Huang is now also known for having ordered construction of his large mausoleum in Xian, guarded by life-sized terra-cotta warriors and horses. Discovered in 1974 and opened to the public in 1979, the 800 warriors and their horses guarding the tomb are regarded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

Around 212 BCE, Qin Shi Huang subsequently expanded Qin territory to the south (i. e., south of the Changjiang [Yangtze or Yangxi River]). His generals Meng Tian and Zhao Tuo conquered northern Korea (Goryeo, Koryo) as well as the areas later known as Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Tonkin (Tongking) in north ern Vietnam.

Seeking to extend his life, Qin Shi Huang had been taking a medicine prescribed by his doctors that contained a small amount of mercury. He died, apparently of mercury poisoning, while on a tour of eastern China in Shaqiu Province in 210. In short order there was a strong re action to his autocratic regime. His second son and successor, Hu Hai (Qin Er Shi), proved to be an inept ruler, and a great peasant rebellion, led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, soon began. This sparked a series of rebellions that, combined with in fighting at court, brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206 BCE.


The Qin Wars of Unification joined the seven states of central China into one state. Although the Qin dynasty itself was short lived (221-206), it gave its name to China and produced the concept of a unified Chinese state.

Further Reading Bodde, Derk. “The State and Empire of Qin.” In The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B. C.-A. D. 220, edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, 21-102. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Clements, Jonathan. The First Emperor of China. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton, 2006. Tianchou, Fu, ed. The Underground Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Beijing: New World Press, 1988. Wood, Francis. The First Emperor of China. London: Profile Books, 2007. Zilin Wu. Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China. Hong Kong: Man Hei Language Publications, 1989.

Flying Tigers

Helping China against the invading Japanese armies, the men of Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, the `Flying Tigers’, became a legendary flying unit.

During the early months of the war in the Pacific, American and Allied fighter pilots found themselves completely outclassed by the exceptionally maneuverable and well flown fighters of the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) and Japanese Navy Air Force (JNAF). As a consequence, they suffered serious defeats, and the myth of Japanese invincibility in the air was established. One of the first Allied fighter units to demonstrate that the Japanese fighters had weaknesses that could be exploited by skillful tactics were the pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’, who flew with the Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF). During some 30 weeks of combat in 1941 and 1942, the AVG was credited with 297 confirmed victories for the loss of 80 fighters and 25 pilots killed or made prisoner of war. These considerable successes were largely due to the effective leadership and tactical skills of Colonel Claire L. Chennault, the AVG’s commander.

Shortly after leaving the United States Army Air Corps in 1937, Chennault was invited to China as air adviser to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. On arriving, he found the CNAF in a poor state, with fewer than 100 effective combat aircraft out of a nominal strength of 500, and an inadequate number of trained pilots. Therefore, when the Japanese engineered Marco Polo Bridge Incident precipitated a full-scale Sino Japanese War in July 1937, the CNAF was unable to put up anything more than a token defence against the invaders.

In the short term, China was able to negotiate a Non Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union in August 1937, which resulted m an infusion of Soviet combat aircraft and ‘volunteer’ airmen. For the following three years this was sufficient to stave off the complete collapse of Chinese air power, but by the end of 1940 Soviet aid had dried up and the Japanese air Forces were operating virtually at will over China. It was under these circumstances that Chennault accompanied a CNAF mission to the United States in order to acquire a force of modern fighters and recruit American pilots to fly them.

Operating under the cover of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO), Chennault succeeded in obtaining 100 Curtiss Tomahawk Mk II fighters (generally referred to as P-40s by the AVG). These Tomahawks had been ordered by the RAF before the Battle of Britain, but, as the pressure on the British air defences had eased by early 1941, the fighters were released to China. Recruiting suitably qualified pilots was a more difficult matter and it was necessary to obtain President Roosevelt’s permission to seek volunteers from the US armed forces.

Eventually, a total of 109 pilots was signed up by CAMCO, about half of them coming from the US Navy and Marine Corps, a third from the Army Air Corps and the remainder from civilian flying organisations. Their one year contracts provided a monthly pay 600 US dollars for pilots, 675 dollars for flight leaders and 750 dollars for squadron commanders A further Incentive to recruitment was the Chinese government merit’s offer of a 500 dollar bonus for every Japanese aircraft confirmed as destroyed The ground-crews numbering about 150 men, were mostly recruited from the United States forces and were paid between 150 and 400 dollars a month. Pay was an important factor in attracting personnel to the AVG, but the spirit of adventure   a wish to see active military service and to escape from the constraints of a peacetime routine was an equally strong attraction.

The aircraft and their pilots were dispatched by sea to Rangoon in Burma, where they assembled in late July 1941. After the P-40s had been uncrated and assembled, training began at the airfield at Kyedaw, near Toungoo. This had been made available to the AVG by the RAF authorities, as the Flying Tigers’ main base at Kunming in western China was still under construction.

Chennault set to work training AVG pilots according to his tactical doctrines. A network of ground observers had already been established in China at his suggestion and so the chances of receiving sufficient early warning of an incoming raid were good. However, Chennault realised from his study of Japanese aircraft and tactics that special procedures would be needed to deal with the enemy’s fighters. The manoeuvrable Japanese aircraft would win a traditional turning dogfight every time and Chennault stressed that this type of combat had to be avoided at all costs, He proposed that the P-40’s high diving speed and comparatively heavy firepower should be exploited:

‘You must use your superior speed to climb above them before you commit yourselves. And you then can use your greater diving speed to make a pass at them. Get in short bursts and get away. Break off and climb back for the advantage of altitude after you have gotten away safely. In such combat, and only in that kind, you have the edge.’

Once the AVG fighters had achieved an advantageous firing position, accurate gunnery was sure to achieve good results. The Japanese aircraft were both lightly constructed and poorly armoured and tended to burn or break up easily.

By the time that the Flying Tigers had completed their training in December 1941, the United States was at war with Japan. Nonetheless, the AVG retained its volunteer status. The group was organised into three squadrons, each made up of three flights of six fighters. The 1st Pursuit Squadron adopted an ‘Adam and Eve’ insignia as a pun on then designation. The squadron was commanded by Robert J. Sandell until he was killed in a flying accident on 7 February 1942, and then Robert H. Neale took over. The 2nd Pursuit Squadron, the ‘Panda Bears’, was led by John V. Newkirk and the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, the ‘Hell’s Angels’, by Arvid Olsen. Apart from their individual squadron insignia, the AVG P-40s were painted with a distinctive shark mouth marking, copied from No. 112 Squadron RAF which flew similarly decorated Tomahawks in North Africa, and this embellishment became as much the group’s identifying marking as the Chinese national insignia on the wings. Some aircraft also carried the Flying Tiger emblem designed for the AVG by the Walt Disney studios.

By the second week of December the Flying Tigers were deploying for combat. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons deployed to Kunming, while the Hell’s Angels moved to Mingaladon, joining the Brewster Buffaloes of No. 67 Squadron RAF in the air defence of Burma The Kunming squadrons were the first to see action. On 20 December an unescorted formation of 10 JAAF Mitsubishi Ki 21 Sally bombers was picked up by the raid reporting network en route from Hanoi to Kunming. Chennault scrambled four P-40s of the Panda Bear Squadron, led by Newkirk, to intercept. A further sir, of the squadron’s fighters were reserved to cover Kunming, while Sandell’s 1st Pursuit Squadron flew to an auxiliary airfield to the southeast, from where they later scrambled to cut off the bombers’ retreat.

Newkirk’s section met the Japanese bombers some 30 miles short of Kunming and in their initial attack Ed Rector gained his first victory. However, Newkirk’s P-40 then suffered a gun and radio failure and was forced to break off the combat. He was followed by the other three pilots, who in the absence of any instructions from their leader, were reluctant to contravene the AVG’s strict formation discipline. The Adam and Eve Squadron then intervened, forcing the Ki 21s to jettison their bombs and turn away from their target. The most successful pilot during this combat was former US Navy dive-bomber pilot Fritz Wolf, who reported.

I attacked the outside bomber in the Vee. Diving down below him, I came up underneath, guns ready for the minute I could get in range. At 500yds I let go with a quick burst from all my guns. I could see my bullets rip into the rear gunner. My plane bore in closer. At 100yds I let go with a long burst that tore into the bomber’s gas tanks and engine. A wing folded and the motor tore loose. Then the bomber exploded. I yanked back on the stick to get out of the way and went upstairs.

‘There, I went after the inside man of the Japanese bomber formation. I came out of a dive and pulled up level with the bomber, just behind his tail. I could see the rear gunner blazing away at me, but none of his bullets were hitting my plane At 50yds I let go with a long burst, concentrating on one motor The same thing happened and I got number two. The bomber burned and then blew up.’

In all, six bombers were confirmed as destroyed and the Flying Tigers lost only Ed Rector’s P-40, which force landed after running out of fuel.

The focus of action then shifted to Burma, where the Hell’s Angels were operating in defence of Rangoon. On 23 December a force of some 70 JAAF aircraft, Ki 21 bombers escorted by Nakajima Ki 27 Nate and Nakajima Ki 43 Oscar fighters, raided Rangoon from their bases in Thailand. The AVG P-40s scrambled with the RAF’s Buffaloes to intercept but were too late to prevent the bombing. However, the AVG pilots claimed six bombers and four fighters destroyed (although only six of these could be confirmed), in return for the loss of three P-40s and two pilots. Charles Older, a former Marine Corps pilot, claimed two victories in this fight.

Two days later the JAAF returned in even greater force, and 12 AVG P-40s and 18 RAF Buffaloes were scrambled to meet a force of over 100 enemy aircraft. The Allied fighters made their interception over the Gulf of Martaban and, with the advantage of superior altitude, tore into the Japanese formation. The outcome was a complete vindication of Chennault’s tactical theories. For the loss of two P-40s, the Flying Tigers had downed 28 enemy aircraft Japanese tactics were equal to the challenge. However, on 28 December the Hell’s Angels were decoyed into pursuing a small formation of JAAF aircraft and, when on the ground refuelling after this mission, were attacked by a second JAAF formation. Only four P-40s were scrambled to meet the attack and they were unable to prevent Mingaladon from being heavily bombed.

Relief for the hard pressed Hell’s Angels came on 30 December, when Newkirk’s Panda Bears flew in from Kunming to relieve them The new unit soon took the fight to the enemy’s camp On 3 January 1942 Newkirk led a strafing attack by three P-40s on the Japanese airfield at Meshed in Thailand, claiming five enemy aircraft destroyed or. the ground and a further three in air combat. Japanese retribution was swift on 4 January six P-40s on patrol were bounced by about 30 Ki 27s and became ensnared in just such a turning dogfight which Chennault had counselled his pilots to avoid. Three kills were claimed, but for the loss of three AVG P-40s and the combat led one pilot, Gregory Boyington, wryly to reflect that the peacetime training which the Marine Corps gave its fighter pilots was completely worthless as a preparation for fighting the Japanese

Heavy fighting in January took its toll of the AVG’s P-40s, and early in February the 1st Pursuit Squadron relieved the Panda Bears in Burma By the end of that month, the Japanese advance forced the evacuation of Mingaladon During 10 weeks of combat in defence of Rangoon, the AVG and RAF fighters had claimed a total of 291 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The fight was continued from Magwe, 200 miles to the north of Mingaladon. Before Japanese air attacks forced this base to be evacuated late in March, two AVG pilots carried out a highly successful strafing attack on a newly occupied Japanese airstrip near Moulmein Bill Reed and Ken Jernstedt were flying an armed reconnaissance mission in the area on 19 March, when they spotted a lineup of Japanese Ki 27 fighters on the ground and destroyed 15 of them in a series of firing passes.

The AVG then withdrew to Loiwing across the Chinese border but remained within range of Japanese forces. On 24 March Robert Neale led a six aircraft strafing mission against the JAAF airfield at Chieng mai in Thailand, leaving more than two score Ki 27 and Ki 43 fighters as blazing wrecks. Yet whatever successes were gained in the air, the advance of the Japanese armies was inexorable and on 1 May the AVG was forced to evacuate Loiwing, destroying 22 unserviceable P-40s

With the approach of the monsoon season on the Burma front. Chennault’s attention shifted to the defence of the cities of western China from bombing attack. This necessitated the dispersal of his slender resources, the depleted Hell’s Angels providing cover for the AVG’s main base at Kunming, the Panda Bears defending Chunking and Hengyang, and the Adam and Eves protecting Kweilin. The latter squadron was first to see action, intercepting a force of 20 JAAF aircraft over Kweilm on 13 June, accounting for 11 of them for the loss of only two P-40s and no pilot casualties.

Poor weather then enforced a lull in operations, and during this period the AVG was transformed from a volunteer unit of the CNAF into the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). However, the transition was mishandled by regular USAAF officers responsible, with the result that only five pilots agreed to transfer to the new unit. Urgent entreaties from Chennault, who had been given command of the USAAF’s new China Air Task Force with the rank of Brigadier-General, persuaded a further 19 pilots to stay on for a further two weeks after the AVG’s official disbandment. This led to the curious anomaly that ex-Navy pilot Neale (the AVG’s top scoring pilot), who was then technically a civilian, often led the USAAF’s 23rd Fighter Group during its first two weeks of existence. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the 23rd Fighter Group was but a poor shadow of its predecessor. Indeed, the new unit’s pilots were able to carry on the traditions of the Flying Tiger with distinction. Foremost among them was the group’s new CO, Colonel Robert L. Scott, who led his new command in the interception of JAAF raiders over Kweilin. With the advantage of superior altitude, the P-40s dived onto the enemy formation Scott recalled:

‘Their formation was so perfect and so close we couldn’t miss. Even the new kids remembered not to shoot at the whole formation but to concentrate on one ship at a time, with short bursts, then skid to another. Hang on, aim, then fire – always short bursts. They didn’t see us until it was too late. Twenty or more of them were already going down and those we didn’t burn on the first pass broke and ran m all directions. After the first dive, when we’d climbed back into the sun for altitude, we broke, too, and took out after the stragglers. I followed one with my wingman all the way to Canton, 200 miles southeastward, and shot it down when the pilot lowered his landing gear preparatory to landing,’

After the results of this combat had been properly assessed, the American pilots were credited with 13 enemy aircraft destroyed for no loss to themselves. It was an auspicious start for the new Flying Tigers of the 23rd Fighter Group.

A particularly noteworthy combat was fought later that month, when, early to the morning of 30 July, Major John R Alison and Major A. J. ‘Ajax’ Baumler intercepted six JAAF night bombers over Hengyana and destroyed four of them. Alison ended the war with 10 victories and Baumler, who had gamed eight kills flying with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, added a further five to his score in China. Another distinguished newcomer to the Flying Tigers was Scott’s successor as commanding officer, Colonel Bruce K Holloway, who finished the war with 13 victories and went on to become general commanding the USAF’s Strategic Air Command. Three of the original Flying Tigers later returned to the 23rd Fighter Group, Colonel David L. ‘Tex’ Hill and Colonel Edward F. Rector as commanding officers, and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Older as a squadron commander.

The 23rd Fighter Group remained in China until the end of the war against Japan, latterly replacing its P-40s with North American P 51 Mustangs. From its formation on 4 July 1942 until the end of the fighting, the group was credited with 621 enemy aircraft shot down plus a further 320 destroyed on the ground.


Described as ‘a sharp, tough, deep thinking, intelligent rock of a man’ by one of his pilots, Colonel Claire L. Chennault, the creator and leader of the American Volunteer Group, was better qualified than most Allied commanders to take the measure of the Japanese air forces. Born in Commerce, Texas, in 1890, he grew up in the state of Louisiana. After qualifying as a teacher, he enlisted in the US Army towards the end of World War I and trained as a pilot. In 1922 Chennault was assigned to the US Army Air Service’s 1st Pursuit Group based at Ellington Field in Texas. Thereafter his military career was wholly dedicated to fighters, or in the parlance of the time `pursuit aviation’. In 1933 he graduated from the US Army’s Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Alabama and became a flying instructor. During this period, Chennault wrote The Role of Defensive Pursuit, a book that proposed a radical reassessment of the tactics of air warfare. However, such advanced ideas were out of tune with the prevailing doctrines of a premature end in 1937, when he retired with the rank of captain. Chennault’s descent into obscurity was arrested when he was invited to become air adviser to the government of Chiang Kai-shek in China. In early 1941 he began recruiting pilots for the Flying Tigers, a unit he led throughout its career.

WAR IN CHINA 1840–54

Engagement between HMS Volage and Hyacinth and a fleet of 25 Chinese war junks.

Opium routes between British-controlled India and China. In the 1850s, the United States and the European powers grew increasingly dissatisfied with both the terms of their treaties with China, and the Qing Government’s failure to adhere to them. The British forced the issue by attacking the Chinese port cities of Guangzhou and Tianjin in the Second Opium War.

The Broadway expedition was a British military expedition that explored the Broadway River (present-day Xi River) in Guangdong province, China, on 13–15 March 1841 during the First Opium War. The river was also called the Inner Passage or Macao Passage as it served as an intricate channel from the Portuguese colony of Macao to the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou). The expedition was the first time a European vessel traversed the passage, and was believed by the Chinese to be inaccessible to foreigners due to the shallowness and intricacy of the channel as well as the forts along the banks. The iron steamship Nemesis had a shallow draught of 6 feet (1.8 m), which was a major advantage in navigating the river. Despite being over 600 tons burden, the ship was able to navigate through a river that frequently had less than 6 feet of water and through mud in areas of only 5 feet (1.5 m).

In the preceding century and until the end of the wars with France it had been the Royal Navy which had been the most important arm of Britain. In Queen Victoria’s reign it was the Army which played the key role in building and preserving the Empire. Still, the Royal Navy had its part to play, not only in transporting troops and supplies and sometimes providing naval brigades to fight side by side with the soldiers on land, but occasionally taking a direct active role in the growth of the Empire, as it did in Syria in 1840 when, in conjunction with Austrian and Prussian ships, it thwarted the expansionist tendencies of Mohammed Ali.

A year earlier a smaller but in the long run far more important naval operation took place in southern Arabia. In December 1836 a British ship was wrecked and plundered on the coast of Aden, then an independent sultanate. After prolonged negotiations, the sultan promised compensation, but he died and his son refused to honour the agreement. So on 19 January 1839 a military and naval force under Captain H. Smith in the 28-gun frigate Volage captured Aden, and this small but strategic piece of real estate was added to the Empire. Captain Smith then sailed off to Hong Kong where, on 4 September, he fired the shots which began the Opium War.

The cause of the Opium War has been attributed simply to the greed of the British merchants in China, but the real causes of the war were cultural rather than commercial: British opium smuggling and the vigorous attempts of the Chinese government to suppress it only sparked the war, which would have taken place sooner or later in any event.

The Chinese and the British were alike in that both regarded their own culture, civilization and way of life as infinitely superior to all others. It was only natural, then, that where the two cultures met there was friction: Chinaman and Briton were astonished at the pretensions of each other; to each, the other was a barbarian. Neither made much of an attempt to understand the other, and doubtless it seems surprising to most Englishmen even today that the Chinese regarded them as inscrutable.

The Chinese wanted foreign merchants to obey Chinese laws, submit to Chinese justice, and to conform to stringent Chinese regulations regarding their export-import business, demands that do not seem unreasonable considering that the foreigners were trading with Chinese in China. The foreign merchants, principally British and Americans, did not like Chinese laws, which they flouted; they thought Chinese notions of justice were unjust, preposterous and barbaric; and they felt unduly constrained by the, to them, peculiar restrictions put on their trading methods. But what annoyed them most was that they were treated, every day, in word and deed, as if they were the inferiors of the Chinese. And the British found this hard to bear. They complained, but they did adjust to the situation. All might have gone on peaceably enough had the Chinese government been strong enough to enforce its rules and had the British government not appeared on the scene in the shape of a series of envoys, consuls and trade commissioners, who were followed in due course by soldiers and sailors.

The war might have been called with greater propriety the Kowtow War, for, as John Quincy Adams told the Massachusetts Historical Society, opium was ‘a mere incident to the dispute, but no more the cause of the war than the throwing overboard the tea in Boston harbour was the cause of the North American revolution’. Adams correctly diagnosed the case when he said, ‘the cause of the war is the kowtow’.

When the first British official arrived in Pekin in 1792 he refused to kowtow when presented to the emperor. That is, he refused to make the prostrations, face touching the floor, which protocol required in the presence of the Son of Heaven and Emperor of China. It was an attitude much admired at home and was copied by later official British representatives. The British thought the kowtow humiliating; the Chinese regarded their refusal to perform it as inexplicable and decided that it would be better if they simply avoided seeing the ill-mannered barbarians altogether: British diplomatists were not even permitted to meet provincial governors. Consequently, British officials joined the merchants in complaining of the humiliating treatment they received at the hands of the Chinese, and, as the complaints of officials, being addressed to other officials and to politicians, always carry more weight than the cries of mere merchants, there was a good deal of irresponsible talk by responsible men about teaching the Chinese a lesson and putting them in their place.

When Lord Napier (William, 8th baron, 1786–1834) went to China as Chief Superintendent of Trade in 1833 he was not even allowed to stay in the country, except at the Portuguese colony of Macao, and he indignantly wrote home asking for ‘three or four frigates and brigs, with a few steady British troops, not Sepoys’. The ships and soldiers were not sent, but there was a growing feeling in England that something would have to be done to defend British prestige in China.

Meanwhile, the harvests continued in the poppy fields of Bengal and the opium clippers, in the season, swiftly and efficiently carried their chests to China, off-loading on the coasts, in the rivers or on islands just offshore. Often accused of being hypocritical, Victorian Britons rarely were, although they often succeeded in honestly deceiving themselves. Regarding the shipment of opium to China, however, they were indeed hypocritical. The East India Company, which then ruled most of India, refused to allow opium to be transported in their own ships, but they encouraged the trade, and for a very good reason: export taxes on opium came to provide more than 10 per cent of India’s gross revenue. As to the morality of the business, many Britons tried to justify it by saying that opium smoking in China was really no worse than gin drinking in England (although gin drinking in England had grown out of hand and at best this was a poor excuse).

At Canton, where foreigners were allowed to establish their offices and warehouses (called factories), the opium trade flourished. All the great British trading companies in China indulged in it and the local Chinese officials were easily bribed. Then, in January 1839, the Emperor sent an unbribable mandarin, Lin Tse-hsu, as Imperial High Commissioner to stamp out opium smuggling. Lin gave fair warning, then he struck.

Lin first tried to show the foreigners in little ways that he was indeed serious in his determination to stop the opium trade: in Macao and Canton some smugglers were publicly strangled in front of the British and American factories. An Imperial edict was issued flatly stating that opium smuggling must cease and that stocks now in store must be surrendered. When the foreigners refused to comply with the edict, they were shut up in their factories without Chinese servants or workers, forcing them to cook their own food and clean their own houses. It was considered a great hardship. This incident in May 1839 became known as the Siege of the Factories. It ended when the British, greatly humiliated, gave up 20,000 chests of illegally imported opium. Obviously the British could not go to war over this issue, even though dignity and prestige were involved; a larger issue was needed.

Six weeks after the Siege of the Factories, some British and American sailors started a brawl in a village near Kowloon and a Chinaman was killed. The Chinese authorities demanded that the murderer be given up; the British refused, maintaining, perhaps correctly, that it was impossible to discover exactly who had done the deed. Commissioner Lin withdrew all supplies and labourers from British homes and factories and ordered the Portuguese governor of Macao to expel all the British from his territory. Men, women and children were loaded on British ships, which sailed over to Hong Kong, then a virtually uninhabited island, and anchored. Here floated the entire British colony, a westernized version of the sampan communities commonly found in Chinese ports. It was at this juncture that Captain Smith arrived in the Volage, fresh from his successful operations against the Arabs at Aden, and he was presently joined by the 20-gun frigate Hyacinth.

Without British officials and the samples of British power on the scene all might have ended peaceably enough, for both the Chinese and the merchants wanted to trade, but now merchants, officials and sailors were delighted by the opportunity to humble the arrogant Chinese and to pay them back for the years of indignity. Chinese were found who were willing to supply the floating British community with food under the protection of the frigates. When the Chinese government sent war junks to stop the trade, Captain Smith drove them off with the fire of the Volage. The Chinese then sent a fleet of twenty-nine war junks against the two frigates, and in the battle that followed four junks were sunk and others were badly damaged at no loss to the British ships. The war had begun.

There was the usual debate in the Commons, in which the Palmerston government pointed out that not only had British property been confiscated but British officials had been insulted; Gladstone protested that ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of’; still, the approval was given for the government to prosecute the war. Troops were sent out from India – the Royal Irish, the Cameronians, men from the Hertfordshire regiment, and some sepoys: 4,000 men in all – and more warships were provided. Captain the Honourable Sir George Elliot was in charge of the naval operations, joining his cousin, Charles Elliot, who was the ranking civil official in China; they were shortly to be joined by Major General Sir Hugh Gough, who took charge of the army. Their orders were to occupy Chusan, blockade Canton, deliver a letter of protest to the chief minister of the Emperor, and force the Chinese government to sign a treaty. All this was done. Chusan was occupied without a fight and British troops were left there to die in great numbers of oriental diseases; eventually a Chinese official was forced to accept the letter from England; then the British set out to capture the Bogue forts on the Bocca Tigris River between Canton and Hong Kong.

A Chinaman at Macao told a British army surgeon: ‘Same time you Englishman take that fort, same time that sky make fall down.’ But the forts were taken, the sky did not fall, and the Chinese were forced to sign, on 20 January 1841, an agreement known as the Convention of Chuenpi. In it the Chinese agreed to give Hong Kong to the British, to pay them six million dollars, to reopen trade at Canton and to deal with British officials as equals, but both the Emperor of China and Her Majesty’s government repudiated the treaty: the Emperor because his representative gave too much and Palmerston because his representative had not got enough.

The British government’s policy on China was debated in Parliament and came under attack by Gladstone, ever the champion of the noble savage, who horrified his opponents by maintaining that it was even right for the Chinese to poison wells to keep away the English. But Queen Victoria agreed with her ministers. She took such a keen interest in China that Palmerston sent her a little map of the Canton River area ‘for future reference’.

Palmerston was thoroughly disgusted with Elliot, and as for the barren little island he had acquired Palmerston told him: ‘It seems obvious that Hong Kong will not be a mart of trade.’ But the Royal Family was fascinated by the acquisition of a territory with such a quaint name as Hong Kong, and Queen Victoria wrote to Uncle Leopold to say that ‘Albert is so much amused at my having Hong Kong, and we think Victoria ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong in addition to Princess Royal’. But the Queen, reflecting Palmerston’s views, was not pleased with Charles Elliot, and in the same letter to King Leopold she expressed her displeasure: ‘The Chinese business vexes us very much and Palmerston is deeply mortified at it. All we wanted might have been got, if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot . . . who completely disobeyed his instructions and tried to get the lowest terms he could.’ Clearly, more war was wanted.

The Emperor of China, being closer to the scene, was naturally able to register his displeasure sooner than Palmerston and Queen Victoria. Elliot had not yet learned of London’s reaction to the Convention of Chuenpi, but when he saw the Chinese preparing for action he decided to strike first. Captain Elliot moved up the Bocca Tigris River, sending off landing parties to subdue the forts and defeating a squadron of forty war junks sent to stop him. The British did not hesitate to prepare an attack on the great city of Canton itself with its one million hostile inhabitants nor to pit their small force of 2,500 soldiers and 1,000 sailors and marines against a Chinese army of 45,000. They successfully occupied the heights overlooking Canton, the Chinese army retired in some confusion, and the inhabitants began to evacuate the city. At this point, much to General Gough’s disgust, Charles Elliot stopped the war and entered into negotiations with the Chinese, who agreed to pay six million dollars and to compensate the merchants for the destruction of their factories if the British would not press the attack on Canton. This deal, generally known as the ‘ransom of Canton’, was accepted.

Aside from the superior leadership and discipline of the British force, the main reason for the success of the British over such large numbers of the enemy was the inadequate weaponry of the Chinese. The army of the Manchus was not much better armed than it had been when it conquered China more than two hundred years earlier: antique muskets and even bows and arrows were in use. While the sepoys were armed with old flintlocks – which made it almost impossible to fight in the rain – the British marines were equipped with percussion-lock Brunswick muskets which, although invented thirty years earlier, had just been adopted for issue and were far superior to anything the Chinese carried.

There was a pause in the war after the ransom of Canton – and a change of faces on the China station: Charles Elliot, who had displeased his Queen and her ministers by signing the Convention of Chuenpi, was exiled to the newly created Republic of Texas, where he was appointed chargé d’affaires; he was replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger, uncle of the ‘Hero of Herat’; Captain George Elliot was invalided home and was replaced by Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker, a veteran sailor who had commanded a frigate under Nelson. Only General Gough remained. A fresh regiment, the 55th Foot (later 2nd Battalion, Border Regiment), newly equipped with Brunswick muskets, was sent out to him from India, and by August 1841 the British were ready to resume the war; an expedition was made ready and sent up the coast to attack Amoy.

It was a bold adventure. As the Duke of Wellington later told the House of Lords:

Little was known of China except its enormous population, its great extent, and its immense resources; we knew nothing of the social life of the country; we knew nothing of its communications than a scanty acquaintance with its rivers and canals; and whether their roads ran along rivers, or in any other way, nobody in this country could give any information, nor could any be acquired.

Nevertheless, Amoy was easily taken with only two killed and fifteen wounded on the British side. Moving further north, Gough took Tinglai, Chinhai and Ningpo; then the British went into winter quarters at Ningpo and Chinhai.

The spring campaign of 1842 was opened by the Chinese, who launched a massive counter-offensive, attacking the British both at Ningpo and at Chinhai. The Chinese were defeated at both places with heavy casualties. No attempt was made to count the bodies of the Chinese left on the battlefields, but old Peninsular veterans maintained that they had not seen so many dead since the siege of Badajoz. The British then moved out to attack the forts guarding the port of Hangchow. There they encountered the strongest resistance they had met within China from Tartar troops, but they captured the forts with a loss of only fifteen killed and fifty-five wounded. It was estimated that the Chinese lost more than 1,200 men, not counting the hundreds of civilians, men and women, who killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the British barbarians. Shanghai was occupied without a fight in June. There was a last battle at Chinkiang, and then the army stood before the walls of the great city of Nanking.

By now it was obvious, even to the Emperor, isolated as he was at Pekin, that the ‘foreign devils’ must be appeased, and so three Imperial Commissioners were sent to soothe the barbarians. Pottinger had his treaty terms ready and, as he would not tolerate any discussion, there was nothing for the commissioners to do but sign, which they did in August 1842. This, the Treaty of Nanking, was the first of a series of such treaties, giving special privileges to foreigners, which are known in Chinese history as the ‘unequal treaties’; they were to be a source of grievance and humiliation to the Chinese for a hundred years. The Treaty of Nanking gave the British 21 million dollars, the right to trade in five ports – the ‘treaty ports’ of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai – moderate tariff rates, legal jurisdiction over British residents, and other points concerned with trading methods. Opium was not mentioned.

What the British did not get, however, was the respect of the Chinese. Some nationalities respect naked military power, but the Chinese, at least in the last century when the most venerated man was the scholar, did not. Instead, they regarded the British much as the Romans regarded the Goths in the last days of the Empire. So, even after the war was won, the humiliating indemnification paid, and the special privileges obtained, the basic thorn of prejudice remained embedded in Anglo-Chinese relations.

From a military viewpoint, the most remarkable thing about the Opium War is that it was one of those rare occurrences when a war was successfully directed by a committee. There was no supreme commander: Gough, Parker and Pottinger were practically independent agents in China for their own branches of government. That they cooperated so well, the military, naval and diplomatic functions meshing almost perfectly, was undoubtedly due to the great tact and diplomatic skills of Sir Henry Pottinger.

Queen Victoria was pleased with the turn of events in both China and Afghanistan, and on 25 November 1842 she wrote to Sir Robert Peel saying,

The Queen wishes Sir Robert to consider, and at an early period to submit to her, his propositions as to how to recompense and how to mark her high approbation of the admirable conduct of all those meritorious persons who have by their strenuous endeavours brought about the recent brilliant successes in China and Afghanistan.

After the Treaty of Nanking, General Gough returned to India to fight the Sikhs and Mahrattas, but the Royal Navy remained on the China station throughout what historian Edgar Holt called the ‘gunboat years’. On 10 December 1846 Palmerston wrote Sir John Davis, then the British plenipotentiary in China, a significant dispatch: ‘Wherever British subjects are placed in danger, in a situation which is accessible to a British ship of war,’ he said, ‘thither a British ship of war ought to be and will be ordered, not only to go, but to remain as long as its presence may be required for the protection of British interests.’

Even when British subjects were not directly threatened, gunboats were needed on the China station to fight pirates. Between 1843 and 1851 the Royal Navy captured or destroyed about 150 pirate junks – at a considerable profit to the sailors who were paid £20 for each ‘piratical person’ killed or captured. British warships ranged as far south as Borneo in their search for pirates, and in 1845 landing parties even went ashore to destroy pirate lairs. Here they were aided by James Brooke, an Englishman who, acting on his own and without support from his government, carved out a country of his own, Sarawak, becoming its rajah in 1841.

Gunboats were also necessary from time to time to impress the Chinese afresh by seizing a fort or making menacing gestures. After 1851, when the Taiping Rebellion started, the Chinese had too many domestic problems to be over concerned with the foreigners perched on their shores, but the two races did sometimes get in each other’s way and the result was often bloody, as it was in April 1854 when the Battle of Muddy Flat was fought – on absolutely dry ground.

When an Imperial army camped on Soochow Creek near Shanghai and started to molest Europeans as well as Chinese, Rutherford Alcock, the British consul in Shanghai, demanded that the Chinese move their army elsewhere. Although Alcock had practically no force at his disposal, he couched his demand in imperious language: the camp must be moved by 4.00 p.m. the following day. The Chinese did not reply but moved a fleet of war junks up Soochow Creek to defend the camp. Alcock, with typical Victorian audacity, at once put together a tiny army of European civilians from the International Settlement, merchant seamen and a few sailors, including about a hundred men from the USS Plymouth. With two field guns and two howitzers, a drum and British and American flags, he marched off for the camp of the Imperial army. The war junks fired on them from Soochow Creek but, as Alcock had rightly anticipated, the Chinese soldiers fled when he brought his own guns into play. The battle was short and ludicrous, but 300 Chinese and four Europeans were killed.