Fubing 府兵 was the primary military institution that evolved during the Western Wei dynasty (535–556 CE) and developed and declined from the 540s to the 740s. The dismantlement of the fubing system in the 740s effectively decentralized the military and provided opportunities for career militarists to challenge and undermine the authority of the central government.
Fubing, translated as “territorial soldiery,” “garrison militia,” “soldiers of the headquarters,” “farmer-soldiers,” and “soldier-cultivators,” was the primary military institution that evolved during the Western Wei dynasty (535–556 CE) and developed and declined from the 540s to the 740s. The institution had tribal and nomadic origins that reflected the mixed-blood ancestry (Xianbei, Turkic, Chinese) of the rulers who founded the dynasties that adopted it (Western Wei, Northern Zhou [557–581 CE], Sui [581–618 CE], and Tang [618–907 CE]).
Yuwen Tai (507–556) of the Western Wei created the multiethnic force when he combined the small northern Asian cavalry with the local Chinese militia; the garrisons grew in number as more Chinese farmers were integrated into the military institution. During the Sui dynasty and first part of the Tang dynasty the fubing was the primary military institution until it was replaced by professional armies in the 740s.
Until the early eighth century men considered admission to the fubing to be an honor, and wealthy families were given priority in the recruitments that occurred every three years. The fubing system integrated soldiers into the agricultural population and made the military self-supporting and cost-effective. The militia men, twenty to sixty years old, had permanent status as farmer-soldiers. In times of peace they cultivated their land in the growing seasons, and in the winter months they went on rotational tours to the capitals and frontiers. In return for the extra land allocation and exemption from taxes and corvee (unpaid labor due to the state), they were not paid a salary and had to supply their own food, weapons, and horses.
The Tang dynasty had 634 garrison units, each with 800–1,200 farmer-soldiers. Two-thirds of these men had rotational duties in the capitals, Chang’an, Luoyang, and Taiyuan; the remainder had three-year postings at the frontiers. These units could also be turned into expeditionary forces. The fubing system began to decline in the late seventh century when the uneven burden of services and shortage of land for allocation turned away potential recruits. The move toward a professionalized army began in the 670s with ad hoc recruits and more troops placed directly under military governors. In 695 Empress Wu (reigned 690–705 CE) promoted the examination system in search of new blood from prominent families, who then found serving as officers in the fubing system less appealing than before. By 749 the administration of Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–756 CE) had completely dismantled the fubing system and replaced it with a professional army of career soldiers and officers. These reforms benefited frontier military governors such as An Lushan, but they put the Tang government at risk of rebellion. In the 750s Tang China’s professionalized army had the same number of soldiers as the fubing system, but the costs soared and burdened the central government, which now paid the salaries, food, and equipment of all the soldiers. The dismantlement of the fubing system effectively decentralized the military and provided opportunities for career militarists to challenge and undermine the authority of the central government, leading to rebellion and crisis.
Graff, D. A. (2002). Medieval Chinese warfare, 300–900. London: Routledge.
Pulleyblank, E. G. (1955). The background of the rebellion of An Lu-Shan. London: Oxford University Press.
Pulleyblank, E. G. (1976). The An Lu-Shan Rebellion and the origins of chronic militarism in late T’ang China. In J. C. Perry & B. L. Smith (Eds.), Essays on T’ang society (pp. 32–60). Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
Twitchett, D. (Ed.). (1979). The Cambridge history of China: Vol. 3. Sui and T’ang China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
A mountain of knives and a sea of fire.
Dāo shān huǒ hǎi
Source: Jay, Jennifer W. (2009). Fubing System. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 874–875. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Fubing System (Fǔbīng 府兵)|Fǔbīng 府兵 (Fubing System)