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.

Chinese Military History II

Weapons and Military Technology

China has been an “advanced” country, in comparison to its contemporaries, through most of recorded history, losing ground only after the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. The major innovations in weaponry that influenced Western military history have their counterparts in China. Any list would include the crossbow, armor, the stirrup, fortifications, gunpowder weapons, and shipbuilding.

In the Qin and Han conscript armies, infantry and cavalry replaced chariots as the principal arm, and the infantry were armed with spears, bows, and in particular crossbows (nu), a weapon in whose technology the Chinese remained superior. Later descriptions of Chinese armies usually include units of archers mixed with crossbowmen, the latter presumably needing protection between rounds due to their longer reloading time. The intricate trigger latch mechanism of the crossbow was a closely guarded state secret under the Han. Battle accounts (too often, unfortunately, influenced by literary conventions) often mention the sky being darkened by clouds of arrows. Evidence for the actual conduct of battles is sketchy, but discharges of arrows (including crossbow bolts) were crucial to victory. Even though infantry bearing shields, swords, and spears existed, there is no trace of either a “phalanx” or a “legion” style of infantry fighting.

Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb army is wearing armor, and there are many later representations of armored Chinese soldiers. Most of the armor is of the lamellar variety, in which overlapping leather or metal plates of varying size are laced together. Such armor is relatively light and flexible at the expense of protective strength, and in the West infantry and cavalry trained for shock tactics and reliance on edged weapons tended to move on to armor composed at least partly of large plates, of which there are a few Chinese examples.

The idea that the stirrup, by permitting the evolution of shock cavalry armed with the lance, was a primary factor in the creation of European feudalism has received a surprising degree of credence, though recent reevalution of the four-horned Roman saddle has undermined its central thesis. In China the spread of the stirrup is associated with the development of the armored cavalryman, mounted on an armored (barded) horse and armed with a lance. Literary references to “armored cavalry” occur as late as the Tang, and a vivid pictorial representation of mounted warriors looking like European knights occurs in a tomb dated to 357 c.E. Nevertheless, it may be stated with confidence that the social outcomes attributed to the stirrup in Europe did not occur in China. Knight-like cavalry were part of the ruling class of north China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. This class, which evolved into the governing aristocracy of the Sui and Tang, was largely Xianbi in origin but also included other Inner Asian peoples and Chinese who had adopted barbarian ways. Far from devolving into feudalism, the Sui and Tang dynasties erected a powerful and enduring version of the centralized, bureaucratic empire previously built by the Qin and Han. And, stirrupped or not, the cavalry future belonged to the Inner Asian warrior whose strength was his skill with the bow rather than the lance.

China has always been a country of cities rather than castles, and city walls were not only a means of defense but also a symbol of the city’s status in the hierarchy of rule. The walls were formidable defenses. While there are many recorded examples of long sieges and much literature on siege-craft, it remained the case that the best way to take a city was by treachery or surprise during a period of confusion, and a siege was more likely to be won by protracted blockade than by a successful assault. China’s urban fortifications did not evolve the low, relatively cannon-proof bastions of the trace italienne, as European cities did in the sixteenth century while China lived peacefully under the rule of the Ming. Afterward, the thick earthen walls of the major Chinese cities remained highly resistant to the gunpowder weapons that were becoming more prominent in Chinese warfare.

The basic formula for gunpowder was known to the Song, weapons incorporating gunpowder were used prominently during the Yuan, and in the Ming Yongle reign (1402-1424) a special headquarters was established in Beijing to coordinate the training of gunners. Firearms added to the defensive strength of the Great Wall, itself a Ming creation, and the Chinese element of the Manchu banner system seem to have been valued, in part, as artillery specialists. However, we cannot discern a “gunpowder revolution” in Chinese military history. In the Ming, Qi Jiguang’s successful and widely emulated military organization had gunners serving alongside bowmen, swordsmen, and spearmen in the same primary (squad-level) formations, and in the Qing Zeng Guofan’s Hunan Army battalions combined newer and older weapons in the same way. Firearms originated in China, but in China they remained just another missile weapon. One does not see efforts to standardize manufacture, reduce the number of calibers, or create new tactics and organizations to exploit the potential of a new weapons system.

Marco Polo’s descriptions of Chinese ships were part of his credibility problem in Europe, and Europeans also found it difficult to credit the early Ming naval voyages. It is now accepted that China built wooden ships as large or larger than any ever built in Europe, and, having invented the compass, navigated them beyond the sight of land to Africa and other distant coasts. But these capabilities did not add up to a navy; in the latter part of the Ming and in the Qing, China’s seagoing forces consisted of small ships and boats tethered to the military organizations of specific provinces.

China’s long history of technological progress provides scant comfort for theories that see certain kinds of social and political change as the inevitable result of specific technologies. Neither the stirrup nor gunpowder had the dramatic consequences in China claimed for them in Europe. With respect to shipbuilding technology, Ming China’s withdrawal from the sea was deliberate and dramatic, and had long-lasting consequences. It compares to Tokugawa Japan’s “giving up the gun.” In both cases, ruling establishments feared and prevented technology-driven change.

Military Institutions

Within the context of the factors of continuity and change already discussed, we may see three broad (and partly overlapping) subperiods in the evolution of Imperial China’s military institutions and practices, each of which transcends any single dynasty, and each of which came to an end due to a crisis of Chinese civilization involving the two basic military threats: domestic rebellion and foreign invasion. The first subperiod is bounded by the rise of Qin in the Warring States and the end of the last of the Six Dynasties in 589 C.E., the second by the consolidation of the Northern Wei in the fifth century and the final Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279, and the third by the Kitan conquest of part of north China in the tenth century and the fall of the imperial system as a whole in the twentieth century. We will label these subperiods Han, Tang, and Mongol-Manchu.

Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 9)


The two Han dynasties continued to employ the cadre-conscript army developed by the state of Qin during the Warring States, just as they continued the bureaucratic system and other Qin institutions. Similarly, the military systems of the Three Kingdoms, the ephemeral Western Jin (265-316), and the later south China regimes collectively called the Six Dynasties evolved from the Later Han state of affairs in which rival warlords controlled armies of dependent soldiers (buqu).

The career and reforms of Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.) in Qin are described in a hostile and caricatured way in the sources, but they converted Qin permanently into the strongest of the seven warring states well over a century before the final Qin conquest of China. Shang Yang abolished hereditary status and created a new set of “titles of nobility” (jue) that could be conferred on any male subject, but only for success in war or agriculture. The population was organized in mutual responsibility groups and governed by officials who could not be natives of the areas they governed. These officials were rewarded (or punished) strictly for their success (or failure) in carrying out their orders. The other states contemporary with Qin undertook less comprehensive and less successful reforms, but Qin retained the leadership that Shang Yang’s reforms had conferred. Qin’s greatest general, Bai Qi (d. 257 B.C.E.), made it a deliberate policy to massacre the armies of the states he defeated in order to maintain Qin’s comparative advantage.

While the first Han emperor made a great show of moderating the severity of Qin laws and experimented with a limited revival of feudalism, in the end the Han continued most Qin institutions, including the Qin military system. For most people conscription was the most important element of that system. Men were drafted for two years, serving as infantry, cavalry, or sailors according to their background. For a small minority this meant service in the capital, and for a larger minority service along the walled defenses of the northern frontier, whose operation in Han times is understood in unusual detail from surviving contemporary documents. Most conscripts seem to have served their time within their native province (jun, “commandery”), whose governor (taishou, literally “grand defender”) was also their commander in case of invasion. The founding of the Han coincided closely with the unification of the Xiongnu under Maodun, and Han Wudi’s resort to war against the Xiongnu is associated with the creation of specialist cavalry forces that could fight in the Xiongnu manner, most famously by Huo Qubing (d. 117 B.C.E.). But Wudi’s wars against the Xiongnu and his annexations of territory in Korea, south China, and Vietnam were made possible by the mobilization of large numbers of mostly infantry troops, and this capacity was retained under his successors.

Guangwudi (r. 25-57), the founding emperor of the Later Han, lightened the military burden by eliminating the annual summer mobilization of the reservists. The Later Han maintained military pressure on the Xiongnu, and finally broke them up for good. Except for the adventures of Ban Chao (d. 102) in the Western Regions (now Xinjiang), which were a classic example of indirect rule maintained by locally recruited troops, the Later Han was not committed to territorial expansion. Despite coups and conflicts in Luoyang, relative peace prevailed in the provinces, along with increasing concentration of landownership. When the Later Han confronted its major military crisis, the Yellow Turban rebellion (from 184), the fastest way to mobilize large armies was to recruit among the dependent clients of already powerful notables; a breakdown to war-lordism followed quickly.

Cao Cao (155-220) was the most successful of these warlords, and his descendants were the rulers of Wei, the most powerful of the Three Kingdoms. His rivals founded Shu-Han (221-263, in Sichuan) and Wu (formally 229-280, at Nanjing). The Jin dynasty of Sima Yi and his descendants ended the Three Kingdoms and briefly ruled over a reunified China. After the rebellions and invasions of the early fourth century, the Jin ruled south China from Nanjing until 420, where four more Chinese dynasties followed until 589.

Many scholars believe that under these dynasties peasants were reduced to the status of serfs, and that armies also were composed of soldiers who were unfree dependents (buqu). While some of this theorizing is in the service of a Marxist periodization of Chinese history, it is very clear from the histories of these dynasties that a warlord pattern had developed: For whatever reason, soldiers were at the disposal of their generals, and central authority was correspondingly fragile. While expressions of disdain for soldiers can be found in the literature of the period, many eminent literary figures also exercised high military command, and the warlord founders of two dynasties (Liu-Song and Liang) had sons who compiled major literary collections (Liu Yiqing and Xiao Tong, compilers of the Shishuo xinyu and the Wenx-uan, respectively). The Sui conquest of Nanjing ended this line of evolution.

Tang Dynasty (618–907)


In 493 Tuoba Hong, the Northern Wei emperor posthumously titled Xiaowendi, played a trick on his Xianbi clan leaders. Pretending to lead them in an invasion of south China, he instead made them stop at the still impressive ruins of Luoyang, the capital of the Later Han and Western Jin, which he made his own capital. North China had been overrun early in the fourth century by various Inner Asian peoples who displayed an uncharacteristic hostility to Chinese civilization. After the disorders of this period, the brief stabilization of the Northern Wei in the fifth century as the first of the important “dynasties of conquest” begins the second period of military evolution. The Northern Wei created early forms of the equal field (juntian) land system and the fubing military system that became major institutions under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Most important, the Northern Wei attempted to create a society in which the military skills of the Xianbi would be complemented by bureaucratic and literary skills of the Chinese educated elite. Later dynasties of conquest made the same attempt, and in military matters Inner Asian influence was important even in dynasties (Sui, Tang, Ming) usually considered Chinese.

After the breakup of the Northern Wei, Yuwen Tai (505-556) and his descendants ruled the northwest first through puppet emperors of Western Wei and then as emperors of the Northern Zhou, and there both the soldier-farmer (fubing) military system and the mixed Chinese and Inner Asian Guanzhong aristocracy that commanded it evolved to provide military means and leaderhip for the Sui and Tang empires. The Yuwen rulers were not of Chinese origin, while the Sui founder and the father of the Tang founder were married to sisters from the Xiongnu Dugu clan. By the end of the sixth century, surnames within the Guanzhong aristocracy did not indicate purely Chinese or Inner Asian ancestry because of intermarriage, and similarly the fubing soldiers included elements capable of fighting on foot or on horseback. Under the fubing system each headquarters (fu) commanded about one thousand farmer-soldiers who could be mobilized for war. In peacetime they were self-sustaining on their land allotments, and were obliged to do tours of active duty in the capital. These tours were usually one month long (two months for the most distant units), and their frequency depended on the distance of each unit from the capital. The fubing soldiers permitted the Sui and Tang founders to conquer China, but attempts at foreign conquest were less consistently successful. Obsessive efforts to subdue the Korean kingdom of Koguryo ultimately cost the second Sui emperor his throne and his life. Tang Taizong (r. 626-649) fought both Türks and Tibetans to peace on favorable terms, but failed to overcome Koguryo. That goal was accomplished by his son Gaozong (r. 649-683), though the final winner was not Tang China but its ally, the southern Korean kingdom of Silla, which succeeded in unifying the entire peninsula under its own rule. Japan, which had supported Paekche, the third Korean kingdom, was alarmed by these developments and responded by imitating the fubing and other Tang institutions in the Taika reforms.

Most of the fubing units were located in the northwest, and the system was best suited for the annual campaigning cycle of an expanding empire. Under Empress Wu (r. 684-705) the fubing system declined, and under Xuanzong (r. 712-756) a standing army stationed on the northern frontier evolved in its place. This army reached a strength of half a million men and eighty thousand horses by the 740s. Its Chinese personnel included many men displaced by economic changes since the founding of the Tang, and its non-Chinese personnel included Koreans, Kitan, Türks, and Sogdians. The new standing army thus preserved the Chinese-Inner Asian mixture characteristic of the early Tang, but the old Guanzhong aristocracy ceased to have much involvement with it and its higher ranks came to be filled from within. Having accepted the decline to uselessness of the fubing system, the Tang court had no central army to resist the An Lushan rebellion, and could only counter it by appealing to other frontier commanders whose social background was similar to An Lushan’s and who could move swiftly from loyalty to rebellion when their autonomy was challenged. Despite impressive successes by the court, the pattern of regional warlordism continued until the fall of Tang. While the replacement of the fubing system with the standing army was a major discontinuity in China’s military development, this discontinuity occurred in a period of peace as a result of a deliberate policy decision of the Tang government. While it led to disorder, it was not caused by defeat.

Recognizing the need for a central army as a counterweight to the troops of the regional warlords, the post-An Lushan Tang emperors created the Divine Strategy (Shence) Armies, whose eunuch commanders grew increasingly powerful as the Tang declined. The Privy Council or Bureau of Military Affairs (Shumiyuan), originally a eunuch agency, was taken over by generals during the Five Dynasties (907-960), while continuing to command the central armies (jinjun, qinjun) at the personal disposal of the emperors. The Five Dynasties were politically unstable, each ending in a violent overthrow, but they were militarily successful, since the territory ruled from Luoyang expanded and the troops were increasingly concentrated in the central armies.

The Song founder continued this system, making modifications in the interest of political stability. He retired his principal generals, turned the Bureau of Military Affairs into a department controlled by civil officials, and moved the capital to Kaifeng to make supply via the Grand Canal easier. The chain of command over the central army troops concentrated in the capital area was changed regularly to prevent any general from developing a dangerous personal ascendancy over a particular body of troops. Under the first three Song emperors, the army was efficient enough to reunify the south Chinese states (the Ten Kingdoms) with the empire, but was not strong enough to destroy the two states ruled by Inner Asian peoples (Tangut Xixia and Kitan Liao) that together dominated the northern frontier. The long-term trend in the Northern Song was for the central army to become larger and more expensive, while its soldiers became poorer and less capable militarily and its civilian administrators more intrusive and abusive. The relative ease with which the Jurchen Jin conquered Kaifeng and the rest of north China illustrated the decay to the Song military system. The Hangzhou-based Southern Song depended militarily on an exiguous combination of warlord-led improvised armies and naval power (exercised along the Yangzi as well as on the ocean). The execution of Yue Fei, the most prominent of the warlords, restored political stability even as it dimmed the hope of reconquering the north. When the Mongols completed the destruction of the Southern Song in the 1270s, they ended both the much-discussed “early modern” economic developments of the Song and the continuous line of military evolution that had begun in the Northern Wei.

Ming Dynasty (1368~1644)


While the Mongol conquest of the Song might be seen as the beginning of the third period of evolution, in fact the Mongols derived both ideas and personnel from their Kitan and Jurchen predecessors in the conquest of north China. Both of these dynasties organized their tribal populations into military units that were also social organizations, and employed the decimal system as the partial basis for this organization (in the Jin meng’an-mouke system, the meng’an is an obvious cognate for the Mongolian mingghan, or “thousand”). Both dynasties also assigned troops to princely appanages (ordo, whence the English “horde”), and made these a vital part of their military systems. In general the Kitans welcomed Mongol rule, and many Jurchens came to accept it; both nations collaborated in the further Mongol conquest of China.

After his elevation in 1206 but before his invasions of north China, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan organized his Mongolian population on a tribal military basis. Every warrior, with his family and possessions, was assigned to a particular unit and forbidden to leave it on pain of death. Both the military obligation and the specific rank within the unit were hereditary. The units were decimal: tumen (ten thousand), mingghan, jaghun (hundred), and arban (ten). The Mongols also imposed this system of decimal organization and hereditary obligation and status on their Chinese soldiers.

The succeeding Ming dynasty (1368-1644) originated in rebellion against the Mongols, but they derived their own soldier-farmer (weisuo) system from the Mongol model, even though they compared it explicitly to the Tang fubing system. Hereditary military personnel were assigned military colony lands to cultivate under the direction of hereditary military officers, and armies for active service were mobilized from this pool of theoretically ready personnel. In a process somewhat resembling the history of the Tang military, the Ming weisuo system also evolved into a recruiting agency for a standing army based on the northern frontier, whose military efficacy was based on the spread of firearms technology and, later, on the building of the Great Wall.

In the early seventeenth century Nurhachi and his successor organized the Manchu—formerly Jurchen—people into a military system, the Eight Banners, that had Inner Asian roots traceable to the Mongols and their predecessors, but was also influenced by Ming institutions of direct rule over Jurchen tributary people. The main theme continued to be hereditary enrollment in specific units. Before the Manchus conquered China proper, they organized some conquered Chinese and Mongols into the Chinese and Mongol Eight Banners. As with the Yuan dynasty’s military forces at their height, the banner forces combined Inner Asian cavalry skills with Chinese abilities in engineering and firearms to create a military power that neither a purely Inner Asian nor a purely Chinese society could resist.

The Manchu conquest of China was aided by the defection of Ming armies, elements of which the Manchus organized into their Green Standard Army (liiying), the other half of the Manchu military system. The military ranks and other terminology of the Green Standard forces can mostly be traced to the standing army of the middle and late Ming. Eventually outnumbering the banner forces, the Green Standard troops played an important part in the Qing conquest of south China. Thay also provided the personnel for Qing naval forces, whose signal success was the conquest and incorporation of Taiwan in 1683. As the Qianlong reign (1736-1795) ended, the variety of military forces at the disposal of the Qing dynasty, all of which were derived by various paths from the Yuan, seemed to have answered conclusively all of the military challenges posed by the history of Imperial China. Internal order was secure. The nomadic threat had been ended by the conquest and inclusion within the Qing empire of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. And the annexation of Taiwan had deprived seagoing pirates and smugglers of their main base off the Chinese coast.


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 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.


Conflict on the Ussuri

In November 1967, there were border skirmishes between Chinese and Soviet troops, and the first Chinese fatalities were recorded in January 1968. In February 1969, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decided to ambush Soviet troops on Zhenbao or Damansky Island, and on 2 March, twenty-nine Soviet soldiers and two officers were killed, and the Chinese lost seventeen men. In all, forty-nine servicemen were wounded, and one captured Soviet soldier was tortured to death. Between 2 and 21 March, the Soviets lost forty-four soldiers and four officers with eighty-five soldiers and nine officers wounded. On 15 March, the Soviets had counter-attacked but had not attained their objectives. The exact number of Chinese casualties is unknown, but the Soviets reported over 800 Chinese dead. Why did the Chinese attack Soviet border guards? The Chinese move was defensive in the sense that its aim was to shock the Soviets into stopping their border skirmishes. The ‘offensive deterrence concept involves the use of a pre-emptive strategy not so much to defeat the adversary militarily as to deal him a psychological blow to cause him to desist’ (Kissinger 2012: 216). On 21 March, Aleksei Kosygin, the prime minister, attempted to speak to Mao on the telephone, but the operator refused to put the call through, cursing Kosygin as a ‘revisionist element’. In August, Soviet troops wiped out a Chinese battalion on the border with Xinjiang, and war became a possibility as over a million soldiers were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border.

There were some Soviets who were in favour of drastic action. Marshal Andrei Grechko, the minister of defence, was one of those who wanted to obliterate China’s nuclear potential. In August, a Soviet diplomat asked what the Americans would do if the Soviet Union wiped out China’s nuclear installations. How would Washington react if Beijing asked for assistance to repel Soviet attacks? Soviet diplomats posed the same questions in other countries. Moscow then thought of a conventional attack.

During this tense period, Mao set up a study group of four marshals on relations with Moscow and Washington. Marshals Chen Yi and Ye Jianying concluded that the best response would be for China to play the ‘US card’. This was because the US would not favour a Soviet conquest of China. This led to secret talks with the Americans which concluded with President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 (Andrew and Mitrokhin 2005: 281). The Soviets engaged in the same exercise but concluded that the main adversary remained the US.

In August 1969, President Nixon, at a National Security Council meeting, argued that the Soviet Union was the more dangerous party and it would run counter to US interests if China were ‘smashed’ in a Sino-Soviet war. Kissinger put out a directive stating that the US would remain neutral in the case of a Sino-Soviet conflict but would lean towards China to the greatest possible extent. This was revolutionary after two decades of enmity between Beijing and Washington, as capitalist America wanted the second most powerful communist state to survive and would assist it to do so. Recent research indicates that the Soviets came very close to launching an attack, and it was only uncertainty about America’s reaction which held them back. Mao expected an attack, on 1 October, the anniversary of the revolution, and ordered all leaders to disperse around the country (except Zhou who was to run the government), and the military was placed on ‘first degree combat readiness’ alert (Kissinger 2012: 218–20).

Zhou met Kosygin at Beijing airport in late September, and they agreed to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. On 11 December, border talks failed again, but on 1 May 1970, Mao received the head of the Soviet border negotiation team and told him that the two sides should only fight with words. An uneasy truce ensued.

The Chinese version is as follows:

The US had been sending U-2 planes from Taiwan over central and western China and located Lop Nor, in south east Xinjiang, as the nuclear test facility. Washington expected China to test a nuclear device in in 1962 and a nuclear bomb in 1965. President Kennedy feared, in 1961, that a nuclear armed China would gobble up South East Asia. As a result, on 14 July 1963, in Moscow, an American official gave a detailed presentation of China’s nuclear potential and proposed a joint attack to eliminate it. Khrushchev refused, stating that China posed no threat. The US considered other options: an attack by Taiwanese and American paratroops, conventional and nuclear bombs.

In August 1964, the US predicted that China would explode its first nuclear bomb in 1965 but the Middle Kingdom exploded it in October 1964. President Johnson called it the ‘blackest and most tragic day for the free world’.

In October 1969, all party and military leaders were told to leave Beijing, and Mao moved to Wuhan. Liu Shaoqi ordered 940,000 soldiers, 4,000 aircraft and 600 ships to scatter, airport runways were blocked and workers were given weapons to shoot Soviet air force personnel when they landed. Major archives were moved from Beijing to the south west, and the Chinese were told to prepare for war (South China Morning Post, 12 May 2010, quoting a Beijing scholar). An underground city of 85 km 2 was built under the capital. By the end of 1970, the country’s seventy-five largest cities had enough underground shelters to house 60 per cent of the population. Over 1,800 factories were transferred to remote areas to protect them from attack, but economically it was a colossal waste of resources (Dikötter 2016: 212, 214, 218).

Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin informed Henry Kissinger of Soviet plans to launch a nuclear attack on China and requested the US remain neutral. The White House leaked the story to the Washington Post, which wrote that the Soviet Union planned to attack Beijing, Chongqing, Anshan and its missile launch centres at Jinquan, Xichang and Lop Nor.

On 15 October, Henry Kissinger informed Dobrynin that if the Soviet Union launched nuclear missiles at China, Washington would launch nuclear missiles against 130 Soviet cities. President Nixon was also concerned about the effect of a nuclear war on the 250,000 US troops in the Asia-Pacific region.

Nixon viewed the Brezhnev leadership as a collective whose main concern was to stay in power. A collective leadership was less likely to engage in rash judgements. The president rated Mao and Zhou Enlai more highly than the comrades in Moscow. Another explanation would be that Moscow wanted to signal to Beijing that it was serious about ending the border conflict but never had any intention of launching a nuclear attack. Leaking the information to the Washington Post provided the Soviet leadership with global publicity, and this is precisely what it wanted.

The People’s Republic faced the threat of a nuclear attack five times: once by the US and the USSR in 1963 (if we accept Chinese information on this), three by the US (in 1950, 1955, and 1958) and one by the Soviet Union in 1969.

In January and February 1955, the PLA captured two islands opposite Fujian. The Taiwanese, helped by the US Navy, evacuated 25,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians to Taiwan and centred their defences on Quemoy and Matsu. On 6 March, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, made it clear that if the PLA took over Quemoy and Matsu, it would be a disaster for Taiwan and the rest of Asia. Nuclear weapons might be used to defend the islands.

In late March, B-36 planes in Guam were loaded with nuclear weapons ready for action. However, there was worldwide criticism of the decision to use nuclear weapons to defend these small islands. The US pulled back and began discussions at ambassadorial level with the Chinese in Geneva later that year.

The next nuclear threat occurred after the PLA launched 45,000 shells at Quemoy on 23 August 1958. The following day, it attacked ships leaving the island for Taiwan and enforced a blockade. Five B-47s were put on standby to launch a nuclear attack on Xiamen airport. However, like President Truman, President Eisenhower decided not to use nuclear weapons to defend the islands and instead rely on conventional weapons.

In October 1969, Deng, his wife and stepmother were exiled to Nanchang. They spent three and a half years there where Deng engaged in ‘corrective’ labour at a tractor repair plant alongside his wife. Political re-education consisted of reading the works of Mao and newspapers, but their children were permitted to visit them. Mao was shocked when Lin Biao, his anointed successor, suddenly attempted to flee to the Soviet Union, but the plane crashed in Mongolia and all aboard were killed. The KGB severed Lin’s head, boiled it to remove the hair and skin and placed the skull in its museum in the Lubyanka (Dikötter 2016: 252).

Mao began to see Deng in a better light, and, in February 1972, his party membership was restored. In February 1973, Deng and his family were rehabilitated and returned to Beijing. A major reason for this was that Zhou Enlai was dying of cancer. He was irreplaceable, and Mao judged that he needed Deng’s expertise and experience.

In December 1973, Deng returned to the Politburo, headed the Party Secretariat and became a member of the Central Military Commission. Jiang Qing was not amused as Deng’s rise weakened her political influence. Economic difficulties led Mao to appoint Deng deputy prime minister in October 1974, and he was also made chair of the Central Military Commission and Chief of the General Staff. He became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in January 1975 and began to implement the four modernisations: agriculture, industry, defence and science and technology laid down by Zhou Enlai in December 1964. The goal was to attain the present development level of advanced countries by the end of the century. Jiang Qing and the left (with three others, they were labelled the Gang of Four) began chipping away at Deng’s power base.

In January 1976, Mao appointed Hua Guofeng as acting prime minister and head of the Party Central Committee. The next month Hua (read Mao) declared open season on Deng. Jiang Qing called him a ‘counterrevolutionary double dealer, a fascist, a representative of the bourgeoisie, a betrayer of the fatherland and an agent of international capitalism in China’. Mao tried to rein her in, but she controlled the press and pilloried him there. Rumours that Zhou Enlai had been a capitalist roader ignited protests which became violent and had to be suppressed. Jiang blamed Deng for heading the ‘counterrevolutionary uprising’, and he was dismissed from all his posts but remained a party member and was placed under house arrest. When Mao passed away on 9 September 1976, Deng was apprehensive as things could get worse for him.

A secret plan was devised, on 26 September 1976, to depose the Gang of Four by Hua Guofeng. On 6 October, the Politburo Standing Committee convened, ostensibly to discuss Mao’s legacy, and two members of the Gang of Four were arrested as they arrived. Another was taken into custody at his home. Jiang Qing was in bed when the troops arrived, and she realised it was a coup. There was some fighting between the military and local radical militias, but the radicals had no hope of success. Ye Jianying, the minister of defence, was offered the top post but declined and passed it on to Hua Guofeng, who thus stepped into Mao’s shoes. The Gang of Four were not charged with ‘ultra leftism’ but ‘ultra right opportunism’! (Pantsov 2015: 308).

Within a month after Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution was over. It had devastated the economy and led to between 1.5 and 2 million deaths (Dikötter 2016: xvi), but it had also ruined the lives of millions more.

Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong I

While some British military officials had doubted that the Japanese were capable of challenging the mighty British Empire, more farsighted leaders realized as soon as full-scale war broke out with Germany in 1940 that Hong Kong could not be defended. But they also stressed the need to hold on to the colony to maintain face and to prevent the harbor from falling into enemy hands. Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided against reducing the local garrison, which would weaken both the prestige of the empire and the morale in China. Yet the Hong Kong government was in a weak position to prepare for an invasion. The huge number of refugees from China drained resources (by early 1941, the colony’s population was well over 1.5 million), while the colony’s status as a free port, coupled with its open border with China, made controlling immigration—not to mention the movement of Japanese agents and sympathizers—impossible.

The colonial government was thus in the unenviable position of preparing to defend a colony that could not be defended, even while maintaining its neutrality. In September 1938 the government reinstated the Emergency Powers Ordinance of 1922, which allowed the police to deport anyone not employed; prohibit public meetings and organizations; censor Chinese newspapers, pamphlets, and placards; and call up a special force of constables. They also allowed the government to control food prices, intern Chinese and Japanese soldiers taking refuge in Hong Kong, and prohibit repairing and provisioning Japanese or Chinese vessels involved in the hostilities.

Even as the government was professing Hong Kong’s neutrality, it was preparing to defend the colony against a Japanese invasion. In July 1939, all British male subjects of European origin between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five were made liable for compulsory service in the Defence Reserve. After criticism from the local press and Chinese unofficial members of the Legislative Council, in summer 1940 the government began a program of air-raid tunnels. In 1940, the colonial government evacuated a number of British women and children to Australia. Among the evacuees were Eurasians holding British passports, who because of the Australian government’s White Australia policy were dropped off in Manila. This provoked an outcry from Eurasian and Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. In July 1941, Japanese assets in Hong Kong were frozen (as they were in Britain and the United States), although barter trading continued for a while.

Like all British colonies, Hong Kong became part of the British war effort once Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939. Hong Kong had already been part of the Chinese war effort, its formally neutral status notwithstanding, but the fact that both China and Britain were now at war joined the Chinese and the British communities in common cause. In April 1940 the colony contributed to the British war effort through new taxes and several gifts of cash. The South China Morning Post organized a Bomber Fund, while both Chinese and expatriates contributed to campaigns such as the British Prisoners of War Fund, the British War Organization Fund, the Chinese Relief Association, and the Hong Kong and South China Branch of the British Fund for the Relief of Distress in China. Under the Chinese Defence League’s “Bowl of Rice” campaign, donors ordered meals at participating restaurants but ate only a bowl of steamed rice, donating the price of the meal to the Chinese war effort. Robert Ho Tung, the Eurasian tycoon, donated a vessel to the Hong Kong Naval Volunteer Force.

Despite the Chinese community’s generous contributions to both war efforts, the colonial government doubted that it could rely on the Chinese to help defend the colony. The official view was that because most Chinese considered Hong Kong a temporary home, they were incapable of making any sacrifice for Hong Kong. Yet the government had done little over the previous century to evince the type of loyalty that it now sought from its Chinese subjects. Nor had the government shown that it trusted the Chinese enough to enlist them to defend the colony. Only in May 1938 was a Chinese company added to the Volunteer Defence Corps, founded in 1855 before the Second Opium War. And only after the Chinese members of the Legislative Council had assured the governor of Chinese support were British subjects of Chinese extraction allowed to register for the Defence Reserve. Although the British War Office finally agreed to accept Chinese infantry forces in October 1941, the minimum height and weight restrictions kept many of them out: of the six hundred who applied, only thirty-five were accepted.


On December 8, 1941, Hong Kong time, Japanese bombers attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Pearl Harbor, and the Philippines. Within as many minutes, five Royal Air Force aircraft at Kai Tak airfield in Kowloon had been destroyed. As Japanese troops moved swiftly across the New Territories and into Kowloon, propaganda leaflets declaring “Asia for the Asians” called on Chinese and Indians in the colony to rise up and drive out their British exploiters. Within seventeen days, the Japanese took Hong Kong Island, occupying the entire colony until August 30, 1945. On Christmas Day, one week after the Japanese launched a three-pronged attack on Hong Kong Island, Governor Mark Young, who had arrived in the colony in September from Barbados, surrendered unconditionally to Lieutenant General Sakai Takashi. By February 1942, after the fall of Malaya and Singapore, the sun had set over Britain’s empire in East Asia.

Why did the British resistance fall apart so quickly? A better question might be, given the overwhelming strength of the Japanese forces, why did Hong Kong not fall even earlier? Although critics later complained that the British should have put up a stiffer resistance, both regular troops and volunteers followed Churchill’s orders to fight to the end. When Governor Young finally surrendered, he did so after rejecting three earlier offers of surrender and partly to prevent the Japanese invaders from committing the kind of atrocities they had inflicted on the city of Nanjing in 1938. On the eve of the invasion, the Hong Kong side, led by Major General Christopher Maltby, had approximately ten thousand forces—including two British battalions, the Hong Kong Volunteers, two Indian infantry battalions, and two battalions of infantry offered by the Canadian government—and a small number of airplanes and ships, with no chances of any naval reinforcements. A false announcement by the British military on December 20 that some sixty thousand Chinese troops were on their way may have raised morale, but it could not alter the fact that the Japanese side enjoyed clear superiority at sea, on land, and in the air. The Japanese had more than twenty thousand troops as well as more and better planes and ships and could always count on reinforcements from within China. By the time three of Chiang Kai-shek’s divisions arrived in Canton to attack the Japanese forces there, Hong Kong had already fallen. As the title of Tony Banham’s recent study of the invasion suggests, the colony had “not the slightest chance.”

Whereas the British commanders were almost all new to Hong Kong (Maltby had arrived only in August) and the two battalions of Canadian infantry were still being trained, the Japanese had several years of experience fighting in China, and many of their troops had been training together for the assault on Hong Kong. British defense plans changed late in 1941 from defending only Hong Kong Island to holding down the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line—a series of pillboxes running eleven miles from Gin Drinkers’ Bay in western Hong Kong to Port Shelter in the eastern region—and then retreating to defend Hong Kong Island. This did not leave enough time for effective planning and training. The British also failed to use the local Chinese effectively; the some 450 who volunteered were used primarily in service positions. The British, who moved mainly by road, were hamstrung when their military transport system fell apart. Helped by spies along the way, the fit, organized, and well-equipped Japanese moved quickly by foot, often at night.

The British had weak, outdated, and insufficient artillery and ammunition. Their persistently weak intelligence underestimated the size and quality of the Japanese forces. The Japanese had much better intelligence, obtained over several years by placing agents throughout Hong Kong in various civilian positions. (Several Japanese residents suddenly appeared in Japanese military uniforms shortly after the surrender.) Large numbers of Japanese merchants had been in Hong Kong since the 1930s, and almost one hundred Japanese remained in Hong Kong in late 1941. A Japanese intelligence map, now housed in the Harvard University Map Collection, shows just how well the Japanese knew their target. Based on British maps, this meticulously detailed map includes administrative boundaries, railway tracks, roads and paths, telephone and telegraph lines, wireless transmitters and underwater cables, police stations and post offices, telegraph and telephone offices, schools, hospitals, churches, temples, pagodas, cemeteries, wells, orchards, marshes and wetlands, uncultivated and barren areas, and both deciduous and coniferous forests.

The human costs of the invasion are unclear. British sources estimated 2,311 troops killed or missing and around the same number wounded, but a recent study places the number closer to 1,560 dead or missing. Japanese figures are less reliable, ranging from initial reports of only 675 killed or missing and 2,079 wounded to the equally dubious report by Tokyo later of 7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded; a more realistic estimate is around 2,000 killed and between 5,000 and 6,000 wounded. As in most wars, it is impossible to tell how many civilians were killed in the invasion. One estimate places the dead at 4,000 and the wounded at 3,000, but the actual numbers were probably much higher.

Rensuke Isogai


Thus began the three years and eight months of “The Captured Territory of Hong Kong,” which although touted as part of Japan’s “Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was little more than Japanese colonialism. Despite their anticolonial rhetoric, the Japanese quickly transformed Hong Kong from a British colony into a Japanese one. Statues of British royalty were removed, while street and place names were replaced with Japanese names (Queen’s Road, for example, became Meiji Road). Even the racehorses at Happy Valley were bestowed with Japanese names. The new rulers also Japanized the landscape with various monuments and a cemetery in Causeway Bay for the Japanese horses killed during the invasion, to which Chinese residents were forced to bow. Replacing the Gregorian calendar with the Japanese calendar (based on the contemporary emperor’s reign), the Japanese introduced their own holidays, such as the emperor’s birthday, the Yasukuni Festival for Japanese war dead, and Empire Day or National Foundation Day. In May 1943, the new authorities established the East Asia Academy to introduce potential government servants, teachers, and businessmen to Japanese morals and customs. As an official Japanese publication explained, since Hong Kong was now a “Hong Kong for the East Asians,” it was time for the “poisonous remains of British cultural leftovers” to be “thoroughly eradicated.”

Although they portrayed their invasion as liberation from colonialism, as elsewhere in their new empire the Japanese in Hong Kong soon showed that they could be far more brutal than the British had ever been. On January 4, 1942, all of Hong Kong’s British, American, and Dutch residents were arrested. The Japanese displayed their victory over the British for Hong Kong’s non-European population to see, parading prisoners of war through the streets and forcing Allied captives to bow to Chinese, pull rickshaws, and clean the streets. Most of the British civilians were imprisoned in Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, while the military prisoners were held at a former British camp at Sham Shui Po in Kowloon. Although most of the Americans were repatriated, the head of the Stanley internment camp, Frank Gimson, who had arrived as colonial secretary the day before the Japanese invasion, insisted that the British civilians remain in Hong Kong as a show of force. Many civilian and military prisoners were executed; others died of disease and malnourishment. But even though Prime Minister Tojo Hideki ordered that the European prisoners have only the barest of rations, the British in Hong Kong had it better than their counterparts in some of the Japanese camps in Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, writes historian Philip Snow, “the keynote of their treatment was humiliation rather than brutality for the sake of it.” Still, the “combined shock of the defeat and internment” undermined the “entire pre-war edifice of British supremacy in Hong Kong.”

Those who suffered the most, both in the invasion and during the occupation, were the same people the Japanese repeatedly insisted were not their enemies: the Chinese. The Japanese authorities tried to reduce Hong Kong’s population by repatriating the refugees who had come from China in the years leading up to the invasion. In early January 1942, they announced that anyone without residence or employment would have to leave. Although the Japanese had a hard time enforcing this policy, within a year Hong Kong’s population had dropped from more than 1.5 million to 1 million. By the end of the occupation in August 1945, it was under six hundred thousand. In three and a half years, at least ten thousand Hong Kong civilians were executed, while many others were tortured, raped, or mutilated. Army officers were even more vicious than their men, but the most systematically brutal were the Kempeitai, the notorious Japanese military police who routinely performed executions by beheading at King’s Park in Kowloon and used Chinese for shooting or bayonet practice. Dorothy Lee, a social worker, recalled how everyone lived “in fear of the ‘midnight knock.’ The Japanese might come to your door at any time to take over your house or flat and, in the early days, they came into rape.” Lee saw one Japanese corporal known as “the killer” personally behead twelve civilians within several minutes.

Although the Japanese created countless atrocities throughout their empire, Hong Kong’s unique situation may have encouraged the scope and intensity of this brutality. As they did in Malaya, Indochina, and Indonesia, many Japanese administrators and soldiers resented the Chinese of Hong Kong for supposedly having served their European overlords so willingly. Unlike the colonies of Southeast Asia, however, Hong Kong lacked the natural resources to make conquest worthwhile. Although the new regime introduced a program for reopening factories to produce goods such as shoes made with rubber from Indochina and Malaya, the Japanese economic record was disastrous. Shortages and price increases were exacerbated by orders from Tokyo to confiscate anything of value and send it to Japan. By late 1942, when the war was going badly for Japan, the governor tried even more vigorously to restrict Hong Kong’s scarce resources for the Japanese troops. In January 1943, the Kempeitai set two German shepherds on a group of Chinese women who had been gathering grass for fuel. Only after the dogs had chewed pieces of flesh out of them were the women released. As the colony’s overseas trade suffered, by mid-1943 the food shortage became even more unbearable. Several hundred corpses—some with parts of their thighs and buttocks removed for food—littered the streets every day, and many residents survived only by eating rats. The weakening of central government control and the expansion of corruption that accompanied Japan’s failing war effort made conditions even worse and “opened the way to an orgy of private greed.” Uncontrolled and free to do as it pleased, the Kempeitai in Hong Kong created an “empire unmatched by the Kempeitai branches in any other Japanese-occupied zone” and “waxed fat on the narcotics trade.”

Despite some provisions under the Japanese for educating Hong Kong’s poor, the education system practically fell apart. Whereas more than one hundred thousand children were enrolled in school before the war, by the end of the war this number had plummeted to around three thousand. Yet any account of the Japanese occupation must also include some of the more positive changes. Snow argues that the Japanese brought more Chinese into the “central administration of the colony than the British had ever done.” The Japanese practice of delegating tasks gave Chinese a larger role than under the British, while the Japanese also created a network of district bureaus, which the British never had. Unlike the British, the Japanese went to great lengths to publicize and explain their policies to the Chinese. The Japanese also made some positive changes in public health and agriculture. With “something close to a mania” for preserving public health—mainly to protect the health of Japanese soldiers—they kept outbreaks of smallpox and cholera minor compared with the prewar years.