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.



Throughout 1969 and 1970, Nixon and Kissinger focused the CIA on the secret expansion of the war in Southeast Asia. They ordered the agency to make $725,000 in political payoffs to President Thieu of South Vietnam, manipulate the media in Saigon, fix an election in Thailand, and step up covert commando raids in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

In a bleak dispatch on the eve of a world tour that took Nixon across Southeast Asia, Helms told the president about the CIA’s long war in Laos. The agency “maintained a covert irregular force of a total of 39,000 men which has borne a major share of the active fighting” against the communists, he reminded Nixon. They were the CIA’s Hmong fighters, led since 1960 by General Vang Pao. “These irregular forces are tired from eight years of constant warfare, and Vang Pao…has been forced to use 13-and 14-year-old children to replace his casualties…. The limits have largely been reached on what this agency can do in a paramilitary sense to stop the North Vietnamese advance.” Nixon responded by ordering Helms to create a new Thai paramilitary battalion in Laos to shore up the Hmong. Kissinger asked where it would be best to bomb Laos with B-52s.

While their clandestine war in Southeast Asia intensified, Nixon and Kissinger made plans for a secret rapprochement with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. To clear the way to China, they strangled the agency’s operations against the communist regime.

Over the past decade, in the name of combating Chinese communism, the CIA had spent tens of millions of dollars parachuting tons of weapons to hundreds of Tibetan guerrillas who fought for their spiritual leader, His Holiness Tenzen Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. When Allen Dulles and Desmond FitzGerald briefed Eisenhower on the operation in February 1960, “the President wondered whether the net result of these operations would not be more brutal repressive reprisals by the Chinese Communists.”

Ike approved the program nonetheless. The agency set up a training camp for the Tibetan fighters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It had paid an annual subsidy of some $180,000 directly to the Dalai Lama, and it created Tibet Houses in New York and Geneva to serve as his unofficial embassies. The goal was to keep the dream of a free Tibet alive while harassing the Red Army in western China. The results to date had been dozens of dead resistance fighters, and one bloodstained satchel of invaluable Chinese military documents seized in a firefight.

In August 1969, the agency requested $2.5 million more to support Tibet’s insurgents in the coming year, calling the 1,800-man paramilitary group “a force which could be employed in strength in the event of hostilities” against China. “Does this have any direct benefit to us?” Kissinger asked. He answered his own question. Though the CIA’s subsidy to the Dalai Lama continued, the Tibetan resistance was abandoned.

Kissinger then scuttled the remains of the CIA’s twenty-year mission to conduct clandestine operations against China.

The commando raids of the Korean War had dwindled down to desultory radio broadcasts from Taipei and Seoul, leaflets dropped on the mainland, fake news planted in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and what the agency described as “activities worldwide to denigrate and obstruct the People’s Republic of China.” The CIA kept working with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in his doomed effort to free Taiwan, unaware that Nixon and Kissinger had plans to sit down with Chairman Mao and Prime Minister Chou En-lai in Beijing.

When Kissinger finally sat down with Chou, the prime minister asked about the latest Free Taiwan campaign: “The CIA had no hand in it?”

Kissinger assured Chou that “he vastly overestimates the competence of the CIA.”

“They have become the topic of discussion throughout the world,” Chou said. “Whenever something happens in the world they are always thought of.”

“That is true,” Kissinger replied, “and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”

Chou was fascinated to learn that Kissinger personally approved the CIA’s covert operations. He voiced his suspicions that the agency was still subverting the People’s Republic.

Kissinger replied that most CIA officers “write long, incomprehensible reports and don’t make revolution.”

“You use the word revolution,” Chou said. “We say subversion.”

“Or subversion,” Kissinger conceded. “I understand. We are conscious of what is at stake in our relationship, and we will not let one organization carry out petty operations that could hinder this course.”

That was the end of that. The CIA was out of business in China for years to come.


Despite a number of vehicles having been recovered from graves and sacrificial pits, all aspects of the chariot’s employment in the ancient period pose vexing questions, particularly whether they were deployed by themselves as discrete operational units or were accompanied by either loosely or closely integrated infantry. Because even the oracular inscriptions for King Wu Ting’s well-documented reign provide few clues, and the tomb paintings recently discovered that date to the Warring States and thereafter mainly depict hunting scenes and parades, far more is known about the chariot’s physical structure than its utilization. The chariot’s essence has always been mobility, but prestige and displays of conspicuous authority rather than battlefield exploitation may have been defining factors in the Shang.

Some traditionally oriented scholars continue to assert that chariots played a significant role in Shang warfare; others deny that they were ever employed as a combat element. The Shang’s reputed employment of chariots, whether nine or seventy, to vanquish the Hsia is highly improbable given the complete absence of late seventeenth-century BCE or Erh-li-kang artifacts that might support such claims. However, Warring States writers idealistically ascribed differences in conception and operational characteristics to the Three Dynasties: “The war chariots of the Hsia rulers were called “hooked chariots,” because they put uprightness first; those of the Shang were called “chariots of the new moon,” because they put speed first; and those of the Chou were called “the source of weapons,” because they put excellence first.”

The few figures preserved in Shang dynasty oracular inscriptions, Chou bronze inscriptions, and other comparatively reliable written vestiges indicate that chariots were sparsely employed in Shang and Western Chou martial efforts. The chariot’s first recorded participation in Chinese warfare actually occurs about seven to eight hundred years after their initial utilization in the West, ironically just before the Near Eastern states would abandon them as their primary fighting component due to infantry challenges. King Wu Ting’s use of a hundred vehicle regiments for expeditionary actions, already discussed, seems to have initiated their operational deployment, though the only concrete reference to Shang chariots (ch’e) appears in the quasi-military context of the hunt.

Chariots must have been extensively employed in the late Jen-fang campaigns, but no numbers have been preserved. Thus the next semireliable figure is the universally acknowledged 300 chariots that were employed by King Wu of the Chou to penetrate the Shang’s massive troop deployment at the Battle of Mu-yeh, precipitating their collapse. Some accounts suggest that the Chou had another 50 chariots in reserve, while the number fielded by the Shang, strangely unspecified in the traditional histories, could hardly have been less than several hundred. King Wu reportedly had a thousand at his ascension, some no doubt captured from the Shang, though others may have belonged to his allies and merely been numbered among those present for the ceremony. Several hundred were also captured from the Shang’s allies in postconquest campaigns, as well as in suppressing the subsequent revolt.

Nevertheless, chariots seem to have been minimal in early Western Chou operational forces. Scattered evidence suggests that field contingents never exceeded several hundred, with as few as a hundred chariots participating in expeditionary campaigns. Although one of their efforts against the Hsien-yün resulted in the capture of 127 chariots from a supposedly “barbarian” or steppe power, King Li’s campaign against the Marquis of E seems to have been typical. Despite total enemy casualties being nearly 18,000, inscriptions on the bronze vessel known as the Hsiao-yü Ting indicate that a mere 30 chariots were captured in one clash, though a second force of 100 is also mentioned. Somewhat larger numbers were deployed slightly later in campaigns against the Wei-fang, but the maximum figure ever reported for the Western Chou, the 3,000 supposedly dispatched southward against the rising power of Ching/Ch’u in King Hsüan’s reign (827-782), is certainly exaggerated despite the king’s reputation for having revitalized Chou military affairs, as well as unreliable because it is based solely on an ode known as “Gathering Millet.”

The chariot’s effectiveness in the Shang, early Chou, and perhaps even beyond must be questioned in the face of the constraints discussed below, the difficulties that will be examined in the next section, and the lessons that can be learned from contemporary experiments with replica vehicles. However, it should be remembered that although numerous reasons can be adduced why chariots could not have functioned as generally imagined, voluminous historical literature, both Western and Asian, energetically speaks about their employment in battle. Ruling groups were still expending vast sums to build, maintain, and employ chariot forces in the Warring States period, and the Han continued to field enormous numbers against steppe enemies, incontrovertible evidence that rather than being historical chimeras or simply artifacts of military conservatism, they continued to be regarded as crucial weapons systems.

Although all the Warring States military writings contain a few brief observations on chariot operations, only two, the Wu-tzu and Liu-t’ao, preserve significant passages. Primarily important for understanding the nature of the era’s conflict, they still furnish vital clues to the chariot’s modes of employment and identify a number of inherent limitations that would have inescapably plagued the Shang and Western Chou, long before chariots would explosively multiply to become the operational focus for field forces.

Chariots were considered one of the army’s core elements: “Horses, oxen, chariots, weapons, relaxation, and an adequate diet are the army’s strength. Fast chariots, fleet infantrymen, bows and arrows, and a strong defense are what is meant by ‘augmenting the army.’” Several passages indicate that chariots were viewed as capable of “penetrating enemy formations and defeating strong enemies.” Those used in conjunction with large numbers of attached infantry and long weapons were said not only to be able to “penetrate solid formations” but also to “defeat infantry and cavalry.” “When the horses and chariots are sturdy and the armor and weapons advantageous, even a light force can penetrate deeply.” “Chariots are the feathers and wings of the army, the means to penetrate solid formations, press strong enemies, and cut off their flight.” Before the advent of cavalry, they also acted as “fleet observers, the means to pursue defeated armies, sever supply lines, and strike roving forces.”

Passages in Sun Pin’s Military Methods and other works indicate that somewhat specialized chariots evolved in the Warring States, the basic distinction being between faster (or lighter) models and heavier chariots protected by leather armor and designed for assaults. A few of even greater size and dedicated function were thought capable of accomplishing even more: “If the advance of the Three Armies is stopped, then there are the ‘Martial Assault Great Fu-hsü Chariots.’” “Great Fu-hsü Attack Chariots that carry Praying Mantis Martial warriors can attack both horizontal and vertical formations.” Variants with a smaller turning ratio, known as “Short-axle, Quick turning Spear and Halberd Fu-hsü Chariots,” might be successfully employed “to defeat both infantry and cavalry” and “urgently press the attack against invaders and intercept their flight.”

Chariots were deemed astonishingly powerful: “Chariots and cavalry are the army’s martial weapons. Ten chariots can defeat a thousand men, a hundred chariots can defeat ten thousand men.” The Liu-t’ao’s authors even ventured detailed estimates of the relative effectiveness of chariots and infantry: “After the masses of the Three Armies have been arrayed opposite the enemy, when fighting on easy terrain one chariot is equivalent to eighty infantrymen and eighty infantrymen are equivalent to one chariot. On difficult terrain one chariot is equivalent to forty infantrymen and forty infantrymen are equivalent to one chariot.”

These are startling numbers, all the more so for having been penned late in the Warring States period when states still numbered their chariots by the thousands. Even allowing for exaggeration, given that the Liu-t’ao generally reflects well-pondered experience and is a veritable compendium of Warring States military science, the era’s commanders must have had great confidence in the chariot’s capabilities. Nevertheless, it might be noted that the great T’ang dynasty commander Li Ching, upon examining these materials in the light of his own experience at a remove of a thousand years, concluded that the infantry / chariot equivalence should only be three to one.

Chariots were also employed to ensure a measured advance in the Spring and Autumn, Warring States, and later periods when they no longer functioned as the decisive means for penetration. Li Ching’s comments about his historically well-known expeditionary campaign against the Turks indicate that even in the T’ang and early Sung they were still considered the means to constrain large force movements: “When I conducted the punitive campaign against the T’u-ch’üeh we traveled westward several thousand li. Narrow chariots and deer-horn chariots are essential to the army. They allow controlling the expenditure of energy, provide a defense to the fore, and constrain the regiments and squads of five.”

Although certainly not applicable to the Shang, chariots could also be cobbled together to provide a temporary defense, particularly the larger versions equipped with protective roofs. The authors of the great Sung dynasty military compendium, the Wu-ching Tsung-yao, after (somewhat surprisingly) commenting that “the essentials of employing chariots are all found in the ancient military methods,” concluded that “the methods for chariot warfare can trample fervency, create strong formations, and thwart mobile attacks. When in motion vehicles can transport provisions and armaments, when halted can be circled to create encampment defenses.”

Numerous examples of employing chariots as obstacles or for exigent defense are seen as early as the Spring and Autumn period. The later military writings cite several Han dynasty exploitations of “circled wagons” being employed as temporary bastions, including three incidents in which beleaguered commanders expeditiously deployed their chariots much as Jan Ziska would in the West to successfully withstand significantly superior forces. Sometimes the wheels were removed, but generally the chariots were simply maneuvered into a condensed array.


Based on burial patterns and traditional texts, it has been strongly, but perhaps erroneously, argued that three warriors manned the Chinese chariot from inception: an archer who normally stood on the left, the driver who controlled the horses from the middle of the compartment, and a warrior on the right who wielded some sort of shock weapon. Nevertheless, graves with only one or two warriors interred with a chariot are common in the Shang, the Tso Chuan occasionally refers to a fourth rider as if his presence was unusual but not exceptional, and a few Eastern Chou incidents note only two occupants.

Sun Pin’s comment that “those who excel at archery should act as the left, those who excel at driving should act as drivers, and those who lack both skills should act as the right” indicates that driving a chariot was also considered a specialized skill. Archery and charioteering would continue to comprise two of the six essential components of the chün-tzu or gentleman’s education known as the liu yi through the end of the Spring and Autumn period and into the early Warring States, even though Confucius personally disdained charioteering and has been generally perceived as disparaging warfare.

Contrary to possible impression that chariot service imposed lesser physical demands on the occupants than on the average foot soldier, outstanding conditioning and ability seem to have been required: “The rule for selecting chariot warriors is to pick men under forty years of age, seven feet five inches or taller, with the ability to pursue a galloping horse, catch it, mount it, and ride it forward and back, left and right, up and down, all around. They should be able to quickly furl up the flags and pennants, and have the strength to fully draw an eight picul crossbow. They should practice shooting front and back, left and right, until thoroughly skilled.” Incidents in the Tso Chuan confirm that great strength and courage were necessary for the chariot’s occupants to survive the rigors of battle and that constant training was needed to ride in a chariot and simultaneously shoot an arrow.

Apart from acting as an integral component capable of mounting penetrating attacks and engaging other chariots, the mobility provided by chariots had the potential to radically affect the course of battle. However, their actual mode of employment in the Shang remains uncertain despite deeply held traditional explanations. Nevertheless, only three possibilities exist: serving as a command platform for the officers at various levels; providing an elevated platform for observation and archery; and simply transporting the occupants to points on the battlefield, where they fought dismounted as in Western antiquity.

Even though oracular inscriptions have been interpreted as indicating that war chariots were sometimes called up in contingents of a hundred, because of their minimal numbers and novelty most Shang chariots must have been reserved for members of the ruling clan, high-ranking officials, and important officers dispersed across the battlefield. Initially they would have served as transport throughout the several days typically required to reach the battleground and then as mobile command platforms during the engagement.

When the effects of the axle, mounting bar, and box structure are included, the fighters standing in the chariot were elevated at least two and a half feet above the ground. This facilitated observing the battlefield and allowed ancient China’s highly skilled archers to shoot over the heads of any accompanying infantry at the enemy. However, their increased visibility also exposed the officers to attack and identified them as prime targets for enemy archers and spearmen.

Whether even the most skilled archers could maintain their vaunted performance levels despite the bouncing, jostling, and instability experienced while standing in a racing chariot seems problematic. Nevertheless, a few Spring and Autumn episodes recount instances of surpassing skill not just in shooting at ground forces, but also in targeting other warriors in rapidly moving vehicles. For example, even though he was fleeing during the Battle of An in 589 BCE, Duke Ch’ing of Ch’i refused to allow his archer to shoot Han Ch’üeh, who was pursuing him in another chariot, because he was a chün-tzu (gentleman). The archer therefore shot and killed the two occupants standing on either side of Han Ch’üeh.

Even if these incidents are not highly embellished or outright fabrications, they were probably recorded simply because of their exceptional or infrequent nature, thereby implying warriors on rapidly moving chariots rarely achieved such mastery. Questions remain, and the evidence is simply insufficient for a definitive conclusion, but insofar as the infantry dominated Shang and early Chou battlefields, chariot-mounted bowmen need not have been particularly accurate to strike down enemy soldiers with a flurry of arrows aimed in their general direction.

Considerable textual and archaeological evidence indicates that the chariot’s occupants had specialized functions, but the placing of complete weapons sets—a bow and dagger-axe—with both the archer and the warrior on the right side in one tomb at Hsiao-t’un suggests that both occupants may have functioned as archers in the Shang, when the shortness of their piercing weapons would have precluded direct chariot-to-chariot combat. On the other hand, the shields occasionally found in chariot graves, even though probably employed by the warrior on the right in conjunction with his dagger-axe, may have been used to protect the archer during battle, a mode known in the West as well.

After employing missile fire at a distance, closing with the enemy, and becoming caught in the melee, the chariot’s occupants would have had to dismount to engage in close combat because their shock weapons only averaged three feet in length, far too short to strike anyone while standing two and a half feet above the ground in a chariot compartment inset from the wheels and isolated by the bulk of the horses. Whether commanders continued to remain aloof or, far more likely, every Shang clansman was a fighter remains unknown. However, one warrior’s famous refusal to fight dismounted in the Spring and Autumn suggests that the prestige of being a chariot warrior carried considerable emotional weight and that later eras did not view chariots simply as battle taxis, whatever their function in Shang warfare.



Despite extensive speculation, how the chariot and any accompanying forces may have been coordinated remains murky and confused. Operationally the crucial question is whether the foot soldiers, if any, were nominally attached or were integrated in some sort of close spatial configuration that would enable the commander to direct them in the execution of basic tactics. Vestiges in the oracular records, bronze inscriptions, and traditional historical works note soldier-to-chariot ratios ranging from 10:1 to 300:1, with those preserved from the early Chou commonly being 10:1, a reasonable contingent to have been commanded by a chariot officer. However, significant variation is seen with the passage of time, and standing ratios for states in the late Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods lack consistency. Operational and historical discussions in the military writings describe attached contingents as numbering anywhere from 10 or 25 through 72 (plus 3 officers), even as many as 150, further complicating any assessment of prebattle formations and tactical deployments, both of which varied over time and were subject to local organizational differences, as in Ch’u.

Battle accounts and memorial inscriptions perhaps offer a more realistic picture. When chariots were few in comparison with total troop strength, as in the Shang, the overall battlefield ratio was doubtless much higher. According to Shang oracle inscriptions, 100 chariots were occasionally assigned to a fighting force of 3,000, with the chariots apparently acting as an operational group rather than being dispersed and accompanied by a designated number of infantry. Traditional accounts also indicate that the Chou vanguard that penetrated the Shang lines at the battle of Mu-yeh consisted of 3,000 tiger warriors accompanied by 300 chariots. Although this is a highly realistic 10:1 ratio, given the assault’s ferocity the 10 may have simply been running behind their assigned vehicles.

Based on 100 chariots being accompanied by 1,000 men, the famous Yü Ting, dating to the reign of King K’ang of the Chou (1005-978 BCE), similarly indicates a ratio of 10:1. The 100 chariots that had to be dispatched as reinforcements in the conflict with the marquis of E were also basically accompanied by 1,000 men, even though supplemented by another 200 in support. Despite being a Warring States work, the Kuan-tzu indicates that feudal lords were enfeoffed with 100 chariots and 1,000 men and that major lords were expected to supply 200 chariots and 2,000 men for military efforts, minor ones (hsiao hou) only 100 chariots and 1,000 men. However, several other ratios are also recorded, including 300 chariots accompanied by 5,000 men and 800 chariots with 30,000 men; a taxation system specifies seven armored soldiers and five guards for each of the chariot’s four horses, yielding an odd number of 48 men per chariot; and the state of Ch’i supposedly had 100,000 armored soldiers but only 5,000 chariots, still an astonishing number, for a 20:1 ratio.

With the inception of specialized vehicles for dedicated purposes, the ratios were apparently revised and troops attached only to certain vehicles such as the attack chariots. Although the configurations described in texts such as the Liu-t’ao may never have been deployed, they incontrovertibly conjoin ground troops with chariots, further supporting the link’s historicity. However, even if one or another of these ratios characterized Shang armies, the problem of how the accompanying infantry actually functioned in any era remains unresolved, because the early military writings fail to provide any useful information.

The only evidence to date for the existence of prescribed numbers of men being attached to Shang chariots is an intriguing aggregation of graves at Yin-hsü that has rather controversially been interpreted as an array intended to deliberately depict the composition of a chariot company and therefore prompted claims that the late Shang fully integrated ground troops with chariots in an organized manner. The excavators have categorized the graves into eleven types based on the occupants and accompanying artifacts, ten of which are seen as having direct martial implications. Mainly slain by decapitation, all the occupants appear to have been sacrificed on site rather than brought for interment after dying in battle or other violent circumstances.

Five chariot graves laid out in a roughly T-shaped pattern comprise the core of the contingent. Two are offset at the ends of the T; the other three are arrayed in an essentially vertical line that commences somewhat below, giving the group a south-facing orientation. On the assumption that each grave contains one chariot and a crew of three warriors armed in the traditional manner, the site apparently preserves the first concrete evidence that the five-chariot company, long pronounced as a virtual matter of faith, actually existed.

A horizontal line of five graves, each of which contains five warriors with red-pigmented bones, runs across in front of the chariot group, apparently the contingent’s vanguard. Although analysts immediately concluded that they represent the so-called provocateurs employed in later warfare to enrage the enemy and raise the fighting spirit of one’s own troops, the sole reference found in the oracle bones to dispatching a small forward contingent shows a unit of thirty horses being employed as an advance element. Therefore, if the practice of deliberate provocation in early Chinese warfare ever existed other than in the imagination of historical writers, its inception should be traced to the Spring and Autumn, not projected back into the Shang, with small units subsequently being employed in Warring States warfare to deliberately probe the enemy.

More or less to the right of the chariot group lie three groups of graves containing a total of 125 young, strong fighters, some complete but others just skulls, variously distinguished by the presence of ritual objects, red pigment on their bones or skulls, and some sort of headband, all deemed indicative of rank. Without becoming entangled by the numerous details engendered by these finds and the several controversies prompted by their imaginative interpretation, it appears that these burials constitute a contingent assigned to the chariot company.

This force apparently was based on the squad of five, the standard number that would essentially underpin Chinese military structure for the next three millennia. Each squad had an officer, but rather than twenty-five squads there were only twenty, giving a base of 100, a number that well coheres with the Shang practices and penchant for units of 100 and 1,000. Because four higher-level commanders are distinguishable, the twenty squads were apparently grouped into units of five. With the addition of the contingent’s commander, the total reaches the subsequently sacrosanct number of 125 and would essentially cohere with the Chou Li articulation of 100 men to a tsu, but only on the assumption that the officers were not encompassed by the century.36 However, if the officers are excluded and the twenty-five men in the vanguard seen as an integral part of the infantry contingent, the number would again reach the magic 125.

A third aggregation of graves marked by a wide variety of utensils and weapons individually interred with single bodies has been interpreted as representative of the full range of support personnel required by the chariot company. Apart from two officials who seem to have had responsibility for overseeing the food and beverages, they appear to have been divided into groups of five and seven, with the former entrusted with responsibility for the weapons, the latter various other vessels, including the portable stoves and associated utensils. Further confirmation is seen in a grave that contains ten sheep, apparently the contingent’s mobile food supply.

It has been concluded that these graves show that Shang contingents were systematically organized around the chariots and that the additional ground forces were merely supplementary or auxiliary. However, even though the burials certainly seem to represent a deliberate array intended to honor the king, a few objections have been raised and a number of questions remain. Most prominent among the latter is whether, as evidenced by a certain arbitrariness in selecting the graves for inclusion, the military organization discussed in Warring States writings is not being projected back onto the Shang.38 In addition, issues of chronology have apparently been ignored in several instances, because a couple of the graves overlap or intrude upon others, evidence of either sloppiness (which is unlikely given the precision of Shang palace and tomb construction) or ignorance of previous burials, synonymous with the absence of any intent to execute a grand design.

Somewhat broader questions might also be raised, including whether this array is merely an idealization, a deployment appropriate solely for the march rather than any operational utilization just as units paraded in review throughout history, or even a form of organization that only characterized the king’s personal force. This would explain the apparent overstaffing with support personnel, an extremely inefficient and unrealistic approach for a field army, even though later traditions suggest a small contingent entrusted with such responsibilities was attached to chariot squads.

How this contingent would operate on the battlefield also remains unknown. Presumably the vanguard of twenty-five protected the chariots during the archery exchange, but if they raced ahead on foot during the move to melee, the speed advantage of the chariots would be lost. If the chariots dispersed during the engagement, these elite ground fighters could have been assigned as accompanying infantry, one squad to a chariot, for protection. But similar questions also plague any understanding of the function of the 125 men deployed on the right, whether they operated in aggregate as close support, as dispersed units of 25, or shed any connection with the chariots in the chaos of battle, the most likely possibility.

Despite these significant issues, with allowance for possible chronological problems and considerable arbitrariness in selecting the graves, it appears that the aggregate preserves the elements of a late Shang military formation. Nevertheless, the foot soldiers constitute the true power, and as the era of chariot-to-chariot combat had not yet dawned, they no doubt bore the brunt of the fighting subsequent to the initial archery exchanges. Rather than being a key fighting element, the dagger-axe warrior on the chariot probably acted as a bodyguard for the archer, while the driver merely controlled the chariot, presumably under the direction of the archer.

Formations for advancing, prebattle methods of deployment, and alignments for combat (such as seen in the Liu-t’ao) were eventually developed for the chariots, infantry, and chariots intermixed with infantry, possibly beginning in the early Chou. However, dismissing assertions that King T’ang employed nine chariots in a goose formation, the only pre-Warring States confirmation that chariot formations had begun to evolve is a debate found embedded in the Tso Chuan over whether it or the crane formation should be employed for the chariots. Moreover, assertions that the platoons were deployed to the left and right only increase the degree of puzzlement, because in the reality of fervent combat the chariots would have had to shed them to act as a rapid penetrating force, enjoy the requisite freedom of maneuver, and pursue fleeing enemies.

Unless the chariots were broadly dispersed, conjoining more than a few men to them would simply have clogged the immediate area. Mobile combat becoming impossible, the chariot would have been reduced to functioning as an archery platform and localized command point. Presumably this is the reason the Liu-t’ao’s authors subsequently devised a rather dispersed deployment: “For battle on easy terrain five chariots comprise one line. The lines are forty paces apart and the chariots ten paces apart from left to right, with detachments being sixty paces apart. On difficult terrain the chariots must follow the roads, with ten comprising a company, and twenty a regiment. Front to rear spacing should be twenty paces, left to right six paces, with detachments being thirty-six paces apart.” This dispersed formation would allow enemy chariots to pass through while providing the necessary operational space for maneuver.

All the military writers considered open terrain to be ideal ground for chariot operations. The great middle Warring States strategist Sun Pin therefore continued to advocate exploiting it with chariots (and cavalry) even when confronted by superior infantry strength:

Suppose our army encounters the enemy and both establish encampments. Our chariots and cavalry are numerous but our men and weapons few. If the enemy’s men are ten times ours, how should we attack them?

To attack them carefully avoid ravines and narrows. Break out and lead them, coercing them toward easy terrain. Even though the enemy is ten times [more numerous], [easy terrain] will be conducive to our chariots and cavalry and our Three Armies will be able to attack.

Tso Chuan depictions of Spring and Autumn military clashes frequently reduce the chariot’s role to facilitating the exchange of provocative taunts and initiating individualized combat between chivalrous warriors—highly romanticized, unrealistic portraits of bravado that had little impact on the battle’s outcome—yet instances of massed chariot charges undertaken across relatively open terrain are also recorded. The ultimate chariot clash occurred in the spring of 632 BCE at the epochal Battle of Ch’eng-p’u, wherein a coalition of older, northern states vanquished imperious Ch’u’s initial thrust out of the south into the Chinese heartland. Although the rarity of Shang and steppe chariots precludes such clashes from having arisen in antiquity, it can still be pondered as an example of the potential effectiveness of employing chariot contingents en masse. Chin’s commanders secured victory through several unorthodox measures, including targeting the enemy’s weakest components:

When they had finished cutting down the trees, Chin’s forces deployed north of Hsin. Hsü Ch’en, in his role as assistant commander for Chin’s Lower Army, deployed opposite the forces from Ch’en and Ts’ai [allied with Ch’u].

When Tzu Yü, accompanied by six companies of Juo-ao clan troops, assumed command of Ch’u’s Central Army, he said: “Today will certainly see the end of Chin!” Tzu Hsi was in command of Ch’u’s Army of the Left and Tzu Shang their Army of the Right.

Hsü Ch’en covered their horses in tiger skins and initiated the engagement by assaulting the troops from Ch’en and Ts’ai. Their troops fled and Ch’u’s right wing crumbled.

Hu Mao [of Chin] set out two pennons and withdrew his forces. Meanwhile Luan Chih [of Chin] had his chariots feign a withdrawal, dragging faggots behind them. When Ch’u’s forces raced after them, Yüan Chen and Hsi Chen cut across the battlefield to suddenly strike them with the Duke’s own clan forces. Hu Mao and Hu Yen [of Chin] then mounted a pincer attack on Tzu Hsi’s army that resulted in Ch’u’s left wing being shattered and Ch’u’s forces decisively defeated. Tzu Yü gathered his clan forces and desisted from further action, avoiding personal defeat.

Two actions shaped the battle’s course and determined its outcome. First, Hsü Ch’en’s elite warriors initiated contact with an unexpected, concentrated thrust while the preliminary posturing was probably still under way. Its surprising fervency shattered Ch’u’s insecure allies deployed on the right wing, giving Chin’s forces unconstricted mobility and exposing the field to flanking attacks. Second, coordinated feigned retreats by Chin’s right wing and elements of the left wing that had not participated in the initial thrust, masked by clouds of dust that were deliberately created by the branches that had been cut down and attached to the rear of the chariots, easily drew the overconfident Ch’u armies forward in a disordered attack. Presumably Ch’u’s central forces, under Tzu Yü’s personal command, also moved forward to exploit Chin’s retreat and engage any remaining center forces; otherwise, the Tso Chuan account would not have noted that Tzu Yü “gathered his personal forces and desisted.”

In the swirl of battle all the actions were obviously performed by chariot forces exploiting their mobility, any infantry forces that were present having been left behind, perhaps as ensconced forces defending fallback positions. Therefore chariot clashes of the type envisioned by many traditional historians, reputedly common in the second millennium BCE in the West, not only could, but did, occur. The Art of War, which presumably reflects late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States warfare, specifically speaks of “chariot encounters,” implying that these were separate actions that didn’t entail infantry participation: “In chariot encounters, when ten or more chariots are captured, reward the first to get one. Change their flags and pennants to ours, intermix and employ them with our own chariots.”

Somewhat later, while admonishing his 50,000 troops and 500 chariot commanders prior to engaging Ch’in in a major clash, Wu Ch’i proclaimed: “All the officers must confront, follow, and capture the enemy’s chariots, cavalry, and infantry. If the chariots do not make prisoners of the enemy’s chariots, the cavalry not make prisoners of the enemy’s cavalry, and the infantry not take the enemy’s infantry, even if we forge an overwhelming victory no one will be credited with any achievements.” His pronouncement would seem to imply that the three component forces targeted their counterparts rather than engaging in a general melee or that the infantry was tied to the chariots.

As their numbers increased in later eras, rather than just being employed as a single mass, chariots were segmented into operational units ranging from a basic three—center, left, and right—to more tactically specific contingents controlled by drums. However, the low number of just 100 per army in the Shang probably precluded any subdividing, though some analysts have suggested groups of 30 may have been employed. The Shang and early Chou probably mark the transitional period when the chariot’s role had not yet been defined and individual chariots had not yet been integrated with accompanying infantry, a stage that would require rethinking, apportionment, and the development of training and operating procedures to avoid the battlefield chaos that would inevitably result if the chariots were merely added to the mix of combatants.

Chinese Civil War: Air and Naval Forces 1946-49

Supermarine Spitfire F Mk. 24, aircraft “65” (s/n 50-0751) of 21st FS, 4th FG, Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF)

HMS Aurora was sold on 19 May 1948 to the Chinese Navy as compensation for six Chinese Custom patrol ships and one freighter that the British seized in Hong Kong and lost during the war. She was renamed Chung King and became the flagship of Chinese navy. On 25 February 1949 her crew defected to the Communists and the ship was renamed Tchoung King, a variation on her previous name. In March 1949 she was sunk in Taku harbour by Nationalist aircraft. She was later salvaged with Russian assistance but then stripped bare as “repayment”. The empty hulk spent the rest of her life as an accommodation and warehouse ship, being subsequently renamed Hsuang Ho (1951), Pei Ching (1951) and Kuang Chou. Her name tablet and shipbell were preserved in Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution.

At the beginning of the Chinese Civil War the Nationalist Air Force – with a reported strength of 1,000 aircraft of all types – had complete air superiority over the Communists. The Nationalists were equipped with a mix of modern US-supplied aircraft like the P-51D Mustang and captured Japanese types like the KI-43 and KI-61 fighters. Bombers were again left-overs from the pre-1945 air force, including the US Mitchell bomber and the Soviet Tupolev SB-2 light bomber. By 1948 the Nationalist Air Force had been reduced to a fraction of its 1945 strength but had one medium and one heavy bomber group, with a mixture of aircraft: 29 US-supplied B24 Liberators, 23 B25 Mitchells, plus a handful of ex-Japanese planes like the KI-48 were also still in service. In addition the Nationalists had 36 Mosquito dive bombers which served in a composite group with four B25s. There were four fighter groups with a total of 139 P-51Ds and 29 older P47s and four of the obsolete P40s dating back to the pre-1941 era. The transport wing of the Nationalist Air Force, which was to prove vital in supplying isolated garrisons, had two groups with a total of 125 C46s and 45 C47 Dakotas. The performance of the Nationalist Air Force during the civil war was mixed with the combat units being poorly led and badly organized. Structures left in place by the US 14th Air Force in 1945, including a large store of spare parts, should have been sufficient to keep the Nationalist Air Force in the air. However, a shortage of skilled ground crew and the corruption of officers meant that at any time a large proportion of available aircraft were grounded. This being said the air force was in almost constant action throughout the war and its transport wing was instrumental in keeping many isolated Nationalist garrisons supplied. Bombers and fighters were reported to often fly too high to be effective against ground targets but there were too few of them to affect the outcome of the war in any case. By March 1949 the majority of Nationalist aircraft had been flown to Taiwan as Chiang Kai-shek began to build up the defences of his island bastion.

The Communists had been supplied by the Soviet Union with a small number of captured Japanese aircraft after 1945. These included at least one example of each of the Ki43, Ki44, Ki55, Ki61 and Ki84 fighters as well as Ki30 and Ki51 attack aircraft. They also received a few Ki48 medium bombers and various trainers and reconnaissance aircraft. Communist crews were trained at an aviation school in Yenan and were joined by `volunteer’ pilots from the Japanese Imperial Air Force. During the civil war a number of Nationalist pilots defected to the Communists with their aircraft and these were then sent back into action after the red star insignia had been added to their planes. In 1949 the Communists captured 1,400 Nationalist aviation technicians in Shanghai, and used them to open a flying school for the PLA.

Although the Nationalist Navy during the civil war was small it faced no opposition from the Communists who had no seagoing vessels at all. Its boats were limited to commandeered junks which were used to transport troops on the inland waterways. The Nationalist Navy had a few larger ships, including the cruiser Chungking which was the ex-HMS Aurora, and a few survivors of the 1937-45 period. Most of its vessels were gunboats and other coastal patrol boats as well as 130 or so ex-US Navy landing craft. These vessels were very useful for moving Nationalist units up and down the Chinese coastline during the early days of the civil war. By 1949 the Nationalist Navy was divided into three squadrons with a total of three destroyers, six destroyer escorts, 34 various types of landing ships, and a number of gunboats and auxiliary ships. As with the other services, the Nationalist Navy had lost heart by early 1949 and it was no surprise when several ships, including the Chungking, went over to the Communists.

Chinese Air Force to 1939

In early February 1939, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang invited to their residence in Chungking the new British air attaché in China, Group Captain Robert Stanley Aitken of the Royal Air Force. Over tea, he hoped to find out more about their requests to buy British aircraft and bring RAF advisers to China to reform the air force. Madame interpreted for her husband in flawless English with a slight southern accent. She told Aitken that the administration of the air force was “absolutely rotten” and offered poor value for money. On Chiang’s behalf she stated, “We have had to do without a Navy, we would be better off without a rotten Air Force.” She claimed that the British would have “carte blanche” to reorganize China’s air ministry, the Commission on Aeronautic Affairs (CoAA), and the air force.

This was not the first time that the Chinese Air Force and its “ministry” had been labeled as rotten. In October 1936, Aitken’s predecessor, Wing Commander Harold Kerby, reported that China’s ruling couple were “thoroughly disgusted” by standards at the main flight school at Hangchow and described its white buildings as “a cloak for the rottenness within.” At the end of the month, the generalissimo appointed his wife as chairman of the CoAA. Chiang’s chief air adviser at that time was General Silvio Scaroni of Italy’s Regia Aeronautica. He warned Madame Chiang, “Your Air Force is rotten and as a weapon of war, it is entirely useless.”

Rarely if ever did foreign military attachés have anything good to say about China’s air force or army. The founding father of such critiques was Major John Magruder, who served as the US military attaché in Peking from 1926 to 1930. He would later return to China in the autumn of 1941 as the head of the American Military Mission to China (AMMISCA). In an April 1931 article for Foreign Affairs, Magruder described the Chinese as “practical pacifists.” Whereas Japan had a deep reverence for the fighting man, according to Magruder, the Chinese had no martial spirit, and with the exception of an increased use of machine guns, the Chinese had hardly modernized their armed forces. Military aviation was in a “period of transition from military stage property to a moral auxiliary,” and the Chinese army did not regard it as “a necessary arm”; owing to the inferior performance of army air bureaus, the air force was an “an overrated scarecrow.”

CAF pilots fought bravely in the first three months of the Sino-Japanese War but lacked leadership as well as reserves to prolong the war in the air. When the conflict began on July 7, 1937, Japan’s air forces had outnumbered the CAF by four to one: Japan had 620 army planes with 25 percent reserves, and 600 navy aircraft, all produced by Japanese manufacturers. The Chinese had only 250 airworthy planes, all of which were imported: 230 came from the United States, the rest from Italy or Germany. By the end of November 1937, the CAF had lost all its prewar stock and was down to about 27 planes.

After the air force collapsed, the Chinese started to rely on Russian airplanes and pilots. In August 1937, Chiang had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, which became the basis for military assistance. The terms of the pact featured low-interest loans with which the Chinese could buy hardware, especially aircraft. Planes began to arrive in November 1937. Over the next three years the Nationalists received a total of nine hundred Soviet planes, of which 80 percent were delivered by the end of 1939.

With equipment came advisers, and the mission known as Operation Zet began to expand. In the Soviet Union the pilots achieved heroic status comparable to that of the Flying Tigers in the United States. In January to February 1938, Russian crews carried out 150 bombing missions against the enemy. By the end of the year, three hundred Russians were involved in Chinese military aviation. Nor was their service risk-free: from 1937 to 1940 some two hundred Russian volunteers died in China.

Operation Zet was so well established by 1938 that the Chinese Air Force seemed to have transferred its loyalty from the Chiangs to the Russians. Such was the conclusion of the assistant US naval attaché, Marine Corps captain James McHugh, who during a long tour in China for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported in detail not only about military aviation but also about the intrigues of the generalissimo’s family circle involving his various Soong in-laws. McHugh was of enormous influence in shaping how the US Navy perceived the shifts of power in the Nationalist regime, as well as at the State Department through his special reports to the US ambassador, Nelson Johnson.

At the end of February 1938, Madame Chiang gave up her chairmanship of the CoAA. Exhausted and in ill health, she retired from aviation affairs and persuaded her brother T. V. Soong to take over as chairman of the CoAA. As McHugh reported, Soong was content to let the Russians assume responsibility for the country’s air defense because they provided much-needed credit and better airplanes than the “superseded models” available from the United States. In a letter to Bill Pawley, Bruce Leighton also observed that Dr. Kung was “relinquishing all initiative in the purchase of aircraft . . . and passing it all over into the hands . . . of T. V.” From 1933 to 1938, Dr. Kung in his role as finance minister had handled nearly all negotiations with Bill Pawley of Intercontinent to buy Curtiss-Wright “Hawk” fighter planes. In 1933, Pawley and Kung set up a joint venture between three American partners—Intercontinent, Curtiss-Wright, and Douglas Aviation—and the Nationalist government: the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) was designed to save the Chinese government money on the cost of importing planes in their large principal parts—fuselage, wing, and motor. The arrangement was to take advantage of lower labor costs and local raw material to make certain parts in China and assemble the planes there.

This business model worked well until the outbreak of war, which had the effect of greatly increasing the cost of plane parts from the United States and inducing the Chinese to rely on less-costly Russian equipment. In April 1938, Leighton noted that the USSR provided planes at costs that were much lower than anything Intercontinent could offer. Therefore, the prospects for selling American planes were “far from brilliant.” By October 1938, the Nationalists had 207 airworthy combat planes, of which 95 were Russian and 80 were American. There also were 14 French Dewoitines, 10 British Gloster Gladiators, and 8 German Henschel bombers.

  1. V. Soong willingly accepted dependence on Soviet aid, but others in the family circle were uneasy about it, especially Dr. Kung and Madame Chiang and her closest confidant, W. H. Donald. Donald gave special briefings to British diplomats, particularly the air attachés. At the end of 1937, Harold Kerby reported Donald’s suspicions that the Russians and Japanese would settle their differences and carve up China between themselves. Two years later, Aitken, the air attaché, discovered that “mention of the Russians was not welcome”: Madame Chiang flatly commented that “they [the Russians] look after themselves,” while others confirmed that “they will not talk.” Aitken surmised that absolute secrecy was one of the conditions of Soviet aid, and if that condition were broken, Stalin might withdraw his helping hand. There were reports that Russian pilots were just using China as a “sort of training ground.” Even so, the Russians inspired universal respect for their courage and efficiency when they chose to fight; they appeared to be in China for the long term, as some eighty Sino-Russian interpreters were teaching Chinese personnel to speak Russian.

Donald had invited Aitken to come to Chungking and arranged his appointments. He too told the new British air attaché that the air force was in a hopeless state, mainly because of its incompetent officers: Donald singled out for special sanction General Mao Pang-chu (also known as Peter or P. T. Mow), the head of air operations. Because General Mao was “irresponsible and corrupt,” Chiang had appointed General T. C. Chien (Chien Ta-chun), a loyal and honest army officer, to replace him as head of the air force. General Chien, however, knew so little about aviation that he had to rely on Mao for guidance. Madame Chiang asked Aitken to keep the real nature of his visit a secret from T. C. Chien, who proved to be equally cagey toward Aitken. When the latter asked for hard numbers about air force capability, the former said that he could not possibly release these to a British air attaché.

To his surprise, Aitken found that General Mao spoke more common sense about aviation than anyone else, even if he was a “corrupt scoundrel.” His was a pragmatic approach to combat: pilots engaged the enemy only if they had a reasonable chance of success, and they were not allowed to “indulge in heroic deeds against impossible odds.” He showed Aitken a new air force chart that featured at the top the generalissimo, Madame Chiang, and her brother T. V. Soong, as well as a few military men. In Aitken’s view the organization was nothing more than “a heterogeneous collection of terminologies bunched indiscriminately in groups.”

At Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, Aitken met the senior CAF officer in charge of flight instruction, General Chow (Chou Chih-jou), as well as the chief instructor, an American called Colonel Chennault. The conversation was hampered by language difficulties, the evasiveness of Chow, and the deafness of Colonel Chennault. When Aitken asked Chennault what he thought of Mao’s new organization chart, the latter dismissed it as “hopeless” but had no views on improving it: Aitken surmised that “organization was not his forte.”

Aitken understood that there were a dozen or so American Army Air Corps reserve officers training CAF cadets. By all accounts, however, the Americans had poor relations with their students as well as with Chinese officers, who resented the Americans telling them how to teach. There had been a “mutiny” at one school when Chinese instructors told cadets that once they had flown solo, they did not have to mind their American superiors.

One of the American instructors was William MacDonald, an old flying companion of Chennault. In the mid-1930s, Mac had been a wingman in the latter’s AAC aerobatic trio, Three Men on a Flying Trapeze. Although Mac refused to admit that he had flown combat missions, he nonetheless alluded to one: he had tried to instill a true sense of loyalty and duty in Chinese crews, but the first time that he led them against an equal number of Japanese (nine), they deserted him immediately. Aitken understood that MacDonald received a handsome reward for each enemy aircraft that he brought down. When the Chinese reduced his bonus to “a thousand dollars gold,” by which he meant a thousand US dollars, MacDonald objected that on those terms the Chinese could “shoot the blankety things down themselves.”

Aitken got hold of a questionnaire in which Chennault listed for the generalissimo the CAF’s countless defects: weak organization, poor training, bad discipline, and lack of initiative on the part of Chinese personnel, as well as the shortage of reserve aircraft and spare parts. In his view, pilot error due to unsound and inadequate training had caused the air force to lose half its planes in the first six months of the Sino-Japanese War. Nonetheless Chennault believed that Chinese pilots, if properly drilled and equipped, could carry out “guerrilla air action” against Japanese supply lines. The CAF already had a few Curtiss Hawk 75 planes suitable for such air strikes, and he recommended the procurement of more long-range single-seater fighter planes armed with heavy guns or cannon. Aitken disagreed with Chennault’s tactics on the grounds that fighter planes flying over long distances would be vulnerable to enemy attack. Given their air superiority, the Japanese could easily destroy whatever equipment the Chinese might deploy.

Although the CAF seemed to be a lost cause, the Chiangs gave every indication of wanting to reform and revive it. On December 13, 1938, US diplomats in Chungking had reported that the generalissimo was intent on “revamping and expanding the Chinese Air Force.” The government also was about to sign a large contract for planes to be built at a new CAMCO factory located in Yunnan Province. Aitken, however, made no mention of these significant developments. It would appear that the Chinese managed to keep secret their renewed commercial relations with the Intercontinent Corporation, its partner in CAMCO. In December 1938, after a yearlong break, Dr. H. H. Kung resumed his responsibility for American aircraft procurement. He entertained tenders from Bill Pawley as well as another aircraft broker, A. L. “Pat” Patterson. Kung was in the market to buy as many as three hundred new American combat planes from one or the other.

At about this time, Kung also approached the British ambassador to China, Archibald Clark Kerr, about securing export credits worth £10 million to purchase aircraft. Kung raised the possibility of building an aircraft assembly plant at the port of Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma, from which finished planes could be flown to Yunnan Province. This might be necessary because, as Kung pointed out, the transport of oversize aircraft parts on the Burma Road would prove “extremely difficult.”

In February 1939, Aitken was aware of the proposal for a Chinese-owned aircraft factory in Burma. In his secret report, he took issue with the idea of allowing any foreign interests to build and operate aircraft factories “in our possessions.” He concluded, however, that a few RAF officers should come to China to promote British aircraft because they might have a better chance than any other foreign agents to gain a foothold in that market.

Such was the conundrum that enveloped Chinese military aviation during 1938 and 1939. On the one hand, Chiang wanted airpower but had no faith in Chinese subordinates to deliver it. On the other hand, he could not dispense with the Chinese element of air defense: no matter how incompetent senior air force officers might be, the generalissimo needed an air force manned by his own people for the sake of prestige, if nothing else.

Since the Chinese were entirely dependent on foreign planes, foreign personnel were always required to teach the Chinese how to man and maintain their imported equipment. The Chiangs presided over an air organization that resembled the spokes of a wheel: foreign experts had little interaction with each other and formed separate relationships with the CAF clique that flew American, Italian, or Russian aircraft. At the hub was the generalissimo, who demanded the loyalty of foreign as well as Chinese air personnel. The Chinese saw nothing contradictory about the Soviet Union providing nearly all aircraft and personnel for air operations while they themselves explored the possibility of engaging RAF officers to reform the air ministry, the CoAA.

The Chiangs had learned no lessons from past experience about the drawbacks that such cohabitation inflicted on the air force. For example, from 1933 to 1937, thanks to misguided procurement policies, the Chinese ended up with an official Italian air mission, as well as a privately organized group of American flight instructors. The commander of the American group was Colonel John Jouett, a retired officer of the US Army Air Corps. In 1934, he stated categorically that “oil and water cannot mix and it cannot be expected that Italians and Americans with totally different racial characteristics, ideas, methods of training, etc. could work harmoniously together.”

Last but not least was the problem of logistics, which more than any other factor was bound to restrict procurement of Western aircraft. In December 1938, Dr. Kung pointed out to the British ambassador the difficulty of transporting large aircraft parts over the Burma Road. So even if the Chinese ordered planes from Britain or the United States, there was no reliable way of delivering components to Yunnan. The Soviet air mission, by contrast, faced no such obstacles in sending planes to western China: since 1937, they had assembled aircraft near the railhead of the Turkestan-Siberia Railway at Alma Alta (Almaty) in Kazakhstan and flown them to their main base at Lanchow in central China (Gansu Province). From there, planes went on to the large CAF base at Chengdu in the western province of Szechuan, of which Chungking was the capital.

The Russian ferrying operation probably inspired Dr. Kung to believe that a comparable system could be established whereby planes assembled at Rangoon could be flown up to Yunnan. That, however, would require the consent of the British, who were caught between their desire to help China and the need to avoid conflict with Japan. “Nonprovocation” of Japan prevailed and ruled out the possibility of ferrying planes from Far East ports over British territory into China. Therefore in Washington and in London, officials faced the awkward reality that in order to help China in the field of military aviation, they had to rely on the unreliable Burma Road. So, unfortunately, did Intercontinent.

Chinese Military History I

Shang Dynasty (1600BC~1046BC)

Shang Dynasty (1600BC~1046BC)

From the perspective of military history, Chinese history divides naturally into three periods. The first of these is Ancient China, from earliest times to the end of the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.E.). Separating fact from later idealizations has long been the major challenge confronting students of this period, but certain things are clear about its military history: The major weapons system was the two-wheeled Bronze Age war chariot, and the aristocratic and “feudal” social order symbolized by the chariot remained the ideal for most Chinese intellectuals throughout the following imperial period.

The second period is Imperial China, which began militarily with the Legalist reforms in the state of Qin during the Warring States era (453-221 B.C.E.), reforms which Qin’s rivals adopted with less success. After conquering all of China, the Qin ruler and his advisors invented the title huangdi, translated as “emperor” and used by successive imperial dynasties until 1912. Elements of continuity and change in the history of Imperial China, and more detailed periodization within it, are discussed later, but the persistence of Confucian values, the Legalist state, and the military threat from the nomadic societies of Inner Asia throughout this long span of history point to the comparability of the many dynasties included therein.

The third period is Modern China, beginning with the defeat of the Qing (Manchu) empire in the Opium War (1839-1842) and continuing down to the present. In the military as in other areas, China’s efforts to respond to the West have led to drastic change, even as the continuing evolution of the major Western nations has made it difficult for other societies to catch up.


Ancient China during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1500-1045 B.C.E.), the Western Zhou (ca. 1045-770 B.C.E.), and the Spring and Autumn era was a Bronze Age society whose military expression was the war chariot with two spoked wheels. Commanded by an aristocratic archer, the chariot’s crew included a driver and sometimes a third person armed with a spear. While few believe the Shang were foreign conquerors, the place of the chariot in Shang culture is one aspect of the rapid diffusion of the war chariot throughout Eurasia in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. Archaeological study of Shang sites has revealed elaborate royal burials in which chariots and bronze weapons were interred along with human and animal sacrifices. Despite these rich details, most aspects of military and social organization during the Shang remain uncertain.

The overthrow of the Shang by the Zhou introduced the worship of Heaven (tian) and the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) as the basis of political legitimacy. A feudal social order, resting militarily on a class of aristocratic chariot warriors (shi), is present from the beginning in authentic Western Zhou sources; it is not certain whether this was new or inherited from the Shang. During the Western Zhou the king (wang) ruled through his “Six Armies” of chariots, assigning territories to the feudal lords (zhuhou) to govern as fiefs. To emphasize his own authority, the king often transferred individual lords from fief to fief. The book Rituals of Zhou (Zhouli) and other later sources, mostly compiled in the third century B.C.E., describe in exact but unverifiable detail the offices, ceremonies, land system, and other aspects of the Western Zhou regime. These institutions had by then come to represent the moral and political ideal for the Confucian school of political philosophy. According to the Rituals of Zhou, each chariot was associated with five squads (wu) of five infantrymen to form a platoon (liang). Four platoons made a company (zu), five companies a brigade (lü), five brigades a division (shi), and five divisions an army (jun) of 12,500 infantry and 500 chariots, the highest level of the hierarchy. Whether or not this really existed in the Western Zhou, the model was emulated again and again, most recently in the twentieth century when it influenced the nomenclature for military units of modern Chinese armies.

The Western Zhou ends with the move of the Zhou kings to Luoyang after a military catastrophe in the west. In the following Spring and Autumn era the kings are much weaker and the feudal lords correspondingly stronger. Old proprieties still exist, but are growing weaker. The Commentary of Zuo (Zuozhuan), the principal source for this period, provides much detail as it deplores these trends. It also describes, often vividly, the wars and battles among the feudal lords. The chariot continues to be the major weapon, and the activities of the chariot-mounted shi class receive the most attention, even if infantry are assumed to be present. Battles are preceded by rituals and moralizing speeches, and it is thought to be proper to allow the enemy to deploy fully before attacking him. During the Spring and Autumn period warfare continued to be stylized and ceremonial even as it grew more violent and decisive within these parameters, as the military hegemon (ba) and his “way of force” (badao) came to dominate Chinese society.

The destruction of the state of Jin inaugurated the Warring States era, in which great social and political change was accompanied by the end of the system of chariot warfare and the adoption of new military forms. The ritual and ceremony that had been a principle of Spring and Autumn warfare was replaced by an emphasis on deception, treachery, and stratagems whose sole moral justification was victory. This approach to warfare is codified in Sunzi’s Art of War and the other military classics from this period, a body of work always considered morally dubious by later Confucian intellectuals.

The heightened intensity and ruthlesness of warfare in the Warring States was matched by changes in weapons and the composition of armies. Chariots disappeared and cavalry was adopted, despite the cultural challenge this posed for robe-wearing Chinese men. But most of the Warring States armies were composed mainly of infantry conscripts, equipped with iron swords, iron-tipped spears, and, most important, crossbows, whose intricate trigger mechanisms required a high level of metalworking skill. The thousands of terracotta soldier statues guarding the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, are arranged in precise formations and grouped according to type of weapon, a large percentage being crossbowmen. The conventions of Chinese historiography are such that this sort of detailed deployment information is not presented for the many battles described in the standard dynastic histories.


The military history of Imperial China before the nineteenth-century Western impact shows considerable variation from period to period, depending on changing historical circumstances and the differing social bases of successive dynasties. It also shows continuity related to the persistence of the major cultural factors that came together in the Han period. These cultural factors include Confucianism, the Legalist state, and hostility to the nomads of Inner Asia. All three of these emerged individually during the Warring States period that preceded the Qin unification, but should be viewed analytically as part of Imperial China.


Chinese society is sometimes called “Confucian society,” and its dynasties variants of the “Confucian state.” While these formulations have been challenged, they indicate something of basic importance: Formal histories and other literary works are the chief sources for Chinese history, including military history, and they are composed overwhelmingly from a viewpoint that can properly be called Confucian. For the ancient period, the Chinese classics generally believed to have the most historical content (such as the Zuozhuan, Shujing, and Zhouli) survive because of selection (sometimes aided by fabrication) by later Confucians, and the standard histories, from their beginnings in Han times to the 1739 Ming History (the twenty-fourth of the standard histories and the last to be compiled under dynastic rule), all were the work of historians who saw themselves explicitly as Confucians. Often the historians were major political figures as well. Whatever the contribution of Confucius himself, the Confucian canon as understood in later times seems to have been shaped during the Warring States period under the guidance of Mencius (372-289 B.C.E.). The explicit adoption of Confucianism as official ideology, and the composition by Sima Tan and Sima Qian of the Historical Records (Shiji), the first of the standard histories, were major developments in the long reign of Han Wudi (141-87 B.C.E.).

Confucian doctrine saw war as a necessary evil. Military force had to be used to resist invasion, suppress rebellion, and reunify China after periods of division. Confucian officials were not reluctant to use military power on such occasions; indeed, one recent study argues that force was the preferred option when circumstances were right. The military skills of chariotry and archery were two of the six skills of a Confucian gentleman. Yet when Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military tactics, Confucius denied any knowledge of the subject, and he left the next day (Analects 15.1). The ideal was the monarch who had received the Mandate of Heaven because of his virtue and who ruled through ritual and moral example. War was necessary because barbarians and “petty people” (xiaoren) among the Chinese could not be ruled through such ideal means. Understandably, the Confucian tradition had no place for the ideas of conquest, expansion, and imperial rule over subject peoples that were driving forces in, for example, Roman and Ottoman Turkish history. Emperors who seemed to enjoy war and conquest too much were usually opposed by their officials and/or condemned by history (examples include Qin Shi Huangdi, Han Wudi, Sui Yangdi, Tang Taizong, and Ming Yongle), while emperors who decisively moved from war to peace, and from military (wu) to civil (wen) values (such as Han Gaozu and Song Taizu) were correspondingly praised. Nor, as the aftermath of the early Ming naval expeditions demonstrates, was there ever any prospect of commerce-driven overseas colonial expansion, even though Ming China had both the economic development and the nautical technology to be a major player in the creation of colonial empires through seapower had Confucian values permitted such activity.

The Legalist State

Confucian values gained unchallenged dominance within Chinese education and society during the reign of Han Wudi and held this dominance for the rest of the history of Imperial China. Nonetheless, the state that Confucian-educated officials administered originated in an environment hostile to Confucianism, the expansionist Qin regime of the Warring States period. Legalist thinkers from Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.) to Li Si (d. 208 B.C.E.), both of whom were Qin prime ministers, held that people should be socially regimented, bureaucratically administered, rewarded only for success in war and agriculture, punished for the slightest transgressions, and subject to the absolute will of the ruler. The goal of the Legalist thinkers and the purpose of organizing the state in this way was to permit Qin to defeat, conquer, and absorb its rivals, a process completed with the conquest of all China in 230-221 B.C.E. Qin fell soon afterward and Legalism was discredited and blamed for its fall, but the autocratic, bureaucratic, centralized empire that Qin Legalism had created remained the master institution of Chinese political life for the next two thousand years, and its restoration was always the primary goal of Chinese political actors during periods of dynastic breakdown. Officials of successive dynasties thus had the means to raise tax revenues and to mobilize the population for war or for labor service to a degree that was unusual for a preindustrial society. Military activities might have been dysfunctional for various reasons, but most dynasties were capable of formidable military efforts.

The Northern Nomads

In theory, China was the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo), bordered by different kinds of “barbarians” in each of the four primary directions. In reality, the successive nomadic and seminomadic peoples living in the steppe and desert environments of Mongolia and Manchuria have been the most significant “barbarians” in Chinese military history. Three of the directional terms for “barbarians” (yi, rong, and di) and a common general term for foreigners (hu, also often translated as “barbarian”) usually refer to Inner Asian nomadic or seminomadic peoples. The Xiongnu, Türks, Kitan, and Mongols all practiced largely nomadic ways of life, while the Xianbi and their Jurchen and Manchu successors combined nomadism with agriculture to a degree that facilitated their rule over Chinese populations. The Mongols and Manchus both conquered all of China and ruled it for long periods, and both Mongol- and Manchu-language sources show us ruling elites animated by ideals of war and conquest that often diverged from Confucian values. Similar ideals motivated the elites of the other peoples mentioned, though we know of them largely through Chinese sources. While the Xianbi, Kitan, and Jurchen did not conquer all of China, they each established durable dynasties of conquest over substantial Chinese populations.

All of these non-Chinese peoples were formidable because their male populations of military age were all warriors bred to the saddle and trained in the mounted archer mode of fighting that dominated Inner Asia. This threat emerged during the Warring States period. Chinese reactions included the building by the border states of Zhao and Yan of walls that were the precursors of the Qin wall, and the adoption of cavalry by King Wuling of Zhao in 307 B.C.E. after a culturally charged debate: Riding on horseback involved adopting elements of Inner Asian dress, including trousers. All succeeding dynasties made extensive use of cavalry. This is most obvious in the regimes founded by Inner Asian peoples, but those of Chinese origin also went to great efforts to maintain mounted forces. This included maintaining stud farms for horses in the border areas, recruiting ethnically Chinese cavalry forces whose training was modeled on that of the nomads, recruiting troops directly from the Inner Asian peoples, and establishing (with much reluctance) commercial relations in which tea and other Chinese goods were traded for horses.

Change over time during the long history of Imperial China is more subtle than the continuities. Chinese historians have usually emphasized the cyclical nature of their history, with its repeated establishment and overturning of the “Mandate of Heaven.” Nevertheless, close study reveals long-term changes in many areas. In the military sphere these include the perceptions and positions of the educated elite, military officers and soldiers, personnel and institutions of non-Chinese origin, and weapons and military technology.

The Educated Elite

Over the long history of Imperial China the educated elite official class increasingly came to see itself as purely “civil,” leaving military functions to be performed by others. In the Han (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and the Six Dynasties (220-589), a successful official career might include provincial governorships and other positions having direct command of troops. In the Tang (618-907) this could still happen, but the civil and military positions were more sharply distinguished, and the An Lushan rebellion (from 755) was preceded by a personnel policy of placing only professional soldiers in command of troops. The An Lushan rebellion began a long period of dynastic weakness, followed by division during the Five Dynasties (907-960), and educated opinion blamed China’s problems on the militarism of the standing armies and the barbarian generals prominent within them. During the Song (960-1279) strong antimilitary attitudes became dominant within the educated elite, which largely avoided political involvement during the period of Mongol rule that followed. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912), the civil and military chains of command were sharply differentiated, and even when civil officials had military responsibilities, they exercised them by giving orders to the military officers who actually led the troops. Meanwhile, the lifestyle of the educated elite emphasized separation from manual labor and other forms of physical activity, including warfare.

Military Officers and Soldiers

Over the long run of Imperial China, the military service obligation of the general population evolved from being nearly universal, as in the Qin and Han, to a burden imposed on a minority. While both the Tang fubing system and the Ming weisuo system employed the principle of soldier-farmers liable to conscription, in both dynasties this principle applied only to a minority of the population. In the Tang fubing membership seems to have been seen as a benefit in the early reigns of the dynasty, later evolving into a burden, while in the Ming weisuo membership seems to have been viewed as a burden from the beginning. In the Song the troops of the standing army were poorly paid and used for menial work, while military officer status was conferred on many officials doing low-level work disdained by true scholar-officials. Coupled with the hypertrophy of “civil” values among the educated elite, these attitudes and patterns of treatment led to the denigration of soldiers (including officers), noticeable from Song times onward and expressed in the often-quoted saying, “Good iron isn’t used for nails; good men aren’t used as soldiers.” Occasional efforts of civil officials to revive the militia ideal of classical antiquity seldom worked as intended.

“Barbarian” Personnel and Institutions

The influence of foreign examples on dynastic military institutions expanded. One would expect this of the various non-Chinese dynasties of conquest, which arose, after all, because Inner Asian peoples and their military institutions prevailed in warfare. Yet the Sui-Tang fubing military system was the lineal descendant of similar institutions in the redoubtably barbarbian Western Wei of the Tuoba Xianbi, while the Ming weisuo system continued the essential features of the Yuan military system, itself an imposition of Mongol tribal patterns on a part of the Chinese population. This leaves the Song unique among the later dynasties of Chinese origin in that its military institutions were not directly derived from a non-Chinese model. These long-term changes culminated in the Manchu Qing dynasty, with its co-opted Chinese civilian elite, its Green Standard Army of Chinese troops, and its banner forces organized on Inner Asian models. By the time of the Opium War the Qing military was in decline, but in the two previous centuries the Qing changed China’s military frame of reference permanently by incorporating Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. On the eve of the new challenge represented by Western ideas and British sea power, the Qing had solved the enduring threat of invasion by the nomadic peoples of the north.