Ancient ink painting of warriors with spears. COURTESY OF JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Beginning with the Han dynasty, the strength and allegiance of the Chinese army were determining factors in the rise and fall of imperial dynasties. China’s willingness to adopt Western science, technology, and other innovations in the first decade of nineteenth century led to repeated defeats by Western countries and Japan that culminated in the revolution and the end of the imperial era.
Almost all dynasties in China began with a military success, and each ultimately rested on its military’s continued effectiveness. All of them had a dual concern pertaining to their military: how to control the military force to prevent powerful and ambitious generals from revolting and to suppress popular revolts when they occurred; and how to defend the country against invaders.
Citizen-Soldier System of the Han and Tang
During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), all males were required to register for military service at twenty, and were considered active for military service for a year, and as reservists until age fifty-six, during which time they would report for military duties for a month each year and could be called up for special campaigns. The logistical difficulties of the system led to the longevity of levying “substitute money” on all draft-eligible men to pay for volunteers. The practice of hiring alien tribesmen to serve as soldiers and the rise of mercenary armies loyal to local leaders contributed to the decline and fall of the Han dynasty.
The army of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) consisted of career soldiers from good families who enlisted for long-term service, starting at age twenty-one and retiring at sixty. Military service was esteemed, and good families, including the nobility, vied to have their sons accepted in the army. They formed six hundred garrisons and rotated between the capitals and frontier posts. But by the mid-eighth century the state had to rely on mercenaries recruited from friendly frontier-nomadic tribes. They were commanded by their own generals, such as An Lushan, who led them in rebellion from 755 CE to 763 CE. Since regional armies played an important part in putting down the An Lushan rebellion, they became a permanent feature of the late Tang, contributing to further weakening of the dynasty.
Song and Ming Military Systems
Neither the Song (960–1279) nor the Ming (1368–1644) dynasty suffered from military uprisings or attempted coups. This was due to the ascendancy of the civil service and its control over the military and to the establishment of a professional army with hereditary soldiers. Martial spirit declined as did esteem for soldiering as a career, as evident in the common saying: “The best iron is not to be used for nails; the best men are not to become soldiers.”
The Song dynasty was founded as the result of a mutiny; for this reason the early Song rulers followed a deliberate strategy of subordinating the army to civilian control and rotating commanders among different units to prevent the build up of esprit de corps between them. Song military strategy was based on static defense and diplomacy. Never able to control the northern steppes, where the best horses were bred, and unable to obtain them from the hostile nomads, the Song army relied on infantry forces. Wang Anshi, a tenth century reformer of the Song government, attempted to strengthen national defense and failed to meet their goals: He tried to organize the population into a militia similar to that of the Han and Tang times and to encourage the farmers to raise horses by subsidizing them. Dangerous neighbors kept the Song army large—over a million men—and the cost high. Horses raised by farmers for agriculture were ill suited to cavalry use. Song innovations and inventions for warfare included the military use of explosives in rockets and other projectiles and tank-like carts sheathed in iron plating. But the Song government found it was easier to pay the mighty nomadic neighbors annual tributes of silver and silk than to fight them, and consequently the dynasty produced few distinguished generals. The most famous and heroic among them was Yue Fei (1103–1142), who attempted to win back territory seized by the Jin, was betrayed, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and murdered in jail.
The Ming army combined Tang and Song features. It relied on a professional and hereditary standing army as did the Song, numbering a million at the beginning of the dynasty and increasing to almost four million by its end. Military units were allocated land to farm in peacetime for their sustenance, though that was usually insufficient and they had to receive subsidies from the central government. It also raised militias from the populations for limited local needs. Rotation of commanders precluded the development of warlordism and forestalled revolts. There were few military innovations during the Ming; by the sixteenth century when Europeans arrived on the coast by ship, China was behind Europe in firearms technology. Thus the Ming government purchased firearms from Europeans and made imitations locally; they asked the Jesuit missionaries, then active in the Chinese court as specialists in astronomy and other scientific fields, to cast cannons, which the Jesuits did in order to acquire protection for their proselytizing activities. After the initial period of military expansion, the Ming government relied on static defense, rebuilding large sections of the Great Wall at its eastern end.
Armies of the Nomadic Dynasties
The Song dynasty was confronted by warlike nomadic neighbors. The two greatest threats to the Song originated from the northeast, beginning with the Liao dynasty, ruled by nomads called the Khitan, who seized lands in present day Manchuria and northeastern China from the collapsing Tang empire. Too weak to confront it militarily, the Song rulers made peace with the Liao dynasty by paying its annual tribute of silk and silver. By the early twelfth century, a new nomadic people called Jurchen, from northern Manchuria, formed an alliance with the Song and defeated the (by then) decadent Liao rulers.
Subsequent land disputes between rulers (the Song and the Jurchen, who now called their rule the [Jurchen] Jin dynasty, 1125–1234) resulted in defeat of the Song, which ceded all of northern China to the Jin and paid massive tribute in silk and silver. Both the Jin and what remained of the Song (called the Southern Song because it only ruled southern China after 1127) were destroyed by the Mongols. The fifth grand Khan of the Mongols, Khubilai, reunified all Chinese lands under his rule and called it the Yuan dynasty in 1279.
The Liao (916–1125) and Jurchen Jin dynasties organized armies according to their tribal systems. Their strength lay in their cavalries and the martial spirit of their soldiers. Each recruited their Chinese subjects to form auxiliary and subordinate infantry units.
Chinggis Khan (also called Genghis Khan, 1164–1227) organized his Mongol warriors according to a centralized, decimal-based hierarchy of units called hundreds, thousands, and myriads (ten thousand); the armies were commanded by his family members and Mongol nobles. The most elite, consisting mostly of noblemen, formed the ruler’s palace guard. Below the Mongol units were auxiliaries of Central Asians, northern Chinese, and southern Chinese, in descending order of prestige. Chinese units were
only issued arms when ordered into battle, and they had to return them when the fight was over. For their support, military units were granted land cultivated by Chinese slaves. The deterioration of the caliber of Mongol soldiers after decades of living a privileged life as occupiers of China contributed to the decline and fall of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).
The rise of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) was made possible by the banner system organized by dynastic founders Nurhachi and Abahai in the early seventeenth century. From the initial eight Manchu banners (each with a different colored or bordered banner or standard), eight Mongol and eight Han Chinese banners were added from the ranks of their early subject-allies, making a total of twenty-four. After conquering China, the elite banner units were stationed at strategic locations throughout the empire. These “bannermen” were hereditary soldiers and forbidden trades and other professions; they were supported by revenue from state lands. Additional but less prestigious units, called the Green Standard, or Banner, Army, were recruited among the general population for less vital garrison duties. Early Qing rulers maneuvered and hunted annually with banner units to keep up their fighting ability. The rise and decline of the Qing dynasty, following the pattern of the Yuan, paralleled the strength and decline of the banner armies as well, which had deteriorated to drone-like men by the late eighteenth century.
Whereas the Chinese civilization in general, and the Chinese military in particular, had been innovative and inventive, and therefore ahead of the West in many areas before the fifteenth century, it fell behind thereafter. Thus, although the Chinese discovered gunpowder and put it to military use, by the time Europeans arrived in China by sea in the sixteenth century, they had better cannons and muskets. Hence the late Ming and early Qing courts asked the Jesuits to cart cannons for them. But even in the early nineteenth century the Qing soldiers relied chiefly on swords, bows, and arrows.
The huge and growing gap in general and military technology between China and Europe resulted in China’s crushing defeat by Britain and France in the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century (1839–1842 and 1956–1860). Because Japan was quick to adopt Western sciences after its opening by the United States in 1834, Japan, too, easily defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). China’s defeat in foreign wars contributed to the decline and fall of the Qing dynasty—which ended with the founding of Republican China in 1911 and the subsequent abdication of the emperor a few months later in 1912—and to the end of imperialism itself.
Source: Upshur, Jiu-hwa Lo. (2009). Military, Imperial. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1468–1470. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Military, Imperial (Dìguó j?nduì ????)|Dìguó j?nduì ???? (Military, Imperial)