Chinese military before 1911
LeadersChinese Emperor
Dates of operation2200 BCE – 1911 CE
Active regionsChina, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Mongolia
Part ofChinese Empire
OpponentsDonghu, Xirong, Vietnam, Xiongnu, Xianbei, Qiang, Jie, Di, Korea, Khitan, Gokturks, Tibetans, Jurchens, Mongols, Japan, and others.
Battles and warswars involving China

Ever since Chinese civilization was founded, organized military forces have existed throughout China. The recorded military history of China extends from about 2200 BC to the present day.[1] Although traditional Chinese Confucian philosophy favoured peaceful political solutions and showed contempt for brute military force, the military was influential in most Chinese states. The Chinese pioneered the use of crossbows, advanced metallurgical standardization for arms and armor, early gunpowder weapons, and other advanced weapons, but also adopted nomadic cavalry[2] and Western military technology.[3] In addition, China's armies also benefited from an advanced logistics system as well as a rich strategic tradition, beginning with Sun Tzu's The Art of War, that deeply influenced military thought.[4]

History of military organization

The military history of China stretches from roughly 2200 BC to the present day. Chinese armies were advanced and powerful, especially after the Warring States Period.[citation needed] These armies were tasked with the twofold goal of defending China and her subject peoples from foreign intruders, and with expanding China's territory and influence across Asia[5]

Pre-Warring States

A decorative bronze ax-head, dated 13th to 11th century BC, Shang Dynasty

Early Chinese armies were relatively small affairs. Composed of peasant levies, usually serfs dependent upon the king or the feudal lord of their home state, these armies were relatively ill equipped. While organized military forces had existed along with the state, few records remain of these early armies. These armies were centered around the chariot-riding nobility, who played a role akin to the European Knight as they were the main fighting force of the army. Bronze weapons such as spears and swords were the main equipment of the both the infantry and charioteers. These armies were ill-trained and haphazardly supplied, meaning that they could not campaign for more than a few months and often had to give up their gains due to lack of supplies.[6]

During the Shang and Western Zhou times, warfare was seen as an aristocratic affair, complete with protocols that may be compared to the chivalry of the European knight.[7] States would not attack other states while mourning its ruler. Ruling houses would not be completely exterminated so descendants would be left to honor their ancestors.[8]

Nevertheless, under the Shang and Zhou, these armies were able to expand China's territory and influence from a narrow part of the Yellow river valley to all of the North China plain. Equipped with bronze weapons, bows, and armor, these armies won victories against the sedentary Donghu to the East and South, which were the main direction of expansion, as well as defending the western border against the nomadic incursions of the Xirong. However, after the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty in 771 BC after the Xirong captured its capital Gaojing, China collapsed into a plethora of small states, who warred frequently with each other. The competition between these states would eventually produce the professional armies that marked the Imperial Era of China.[9]

During the Spring and Autumn Period (771–479 BC), Duke Xiang of Song, when being advised to attack enemy Chu forces while the enemy army was fording a river, refused and waited for the Chu army to form formation. After Xiang lost the battle and was being rebuked by his ministers of war, he responded: "The gentleman does not inflict a second wound, nor does he capture those with gray hair. On campaigns the ancients did not obstruct those in a narrow pass. Even though I am but the remnant of a destroyed state, I will not drum an attack when the other side has not yet drawn up its ranks." [8] His minister retorted, "My lord does not know battle. If the mighty enemy is in a defile or with his ranks not drawn up, this is Heaven assisting us", signifying that by the Spring and Autumn period such attitudes on chivalric honor was dying out [7]

Warring States

An iron sword and two bronze swords from the Warring States Period (403–221 BC)
A bronze crossbow mechanism with a butt plate, from the late Warring States to early Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD)

By the time of the Warring States, reforms began that abolished feudalism and created powerful, centralized states. The power of the aristocracy was curbed and for the first time, professional generals were appointed on merit, rather than birth. Technological advances such as iron weapons and crossbows put the chariot-riding nobility out of business and favored large, professional standing armies, who were well-supplied and could fight a sustained campaign. The size of armies increased; whereas before 500 BC Chinese field armies numbered in the tens of thousands, by 300 BC armies regularly included up to a couple of hundred thousand drafted infantry, accompanied by cavalry. For example, during the Battle of Changping the state of Qin drafted all males over 15 years of age. Although these conscripts with one to two years of training would be no match individually against aristocratic warriors with years of experience, they made up for it with superior standardization, discipline, organization, and size.[10] Although most soldiers were conscripts, it was also common to select soldiers based on specific qualifications. The Confucian adviser Xun Zi claimed that foot soldiers from the Wei state were required to wear armor and helmets, shoulder a crossbow with fifty arrows, strap a spear and sword, carry three day's supply of rations, and all the while march 50 kilometers in a day. When a man meets this requirement, his household would be exempted from all corvée labor obligations. He would also be given special tax benefits on land and housing. However, this policy made soldiers in the Wei state difficult to replace.[11]

In addition, cavalry was introduced. The first recorded use of cavalry took place in the Battle of Maling, in which general Pang Juan of Wei led his division of 5,000 cavalry into a trap by Qi forces. In 307 BC, King Wuling of Zhao ordered the adoption of nomadic clothing in order to train his own division of cavalry archers.[12]

In the field of military planning, the niceties of chivalrous warfare during the Spring&Autumn period was abandoned in favor of generals who would ideally be a master of maneuver, illusion, and deception. He had to be ruthless in searching for the advantage, and an organizer in integrating units under him.[8]


A kneeling crossbowman from the Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC)
Ceramic statues of infantry and cavalry, from the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD)

In 221 BC, the Qin unified China and ushered in the Imperial Era of Chinese history. Although it only lasted 15 years, Qin established institutions that would last for millennia. King Cheng, titling himself as the "First Emperor", standardized writing systems, weights, coinage, and even the axle lengths of carts. To reduce the chance of rebellion, he made the private possession of weapons illegal. In order for increase the rapid deployment of troops, thousands of miles of roads were built, along with canals that allowed boats to travel long distances.[13] For the rest of Chinese history, a centralized empire was the norm.[5]

During the Qin Dynasty and its successor, the Han, the Chinese armies were faced with a new military threat, that of nomadic confederations such as the Xiongnu in the North. These nomads were fast horse archers who had a significant mobility advantage over the settled nations to the South. In order to counter this threat, the Chinese built the Great Wall as a barrier to these nomadic incursions, and also used diplomacy and bribes to preserve peace. Although the Qin general Meng Tian ousted the Xiong-nu from the Ordos region, they regained power under the rule of Maodun. Maodun conquered the Eastern Hu and drove the Yuezhi tribes west. He reclaimed the Ordos from the now crumbling Qin empire and defeated the first Han emperor Gao in battle. This led to a policy of appeasement until the reign of Wudi of Han, who decided to take a tougher stance.[14] However, protecting the borders required a significant investment. Manning the stations of the Greal Wall took about ten thousand men. To support them, fifty to sixty thousand soldier-farmers were moved to the frontiers in order to reduce the cost of transporting supplies. These drafted farmers were not good cavalry troops, so a professional army emerged on the frontiers. These consisted of northern Han mercenaries, convicts working for their freedom, and subjected "Southern" Xiong-nu living within Han territory. By 31 BC, the Han dynasty abolished universal military conscription that was passed down from the Warring States.[15] In the South, China's territory was roughly doubled as the Chinese conquered much of what is now Southern China, and extended the frontier from the Yangtze to Vietnam.[16]

Armies during the Qin and Han dynasties largely inherited their institutions from the earlier Warring States Period, with the major exception that cavalry forces were becoming more and more important, due to the threat of the Xiongnu. Under Emperor Wu of Han, the Chinese launched a series of massive cavalry expeditions against the Xiongnu, defeating them and conquering much of what is now Northern China, Western China, Mongolia, Central Asia, and Korea. After these victories, Chinese armies were tasked with the goal of holding the new territories against incursions and revolts by peoples such as the Qiang, Xianbei and Xiongnu who had come under Chinese rule.[17]

The structure of the army also changed in this period. While the Qin had utilized a conscript army, by Eastern Han, the army was made up largely of volunteers and conscription could be avoided by paying a fee.[18] Those who presented the government with supplies, horses, or slaves were also exempted from conscription.[19]

Three Kingdoms–Jin

The end of the Han Dynasty saw a massive agrarian uprising that had to be quelled by local governors, who seized the opportunity to form their own armies. The central army disintegrated and was replaced by a series of local warlords, who fought for power until most of the North was unified by Cao Cao, who laid the foundation for the Wei Dynasty, which ruled most of China. However, much of Southern China was ruled by two rival Kingdoms, Shu Han and Wu. As a result, this area is known as the Three Kingdoms.[20]

Under the Wei Dynasty, the military system changed from the centralized military system of the Han. Unlike the Han, whose forces were concentrated into a central army of volunteer soldiers, Wei's forces depended on the Buqu, a group for whom soldiering was a hereditary profession. These "military households" were given land to farm, but their children could only marry into the families of other "military households". In effect, the military career was inherited; when a soldier or commander died or became unable to fight, a male relative would inherit his position. These hereditary soldiers provided the bulk of the infantry. For the purpose of cavalry, the Wei was similar to the previous Han dynasty in recruiting large numbers of Xiongnu that were settled in southern Shanxi.[21] In addition, provincial armies, which were very weak under the Han, became the bulk of the army under the Wei, for whom the central army was held mainly as a reserve. This military system was also adopted by the Jin Dynasty, who succeeded the Wei and unified China.

Advances such as the stirrup helped make cavalry forces more effective.

A Chinese terracotta figurine of a cataphract horse and rider, created during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 AD).

Era of division

In 304 AD, a major event shook China. The Jin Dynasty, who had unified China 24 years earlier, was tottering in collapse due to a major civil war. Seizing this opportunity, Xiong-nu chieftain Liu Yuan and his forces revolted against their Han Chinese overlords. He was followed by many other barbarian leaders, and these rebels were called the "Wu Hu" or literally "Five barbarian tribes". By 316 AD, the Jin had lost all territory north of the Huai river. From this point on, much of North China was ruled by Sinicized barbarian tribes such as the Xianbei, while southern China remained under Han Chinese rule, a period known as the Era of Division. During this era, the military forces of both Northern and southern regimes diverged and developed very differently.[22]


Northern China was devastated by the Wu Hu uprisings. After the initial uprising, the various tribes fought among themselves in a chaotic era known as the Sixteen Kingdoms. Although brief unifications of the North, such as Later Zhao and Former Qin, occurred, these were relatively short-lived. During this era, the Northern armies, were mainly based around nomadic cavalry, but also employed Chinese as foot soldiers and siege personnel. This military system was rather improvising and ineffective, and the states established by the Wu Hu were mostly destroyed by the Jin Dynasty or the Xianbei.[23]

Armed riders on horseback, a tomb mural from the Northern Qi (550–557 AD) period

A new military system did not come until the invasions of the Xianbei in the 5th century AD, by which time most of the Wu Hu had been destroyed and much of North China had been reconquered by the Chinese dynasties in the South. Nevertheless, the Xianbei won many successes against the Chinese, conquering all of North China by 468 AD The Xianbei state of Northern Wei created the earliest forms of the equal field (均田) land system and the Fubing system (府兵) military system, both of which became major institutions under Sui and Tang. Under the fubing system each headquarters (府) commanded about one thousand farmer-soldiers who could be mobilized for war. In peacetime they were self-sustaining on their land allotments, and were obliged to do tours of active duty in the capital.[24]


Southern Chinese dynasties, being descended from the Han and Jin, prided themselves on being the successors of the Chinese civilization and disdained the Northern dynasties, who they viewed as barbarian usurpers. Southern armies continued the military system of Buqu or hereditary soldiers from the Jin Dynasty. However, the growing power of aristocratic landowners, who also provided many of the buqu, meant that the Southern dynasties were very unstable; after the fall of the Jin, four dynasties ruled in just two centuries.[25]

This is not to say that the Southern armies did not work well. Southern armies won great victories in the late 4th century AD, such as the battle of Fei at which an 80,000-man Jin army crushed the 300,000-man army of Former Qin, an empire founded by one of the Wu Hu tribes that had briefly unified North China.[citation needed] In addition, under the brilliant general Liu Yu, Chinese armies briefly reconquered much of North China.[23]


A stone tomb guardian holding a sword, from the Tang Dynasty tombs at the Qianling Mausoleum

In 581 AD, the Chinese Yang Jian forced the Xianbei ruler to abdicate, founding the Sui Dynasty and restoring Chinese rule in the North. By 589 AD, he had unified much of China.[26]

The Sui's unification of China sparked a new golden age. During the Sui and Tang, Chinese armies, based on the Fubing system invented during the era of division, won military successes that restored the empire of the Han Dynasty and reasserted Chinese power.[27] The Tang created large contingents of powerful heavy infantry. A key component of the success of Sui and Tang armies, just like the earlier Qin and Han armies, was the adoption of large elements of cavalry. These powerful horsemen, combined with the superior firepower of the Chinese infantry (powerful missile weapons such as recurve crossbows), made Chinese armies powerful.[28]

However, during the Tang Dynasty the fubing (府兵) system began to break down. Based on state ownership of the land under the juntian system, the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty meant that the state's lands were being bought up in ever increasing quantities. Consequently, the state could no longer provide land to the farmers, and the juntian system broke down. By the 8th century, the Tang had reverted to the centralized military system of the Han. However, this also did not last and it broke down during the disorder of the An Lushan, which saw many fanzhen or local generals become extraordinarily powerful. These fanzhen were so powerful they collected taxes, raised armies, and made their positions hereditary. Because of this, the central army of the Tang was greatly weakened. Eventually, the Tang Dynasty collapsed and the various fanzhen were made into separate kingdoms, a situation that would last until the Song Dynasty.[29]

During the Tang, professional military writing and schools began to be set up to train officers, an institution that would be expanded during the Song.

Tibetan tradition says that the Tang Dynasty seized the Tibetan capital at Lhasa in 650.[30] In 763 the Tibetans captured the Tang capital at Chang'an, for fifteen days during the An Shi Rebellion.

In 756, over 4,000 Arab mercenaries joined the Chinese against An Lushan. They remained in China, and some of them were ancestors of the Hui people.[31][32][33][34] During the Tang Dynasty, 3,000 Chinese soldiers, and 3,000 Muslim soldiers were traded to each other in an agreement.[35]


During the Song Dynasty, the emperors were focused on curbing the power of the Fanzhen, local generals who they viewed as responsible for the collapse of the Tang Dynasty. Local power was curbed and most power was centralized in the government, along with the army. In addition, the Song adopted a system in which commands by generals were ad hoc and temporary; this was to prevent the troops from becoming attached to their generals, who could potentially rebel. Successful generals such as Yue Fei (岳飛)and Liu Zen were persecuted by the Song Court who feared they would rebel.[36][37][38]

Although the system worked at quelling rebellions, it was a failure in defending China and asserting its power. The Song had to rely on new gunpowder weapons introduced during the late Tang and bribes to fend off attacks by its enemies, such as the Khitan, Tanguts, Jurchens, and Mongols, as well as an expanded army of over 1 million men.[39] In addition, the Song was greatly disadvantaged by the fact their enemies had taken advantage of the era of chaos following the collapse of the Tang to conquer the Great Wall region, allowing them to advance into Northern China unimpeded. Not only that, but the Song also lost the horse-producing regions which made their cavalry extremely inferior. Eventually the Song fell to the Mongol invasions in the 13th century.[40]

The military technology of the Song was very advanced.[41] Gunpowder weapons such as fire lances, cast-iron gunpowder bombs and rockets were employed in large numbers by the Song Dynasty, which also created China's first standing navy. This advanced technology, along with the resources from the Song's prosperous economy, was key for the Song army to fend off its barbarian opponents, such as the Khitans, Jur'chens and Mongols until the final fall of the Song to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.[41]


"Guan Yu Captures General Pang De", a Ming Dynasty painting by Shang Xi

Founded by the Mongols who conquered Song China, the Yuan had the same military system as most nomadic peoples to China's north, focused mainly on nomadic cavalry, who were organized based on households and who were led by leaders appointed by the khan.

The Mongol invasion started in earnest only when they acquired their first navy, mainly from Chinese Song defectors. Liu Cheng, a Chinese Song commander who defected to the Mongols, suggested a switch in tactics, and assisted the Mongols in building their own fleet. Many Chinese served in the Mongol navy and army and assisted them in their conquest of Song.[42]

However, in the conquest of China, the Mongols also adopted gunpowder weapons such as the thundercrash bomb and thousands of Chinese infantry and naval forces into the Mongol army. Another weapon adopted by the Mongols were Saracen counterweight trebuchets designed by Muslim engineers; these proved decisive in the Siege of Xiangyang, whose capture by the Mongols precipitated the beginning of the end for the Song Dynasty.[43][44][45] The Mongol military system began to collapse after the 14th century and by 1368 the Mongols was driven out by the Chinese Ming Dynasty.[46]

The Mongols under Genghis Khan and Hulagu also brought Chinese artillery specialists within their armies who specialized in mangonels, to Persia.[47]

During the Mongol invasion of Iraq, 1,000 Chinese crossbowmen who utilized fire arrows participated in the invasion, along with the Mongol tribesmen.[48] In 1258 the commander of the Mongol Hulagu Khan's forces besieging Baghdad was a Chinese General Guo Kan.[49] The Chinese General Guo Kan was then made Governor of Baghdad by Hulagu, who also brought Chinese technicians specializing in hydraulics to engineer the Tigris Euphrates basin irrigation systems.[50] This resulted in the middle east being permeated by major Chinese influence during Hulagu's reign.[51]


The Ming focused on building up a powerful standing army that could drive off attacks by foreign barbarians. Beginning in the 14th century, the Ming armies drove out the Mongols and expanded China's territories to include Yunnan, Mongolia, Tibet, much of Xinjiang and Vietnam. The Ming also engaged in Overseas expeditions which included one violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Ming armies incorporated gunpowder weapons into their military force, speeding up a development that had been prevalent since the Song.

Ming military institutions were largely responsible for the success of Ming's armies. The early Ming's military was organized by the Wei-suo system, which split the army up into numerous "Wei" or commands throughout the Ming frontiers. Each wei was to be self-sufficient in agriculture, with the troops stationed there farming as well as training.[52] This system also forced soldiers to serve hereditarily in the army; although effective in initially taking control of the empire, this military system proved unviable in the long run and collapsed in the 1430s,[53] with Ming reverted to a professional volunteer army similar to Tang, Song and Later Han.

Throughout most of the Ming's history, the Ming armies were successful in defeating foreign powers such as the Mongols and Japanese and expanding China's influence. However, with the little Ice Age in the 17th century, the Ming Dynasty was faced with a disastrous famine and its military forces disintegrated as a result of the famines spurring from this event.[54]

At the Second Battle of Tamao (1522) Chinese ships knocked out two Portuguese ships, who were armed with gunpowder weapons, and forced the Portuguese to retreat.[55][56]

In 1662, Chinese and European arms clashed when a Ming-loyalist army of 25,000 led by Koxinga forced Dutch East India Company garrison of 2,000 on Taiwan into surrender, after a final assault during seven month long siege.[57] The final blow to the Company's defense came when a Dutch defector, who would warn Koxinga of a life threatening bombardment,[58] had pointed the inactive besieging army to the weak points of the Dutch star-shaped fort.[59] While the mainstay of the Chinese forces were archers,[57] the Chinese used cannons too during the siege,[60][61] which however the European eye-witnesses did not judge as effective as the Dutch batteries.[62] The Dutch lost five ships and 130 men in an attempt to relieve the siege of the fortress.[60]


Portrait of Wu Fu, Brigadier General of the Gansu Region. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; 1760 AD; inscribed, and with one seal of the Qianlong Emperor.

The Qing, founded by Manchus, resembled the Yuan as another conquest dynasty. The Qing military system depended on the "bannermen" - Manchus who soldiered as a profession. However, the Qing also incorporated Chinese units into their army, known as the "green armies", and large number of Han Chinese and Koreans of Liao Dong(遼東) were enlisted into the Three Banner Army (booi ilan gusa), which were under direct command of the Manchu Emperor. Unlike the Song and Ming, however, the Qing armies had a strange neglect for firearms, and did not develop them in any significant way. In addition, the Qing armies also contained a much higher proportion of cavalry than Chinese dynasties, due to the fact the Jurchens were nomads before their rise to rule all of China.[63]

The Qing dynasty engaged a western power for the second time in Chinese history, during the Russian–Manchu border conflicts, again defeating them in battle. The frontier in the south-west was extended slowly, in 1701 the Qing defeated the Tibetans at the Battle of Dartsedo. The Manchus extended their power to the west, conquering modern Xinjiang and establishing a protectorate over Tibet. After the demise of the Zunghar Khanate, Manchu authority in Tibet faced only weak opposition. In 1792-1793 the Qing carried out one of their most remarkable military campaigns when they drove the Gurkhas out of Tibet and only stopped their chase near Kathmandu. In 1841 the Sino-Sikh war ended with the expulsion of a Sikh army.

The Qing won many military successes in the Northwest, and succeeded in reincorporating much of Mongolia and Xinjiang into China after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, as well as strengthening control over Tibet. However, when faced with western armies in the 19th century, the Qing's military system began to collapse. The only one battle that Qing won with heavier casualties inflicted on the Western side during this era was the Battle of Taku Forts (1859), in which the Chinese used gunpowder weapons like Cannons and muskets to destroy three Anglo French ships and inflict heavy casualties.

To compensate for this, a series of "new armies" based on European standards, were formed by the Qing.[64] These armies were mainly composed of Han Chinese, and under Han Chinese commanders such as Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang, Li Hongzhang and Yuan Shikai and thus weakened the Manchus' hold on military power. Examples of these armies were the Xiang Army and the Huai Army. The Qing also absorbed bandit armies and Generals who defected to the Qing side during rebellions, like the Muslim Generals Ma Zhan'ao, Ma Qianling, Ma Haiyan, and Ma Julung. There were also armies composed of Chinese Muslims led by Muslim Generals like Dong Fuxiang, Ma Anliang, Ma Fuxiang, and Ma Fuxing who commanded the Kansu Braves. Local officials could also take command of military affairs, such as the father of Yang Zengxin during the Panthay Rebellion. In 1911 AD, the Chinese revolution overthrew the Manchu Qing Dynasty, and Yuan Shikai forced the Manchu monarch to resign peacefully on the promise that not a single Manchu royal be executed by revolutionaries, and thus began the modern era of Chinese history.[65]

Military philosophy

Chinese military thought's most famous tome is Sun Tzu's Art of war, written in the Warring States Era. In the book, Sun Tzu laid out several important cornerstones of military thought, such as:

Sun Tzu's work became the cornerstone of military thought, which grew rapidly. By the Han Dynasty, no less than 11 schools of military thought were recognized. During the Song Dynasty, a military academy was established.

Military Exams and Degrees

Main article: Imperial_examination § Military_Examinations


Chinese Troops trained by Foreigners 1867-1868

China began to extensively modernize its military in the late 19th century. It purchased the most modern Krupp artillery and Mauser repeater magazine rifles from Germany, in addition to mines and Torpedoes. It used these with sniper, pincer, and ambush tactics, and China also began to reorganize its military, adding engineer companies and artillery brigades. Mining, engineering, flooding, and simultaneous multiple attacks were employed by Chinese troops along with modern artillery.[72]

Several western sources reported that the Imperial Chinese military under the direction of Li Hongzhang acquired "Electric torpedoes", which were deployed in numerous waterways along with fortresses and numerous other modern military weapons acquired by China.[73] At the Tientsin Arsenal in 1876, the Chinese developed the capacity to manufacture these "electric torpedoes" on their own.[74] Numerous modern ships equipped with Krupp guns, electricity, gatling guns, torpedoes, and other modern weapons were acquired by the Qing dynasty from western powers. They were manned by western trained Chinese officers.[75]

The Chinese armies which received the modern equipment and training were the Han chinese Xiang Army, the Muslim Kansu Braves,[76] and three Manchu Banner Divisions. The three Manchu divisions were destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion.[77] The Xiang Army employed the new weaponry to achieve victory in the Dungan revolt, with German Dreyse Needle Guns and Krupp artillery. The Lanzhou arsenal in China in 1875 was able to produce modern European munitions and artillery by itself, with no foreign help.[78] A Russian even saw the arsenal make "steel rifle-barrelled breechloaders".[79]

Chinese military officials were interested in western guns, and eagerly purchased them. Modern arsenals were established at places like Hanyang Arsenal, which produced German Mauser rifles and mountain guns.[80] The Nanjing arsenal was making Hotchkiss, Maxim, and Nordenfeld guns in 1892. A Frenchman reported that China had the ability to reverse engineer any western weapon they needed. A British also noted that Chinese were efficient at reverse engineering foreign weapons and building their own versions.In the first Opium War the Chinese copied the British weapons and upgraded their military hardware while the fighting was going on. Tianjin arsenal made Dahlgren guns, 10,000 Remington rifles monthly, as of 1872. Li Hongzhang in 1890 added equipment, allowing it to make Maxim Machine guns, Nordenfelt cannons, Krupp guns, and ammunition for all of these. China was extremely familiar with R&D on German military hardware.[81] Gatling guns and other artillery were purchased by the Chinese military from western countries.[82] Montigny mitrailleuse guns were also imported from France.[83]

In addition to modern equipment, Chinese weapons, like fire arrows, light mortars, dadao swords, matchlocks, arrows and bows, and halberds continued to be used along side the western weaponry. Chinese forces used traditional Chinese weaponns to great effect. Chinese gingal guns firing massive shells were used accurately, and inflicted severe wounds and death on the Allied troops during the Boxer Rebellion.[84] In some cases, primitive weapons like Chinese spears were more effective than British bayonets in close quarter fighting.[85]

Chinese Qing Empire officers with the French Montigny mitrailleuse gun.

During the Boxer Rebellion, Imperial Chinese forces deployed a weapon called "electric mines" on June 15, at the river Peiho river before the Battle of Dagu Forts (1900), to prevent the western Eight-Nation Alliance from sending ships to attack. This was reported by American military intelligence in the United States. War Dept. by the United States. Adjutant-General's Office. Military Information Division.[86][87] Different Chinese armies were modernized to different degrees by the Qing dynasty. For example, during the Boxer Rebellion, in contrast to the Manchu and other Chinese soldiers who used arrows and bows, the Muslim Kansu Braves cavalry had the newest carbine rifles.[88] The Muslim Kansu Braves used the weaponry to inflict numerous defeats upon western armies in the Boxer Rebellion, in the Battle of Langfang, and, numerous other engagements around Tianjin.[72][89] The Times noted that "10,000 European troops where held in check by 15,000 Chinese braves". Chinese artillery fire caused a steady stream of casualties upon the western soldiers. During an engagement on the 11th, heavy casualties were inflicted on the French and Japanese, the British and Russians lost some men.[90] Chinese artillerymen during the battle also learned how to use their German bought Krupp artillery accurately, outperforming European gunners. The Chinese artillery shells slammed right on target into the western armies military areas.[91] The Chinese military victories shattered the western claim that a foreign army could occupy China without opposition from the Chinese.[92][93]

Equipment and technology

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In their various campaigns, the Chinese armies through the ages, employed a variety of equipment in the different arms of the army. The most notable weaponry used by the Chinese consisted of crossbows, rockets, gunpowder weapons, and other "exotic weapons", but the Chinese also made many advances on conventional iron weapons such as swords and spears that were far superior to other contemporary weapons.


Chinese repeating crossbow (non-recurve version - ones used for war would be recurved)

The crossbow, invented by Chinese in the 4th century BC,[94] and by Greeks in the 5th century BC,[95] was considered the most important weapon of the Chinese armies.[citation needed] The mass use of crossbows allowed Chinese armies to deploy huge amounts of firepower, due to the crossbow's deadly penetration, long range, and rapid rate of fire[citation needed]. As early as the 4th century BC, Chinese texts describe armies employing up to 10,000 crossbowmen in combat, where their impact was decisive[citation needed].

Crossbow manufacture was very complex, due to the nature of the firing bolt. Historian Homer Dubs claim that the crossbow firing mechanism "was almost as complex as a rifle bolt, and could only be reproduced by very competent mechanics.[citation needed] This gave an additional advantage, as this made the crossbow "capture-proof" as even if China's barbarian enemies captured them they would not be able to reproduce the weapon[citation needed]. Crossbow ammunition could also only be used in crossbows, and was useless in the conventional bows employed by China's nomadic enemies.[citation needed]

In combat, crossbows were often fitted with grid sights to help aim, and several different sizes were used[citation needed]. During the Song Dynasty, huge artillery crossbows were used that could shoot several bolts at once, killing many men at a time[citation needed]. Even cavalrymen were sometimes issued with crossbows. It was recorded that the crossbow could "penetrate a large elm from a distance of one hundred and forty paces"[citation needed]. Repeating crossbows were introduced in the 11th century, which had a very high rate of fire; 100 men could discharge 2000 bolts in 15 seconds, with a range of 200 yards. This weapon became the standard crossbow used during the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.[citation needed]

Gunpowder weapons

As inventors of gunpowder, the Chinese were the first to deploy gunpowder weapons. A large variety of gunpowder weapons were produced, including guns, cannons, mines, the flamethrower, bombs, and rockets. After the rise of the Ming Dynasty, China began to lose its lead in gunpowder weapons to the west.[96] This became partially evident when the Manchus' began to rely on the Jesuits to run their cannon foundry,[3] at a time when European powers had assumed the global lead in gunpowder warfare through their Military Revolution.[97][98][99]

Guns and cannons

Hand cannon from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)

The first "proto-gun", the fire lance, was introduced in 905 AD. This consisted of a bamboo or metal tube attached to a spear filled with gunpowder that could be ignited at will, with a range of five metres. It was capable of killing or maiming several soldiers at a time and was mass produced and used especially in the defense of cities. Later versions of the fire lance dropped the spear point and had more gunpowder content.[citation needed]

Traditionally interpreted as a wind god, a sculpture in Sichuan was found holding a bombard, and the date must be as early as AD 1128[100] These cast-iron hand cannons and erupters were mostly fitted to ships and fortifications for defense.

Cannon were used by Ming dynasty forces at the Battle of Lake Poyang.[101] Ming dynasty era ships had bronze cannon. One shipwreck in Shandong had a cannon dated to 1377 and an anchor dated to 1372.[102] From the 13th to 15th centuries cannon armed Chinese ships also traveled throughout south east Asia.[103]

Bombs, grenades and mines

High explosive bombs were another innovation developed by the Chinese in the 10th century. These consisted largely of round objects covered with paper or bamboo filled with gunpowder that would explode upon contact and set fire to anything flammable. These weapons, known as "thunderclap bombs" were used by defenders in sieges on attacking enemies and also by trebuchets who hurled huge numbers of them onto the enemy.[citation needed] A new improved version of these bombs, called the "thunder-crash" bomb, was introduced in the 13th century that was covered in cast iron, highly explosive and hurled shrapnel at the enemy. These weapons were not only used by Song China, but also its Jur'chen and Mongol enemies. In the history of the Jur'chen Jin dynasty, the use of cast-iron gunpowder bombs against the Mongols is described.

By the time of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese technology had progressed to making large land mines, in which many of them were deployed on the northern border.


A Chinese flamethrower from the Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044 CE, Song Dynasty.

Flamethrowers were employed in naval combat in the Yangtze river, and large-scale use of the flamethrower is recorded in 975, when the Southern Tang navy employed flamethrowers against Song naval forces, but the wind blew the other way, causing the Southern Tang fleet to be immolated, and allowing the Song to conquer South China.[citation needed] During Song times, the flamethrower was used not only in naval combat but also in defense of cities, where they were placed on the city walls to incinerate any attacking soldiers.[citation needed]


During the Ming dynasty, the design of rockets were further refined and multi-stage rockets and large batteries of rockets were produced.[citation needed] Multi-stage rockets were introduced for naval combat.[citation needed] Like other technology, knowledge of rockets were transmitted to the Middle East and the West through the Mongols, where they were described by Arabs as "Chinese arrows".[citation needed]


In the 2nd century BC, the Han began to produce steel from cast iron[citation needed]. New steel weapons were manufactured that gave Chinese infantry an edge in close-range fighting, though swords and blades were also used[citation needed]. In addition, the Chinese infantry were given extremely heavy armor in order to withstand cavalry charges, some 29.8 kg of armor during the Song Dynasty. Unclear reference .[104][citation needed]


The cavalry was equipped with heavy armor in order to crush a line of infantry, though light cavalry was used for reconnaissance. However, Chinese armies lacked horses and their cavalry were often inferior to their horse archer opponents. Therefore, in most of these campaigns, the cavalry had to rely on the infantry to provide support.[105] Between the Jin and Tang dynasty, fully armored cataphracts were introduced in combat. An important innovation was the invention of the stirrup. From early Indian invention,[106][107] which allowed cavalrymen to be much more effective in combat; this innovation later spread to East north and west via the nomadic populations of central Asia and to west by the Avars. However, some believe northern nomads were responsible for this innovation.[108][109][110]

Some authors, such as Lynn White, claim the use of the stirrup in Europe stimulated development of the medieval knights which characterized feudal Europe. However, this thesis was disputed in the Great Stirrup Controversy by historians such as Bernard Bachrach,[111] although it has been pointed out that the Carolingian riders may have been the most expert cavalry of all at its use.[112]

Chemical weapons

[citation needed]

During the Han Dynasty, state manufacturers were producing stink bombs and tear gas bombs that were used effectively to suppress a revolt in 178 AD[citation needed] Poisionous materials were also employed in rockets and crossbow ammunition to increase their effectiveness.[citation needed]


The Chinese armies also benefited from a logistics system that could supply hundreds of thousands of men at a time.[citation needed] An important innovation by the Chinese was the introduction of an efficient horse harness in the 4th century BC[citation needed], strapped to the chest instead of the neck, an innovation later expanded to a collar harness. This innovation, along with the wheelbarrow, allowed large-scale transportation to occur, allowing huge armies numbering hundreds of thousands of men in the field. [citation needed]

Chinese armies were also backed by a vast complex of arms-producing factories. State-owned factories turned out weapons by the thousands, though some dynasties (such as the Later Han) privatized their arms industry and acquired weapons from private merchants.[citation needed]


A tiger tally or hǔfú (虎符), made of bronze with gold inlay, found in the tomb of the King of Nanyue at Guangzhou, from the Western Han Dynasty, dated 2nd century BC. Tiger Tallies were separated into two pieces, one held by the emperor, the other given to a military commander as a symbol of imperial authority and the ability to command troops.

In early Chinese armies, command of armies was based on birth rather than merit. For example, in the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period (771 BC–476 BC), command was delegated to the ruler, the crown prince, and the second son. By the time of the Warring States Period, generals were appointed based on merit rather than birth, the majority of whom were talented individuals who gradually rose through the ranks.[113]

Nevertheless, Chinese armies were sometimes commanded by individuals other than generals. For example, during the Tang Dynasty, the emperor instituted "Army supervisors" who spied on the generals and interfered in their commands, although most of these practices were short-lived as they disrupted the efficiency of the army.[114]

See also


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Sources and further reading

 This article incorporates text from Encyclopædia of religion and ethics, Volume 8, a publication from 1916, now in the public domain in the United States.

 This article incorporates text from The Moslem World, Volume 10, a publication from 1920, now in the public domain in the United States.