Qin Wars of Unification (230–221 BCE)

Map of Zhou China c.400 BC

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

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

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

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

Principal Battles Daliang

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

China-India – Conflict Background

The Chinese, unable to understand the genuine resentment and anger the Tibetans felt about the occupation, were convinced that India supported the resistance. Sino-Indian relations deteriorated even further when the Dalai Lama fled to India after the failed uprising in Lhasa in March 1959. At a CCP Politburo meeting on 17 March, Zhou stressed upon what he saw as a connection between the uprising and the Indian government, and he went on to speculate that both Britain and the United States had provided support for the rebels in collusion with India, and that, ‘a commanding centre of the rebellion has been established in Kalimpong’.

There was no more Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai and it was at this time that Deng Xiaoping argued that India had to be taught a lesson The incursions into Longju in August 1959 and Kongka La in October were most likely meant to probe India’s defences. The American academic Donald S. Zagoria in his comprehensive study of the Sino-Soviet conflict has another explanation for the Chinese attacks in 1959; it once again shows that China’s conflict with India was never mainly about border demarcation or whether or not old treaties should be honoured. He refers to what was said by a Polish delegation that visited Beijing in October 1959 for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China,

The Poles … supposed that Chinese Communist resentment at being left out of high-level negotiations was one of the motivations behind Peking’s (Beijing’s) decision to stir up trouble with India over the boundary question. The October incident in Kashmir, where several Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed, was said to be intended as a reminder to India, the Soviet Union, and the West that there were important areas of the world where settlements could be reached only by direct negotiations with Peking.

It was also becoming increasingly clear that Mao’s—and China’s—worldview was fundamentally different from Nehru’s ideals of non-alignment and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The Western concept of the Three-World Model, as formulated during the Cold War, meant that the US and its allies belonged to the First World, the Soviet Union and its satellites to the Second, and neutral and non-aligned countries to the Third World. Mao’s Three Worlds Theory was different. To him, the US and the Soviet Union belonged to the First World; Japan, Europe and Canada formed the Second World; and Asia, Africa, and Latin America were the Third.

Naturally, China aspired to become the leader of the Third World and dethrone India from the position it held throughout the 1950s as the main voice of the newly independent Asian and African nations. Wang Hongwei, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, spelled it out in one of his studies, ‘India after annexing more than 560 principalities, sent forces into Kashmir and embarked on expansionism … Since then the bourgeois elite of India stepped on the stage of contemporary Asian history and strived for power and hegemony, and acted as if they were leaders.’ And in order to change that, China had to show that it was militarily superior to India. That was achieved in 1962. India never recovered from the defeat—Nehru himself died a broken man in 1964, and China under Mao became the beacon for most of the Third World revolutionaries. As Mao had said, ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.

The 1962 War also forced India to abandon its non-aligned status, first by seeking support from the US and later by allying itself with China’s new enemy, the Soviet Union. Non-interference became history when Indian troops intervened in East Pakistan in 1971 and helped the resistance fighters there break away to form Bangladesh. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent ideals had definitely given way to a militarized India, which expanded its armed forces and even exploded its own nuclear device in May 1974. China had won. India was no longer an example to follow for the Third World. China was.

Even a cursory look at the history of China’s wars since 1949 shows that border disputes were never a main guiding principle in Beijing’s foreign policy. Apart from the invasion of Tibet and bombardments of the nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s (which were meant to consolidate the new communist government over what it considered its rightful territory) China’s wars have always been ideologically motivated, meant to show its superior strength vis-à-vis adversaries and to demonstrate socialist solidarity with its ‘comrades-in-arms’. Respect for international boundaries has never been an issue.

In Korea in the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese ‘volunteers’ streamed down the peninsula to support the communist regime in the North and its war against the US-allied South. The Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, and a still-divided nation, a Chinese ally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North, and the pro-West Republic of Korea in the South. Chinese losses in that war were immense, as it resorted to ‘human-waves tactics’, i.e., sending wave after wave of inexperienced recruits to face the bullets and the artillery of the south. An estimated 152,000 Chinese died and 383,000 were wounded in that war, but China had for the first time showed that it was a military force to be reckoned with and that it would not hesitate to suffer heavy casualties if a political point could be made.

After the Mekong River Operation across the border into Myanmar in 1960–61, China embarked on a strategically even more adventurous campaign in the same region. In January 1968, thousands of Chinese crossed the border again into Myanmar—this time as ‘volunteers’ to fight alongside the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which resorted to armed struggle against the Myanmar government shortly after independence in 1948. Since the early 1950s, more than 140 Myanmar Communists had been living in exile in China, but it was not until an unpredictable general, Ne Win, seized power in the capital Yangon in March 1962 that they began to receive substantial Chinese support for their cause. It is generally assumed by most Westerns scholars that the anti-Chinese riots in Yangon in June 1967 became the catalyst for China’s decision to aid the CPB. But, like the border dispute with India, that was only a pretext for China to move into action.

CPB cadres had already begun surveying the border areas for possible infiltration routes in 1963. At the same time, they were introduced to a group of ethnic Kachin rebels who had also retreated into China in the early 1950s. As most of the Myanmar communists were urban intellectuals, that group of warlike Kachin tribesmen were to become the nucleus of the CPB army. But, until the early 1970s, Chinese ‘volunteers’ made up the bulk of the CPB’s fighting force. Most of them were youthful Red Guards from China, who had received their political schooling during the Cultural Revolution. But among them were also more experienced PLA officers and political commissars.

Chinese support for the CPB continued until Deng Xiaoping, a political hardliner but an economic reformer, changed Beijing’s foreign policy in the 1980s from support of revolutionary movements to bilateral trade with China’s neighbours and other commercial activities. But the Chinese never completely abandoned the CPB. It was still a useful tool, which the Chinese could use to exert its influence inside Myanmar.

In March 1969, a border war broke out between China and the Soviet Union, ostensibly over the ownership of some sandbanks in the River Ussuri. But, as was the case with India in 1962, political motives were more important than the exact alignment of the border. Beijing wanted to show the Third World that revolutionary China was strong enough to stand up even against the ‘Soviet revisionist renegade clique’, as the Chinese called the Soviet leaders after Beijing had broken ties with Moscow in 1960. China, not the Soviet Union, was the true leader of all the oppressed peoples of the world.

Chinese support for North Vietnam and the communist guerrillas in the South was substantial until that war ended in May 1975. But centuries of mutual distrust between the Chinese and the Vietnamese let to strained relations, with Hanoi allying itself with the Soviet Union. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia, China’s main ally in the region, in December 1978–Janaury 1979, it was time for Beijing to teach another neighbour ‘a lesson’. In February 1979, Chinese troops—and they came from the same regiments as those that had taken part in the 1961 campaign against the KMT in Myanmar—crossed the border into northern Vietnam. But this time, the PLA was not as successful as it had been against India in 1962. The Vietnamese fought back, inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese. No one really won that war—and it turned out to be the last of its kind that the PLA fought. Since then, efforts have been made to turn the PLA into a more modern and professional force, not the ‘people’s army’ of the past.

But back in 1962, the PLA was still an ideologically motivated entity guided by the political commissars from the CCP, and it is clear that India, and Nehru in particular, did not realize that. Nehru’s faith in Zhou was also misguided. George Patterson, a British Tibet expert who was fluent in several local dialects, writes in his Peking Versus Delhi, which was published in 1963,

There is another side to Chou [Zhou] which is not so well-known as the charming, brilliant, even ‘moderate’, exterior which he uses to win friends and influence people. In 1931, Kao Chen-chang [Gu Shunzhang], a member of the Communist Central Committee and Chief of the Communist secret police, broke with the Communists and informed to the police in Hankow [Hankou], a group of men led by Chou himself murdered the whole family, including servants and babies, by strangulation.

Gu himself was not among those killed, and the decision to punish the family was made as he had managed to escape from the clutches of the Party. When Gu had outlived his usefulness to the KMT authorities, he was executed by the police in 1935. Zhou, meanwhile, carried out many similar purges and killings of real or imagined traitors to the Communist cause. Zhou was as much a hardliner as the dreaded security chief Kang Sheng, who became notorious for his brutality during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Moreover, Chinese articles and documents show that Nehru’s apparent fondness for Zhou was not reciprocated. The Chinese Communists always considered Nehru a bourgeois nationalist leader, and not even as a mild socialist. The earliest attacks on the Indian prime minister came even before the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 October 1949. Nehru was a ‘running dog of imperialism’, according to an article on 19 August 1949 in Shijie Zhishi (‘world knowledge’), a magazine published by the CCP’s Culture Committee. In its 16 September 1949 issue, the magazine proclaimed, ‘Nehru riding behind the imperialists whose stooge he is, actually consider[s] himself the leader of the Asian people… as a rebel against the movement for national independence, as a blackguard… as a loyal slave of imperialism, Nehru has always been made the substitute of Chiang Kai-shek by the imperialists.’

Even if Nehru was unaware of what Zhou and his comrades were writing in their Chinese-language publications, and saying about him behind his back during the days of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai, the CIA certainly knew what the Chinese were up to. A top secret CIA report from 2 March 1963, which has only recently been declassified, states,

The Chinese diplomatic effort was a five-year masterpiece of guile, executed—and probably planned in large part—by Chou En-lai [Zhou Enlai]. Chou played on Nehru’s Asian, anti-imperialist mental attitude, his proclivity to temporize, and his sincere desire for an amicable Sino-Indian relationship. Chou’s strategy was to avoid making explicit, in conversations and communications with Nehru, any Chinese border claims, while avoiding any retraction of those claims which would require changing Chinese maps. Chou took the line with Nehru in Peiping [Beijing] in October 1954 that Communist China ‘had as yet had no time to review’ the Kuomintang maps, leaving the implication but not the explicit promise that they would be revised. In New Delhi in November–December 1956, Chou sought to create the impression with Nehru that Peiping would accept the McMahon Line, but again his language was equivocal, and what was conceded with his left hand, he retrieved with his right.

The same CIA report says that the former prime minister of Myanmar, Ba Swe, had written a letter to Nehru in 1958, warning him to be ‘cautious’ in dealing with Zhou on the Sino-Indian border issue. At the same time, Myanmar was engaged in talks with the Chinese about their common border, which was eventually demarcated in 1960 after an agreement, which was not unfavourable to Myanmar, had been reached.

According to the report, ‘Nehru is said to have replied by declaring Chou to be “an honourable man”, who could be trusted’. Nehru, and India, had to pay a heavy price for that trust when the PLA came storming across the Himalayas in October 1962.

Some analysts and historians have argued that China would have been willing to settle the border dispute with India through some ‘give-and-take’ on both sides. The Chinese would give up their claim to the NEFA in exchange for India’s recognition of China’s de facto control of Aksai Chin. After all, that was how China had settled its border disputes with Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. But this argument fails to make a distinction between Beijing’s relations with smaller neighbours such as Myanmar and Nepal, and the importance of a strategic alliance with Pakistan, and the fact that China’s disputes with India go way beyond drawing a line on the map and demarcating it on the ground. And, as noted, in the 1950s, China emerged as India’s main rival for leadership of the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa.

Today, an entirely new situation has emerged. Bilateral trade between China and India—not across the closed border but by sea—is booming; in 2015–16, it stood at US$ 70.73 billion, but it should be added, India’s trade deficit is US$ 52.68 billion. China imports minerals, ores, and cotton from India, while India buys electronic equipment, computer hardware, and chemicals from China.

However, the rivalry between India and China is far from over, and the distrust between the two countries remains deep and profound. To China, Arunachal Pradesh is still ‘South Tibet’ and travellers from that part of India get their Chinese visas stapled into their passports. According to the Chinese, they are not foreigners, as they are coming from a part of China that is under Indian occupation. This is a gesture that serves no purpose other than to humiliate India and the Indians.

More alarmingly, China has not ceased its support to rebels in India’s troubled northeast. Nagas, Assamese, and Manipuris have been able to buy weapons on what is euphemistically called ‘the black market’ in China. Paresh Baruah, the leader of the main outfit, the United Liberation Front of Asom [Assam] (ULFA), stays in Chinese towns and travels freely across the country. The Chinese may argue that they are only reciprocating India’s act of providing sanctuary for the Dalai Lama, allowing the enemy of one country to stay in the other. But while the Dalai Lama is not the leader of a band of armed insurgents, Baruah certainly is.

Bumla and other passes in the Himalayas may be quiet today, but there is growing concern over a cascade of dams the Chinese are planning to build on the Brahmaputra in Tibet, where it is called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan and Yarlung Zangbo on Chinese maps. One dam, at Zangmu in southeastern Tibet, became operational in October 2015, and there are another 27 proposed dams on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries before the river enters India. Naturally, that plan has caused controversy as the Chinese have not consulted India and Bangladesh, the downstream countries that would be affected by these dams.43 China’s attitude towards its neighbours has been the same on the Mekong, where a number of dams have been built inside China without any consultation with Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, through which that river also flows.

Despite the tension along and across the border, the centre of frictions between India and China today is not in the Himalayas but in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are making inroads into what India has always considered its ‘own lake’, and that could lead to conflict. China wants to keep a close watch on the sea lanes used by its suppliers of oil in the Middle East, but that means challenging India’s supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Recent joint naval exercises between India and the United States, and Japan’s interest in those, show that there is a new Cold War, this time with China rather than the Soviet Union as the main adversary.

In the middle of this imbroglio lies Myanmar, which has always strived to be a neutral buffer state between regional rivals, but more often than not ended up as an area of conflict between players, indigenous as well as foreign, vying for power and influence. During the decade 1968–78, the Chinese poured more aid into the CPB in Myanmar than they had into any other communist movement outside Indochina. A 20,000-square-kilometre base area was established along the Chinese border in Myanmar’s northeast. The Chinese built two small hydroelectric power plants inside the CPB’s territory, and a clandestine radio station, ‘the People’s Voice of Burma’, began transmitting from the Yunnan side of the border in 1971. It was later moved to the CPB’s headquarters at Panghsang inside Myanmar, where the entire leadership resided in houses built by the Chinese.

On the Thai border, ethnic Karen, Shan, and Mon rebels were allowed to set up bases, and buy supplies and weapons from the Thai side. The Thais wanted a border buffer between themselves and their historical enemy, Myanmar, which had invaded their country in the past and had sacked the old capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. While such concerns may seem anachronistic in today’s world, they were real enough for the Thais.

In the west, near the border with East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), Muslim guerrillas from the Rohingya community in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have been active since Myanmar became independent from Britain in 1948. India never supported any rebel movement in Myanmar, but gave asylum to U Nu, who was ousted by General Ne Win in 1962. During a pro-democracy uprising in August–September 1988, the activists received moral support from Indian authorities.

The situation in Myanmar’s border areas changed dramatically when, in March–April 1989, the once powerful CPB collapsed after a mutiny among the rank-and-file of the party’s army, most of whom were Wa tribesmen. The Wa were headhunters who lived in the mountains straddling Myanmar’s northeastern border with China and had been recruited into the communist army without having any clear idea of the ideology for which they were fighting and dying. Almost the entire old leadership fled to China, where they were given asylum. The CPB subsequently broke up into four ethnic armies, of which the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is by far the strongest.

The 1989 CPB mutiny actually suited China’s interests, and there are strong suggestions that China’s clandestine services actively encouraged the Wa and others to rise up against their leaders. In view of Deng’s new polices, which emphasized trade and economic expansion, the CPB’s old leadership, which remained staunchly Maoist, had become a liability.

In the years following the CPB mutiny, trade between China and Myanmar blossomed. China flooded Myanmar’s markets with cheap consumer goods and imported mainly raw materials such as timber and minerals. The annual exchange of goods soon reached the US$ 1 billion mark. The surge in bilateral trade between Myanmar and China was facilitated by Western sanctions and boycotts, which at that time were in force because of the Myanmar government’s gross violations of human rights. China did not have to face any competition and became Myanmar’s most important foreign trade partner.

But China was not going to give up the foothold inside Myanmar that it had had since the late 1960s. In May 1989, the UWSA entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government, which, on the one hand, suited China’s new commercial interests, and on the other, also helped strengthen the UWSA. After all, the Chinese had had a long-standing relationship with most of the leaders of the UWSA, dating back to their CPB days. Thus, the UWSA has been able to purchase vast quantities of weapons from China, including heavy artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and armoured fighting vehicles.

Today, the UWSA is better armed than the CPB ever was. It can field at least 20,000 well-equipped troops as well as thousands of village militiamen and other supportive forces. Moreover, the top leaders of the UWSA are usually accompanied by Chinese intelligence officers who provide advice and guidance.

In recent years, Myanmar has mended its ties with the West, partly because the Chinese influence, even dominance, was becoming overwhelming, and sanctions have been lifted. China’s sending of even more weaponry to the UWSA is a way of putting pressure on Myanmar’s government at a time when its relations with Washington are improving. As China sees it, it cannot afford to ‘lose’ Myanmar to the US and the West. A strong UWSA provides China with a strategic advantage, and it is also a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Myanmar government.

When Aung Min, the then president office minister, visited Monywa, a town northwest of Mandalay, in November 2012, to meet local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project in the area, he openly admitted, ‘We are afraid of China…we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the Communists, the economy in border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.’ By ‘the Communists’ he clearly meant the UWSA and its allies, among them the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the Kokang area, another former CPB force in Myanmar’s northeast, which indeed resorted to armed struggle in February 2015.

China, predictably, has denied any involvement in that conflict, but the fact remains that most of the MNDAA’s weaponry and vast quantities of ammunition have been supplied by the UWSA. According to a well-placed source, China was indirectly ‘teaching the Myanmar government a lesson in Kokang: move too much to the West, and this can happen’. At the same time, China is playing another, ‘softer’ card by being actively involved in the so-called ‘peace talks’ between the Myanmar government and the country’s multitude of ethnic rebel armies.

Whether China wants to export revolution or expand and protect commercial interests, it apparently feels that it needs to have a solid foothold inside Myanmar. There is no better and more loyal ally in this regard than the UWSA and its former CPB affiliates. Myanmar is China’s ‘corridor’ to the Indian Ocean as an outlet for trade from Yunnan and other landlocked southwestern provinces, quite apart from Beijing’s strategic interests in the region. Although there are no, and have never been, any Chinese bases there, as some Indian writers have suggested, China has helped Myanmar upgrade its own naval facilities—and that is worrying enough for India.

In April 2015, India eventually ran out of patience with Myanmar’s turning a blind eye to the presence of Indian rebels on their soil. Indian commandoes crossed the border into Myanmar and destroyed a number of camps where Assamese, Manipuri, and Naga rebels were ensconced. The rebels were armed with weapons obtained from secret arms factories inside a former CPB area in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State. Although located inside Myanmar, the machinery and the technicians came from China. The Chinese may have no interest in independence for Assam, Nagaland, or Manipur, but they evidently want to keep the Indians off balance—at least as long as the Dalai Lama is alive and the Tibetan exiles are being provided with sanctuaries in India.

Besides the broader issue of the vast differences in the respective cultures and worldviews to which the sign at Bumla refers somewhat presumptuously to as ‘Two Old Neighbouring Civilisations’, the question of Tibet remains at the heart of the conflict between India and China. And if the proponents of the Chinese version of the border dispute and the 1962 War had paid more attention to the Chinese source material, even they would have discovered that border demarcation was never the main issue. On 6 May 1959, only weeks after the Lhasa uprising against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua published an article titled ‘The Revolution in Tibet and Nehru’s Philosophy’, accusing the Indian prime minister of having adopted ‘the strategic aspirations of British imperialism’.

According to US security expert and former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, ‘On the day the article attacking Nehru was published, Zhou Enlai said in a public forum that Nehru “had inherited England’s old policy of saying Tibet is an independent country” and that this mentality was “the centre of the Sino-Indian conflict”’. Vertzberger was obviously right in his conclusion that Nehru and the Chinese leaders had incompatible worldviews, and, in a more modern context, it can be argued that China and India are still worlds apart when it comes to culture and strategic thinking.

China may have been grossly mistaken in believing that Nehru, of all Indian leaders, wanted to seize Tibet. But, the Chinese fear of ‘losing’ what they have always considered an integral part of their country has been a factor that has determined relations between China and India for more than a century, and still does. And events first came to a head at Shimla in 1914—at a time when China was weak as millennia of imperial rule were being replaced by a new, chaotic republican order.

China’s First Nuclear Missile Submarine

by Kyle Mizokami

While China’s first ballistic-missile submarine was meant to be a real, operational submarine and part of China’s nuclear deterrent, the obstacles encountered during construction forced lower expectations. The boat was more of a test bed, allowing China to test new underwater technologies as it gradually placed more emphasis on naval forces in general. Today the ship has been replaced by the Type 094 Jin-class submarines. Although by no means perfect (the subs have their own noise issues) the four Jin submarines are closer to China’s original vision of a sea-based nuclear deterrent capability, and they almost certainly owe their existence to the groundbreaking Type 092.

During the early 1980s, the People’s Republic of China attempted to modernize its nuclear deterrent force. One concrete results of the effort was the construction of a single nuclear ballistic missile submarine, a “boomer” in arms-control parlance. Constructed at enormous cost, the Xia class of submarines was such a disappointment that a follow-on class was not fielded for twenty years.

For a country with a population of more than a billion, the People’s Republic of China has a remarkably small nuclear force—and a restrained nuclear policy. The country detonated its first nuclear device in 1964, and its first thermonuclear device in 1957. The country’s nuclear weapons, under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, are estimated to total approximately 260 weapons, equipping both land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

China’s nuclear policy is a pragmatic one, largely anchored in the country’s former poverty. Rather than pursue a first-strike capability and thousands of nuclear weapons, something it could not afford during the Cold War, the country largely pursues a countervalue strategy that places an emphasis upon survivable weapons that can stage devastating revenge attacks against enemy cities. As a result, land-based missiles dominated the PLA during the early years.

Upon coming to power in 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping cut military research and development spending, concentrating what was left on the “Three Grasps”—the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a communications satellite. Sea-based nukes, which are much more difficult to locate and destroy than other basing strategies, were more in line with China’s countervalue strategy. This made a ballistic-missile submarine a national priority, and construction began that same year.

The Type 092 was designed by the Nuclear Powered Submarine Overall Design Section of the Seventh Academy, with Chief Designer Huang Xuhua overseeing the project. Despite most of China’s submarines using a traditional World War II–derived submarine hull, Huang pressed for a teardrop hull, the kind pioneered by the U.S. Navy with great success in the experimental sub USS Albacore. The first draft of the submarine plans was finished in October 1967. China’s nuclear-submarine development effort, code-named Type 09, would produce two ships: the Type 091 attack submarine and Type 092.

The priority given to the Three Grasps accelerated the Type 092’s developmental pace, which had been stalled by political maneuvering and even the carnage of the Cultural Revolution. The first submarine of the so-called Xia class was launched in 1981, and went to sea for the first time in 1983.

The Xia class was designed to carry twelve Julang (“Great Wave”) JL-1 ballistic missiles. The JL-1 was a solid fueled design with a range of just 1,770 kilometers and a 250-kiloton warhead. The JL-1 was first test-fired from a modified Golf-class submarine in September 1982. The missile’s range was disappointing: fired from the Yellow Sea, it could barely hit the northern half of Japan, and while it could hit the Soviet city of Vladivostok, it could not range as far as the important military hub of Khabarovsk. Indeed, a PLA boomer would have to be parked in the Baltic Sea to place Moscow at risk.

The single Xia-class submarine was not a military success. Ship construction was notoriously difficult and likely strained the limits of China’s submarine building abilities. The ship became operational in 1983, but faced enduring problems with reliability and radiation leakage from its onboard reactor. The ship is also allegedly the noisiest of all U.S., Russian and Chinese ballistic missile submarines underwater, making it easy to detect and track.

The sub undertook a single patrol and then never sailed again, staying pierside for so long there were rumors it had caught fire and sank in 1985. It has allegedly never sailed beyond Chinese waters. The Xia-class boat was thought to have gone into refit in 1995, and was not seen for years. It surfaced briefly in 2000 at a military exercise, but then resumed its fairly indolent career. It went back to drydock at the Jianggezhuang Submarine Base between 2005 and 2007.

While China’s first ballistic-missile submarine was meant to be a real, operational submarine and part of China’s nuclear deterrent, the obstacles encountered during construction forced lower expectations. The boat was more of a test bed, allowing China to test new underwater technologies as it gradually placed more emphasis on naval forces in general. Today the ship has been replaced by the Type 094 Jin-class submarines. Although by no means perfect (the subs have their own noise issues) the four Jin submarines are closer to China’s original vision of a sea-based nuclear deterrent capability, and they almost certainly owe their existence to the groundbreaking Type 092.





The territorial expansion of the Western Han, notably under Emperor Wudi, placed considerable stress on the maintenance of the army. In the first place, military force was deployed to take new territory, particularly in the northwest, where huge tracts were occupied beyond the Jade Gates into the Tarim Basin. To the south, the Han Empire was extended as far as the rich Hong (Red) River Basin in Vietnam, and colonization also extended into the Korean Peninsula. Thereafter, it was necessary to provide for frontier defense, particularly along the extended Great Wall, where the Xiongnu were a constant threat. There was also a problem of security within the empire itself, newly founded after the long Warring States period, for provincial discontent and uprisings, such as those of the Red Eyebrows and the YELLOW TURBANS, were always possible.

To provide for the army, military conscription was compulsory except for top aristocrats and, on occasion, those who could afford to buy exemption. At the age of 23, men underwent a year of military training in their home commandery, in the infantry, cavalry, or navy. Then they were posted for another year to active service, which could involve guard duties at the capital or frontier defense. Thereafter, they could return home but remained in a state of readiness for recall. Under the Western Han, they were required to return regularly for further training until they reached the age of 56. There was also the socalled Northern Army, a force of regulars under five commanders who served as guards of the capital and of the passes leading into the heartland of the empire, the Wei Valley. This force numbered about 3,500 men. If war threatened, as, for example, with Xiongnu incursions in the north, the militia reserve could be called up and deployed. Militia units were also assembled in the event of internal threats to security. With the Yellow Turban uprising of 184 C. E., there was a major mobilization appointment of a military commander with the title general of chariots and cavalry.

The growing administrative machine and maintenance of a standing army, not to mention the need to conscript young men into military training, placed major demands on agricultural production. An efficient rural sector and the ability to gather taxes were essential for the survival of the state.

The Han administrative system also incorporated wang guo, “kingdom.” Initially, these were ruled by the sons of the emperor and were granted a considerable measure of independence aside from the maintenance of an army. However, their very presence contained the seeds of possible dissension, and this became a reality with the rebellion of the seven kingdoms in 154 B. C. E. Thereafter, the independence of the kings was severely curtailed. No longer able to raise their own revenue, the kings received a state salary, and the appointment of their staffs was also taken over by the court. In this way, the title became increasingly honorific, and kingdoms began to resemble commanderies in all but name. Specified lands were also provided to the nephews or grandsons of the emperor, who were given the title lie hou, “marquis.” These aristocrats were awarded prefectures but had no effective power in their lands and received both retainers and an income from the court. The wealth of some marquises can be judged from their opulent burials.

The establishment of an empire, territorial expansion under Wudi, and the growth of long-distance trade relationships opened China to a new and wide range of contacts with foreigners. This even extended to Rome, whose empire was growing at the same time far to the west. It is recorded, for example, that a group of Romans claiming to be from the court of An-tun reached Luoyang in 166 C. E. This may well have been the Chinese transcription of the name of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.


The most immediate and persistent issue in Han foreign relations, however, centered on the Xiongnu, the confederation of tribes who occupied the steppes to the northwest of the Great Wall. The name Xiongnu is Chinese and means “fierce slave.” The actual name used by the Xiongnu themselves is not known.

No sooner had he established himself on the throne as emperor than Gaodi faced a major challenge from the Xiongnu, for in 209 B. C. E., a new and dynamic leader, or shanyu, had emerged, named MAODUN (r. 209-174 B. C. E.). He won over rival tribal groups and expanded his territory to include the strategic Gansu Corridor that leads to the heart of China. His presence and his establishment of a capital at Lung Cheng in Outer Mongolia had the effect of attracting Chinese dissidents, particularly those who had suffered under the establishment of the Qin and Han empires. The list even included the king of the former state of Han. This Gaodi chose not to ignore, and in 200 B. C. E. he mounted a massive punitive expedition, which he led in person. At Pingcheng, his army was surrounded for a week by the Xiongnu cavalry, and only by good fortune did the emperor extricate himself. Clearly, the Xiongnu were not going to be easily defeated, and a diplomatic solution was sought. This involved a treaty, in which it was agreed to send a Chinese royal princess as a wife to the Xiongnu leader, provide gifts of silk and food, recognize the equality of the Han and the Xiongnu states, and agree on the frontier line of the Great Wall.

This treaty was renewed with each new emperor, at which point a further princess would be sent to the Xiongnu, with increasingly expensive gifts that included pieces of gold. The increasing quantity of gifts is a measure of the regard of the Han for the disruptive power of the Xiongnu. Indeed, before his death in 174 B. C. E., Maodun’s demands steadily increased. He was succeeded by his son, Ji-zhu (r. 174-160 B. C. E.), who is named in the official histories as Lao-shang and then Jun-chen. Until 134 C. E., there was an uneasy relationship in which the Chinese adopted a policy of bribery and appeasement, while the Xiongnu mounted incursions beyond the frontier at will, even reaching close to the Han court. Under the emperor Wudi, however, there was a major change in policy. In 127 B. C. E., his general Wei Qing led a successful campaign against the Xiongnu, who were forced to retreat from the frontier. Six years later, the Han forces again defeated them. Despite almost insurmountable problems of food supply in these remote regions, a further campaign in 119 B. C. E. again scattered the Xiongnu, and the Han were able to establish themselves in new commanderies across the western regions.

The Han dominance thereafter had much to do with the fragmentation of the Xiongnu confederacy into factional kingdoms, whose rulers ceased to acknowledge the supremacy of the shanyu. There was also the problem so often faced by the Han themselves, that the Xiongnu succession was formally passed from father to son. This opened the possibility of succession of a very young ruler; the shanyu Hu Hanye (r. 58-31 B. C. E.) decree that the leader should be succeeded by his younger brother protected the succession. However, between the victories under Wudi and the end of the Western Han dynasty, repeated efforts by the fragmented Xiongnu to negotiate a renewal of the treaty on the basis of equality foundered, because the Han insisted on the formalization of a client relation in which the Xiongnu acknowledged a vassal status.

Early Vietnam

A Mosaic of a Hundred Viet

The area of the Red River delta and the hills that line it from three sides is considered today to be the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, the sacred land from which today’s Vietnam traces its national heritage back for thousands of years. Viewed from above, it’s a beautiful sight to behold: emerging from the cragged reliefs of southern China, the Red River slowly winds its way through a rice-terraced delta, then past the capital of Hanoi before emptying into the Gulf of Tonkin. For thousands of years, the low-lying Red River basin has been home to diverse peoples arriving via the eastern coast and overland from the surrounding hills. Austro-asiatic peoples moving into mainland Southeast Asia by way of southern China are thought to have been among the first to arrive in this area during the Neolithic period (10,000–2,000 BCE). Similar migrations occurred to the west, where three other waterways parallel the Red River’s descent into Southeast Asia—the Irrawaddy crossing Burma into the Andaman Sea, the Chao Phraya flowing through Thailand to the Gulf of Thailand, and the Mekong that winds its way slowly from Tibet to Saigon.

Some of the earliest settled agricultural communities appeared in the Red River plains from around 3,000 BCE as climatic changes began drying parts of what had until then been a very swampy place. As it did, rice cultivation spread in from northern areas in the Yangzi valley. Over time, thanks to the development of dikes and canals, inhabitants began to control flooding and used irrigation for double-cropping. Such intensive, wet-rice agriculture supported larger populations, as did early maritime exchanges with Asia. Dominant families emerged, clans united into tribes, and more complex socio-political institutions evolved. The spread of metal- and bronze-casting technology allowed craftsmen to make agricultural tools, weapons, and a variety of art objects as cloth production flourished.

Peoples inhabiting this area participated in a wider civilization covering large swathes of present-day southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. Archeologists refer to it loosely as the Dong Son culture. Thanks to archeological excavations, radiocarbon dating, and historical linguistics, we know that this civilization thrived roughly between the sixth century BCE and the second century CE, extending from the Red River plains to today’s north-eastern Thailand and northward into southern China’s Yunnan province. Its bronze drums, which one can see on display in the National Museum in Hanoi today, were used for religious and political purposes. These drums, some of which boast pictures of elegant cranes, have come to symbolize Dong Son’s brilliance and, for many, the origins of Vietnamese national identity. While the Vietnamese village of Dong Son, where many of these artifacts have been unearthed, was an important production site in this prehistoric civilization, the fact that peoples living far beyond present-day northern Vietnam produced similar ones during the same era complicates such nationalist claims.

The Dong Son civilization was home to a vibrant collection of peoples and cultures, but it was not always a pacific region or a unified one. As one group eyed the riches of another, conflicts inevitably arose. Local metal and bronze production meant that weapons were available. Ambitious rulers organized warrior classes to expand their territories and control populations. Local polities rose and fell as small dynasties, tribes, and their strongmen clashed. Indeed, Dong Son drums were often made with war in mind. As far as we know no one ruler ever gained the military upper hand or projected the charismatic force needed to create a single ‘Dong Son federation’ extending from southern China to northern Vietnam. Some scholars have suggested that power was perhaps organized locally around a collection of charismatic military leaders or kings. A local balance of power tended to prevail. Central control would have thus remained diffuse and moved through a multi-centered array of small territories, ‘a patchwork of often overlapping mandalas, or “circles of kings”’, who, in turn, often relied upon a spirit world to legitimate their rule. New research, however, suggests that a powerful, centralized political authority emerged in the third century BCE in Co Loa near Hanoi. A complex of walls, moats, and ramparts supported a surprisingly important urban population for the time. The large amounts of labor needed to build and defend such a center also suggest that Co Loa achieved a high level of political, social, and economic organization that may have allowed it to dominate other Dong Son locations concentrated in the Red River valley.

The nature of this ancient state formation continued to evolve when the ‘Chinese’ Qin (221–206 BCE) and especially the Han dynasts (206 BCE–220 CE) dominated and then began unifying warring tribes concentrated between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers into a single imperial core state. At the center—between heaven and earth—stood one divine leader, the emperor, equipped with a mandate from heaven. In theory, he ruled the empire through a bureaucratic state and military capable of holding and administering large swathes of multi-ethnic territories. Upon assuming power, Qin and Han emperors soon dispatched their forces southward to conquer new lands. Access to people and resources was essential to perpetuating the imperial state as it expanded from its core area outward. This, in turn, required authorities to devise an array of direct and indirect methods for ruling distant and multi-ethnic lands and peoples.

Casting themselves as the leaders of a universal empire, Chinese rulers, imperial officers, colonial administrators, and their explorers viewed the peoples they encountered south of the Yangzi (as well as in the Central Asian steppes) with a combination of curiosity, arrogance, disgust, and fear. Like the Romans also hard at work building an empire on the other side of Eurasia, the Han coined a range of terms to describe the inhabitants living beyond their empire’s confines, people they considered to be bereft of superior Han civilization and thus worthy of conquest. The Romans borrowed the Greek term for ‘barbarian’ to distinguish themselves from those living outside the civilizing domain of the empire. Han authorities used the terms yi, man, and others to make sense of those living outside the civilizing confines of the ‘central country’, zhong guo. They also used the characters for ‘beyond’ and ‘across’ to describe those living below the Yangzi. One such term was ‘Yue’ (‘Viet’), meaning ‘those from beyond’. Chinese officials often coupled it with the word for the ‘south’, ‘nan’, to indicate its geographical relationship to the Middle or Central Kingdom, giving us Yue Nan (Viet Nam) or Nan Yue (Nam Viet). The Chinese annals confirm, too, that there was never a single ‘Yue/Viet’ state, but rather a collection of dynastic and tribal polities operating across much of southern China into the Red River basin. Many had fled into this area in 333 BCE when the Qin destroyed an ancient Yue state located along China’s middle-eastern coast. At one point, the Han used the characters Bai Viet or Bach Viet to refer to the ‘Hundred Viet’ tribes located in what they now increasingly viewed as a ‘borderland’ below the Yangzi River.

Vietnam: Traditional folk painting from Dong Ho village: The Trung Sisters (Hai Ba Trung) on a war elephant.


It was during this shifting geopolitical context, as Chinese rulers began incorporating southern lands into their own protean imperial formation, that ‘Vietnam’ enters the Chinese empire and with it the written historical record. Vietnamese writing in the fifteenth century asserted that in 257 BCE, a local king named An Duong Vuong united the Lac Viet and Au Viet tribes into a single polity in the Red River area called Au Lac. It consisted of peoples coming from the delta and its surrounding highlands. While it is likely that An Duong Vuong took control of the Co Loa center located near today’s Hanoi, this early state did not last long. Around 170 BCE, it fell to a rogue Han general based in Guangzhou named Zhao Tuo. Without the consent of the court, he carved out a separate borderland polity and named it the land of the ‘Southern Viet’ (Nam Viet/Nan yue). It included the Co Loa area of the Red River delta as well as parts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Zhao Tuo’s regime lasted little longer than its Au Lac predecessor, as Han imperial troops moved in. In 111 BCE, the Han dynasty formally incorporated these southern ‘yi’ lands, consisting of Viet and non-Viet peoples, into their imperial state as a military commandery. Despite a few brief periods of independence, the people of the Red River remained there until the tenth century as China’s frontier province of Jiaozhi (Giao chi in Vietnamese). Initially, Jiaozhi included the Red River delta and much of today’s Guangdong province, the highlands as well as the deltas. In the late fifth century CE, the Chinese reduced the province’s borders to today’s upper Vietnam.

Control of this southern province was of major concern for the Han. Partly this stemmed from the attraction of its fertile plains and agricultural production; but trade also pulled imperial strategists southward. The Qin and Han had both extended canal building toward the southern coast in order to profit from international commerce coming from the South Seas and the Indian Ocean, what they often combined into one term as the ‘Southern Seas’ or Nanhai. The coast of today’s northern Vietnam provided an excellent opening for trading with Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and as far as the Mediterranean. This attraction of the Southern Seas is worth keeping in mind here and for later periods, for just as the overland Silk Road connecting China to the Roman and Parthian empires drew the Chinese empire deeper into the Central Asian steppes to the north, so too did the Indian Ocean’s markets, peoples, and products pull it southward into the Red River toward Southeast Asia. In 231 CE, a Han administrator in Jiaozhi was categorical about Vietnam’s commercial value, writing to his superiors that agricultural taxes yielded little revenue compared to international trade: ‘This place is famous for precious rarities from afar: pearls, incense, drums, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells, coral, lapis lazuli, parrots, kingfishers, peacocks, rare and abundant treasure enough to satisfy all desires. So it is not necessary to depend on what is received from regular taxes in order to profit the Central Kingdom.’ The Chinese would in turn export highly sought-after products to international customers, including ceramics, tea, and silk.

Like their Roman and Parthian counterparts, Han imperial armies could be massive and conquest was often brutal, despite the lofty civilizing missions proffered by their emperors. Those ‘barbarians’ who refused to submit to imperial power often paid with their lives. Survivors found themselves jailed, banished, demoted, or homeless. Pragmatic-minded Han authorities realized, however, that such hard-handed methods would get them nowhere in the long run. Blind military conquest and assimilation without a political endgame were costly affairs and only created a sea of hate from which the ‘barbarians’ would recruit their own armies. Perceptive colonial officials also realized that while the empire circulated Han administrators, officers, and settlers to work in the south, their numbers would never be large enough to operate the state effectively at the lower, yet vital levels of the administration in which few spoke Chinese. One Chinese administrator posted to the south bemoaned the gap between colonial theory and practice in a report: ‘Customs are not uniform and languages are mutually unintelligible, so that several interpreters are needed to communicate. . . . If district level officials are appointed, it is the same as if they were not’.

Located far from the metropolis, many Han authorities had no choice but to accommodate local leaders by offering them a role in the provincial administration. Rather than defeating aristocratic families, warlords, or shamans, compromises were reached and concessions were made. Outside the provincial capital, colonial authorities used pre-colonial administrative structures, kinship networks, and cults to rule indirectly, regardless of the orders they received from on high calling for uniformity and assimilation. Over time, the court eventually opened the doors of the imperial army, administration, and academies to Red River Viet as a way of instilling loyalty, building legitimacy, and ruling effectively.

While resistance to Chinese imperial expansion was real, so was the desire of many Viet to build a better life from within the empire. This was often the case for groups that had been marginalized under pre-existing orders and saw a chance to reassert themselves and their projects in the new balance of power and within the new imperial formation. Well into the twentieth century elite Viets would serve at the highest levels of the Chinese state and army. Equally important, Han cultural, technological, military, and political modernity proved attractive, especially when it could be used to promote local interests, trade, and identities. As a result, over the centuries, a new Sino-Viet or Sinitic elite emerged in the provincial capital near today’s Hanoi, while much less ‘Sinicized’ chieftains and aristocratic families continued to exercise power at the local levels. But without the collaboration of these local Sinitic elites and rural lords who knew the land, the people, and its languages, the Chinese imperial moment would never have lasted a millennium.

Vietnam achieved a new level of development as a part of China. The foreign trade defended by our Han administrator above continued to drive change. But contrary to what he asserted, so did agriculture. In fact, by the second century CE, agricultural production had developed sufficiently enough to support a population of around one million people. New farming techniques and tools spread along with improved methods of diking and irrigation. Local manufacturing produced glassware from potash for local consumption and export. Bronze drum decorations reveal organized spinning and weaving production, based in part on slave labor. Drum-casting became a lucrative business with Red River manufacturers supplying them to nearby non-Han leaders who often used them as symbols of their local authority. The Chinese court taxed trade, agriculture, and manufacturing, with some of the revenue going to Jiaozhi lords.

Empires have always served as motors for change. They connect and circulate peoples and move ideas, material cultures, and languages, and not just theirs. They can also serve as a process for accelerating integrative, technological, cultural, and economic change. A thousand years of Chinese rule spread many aspects of Han culture into Jiaozhi. Chinese administrators introduced new notions of law, time, and space (legal codes, calendars, measures, weights, maps, etc.) as well as bureaucratic statecraft, weapons, paper, and a character-based writing system to accompany it. Elite Red River culture changed with the introduction of Chinese-inspired royal architecture, music, art, and culinary practices, including the use of chopsticks. Thousands of Chinese settlers also moved into the delta during the colonial period, bringing with them a collection of new ideas, technologies, and words. Intermarriage was common, as were mixed offspring and bilingualism. Like the Middle English born of the Norman conquest of England in the twelfth century, a similar ‘Middle-Annamese’ arose in colonial Vietnamese towns, allowing many Chinese words to enter the Viet language during that time. The imperial connection also introduced ideas coming from further abroad. From its Indian birthplace in the fifth century BCE, for example, Mahayana Buddhism travelled the Silk Road with traders and missionaries and, through southern China and the coast, entered Vietnamese history through Jiaozhi province. Indian missionaries also visited and more than one Vietnamese monk went abroad for religious study in the native land of the Buddha.

The Confucian repertoire of enlightened monarchy, good governance, and social harmony also circulated southward. In its simplest form, Confucianism turned on three basic relationships: subjects owed loyalty to the king; sons behaved with piety toward their fathers; and wives expressed submissive fidelity toward their husbands and sons. In theory, this male-dominated family hierarchy served as the bedrock for building an ideal government and harmonious social order. Just as sons submitted to their fathers, so too should subjects loyally serve their ruler. Ancestor veneration—whereby the living performed pious rituals ensuring the proper afterlife of deceased family members and royalty—reinforced this. The Chinese relied on Confucianism to erect centralized bureaucratic states and spread Confucian culture, after centuries of political instability and social disorder. This included the development of a modern civil service and examination system based on merit instead of court, family, aristocratic, or military connections. The importance and utilization of Confucianism ebbed and flowed over time and space. As a repertoire, it was a collection of techniques and guiding principles for regulating state and society.

What deserves emphasis here, viewed from a comparative world history perspective, is four things. Firstly, despite nationalist claims to the contrary, there is nothing particularly surprising about Vietnam’s entry into and extended participation in the Chinese imperial state. Like the Au Lac Viet peoples facing the Han from the third century BCE onward, Celtic Gaul came under Roman attack in 121 BCE, with Julius Caesar subduing the area in 51 BCE. For half a millennium, the Romans ruled what became ‘France’ as a number of provinces. Like its Chinese counterpart, the Roman empire served as a vehicle through which institutions, laws, architecture, religions, and the Latin-based writing system spread into Gaul and other conquered lands. Not unlike the use of Latin in Europe, Chinese characters became the written language of bureaucratic politics and religious expression in East Asia, including Vietnam. Chinese characters (hanzi) served as the models for the development of writing scripts in Korea (hangul), Japan (kanji), and Vietnam (han tu or chu han). Each word in han tu or Sino-Vietnamese is a Chinese character, but read with a Viet pronunciation. Viet elites also used Chinese characters later to construct an indigenous demotic script, chu nom, adjusted to represent spoken Vietnamese. A millennium of Chinese imperial rule features in the Vietnamese past, just as the Roman empire helped shape French history.

Secondly, whether in western Eurasia or on its eastern side, such transfers of power never worked out so easily on the ground. Chinese imperial power in Vietnam tended to be channeled through a few, small urban sites and handled by literate Sino-Vietnamese elites living in these administrative hubs. Few imperial channels fed directly into the countryside, where the majority (and largely illiterate) rural population resided. While elites had adopted many Chinese loan words in the ‘Middle-Annamese’ they spoke, the Mon-Khmer Vietnamese language (and others) resonated throughout the rest of the Red River delta. If imperial authorities wanted to reach this part of Vietnam, they had to connect to the pre-existing grid, staffed by local lords familiar with Sinicized ways, but operating in their languages and according to their customs. Located on the outermost rim of the empire, the majority rural population of Red River Vietnam, dominated by a dozen or so aristocratic families, lived in a spiritual realm where they venerated a host of deities and spirits reaching back into the depths of time. It was also a realm into which Buddhism had inserted itself, sometimes seeming as if it had always been there.

The process of Confucianization certainly began in Vietnam under Chinese rule, but it remained a largely urban, administrative, and elite male experience. Moreover, because urbanization in Jiaozhi remained minimal under Chinese rule, the line between elite and popular religions and cultures was never drawn sharply. They overlapped. Viet elites in Hanoi may have been well versed in the Confucian canon and taken pride in writing Chinese characters, but they were just as often at ease in the composite religious world of Buddhist monks, spirits, genies, and cults. To return to the Eurasian comparison, it was not because the Roman Emperor Constantine backed Christianity in the fourth century or a Frankish tribal leader named Clovis was baptized a century later that all Europeans or Frenchmen suddenly became ‘Christians’. They did not. It took a lot of time. The same is true for ‘Confucian’ East Asia and Vietnam. If anything connected the Vietnamese to China, indeed the rest of Eurasia during this early period, it was this world of spirits, local cults, deities, soothsayers, and millenarian beliefs permeating the lives of elites and commoners alike.

Thirdly, next to these cultural transfers, stood force. Not all emperors were benevolent father figures. Many used their armies to get what they wanted, regardless of the effects locally. Onerous labor requirements, heavy taxation, and corruption were sources of social discontent and revolt. Colonial culture and statecraft often collided with pre-existing political formations, privileges, cultures, identities, and languages. Resistance broke out often when the Chinese court pursued assimilationist policies or tried to impose direct rule instead of remembering the advantages of accommodation, flexibility, and indirect rule. The Trung sisters have gone down in history for their heroic rebellion between 39–43 CE. Fueling their defiance was the imperial execution of one sister’s husband against the backdrop of unpopular assimilation policies aimed at the local aristocratic class. The arrival of more Han settlers may have also triggered the revolt by removing local elites from positions of power, threatening their social status and landed interests. The Chinese emperor dispatched General Ma Yuan, who smashed the revolt before quelling another just to the north.

Lastly, imperial rule transformed the colonial elites, both Chinese and Vietnamese. Over the centuries, Chinese settlers, army officers, and administrators who spent long periods of time in the empire’s south married into local families, picked up local languages, traded, and sometimes just wandered about. In so doing, they distanced themselves physically, culturally, even mentally from the imperial center. Han army officers invading the south were shocked to find a former Qin official ‘with his hair in a bun and squatting on the ground’. One Chinese poet in the eighth century opened a poem on life in Vietnam as follows: ‘I have heard it said of Jiaozhi, that southern habits penetrate one’s heart. Winter’s portion is brief; three seasons are partial to a brightly wheeling sun.’ He then mused about how the warlord Zhao Tuo had created an independent southern land a thousand years earlier. Indeed, Chinese settlers, officials, and their offspring could join forces with Viet elites to promote their shared interests, including independence from imperial rule. This tended to occur when the Chinese capital encountered difficulties, allowing rogue officers to take the initiative in the borderlands. Some of these rebels were ‘Chinese’; others were ‘Vietnamese’. Oftentimes they were both. It didn’t really matter. What counted most was their ability to garner local support, often from this spiritual world swirling beneath their feet, in order to transform military force into lasting political change. In 544 CE, with the Chinese court locked in civil violence to the north, a certain Ly Nam De led a rebellion against corrupt imperial rule before creating another Nam Viet kingdom. This Jiaozhi man had long been a magistrate in the Chinese administration, was trained in the Confucian classics, and descended from Chinese settlers. Similar strongmen asserted themselves across the southern confines of the Chinese empire. Nam Viet independence was, in the end, short-lived. In 602 CE, the Chinese re-established control over their coveted maritime province and its agricultural heartland. However, Viet and Sino-Vietnamese elites continued to hold high positions in Chinese Jiaozhi for another three hundred years.

The Chinese War Junk I

Junk is a type of ancient Chinese sailing ship that is still in use today. Junks were used as seagoing vessels as early as the 2nd century AD and developed rapidly during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). They evolved in the later dynasties, and were used throughout Asia for extensive ocean voyages. They were found, and in lesser numbers are still found, throughout South-East Asia and India, but primarily in China. Found more broadly today is a growing number of modern recreational junk-rigged sailboats.

The term junk may be used to cover many kinds of boat—ocean-going, cargo-carrying, pleasure boats, live-aboards. They vary greatly in size and there are significant regional variations in the type of rig, however they all employ fully battened sails.

The construction of junks has been distinguished from the characteristics of traditional western vessels by several features: the unbattened sails on masts that employ little standing rigging, the presence of watertight bulkheads to minimize the consequences of a hole in the hull, the use of leeboards, and the early adoption of stern-mounted steering rudders. The historian Herbert Warington Smyth considered the junk as one of the most efficient ship designs, stating that “As an engine for carrying man and his commerce upon the high and stormy seas as well as on the vast inland waterways, it is doubtful if any class of vessel… is more suited or better adapted to its purpose than the Chinese or Indian junk, and it is certain that for flatness of sail and handiness, the Chinese rig is unsurpassed.”

The structure and flexibility of junk sails make the junk fast and easily controlled. The sails of a junk can be moved inward toward the long axis of the ship. In theory this closeness of what is called sheeting allowed the junk to sail into the wind. In practice, evidenced both by traditional sailing routes and seasons and textual evidence junks could not sail well into the wind. That is because a rig is dependent on its aerodynamic shape, the shape of the hull which it drives, and the balance between the centre of effort (the centre of drive) of the sail plan and the centre of resistance against the hull. In the typical junk these were both ill-adapted to windward work because, put simply, junks were neither intended to nor designed to work to windward.

The sails include several horizontal members, called “battens”, which in principle could provide shape and strength but in practice, because of the available materials and technology, did neither. Junk sails are controlled at their trailing edge by lines much in the same way as the mainsail on a typical sailboat, but in the junk sail each batten has a line attached to its trailing edge where on a typical sailboat a single line (the sheet) is attached only to the boom. The sails can also be easily reefed to accommodate various wind strengths, but there was traditionally no available adjustment for sail shape for the reasons given to do with traditional materials. The battens also make the sails more resistant than other sails to large tears, as a tear is typically limited to a single “panel” between battens. In South China the sails have a curved roach especially towards the head, similar to a typical balanced lug sail. The main drawback to the junk sail is its high weight caused by the 6 to 15 heavy full length battens. With high weight aloft and no deep keel, junks were known to capsize when lightly laden due to their high centre of gravity. The top batten is heavier and similar to a gaff. In principle junk sails have much in common with the most aerodynamically efficient sails used today in windsurfers or catamarans. In practice, because of the comparatively low tech materials, they had no better performance characteristic than any other contemporary sail plan, whether western, Arab, Polynesian or other.

The sail-plan is also spread out between multiple masts, allowing for a comparatively powerful sail area, with a low centre of effort, which reduces the heeling moment. However, a thoughtful analysis of these multiple masts indicates that only two or so were actually the main ‘driving’ sails. The others were used to try to balance the junk—that is, to get it to more or less steer itself along the chosen course. This was necessary because the Chinese stern hung rudder, in origin a modified centreline steering oar, whilst extremely efficient, was comparatively mechanically weak. The large forces that a sailing vessel can place upon its rudder were known to rip rudders from their relatively weakly constructed mountings (many trading junks carried a spare rudder), so using the sail plan to get the junk to steer itself, reducing the loads on the rudder, was an ingenious development.

Flags were hung from the masts to bring good luck and women to the sailors. A legend among the Chinese during the junk’s heyday regarded a dragon which lived in the clouds. It was said that when the dragon became angry, it created typhoons and storms. Bright flags, with Chinese writing on them, were said to please the dragon. Red was best, as it would induce the dragon to help the sailors.

Classic junks were built of softwoods (although after the 17th century of teak in Guangdong) with the outside shape built first. Then multiple internal compartment/bulkheads accessed by separate hatches and ladders, reminiscent of the interior structure of bamboo, were built in. Traditionally, the hull has a horseshoe-shaped stern supporting a high poop deck. The bottom is flat in a river junk with no keel (similar to a sampan), so that the boat relies on a daggerboard, leeboard or very large rudder to prevent the boat from slipping sideways in the water. Ocean-going junks have a curved hull in section with a large amount of tumblehome in the topsides. The planking is edge nailed on a diagonal. Iron nails or spikes have been recovered from a Canton dig dated to circa 221 BC. For caulking the Chinese used a mix of ground lime with Tung oil together with chopped hemp from old fishing nets which set hard in 18 hours, but usefully remained flexible. Junks have narrow waterlines which accounts for their potential speed in moderate conditions, although such voyage data as we have indicates that average speeds on voyage for junks were little different from average voyage speeds of almost all traditional sail, i.e. around 4–6 knots. The largest junks, the treasure ships commanded by Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, were built for world exploration in the 15th century, and according to some interpretations may have been over 120 metres (390 ft) in length, or larger. This conjecture was based on the size of a rudder post that was found and misinterpreted, using formulae applicable to modern engine powered ships. More careful analysis shows that the rudder post that was found is actually smaller than the rudder post shown for a 70’ long Pechili Trader in Worcester’s “Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze”.

Another characteristic of junks, interior compartments or bulkheads, strengthened the ship and slowed flooding in case of holing. Ships built in this manner were written of in Zhu Yu’s book Pingzhou Table Talks, published by 1119 during the Song Dynasty. Again, this type of construction for Chinese ship hulls was attested to by the Moroccan Muslim Berber traveler Ibn Batutta (1304–1377 AD), who described it in great detail (refer to Technology of the Song Dynasty). Although some historians have questioned whether the compartments were watertight, most believe that watertight compartments did exist in Chinese junks because although most of the time there were small passage ways (known as limber holes) between compartments, these could be blocked with stoppers and such stoppers have been identified in wrecks. All wrecks discovered so far have limber holes; these are different from the free flooding holes that are located only in the foremost and aftermost compartments, but are at the base of the transverse bulkheads allowing water in each compartment to drain to the lowest compartment, thus facilitating pumping. It is believed from evidence in wrecks that the limber holes could be stopped either to allow the carriage of liquid cargoes or to isolate a compartment that had sprung a leak.

Leeboards and centerboards, used to stabilize the junk and to improve its capability to sail upwind, are documented from a 759 AD book by Li Chuan. The innovation was adopted by Portuguese and Dutch ships around 1570. Junks often employ a daggerboard that is forward on the hull which allows the center section of the hull to be free of the daggerboard trunk allowing larger cargo compartments. Because the daggerboard is located so far forward, the junk must use a balanced rudder to counteract the imbalance of lateral resistance.

The rudder is reported to be the strongest part of the junk. In the Tiangong Kaiwu “Exploitation of the Works of Nature” (1637), Song Yingxing wrote, “The rudder-post is made of elm, or else of langmu or of zhumu.” The Ming author also applauds the strength of the langmu wood as “if one could use a single silk thread to hoist a thousand jun or sustain the weight of a mountain landslide.”

Ching Shih(also known as Cheng I Sao) had over 300 Junks under her command, manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates. With a fleet so large, she was a large threat to the Chinese, who had not been developing a better navy. After Ching Shih retired, the Chinese Navy had continued to make the same mistake, and would cause their downfall later in the First Opium War. This is also why Chinese mariners didn’t have a good compass until the 19th century.

The Vessels

From the 9th to the 12th century, large Chinese sea-going ships were apparently developed. The first Sung emperor often visited shipyards, which produced both river and sea-going vessels. In 1124 two very large ships were built for the embassy to Korea. There is a relief carving on the Bayon temple built by Jayavarman VII in Angkor Thom in Cambodia cited in Needham. Dating from circa 1185, it pictures a Chinese junk with two masts, Chinese matting sails, and stern-post rudder. A Nan Sung scholar, Mo Chi of the Imperial University, is reported as sailing far to the north in Chhi Tung Yeh Yu. In 1161, the main fleet of the Sung navy fought a larger Jin Empire fleet off the Shandong Peninsula and won. Thus, the Southern Sung of the 12th century gained complete control of the East China Sea. There were four decades of maritime strength for the Sung (until the first decade of the 13th century), when the Sung navy declined and the Mongols started building a navy to help conquer the Sung. In 1279, the Mongol Khubilai Khan had conquered the Sung capital and then his quickly created fleet chased a large Sung junk with the renegade Sung court and the last Sung prince, who leaped into the water and drowned.

The Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries maintained the large fleet, sent emissaries to Sumatra, Ceylon, and southern India to establish influence, and Yuan merchants gradually took over the spice trade from the Arabs. It was the Yuan ships of this era that Marco Polo saw and reported, consisting of four-masted ocean-going junks with sixty individual cabins for merchants, up to 300 crew and watertight bulkheads. The Yuan dynasty greatly favored sea power (somewhat at the expense of lake and river combatants, which had been developing human-powered paddlewheel ships up until this period). However, while the Yuan achieved greater foreign contacts and overseas trading success, Khubilai Khan failed spectacularly in his two massive maritime expeditions against Japan (1274 and 1281), and also in expeditions against the Liu Ch’iu (Ryukyu) Islands. Initial successes of a Yuan armada against Java were followed by a forced retirement. A major feature of the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty was a dramatic lessening of Confucian influence in the Imperial court, and a great opening to foreign influences.

When the Manchus retook the Imperial throne and thus founded the Ming dynasty in the second half of the 14th century, the early Ming emperors inherited much of the Yuan maritime technology and policy. There were huge ocean-going warships, large ocean capable cargo ships, a regular coastal grain delivery system transporting grain from the southern provinces to the northern ones, and considerable foreign contacts, primarily in south east Asia but extending to Ceylon and India. However, two other dynamics were at work. First, the Ming dynasty was continually working to restore her native culture after a century-long of foreign rule. The Grand Canal, initially completed during the Sui dynasty (6th century AD), with a vast remodelling and extension to the new northern capital at Peking during the Yuan (13th century), was initially in disrepair due to the extensive conflict between the Yuan and Ming. The early Ming saw the rebuilding and improvement of the Grand Canal and other canals, paved highways, bridges, defenses, temples, shrines and walled cities. Second, the Ming administration was being restructured, with a resurgence of Confucian scholars as senior officials and a great development in the use of eunuchs in high office as well. These two categories of high officials were in considerable conflict throughout the Ming period. The Confucians were generally ascendant, but during the rule of the third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, the eunuch administrators and warriors were greatly trusted and given great power. This was largely because Zhu Di was a rebel warrior prince who usurped the throne of his nephew, with an initial power base purely in the north. Many of the government ministers disapproved of his usurpation early in his reign, so Zhu Di preferred to entrust eunuchs with a large share of the business of government. Many of the eunuch administrators had been loyal retainers to Zhu Di in the frontier wars and the rebellion for decades, whereas the Confucian administrators and warrior princes had defended the old, recently defeated regime.

The Chinese War Junk II

In the case of the Ming Indian Ocean expeditions, the Emperor Zhu Di chose as his agent and leader of the expeditions the eunuch Admiral Zheng He. Born 1372 into a Muslim family named Ma in Yunnan, he was taken at age ten into the Ming service, and subsequently castrated at age thirteen and placed into the household of the twenty-five year old Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, the fourth son of the first Ming emperor. Over the next ten years, from Yunnan to the northern frontier, Ma He (who was to be given the name Zheng He when the prince became emperor) served in the field doing frontier defense with Prince Zhu Di. The large, commanding and battle experienced eunuch distinguished himself during Prince Zhu Di’s bid for the throne, in both the 1399 defense of Beiping and the final campaign of 1402 to capture Nanjing.

In 1403 the new emperor Zhu Di issued orders to begin construction of an imperial fleet of warships and support ships to visit ports in the China seas and the Indian Ocean. The Ming Tong Jian, an unofficial history of the period, says: Regarding the Jianwen emperor’s escape, there are some who say he is abroad. The emperor ordered Zheng He to seek out traces of him. The fleet was larger than required to reopen trade with the southern and western regions, but such magnificence might well convince any foreign ruler harboring the deposed Chinese emperor of Zhu Di’s strength. And foreign trade, such as that which had occurred fifty years previously under the Yuan dynasty, might well help a treasury depleted by a long civil war. An imperial history compiled in 1767, the Li-Tai Thung Chien Chi Lan (Essentials of the Comprehensive Mirror of History), states: In the third year of the Yung-Lo reign-period [Zhi Di’s dynastic title, 1405], the Imperial Palace Eunuch Zheng He was sent on a mission to the Western Oceans. The emperor [Zhu Di], under the suspicion that (his nephew) the (previous) emperor might have fled beyond the seas, commissioned Zheng He, Wang Ching-Hung and others, to pursue his traces. Bearing vast amounts of gold and other treasures, and with a force of more than 37,000 officers and men under their command, they built great ships and set sail from…the prefecture of Suchow, whence they proceeded by way of Fukien to Chan-Chheng (Indo-China), and thence on voyages throughout the western seas….Every country became obedient to the imperial commands, and when Zheng He turned homewards, sent envoys in his train to offer tribute…..Zheng He was commissioned on no less than seven diplomatic expeditions, and thrice made prisoners of foreign chiefs…..At the same time, the different peoples, attracted to the profit of Chinese merchandise, enlarge their mutual intercourse for purposes of trade, and there was uninterrupted going to and fro.

At the time of the Ming Indian Ocean voyages, Chinese ocean-going technology was somewhat superior to the European, with the exception of navigation. In ship size, the Chinese had by far the larger ships. The largest ships of the Zheng He expeditions were about 500 feet long. The dimension of the ships given in Chinese histories was always subject to the accusation of exaggeration. However, in 1962, an actual rudder post of one of Zheng He’s treasure ships was discovered at the site of one of the Ming shipyards near Nanking. This timber was 36.2 feet long, and when reverse engineered to typical proportions, this yields a ship length of 480 to 536 feet, depending upon different assumptions about the draught. In comparison, the ocean-going European ships of this period were considerably smaller, more typically 100 feet long (i.e. 1500 tons for Zheng He and perhaps 300 tons for the Portuguese explorers). The Chinese had been using multi-masted ships for several centuries, while the Portuguese had just in the past century developed this innovation with their new, secret design caravel. In compartmentation, the Chinese had a clear advantage, with large ships of up to thirteen watertight compartments for centuries prior the period of examination. Western ships were not provided with watertight compartments until the middle of the 19th century, after reports of Chinese compartmentation illuminated the advantages in surviving a hole in the ship’s hull. In sail technology, the Europeans had long sufficed with square sail rigs on their ocean vessels (while with some lateen rigs on smaller ships since the 3rd century), which were good running before the wind but unhandy in beating upwind. The Chinese had been using fore-and-aft lugsails (more efficient in beating upwind) since the 3rd century AD, and since the 9th century in ocean-going ships, and were thus long able to steer closer to the wind.

However, in the 15th century, the western and eastern sail technology was comparable. The mariner’s compass, so crucial to navigation out of sight of land, was developed from the Chinese magnetized needle of the 8th century, and it traveled via land route to the Mediterranean where about the 12th century the Europeans or the Arabs developed the true mariner’s compass (floating), but China soon received the improved model. So both East and West had the mariner’s compass in the 15th century. Stern post rudders, which are a significant advantage over steering oars in steering larger ships in tumultuous seas, were utilized in China as early as the 1st century A. D. These were not developed until about the 14th century in Europe, but stern post rudders were available to both East and West in the 15th century. Knowledge of wind and sea currents was considerably more advanced in the West by the Portuguese and Dutch than by the Chinese in the 15th century. The West also had superior knowledge of celestial navigation, that advantage being shared by the Arabs; the Chinese were reduced to utilizing Islamic astronomers and mathematicians at the Imperial Observatory, but had not extended celestial work to the practical work of navigating as of yet. The Arab and the Portuguese cross-staff or balestilha developed in the 14th century, and the astrolabe for even better measurement of the angle of celestial objects in the early 15th century. In military technology, both East and West had cannon, armor and horses.

In summary, before the 15th century, the Chinese were ahead in oceangoing ship technology, with larger compartmented ships and efficient fore-and-aft lugsails on multiple masts. In the 15th century, the Chinese and the Europeans were in rough overall parity. The Chinese were ahead in ship size and hull construction, and the Portuguese were ahead in the arts of navigation, and there was parity in sail technology (the Chinese with battened lugsails, the Portuguese with lateen sails). Neither had a distinct overall advantage. Both were technologically capable of great voyages of discovery, mercantile enterprise, and colonization. In tracing the developments, what is distinctive is that the rate of progress in nautical technology of the West was considerably faster than that of the East. By the 16th century, the West was clearly superior in ocean-going maritime technology (especially considering the regression that occurred in China due to policy influences).

Chinese Naval Warfare

It is perhaps not surprising that the Chinese didn’t develop naval gunnery to the degree practised by the Western navies. The majority of the actions fought took place in restricted waters, often on rivers in head to head encounters. Few cannon were mounted, the Chinese instead relying largely on close quarter actions and boarding. Thus the weapons developed by the Chinese tended to support this style of fighting. Typical weapons included fireships, rafts and burning torches, stink bombs, anti-boarding spikes, and primitive mines.

Stink bombs – these were small grenades, clay pots filled with gunpowder, sulphur, nails and other shrapnel and any other unpleasant substances which the maker had to hand. They were used in boarding actions, hurled by the boarding parties just before they stormed their intended victim, or thrown onto an approaching warship’s decks to disrupt the boarders before they made their attack. Being hand thrown their range was severely limited.

Mines – These were made from wooden barrels filled with gunpowder and rigged with a fuse. These would be laid by a ship and set to drift down upon an enemy. Chinese ‘minelayers’ were quite adept at estimating the anticipated speed of drift and could set the fuse accordingly. Nevertheless this was quite a haphazard weapon to use.

Fireships – Not quite on the grandiose scale of Western fireships, the Chinese equivalent was often made up of two small boats filled with combustible material, connected by a stout hawser or chain. A ship passing between the two boats would foul the chain and bring one or both of the boats alongside.

Spikes – These were arranged around a ships hull to discourage enemy ships from closing and boarding.

War on the Rivers

For age-of-sail players used to actions on the high seas, or even in normal coastal waters, the confined waters in which many Oriental actions were fought present some interesting problems. That is not to say that actions in open water did not occur (even on the rivers – the Yangtse is, after all, one of the world’s widest rivers), but since the Chinese vessels were really restricted to rivers and the littorals this is where most of the action will take place.

As alluded to already, operating a sailing vessel on a twisting river presents some unusual problems for sailing vessels constrained by the wind to certain courses. In many cases the ships boats would be lowered and the vessel towed. This would not present too much of a problem, but would of course expose the boat crews to extreme danger in action.

As well as wind constraints there would be depth constraints, possibly with narrow and sometimes shifting channels known only to local pilots (who may or may not be trustworthy…). Then there is the river flow itself – a typical regional river current of 1-2 knots would be appropriate, but could increase to as much as 5 or 6 in restricted areas or during floods (as an aside the depth of the Yangtse river could easily treble to as much as 60 feet during the rainy season!)

Most rules include some sort of rules to cater for shallows, but in these sort of scenarios they become somewhat more relevant. Referees and others should be aware of this challenging environment when writing scenarios, as they add considerably to the enjoyment and ‘feel’ of the game, and stop the scenario degenerating into an ‘open sea with lots of coast’ action as can often happen.

The Opium War

Whilst coastal and trade protection actions took place in the China Seas throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the major period of interest to naval wargamers in the region during the age of sail (or rather towards its end) was the Opium War of 1839-42. Despite the advances in naval technology in Europe and the USA since the fall of Napoleon the ships involved in the war were generally sail driven.

The main purpose of the RN presence on the coast of China was to maintain a blockade in defence of the right of British traders to import opium to mainland China. Opium had been exported from India to China since the latter years of the Napoleonic wars. This was before the trade in tea from India took off and was an attempt (partly by the authorities in India) to maintain a balance against the goods being exported from China at the time. A permanent trading enclosure, known as “The Factory” was established at Canton, 40 miles up the Canton river from the sea. Communications with the outside world were maintained by ships coming up to canton, or to Wampoa, 12 miles downstream. In 1820 the Chinese government declared the trade in opium illegal, although this was largely ineffective as many of the coastal warlords and mandarins were heavily involved in the trade or were accepting bribes from the importers. This state of affairs continued until 1837 when a government crackdown, initiated by the Emperor, and overseen by Lin Tse-hsii, led to the expulsion of several merchants from Canton and the seizure of stocks and properties belonging to the opium importers. Tension increased until February 1839 when Chinese police executed a local merchant involved in the trade and travel restrictions were placed on foreign nationals. To safeguard the British merchants in the region a squadron of the Royal Navy was despatched to Canton under Captain Charles Elliot, RN. Elliot advised the merchants that Canton was no longer safe. He was right, as Lin besieged the Factory, confiscating 20,000 cases of opium (worth £5 million, or the equivalent of £500 million today) when the inevitable occurred and the enclosure fell to Government forces. A withdrawal was made to Hong Kong Island, a move beginning the process which led to the British possession of the colony.

The situation deteriorated as the British attempted to continue the trade, opposed by the Chinese government. Diplomatic efforts were frustrated by the distances over which official communications and information had to travel, personalities on the ground, and after a number of minor incidents which rapidly escalated a state of near general war existed on the coast of China. There were several expeditions upriver to engage and destroy Chinese naval forces and smuggling operations. The blockade intensified in 1840 when all Chinese navigation was forbidden and orders were issued for all Chinese ships to be seized. In reaction the Chinese government offered bounties for Englishmen killed or captured. An enterprising Chinese could claim the equivalent of $100 for a captured sailor (or $20 for his head), up to $5000 for a Captain, and $10,000 for capturing or burning an English ship. Despite these incentives the success rate of the Chinese against the British was not great, superior firepower usually winning the day. However, there were close calls. Whilst patrolling the mouth of the Yangtse the Hellas became ensnared in a system of underwater stakes which the local warlord had placed in the river to trap unwary ships. She was attacked by eight Pechili junks which closed in an attempt to board, but the Hellas outgunned her opponents and extricated herself from this otherwise unfortunate position and was able to withdraw.

Steamed Victory: The Nemesis II

The Nemesis Steamer

British sailors towing warships toward the besieged city of Canton on 24 May 1841.

On March 13, 1841, the rest of the British fleet arrived outside Canton, and blew the Chinese ships in the harbor to pieces and knocked out the city’s cannon. During the afternoon of March 19, British marines and sailors landed near the factories, and the defenders fled without firing a shot. Many refugees were cut down during the retreat. The following day, Elliot occupied the New English factory and declared peace.

Howqua now approached Elliot, begging for a truce on behalf of General Fang. Elliot agreed and used the opportunity to restore trade and at the same time deal a partial blow to the opium trade he excoriated. The trade in tea would recommence, but any opium found aboard British ships would be confiscated. However, opium importers would no longer be arrested and punished, abolishing Lin’s death penalty.

The truce was just a feint on the part of the Chinese, who continued to mass troops outside Canton. Elliot daily saw Chinese ships bristling with soldiers sail past the English factories.

General Yang Fang, shared Qishan’s conciliatory attitude toward the invaders and urged the Emperor to allow the opium trade to continue, because he reasoned that if the British occupied themselves with making money, they would have little time and desire to wage war against the Chinese. The Emperor dismissed Fang’s advice, saying, “If trade were the solution to the problem, why would it be necessary to transfer and dispatch generals and troops?” Instead, the Emperor ordered Yang and the other two members of the triumvirate, Ishand and Longwen, to retake Hong Kong, the loss of which continued to obsess the humiliated Emperor.

Toward the end of March, 1841, Elliot and his staff decided to attack Amoy, about four hundred miles northeast of Canton, with the date set for the second week of May. Before the attack could begin, however, Elliot fell ill in Macao. Adding to his woes was intelligence that Chinese troops were massing outside Canton along warships and fireboats, while forts in the area were being repaired. Yang Fang used the presence of the troops and war machinery to urge Elliot to return to the bargaining table, by letting him know that the Chinese military forces now outnumbered the British-not much of a threat or bargaining chip considering the primitive conditions of the Chinese forces and their recent track record in battle. Elliot heeded the warning, but instead of suing for peace, he cancelled the attack on Amoy to concentrate on the armed camp that Canton had become.

On May 11, 1841, Elliot boarded the Nemesis with his wife and made for Canton. There he saw the newly repaired forts bristling with new cannon. He also noticed a parade of Chinese warships sail past the factories. Elliot sent the prefect of Canton a letter demanding that war preparations by the Chinese cease.

On May 21, 1841, Elliot ordered the British and urged the Americans to leave the factories. Only a few Americans ignored Elliot’s recommendation; the entire British population complied. In less than twenty-four hours, the foreign quarter became a ghost town. The quiet was shattered at midnight when the Chinese attacked, shelling the factories from opposite riverbanks.

Fireboats stuffed with cotton drenched in oil were launched against the British warships, which were becalmed. The Nemesis was able to steam away from danger, firing on the Chinese warships, which sought cover behind the fire ships. The fire ships missed the British vessels and crashed into the shore, where they set the city ablaze. The Nemesis fired on the forts and silenced their artillery. By the next morning, the sea battle was over. The Chinese had failed to dislodge the British.

On May 25, 1841, the Nemesis, towing seventy sailing ships teeming with two thousand troops, reached Tsingpu, two miles northwest of Canton. Tsingpu had a natural harbor from which the British could launch an attack on the northern heights of Canton. The troops and artillery disembarked. As they marched toward Canton, Chinese soldiers screamed and waved their weapons at the invaders, but didn’t attack and kept a safe distance.

On May 26, 1841, it was decided to assault a hill and tower that made up part of the wall that defended Canton. Once captured, the hill would make an excellent position for artillery, which would shell the city and force a quick surrender, the attackers were certain. The Chinese defended the hill briefly, inflicting only one casualty on the British, then fled.

The following day, May 27, at 10 A. M., a mandarin waving a white flag appeared on the wall of a nearby fort. With Thom translating, the mandarin begged for a cessation of hostilities. Through intermediaries, Hugh Gough told the mandarin that he would only negotiate with the commander of the Chinese forces in Canton, but agreed to an armistice while waiting for the officer. He never appeared, and Gough resumed preparations for an attack. Around seven the next morning, the British were about to begin shelling the city when Chinese on the nearby fort’s walls again waved white flags, but this time also bellowed Elliot’s name “as if he had been their protecting joss,” according to Edward Belcher. The real reason the defenders shouted out Elliot’s name was that they mistook a naval lieutenant climbing the hill for the Superintendent of Trade. The lieutenant carried instructions ordering the troops not to continue the attack because Elliot was already negotiating with the Chinese over the fate of Canton.

But on May 29, 1841, General Fang broke the truce and ordered his men to attack Canton with the battle cry, “Exterminate the rebels!” That same day, manned (!) fire rafts unsuccessfully tried to set fire to British ships docked at Whampoa, five miles west of Canton, while the fire rafts’ crew threw stinkpots at the enemy vessels and attempted to board them with grappling hooks. Chinese troops also invaded the foreign factories, looting, then tearing them down. British ships sailed up the Pearl River and began to bombard the walls of Canton. Elliot decided not to invade the city because his forces, decimated by dysentery, had dwindled to twenty-two hundred men, while the occupiers of Canton numbered more than twenty thousand.

Another truce was agreed to, with the Chinese promising to pay a $6 million ransom within seven days and the British promising not to sack the city if the money was paid. The British government was at last seeing a “profit” in its war against the Chinese. Six million dollars was more than twice the amount the government earned from taxes on tea per annum. The cost in human lives was another figure that the Whig capitalists who controlled Parliament at this time did not care to take into account. Canton was also to be demilitarized, with only a skeletal garrison force remaining in the city. The Chinese would compensate the owners of the looted and demolished factories, and the Spanish were to be reimbursed for the loss of the brig Bilbaino, which the Chinese had burned two years earlier by mistake, thinking it was a British ship carrying opium. In return for these humiliating concessions from the Chinese, the British agreed to leave the Canton River and pull their troops out of all the forts they had occupied. The issues of the opium trade, British possession of Hong Kong, the resumption of trade, compensations for the now mythic twenty thousand chests of confiscated opium, and the exchange of ambassadors were ignored for the sake of securing an end to the hostilities, which the Chinese were clearly losing. The treaty also avoided any mention of a British victory or Chinese defeat to save the Emperor face and encourage his acceptance of the deal.

The Nemesis Steamer