China: Medieval Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 c.e., China drifted into a period of political chaos during which it was controlled by a number of rival regional kingdoms.

Political Considerations

After the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 c.e., China drifted into a period of political chaos during which it was controlled by a number of rival regional kingdoms. However, by the sixth century, Yang Yang Jian (military commander)Jian (Yang Chien), also known as Wendi (military commander)Wendi (Wen-ti; 541-604), a successful military commander, had won the support of the majority of the regional leaders in the north to reestablish a central authority that eventually brought most of traditional China under his control. By 589 the Sui (Sui) Sui DynastyDynasty (581-618) had set in motion a number of reforms that increased and stabilized the Chinese standard of living. Yang Jian instituted a new system of taxation that brought needed financial relief to most of the peasantry. He also constructed a series of regional granaries, which both lowered prices and ensured the equal distribution of food. This newfound prosperity was short-lived, however, because the emperor was assassinated by his eldest son, YangdiYangdi (Chinese emperor)Yangdi (Yangti; 569-618). As emperor, Yangdi began a series of extensive civil Engineers;Chineseengineering projects in an attempt to improve transportation and tie the vast empire together. He also started a series of military campaigns to gain control of the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula. Both actions greatly disrupted the economy and were especially hard on the peasant population. Violent political uprisings broke out in every corner of the empire, and Yangdi was finally assassinated by a group of his ministers in an attempt to quell the fighting and reestablish political order.China;medievalChina;medieval

This internal dissent severely weakened the Sui Dynasty, and in 618 Li Li YuanLi Yuan (duke of Tang)Yuan (Li yuan; 565-635), the duke of Tang, took advantage of the situation to establish the Tang (T’ang) Tang DynastyDynasty (618-907). Li Yuan’s first action was to restore the traditional scholar gentry as the foundation of the government bureaucracy, returning the intellectual class to the study of Confucian philosophy and reinstating the national examination system as the entry into government positions. These actions produced a class of neo-Confucian scholars that would have a profound ethical impact upon China’s civil and military services. Most important, this new intellectual class believed the major function of Confucian Confucianismphilosophy was to develop an individual moral code. This new philosophical system would impact Chinese society in important ways. The scholar gentry became very xenophobic and rejected all alternative worldviews as inferior. This narrow focus on a strict social structure stressed tradition and fought any political, economic, scientific, or technological innovation. The gentry’s emphasis on individual moral growth clashed with the harsh realities of the martial arts and resulted in an antimilitary bias among the Chinese intellectual class.

Under both the Tang and Song (Sung) Song DynastyDynasties(960-1279), China experienced widespread economic growth, which in turn gave birth to a Chinese golden age. This success was based upon the development of the agricultural potential of southern China, most significantly in the production of rice in the Yangtze (pinyin, Chang) River Valley. The future of China would now be determined by the link between the bureaucratic north and the agricultural south. To solidify this crucial relationship, the government constructed the Grand Grand Canal (Yangtze River Valley)Canal, a magnificent civil Engineers;Chineseengineering project that was, in its time, the largest human-made waterway in the world. The canal increased transportation throughout the country, both accelerating trade and creating a sense of unity. The maintenance and protection of the Grand Canal became a major focus of the Chinese military. In times of conflict, this waterway allowed the emperor to move troops swiftly to any trouble spot.

With China’s great economic success came a softening of Chinese society, widespread political corruption, and a series of weak and incompetent emperors who eventually sapped the energy of the empire. In particular, the effectiveness of both the bureaucracy and the military was decreased, helping to create the conditions for the MongolsMongol conquests at the beginning of the thirteenth century. These nomadic warriors first entered China at the invitation of the declining Song Dynasty. The emperor hoped that they would engage and destroy the Jürcheds and the Jin (Chin), two northern nomadic tribes that threatened to invade China. In 1234 the Jin (nomadic tribe)Jin were defeated by a Sino-Mongolian military alliance, but then, in direct violation of that agreement, the Song attempted to occupy the newly conquered land and extend their empire into the northern territories. This action shattered the alliance and set in motion the Mongol conquest of China and the establishment of the Yuan Yuan DynastyDynasty (1279-1368).

The Mongols would have a significant impact upon Chinese history. They established their capital at Beijing and abolished the bureaucracy based upon Confucianism and the examination system. These actions were taken specifically to negate the influence of the scholar gentry. The Mongols eventually adopted many aspects of Chinese culture and aggressively promoted its literature and art. Despite this openness, the Mongols were never able to find a solution to the Sino-Mongolian ethnic rivalry. Most of the intellectuals from the gentry class considered the Mongols to be uncouth barbarians. This ethnocentricity was exacerbated by the gentry’s resentment of the abolition of the state examination system, which blocked the gentry from gaining access to the highest levels of political power.

After the death of Kublai Kublai KhanKublai Khan (Mongol king)Khan (1215-1294), the Yuan Dynasty fell into a period of decline. There were essentially four reasons that this took place. First, the southern region was occupied by a large number of activists who had remained loyal to the Song Dynasty. As the Yuan declined, many of these disenchanted groups were emboldened to take political action that eventually resulted in an empire-wide revolt. Second, Yuan military prestige also suffered a severe blow from two disastrous military expeditions against Japan in 1274 and 1280. Third, Yuan military failures were founded in the general weakness of the post-Kublai Khan government that was beset by deep-seated corruption within the political bureaucracy. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Mongol government was far too weak to maintain its control over all of China. Fourth, the increase in peasant uprisings and the rise of secret revolutionary societies resulted in a series of disastrous insurrections that finally forced the Mongols to withdraw to their ancestral homeland.

By 1368 the Ming Ming DynastyDynasty (1368-1644) had been firmly established, and, from the very beginning, the new leadership made a concerted effort to reinstate the important Chinese institutions that had been suppressed by the Mongols. Most important, the Ming emperor restored the power of the scholar gentry. Confucianism once again became the dominant philosophical system and served as the basis for the renewal of the civil service examination system. In the first decades of Ming rule, the emperor began to develop a truly global perspective. China became a major force in Eastern trade, and by the 1400’s it controlled the extensive and profitable Indian Ocean trade. China experienced an unprecedented age of economic growth that impacted every sector of Ming society. China at this time truly ruled the oceans of the world. From 1405 to 1433 no other civilization could match China’s marine technology. During this time the great Ming imperial fleet made seven extensive voyages to every major port from the South China Sea to the east coast of Africa. Products from throughout the Eastern Hemisphere flowed into the markets of the empire. Most important, the latest geographic, medical, and scientific knowledge became available to the Ming Dynasty. However, as China was poised to become the first world empire, the emperor decided to adopt an isolationist policy and completely dismantled his great world navy.

This profoundly important historical act was the result of an intellectual battle between the newly established Confucian scholar gentry and a group of Mongolian technocrats led by the famous admiral Zheng Zheng HeZheng HeHe (Cheng Ho; c. 1371-c. 1433). This controversy was fueled by a fifteenth century Chinese “postmodern” worldview based upon the scholar gentry’s fear of the new scientific and technological class. The scholar gentry realized that this new group, with their knowledge and skill, could very well dominate the development of China’s economic, defense, and social policies. These scholars were influenced by the strong Confucian ideal of isolationism and tradition, rejecting the idea of internationalism. Finally, the knowledge base upon which the scholar gentry entered government service was founded in their ancient classical texts. The new sciences of modern astronomy, navigation, and marine engineering were both foreign and threatening to this bureaucratic elite.

The Tang Empire, Eighth Century

The gentry were victorious against the technologists because they successfully implemented a three-pronged attack. In their argument to the emperor they first appealed to the ethnocentric tendencies inherent to Chinese culture. The name “China” itself means “Middle Kingdom,” and traditional Chinese thought regarded the country as occupying the prestigious position in the center of the world. This view lent credence to the argument that China had nothing to learn from the world beyond its borders. Second, the gentry emphasized the superiority of classical knowledge, from which the traditional political philosophy of the Tian Tian MingTian MingMing (T’ien Ming), or “mandate of Heaven,” the idea that an emperor was conferred directly from Heaven the right to rule, had evolved. Finally, because there still existed within Chinese society a profound hatred of the old Mongol regime, the Confucians were able to use the ethnicity of these technologists, most of whom were descendants of the Yuan Dynasty, against them to bring the emperor over to the gentry’s side. Eventually, a decree came forth from the Ming Dynasty that China’s Navies;Chinesenavy would remain in port, and that future funding of this great fleet would be canceled. In just a few short years the most sophisticated navy in the world fell into decay and eventually disappeared.

At first glance, the Ming Dynasty would seem to have survived its neo-isolationist policy, but in fact the opposite was true. By the mid-sixteenth century it was evident that the empire had entered a state of decline. A series of incompetent emperors created an environment of corruption that led to a drastic reduction in the effectiveness of the government. This widespread inefficiency had the greatest impact in the area of public works. Corrupt officials allowed the agricultural infrastructure of dikes and irrigation canals to fall into a state of disrepair, creating conditions that resulted in famine and starvation. The government lost its mandate of Heaven, and the countryside was ravaged by peasant uprisings. The resulting political chaos led to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

Military Achievement

Military events also played an important role in Chinese affairs during the era between the rise of the Sui Dynasty and the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Yang Yang Jian (military commander)Jian, the founder of the Sui Sui DynastyDynasty, used his prestige as a great military leader to bring all of China under his control. Despite his military success, however, he was unable to establish a lasting peace. His new government was beset by revolts, and he reacted to this chaos by implementing an authoritarian style of government. His greatest threat came from the disaffected population in the south, where he sent his two most trusted generals to crush any resistance to imperial authority. The emperor then instituted a policy of forced labor, which concentrated on the construction of the Grand Canal and the restoration of more than 1,000 miles of defensive walls on the empire’s northern borders.

Yang Jian’s two major military problems were the constant threat of invasion from the northern steppe and the fear of rebellion. In an attempt to control the military, he issued a series of decrees that placed all army units throughout the empire under the direct control of local civilian officials. These loyal bureaucrats were also directed to confiscate all privately owned weapons and store them for possible military use.

Yang Jian also began an expansionist policy, and his primary goal was to return Vietnam to Chinese control. In 602 he sent an expeditionary force to Vietnam;ancientVietnam, where his army was devastated by both stiff resistance on the part of the Vietnamese and a deadly virus that killed hundreds of soldiers.

The emperor’s son YangdiYangdi (Chinese emperor)Yangdi used this disaster to organize and execute an assassination plot, which brought him to the throne in 604. The young emperor also had plans for extending the borders of the empire, and in 607 he led an army that marched westward against the T’u-yü-hun (warrior band)[Tuyuhun]T’u-yü-hun, a band of nomadic warriors that had recently negotiated a military alliance with the Koguryo, the most powerful dynasty in the northern Korean Peninsula. Fear that such an agreement would prove a threat to China, Yangdi initiated a military campaign against this potential rival. The Koguryo took advantage of the mountainous landscape of northern Korea, fortifying their towns and implementing a defensive strategy against the invading Chinese. Stifled by this tactical policy, the emperor’s army fought a long, difficult, and unsuccessful campaign, and Yangdi returned home to find his empire in open rebellion.

Li Yuan, the duke of Li YuanLi Yuan (duke of Tang)Tang, took advantage of this military disaster to increase his power in the area. In 617 he successfully negotiated an alliance with the Turks, who agreed to supply men and horses to the duke’s army. Secure in this new military arrangement, Li Yuan moved against the Sui. After a disastrous military campaign in which his forces were soundly defeated, Yangdi died. The duke of Tang, upon hearing of these events, declared himself the new emperor of China.

Li Yuan adopted a military policy that proved to be very successful. The TangTang DynastyDynasty used the mountains in the west as a natural fortification against invasion from the central Asian steppe. The new emperor was also very generous to the Sui army, and he implemented the enlightened policy of granting both the enlisted men and officers from defeated armies positions in his armed forces. This policy not only increased the effectiveness of his military but also ended any possibility of a future military uprising by the Sui forces.

Li Li ShiminLi ShiminShimin (Li Shih-min; 600-649), the duke’s son, was also a major factor in the military success of the Tang. He was a great tactician and was famous for his use of cavalry. Concerned about his father’s advancing age and emboldened by an important victory against peasant rebels in the Yellow River Valley, Li Shimin forced his father’s abdication and assumed the Tang throne. He governed China for twenty-three years and became one of the most successful military leaders in Chinese history. He launched an ambitious plan to enlarge the territory of the empire, beginning this quest with an important victory over the Turks in 629, during the Sino-Turkic War Sino-Turkic War (629-630)[Sino Turkic War](629-630). The success of this campaign so enhanced his international reputation that both the Persian and Byzantine Empires sent representatives to his court. Li Shimin continued to expand his empire, and by the time of his death in 649, the borders of China stretched from Tibet in the south to Lake Balkhash in the west. Tang military power continued into the next century. From 663 to 668 the Chinese fought and defeated the Japanese in the War of Kokuryo, War of (663-668)Kokuryo, uniting all of Korea under one rule, subject to China.

After he had secured the eastern border, the Tang emperor returned his attention toward the west. From 736 to 755 a series of successful campaigns extended the borders of the empire to the Pamir range, bringing the Tang to the frontier of Islamic civilization and placing these two great eighth century powers on a collision course. This Sino-Islamic crisis reached a flash point at the Battle of Talas River Talas River, Battle of (751)(751), a bloody confrontation that lasted for five days. The armies of Islam;ChinaIslam ultimately defeated the Chinese forces, ending Tang westward expansion.

This defeat marked the beginning of the Tang Dynasty’s decline. Decades of military campaigns had taken a toll on Chinese society, and the losses in both revenue and productivity were significant. These problems led to widespread civil unrest, which devastated Chinese society. For more than one hundred years, the emperors and their bureaucracies had failed to return the empire to a state of normalcy, and by 884 the Tang Dynasty was shattered.

With the final collapse of the Tang Empire in 907, China fell into a chaotic intermediate period referred to as the time of the Five Five DynastiesDynasties (907-960). None of the dynasties was able to unify China, and order was finally restored in 960, with the establishment of the Song DynastySong. Most historians refer to the Song as the world’s first modern state, and its emperors were traditionally antimilitary. The government, in constant fear of an armed takeover, made strong efforts to limit the army’s power. The Song created a military model that placed their generals under the control of the civilian bureaucracy, resulting in the military’s lowered prestige and appeal for the aristocratic class. In time, the military came to be dominated by the lower echelons of Song society, and by the middle of the eleventh century enlisted men were receiving one-tenth of their former wages. This lowered pay caused great economic hardship, and mutinies became commonplace.

The Song government was faced with significant financial difficulties. The population of China had reached 140 million, and vast amounts of money had been set aside for the construction of large-scale irrigation projects. The empire had to import the vast majority of its cavalry horses, which also cost a considerable amount of money. China’s underfinanced military was grossly ill-equipped to meet the security challenges of the nomadic horsemen of central Asia. The Song bureaucracy responded to this problem by adopting a military philosophy based upon the concept of strategic defense. Money was allocated for the construction of massive fortifications that would frustrate the light horse cavalry tactics of the nomadic armies. The military theory that all defensive structures are eventually neutralized by an opposition force came to pass in the last years of the Song Dynasty. When the Song-Mongol military alliance broke down, the aggressive Mongol warriors quickly defeated the demoralized forces of the emperor and established the Yuan Dynasty. Between 1200 and 1405 the Mongols conquered Tibet, Russia, Iraq, Asia Minor, and southern and eastern Europe.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan Dynasty began to decline. Years of famine gave rise to peasant unrest, and a secret religious sect known as the White White Lotus sectLotus spread anti-Yuan propaganda concerning the reestablishment of the Song Dynasty. In turn, the White Lotus also supported a peasant rebel organization known as the Red Turban Red Turban movementmovement. Fighting broke out between the Yuan forces in the south and the rebel armies. The success of these armies was primarily due to the fact that the Yuan had failed to keep the system of defensive walls under repair. The Yuan’s nomadic heritage and military success were based upon swift cavalry movements, and a defensive mindset was totally alien to them. Eventually, the Mongols were able to defeat the rebel armies, but they were never able to regain complete political control of southern China.

The Song Dynasty, c. 1050-1150

From 1351 to 1368 the MongolsMongols were involved in a series of military campaigns against Chinese forces in the south, in which they suffered a series of disastrous setbacks. The Mongols decided to abandon much of their territory and returned to their ancient homelands in the north. This strategic withdrawal marked the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The new Ming emperor and his intellectual elite modeled themselves after the Song Dynasty. Like the Song the Ming adopted an isolationist policy that kept the government’s focus on protecting the homeland.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The development of Chinese weaponry between 589 and 1644 reflected the dominant military philosophy of the most prominent dynasties. The Sui, Tang, and Song military policies were oriented toward the defense of the “Middle Kingdom.” This attitude was reinforced by Confucian Confucianismphilosophy, which questioned the ethical status of militarism. Finally, the emperors also feared the possibility of a coup d’état. These factors made the development of the infantry the major focus of these dynasties, and weapons development reflected this orientation. Every infantryman received training in the use of both the sword and the spear. The most important weapon in the early Chinese arsenal was the Crossbows;Chinacrossbow, which had a devastating impact on enemy ground forces. As tactics evolved, the crossbow became both more sophisticated and more specialized. The military developed different types of crossbows that were used against infantries and cavalries and finally a series of bows that propelled Bows and arrows;Chinafire-arrows to aid in the penetration of defensive walls.

The most important weapon used in sieges was the Catapults;Chinacatapult. This technology had existed since the time of the Han Dynasty, but it was perfected under the Song. Three basic types of stone throwers were utilized by the Song, ranging from small, highly maneuverable machines to large siege weapons that were used to destroy permanent fortifications. The Arabs also introduced the Chinese to the use of Naphthanaphtha, an oil-based chemical mixture that burned on contact with water. This weapon was oriented toward naval warfare and proved devastating when wind conditions allowed its use.

The defensive, infantry-oriented philosophy of the Song changed with the onset of the Yuan Dynasty. The nomadic heritage of the Mongols emphasized constant movement. The most important weapon in the Yuan arsenal was the Horses and horse riding;MongolsCavalry;Mongolhorse, a small, sturdy, and highly maneuverable Asian breed. A Mongol cavalryman was taught to ride by his mother at the age of three, and by the time he was ready for military service, he could both eat and sleep in the saddle. These mounted warriors were armed with a compound bow that had a force of 166 pounds and a killing range of 300 yards. Each warrior carried two bows and two to three quivers of arrows, some with small heads for distance and larger ones for close-in fighting. Both the rider and horse were protected by Armor;Mongolarmor that consisted of a series of leather or iron strips and was quite effective against swords and spears.

The Ming made improvements to traditional weapons, such as the crossbow and catapults, and initiated significant progress in the use of gunpowder and explosive devices. Small handheld grenadelike Bombs;Chinaprojectiles became commonplace in Ming infantry units, and the shrapnel produced in the explosion of these bombs was quite deadly. The Ming also developed accurate rockets that were used to bring down wooden fortifications. These projectiles were usually launched from wheelbarrows, and their maneuverability made them a valuable addition to the Ming arsenal. The most significant development in weaponry during the Ming Dynasty was the construction of the Great Wall. Great Wall of ChinaChina, because of its emphasis on defense, had a long history of using defensive walls as part of their arsenal. This strategy extends back to the Qin (Ch’in) Qin DynastyDynasty (221-206 b.c.e.) in the third century before the common era. As the result of both internal problems and foreign invasion, most of these walls became inoperable. Soon after the Ming came to power they began to construct a series of defensive walls to protect China from invasion from the north. By the mid-sixteenth century China once again found itself threatened by a new Mongol army. To counteract this threat the Ming government began the construction of the Great Wall, actually a series of fortifications linked by a defensive wall. Ironically, China’s main danger did not come from the central Asian steppe but from the sea. The European armies that entered China all possessed the technology to overcome this Great Wall.

Military Organization

The Armies;ChinaSui based their military organization upon a military and social philosophy that emphasized the obligation of the social elite to provide service to the state. The military leadership of the Sui came from old, established, aristocratic families, and their traditional social values formed the foundation of the Sui military organization.

This orientation toward service continued during the Tang Dynasty but was tempered by the impact of Confucian philosophy. The Tang armed forces consisted of six hundred militia units that ranged in size from eight hundred to twelve hundred men. Control of the army was transferred from the old aristocratic families under the Sui to the scholar gentry that now ran the newly formed Ministry of the Army. The armed forces were divided into two basic groups, the infantry and cavalry, with sections divided into smaller units consisting of two hundred, fifty, and ten men. The Tang also developed a permanent cadre of professional officers, and the enlisted ranks consisted of men who rotated to duty for a specific number of months. This system was established so that soldiers could support themselves through agriculture, thus reducing the government expense of supplying the army. In times of great military danger, the Tang would also employ mercenaries to increase the size of its armed forces.

By the early eighth century, the cost of sending a large expeditionary force to a particular trouble spot became too expensive. The ministry created nine frontier commands and adopted the philosophy of a defensive army. By 737 the militia was replaced by a totally professional armed force, and these units were placed in the region of a powerful provincial official who would make decisions about their deployment. Each group constructed a fortified base of operations that served as a regional sanctuary in times of trouble.

The military strength of China began to decline under the Song Dynasty. The emperors were so fearful of a military uprising that they dissolved the successful organizational model that had evolved during the Sui and Tang Dynasties. They took control of the military decision-making process away from the generals and placed it under the tight control of the civilian government. Most important, the Song emperors used the enlisted ranks of the army as a social welfare program, providing employment for the poorest sectors of society. This system lowered the status of the military, and by the middle of the eleventh century the average enlisted man was receiving about one-tenth of his formerly allotted wages. This great inequity decreased the operational effectiveness of the army and eventually caused numerous mutinies.

The military organization under the Yuan Dynasty reflected the aggressive, loyal heritage of nomadic warriors, and was based upon the decimal system, with the smallest and largest units consisting of ten and one thousand men, respectively. Within the Mongol organization, each individual soldier occupied a unique position in the unit and was responsible to perform a specific task. The Mongol army was always divided into three operational units that controlled the left, right, and center of any military operation. All individuals within the Yuan armed forces were expected to carry out the necessary functions of a successful soldier. Both generals and enlisted men stood guard duty, and every member of the unit strictly obeyed the orders of his superior. Promotion was based upon skill, and it was quite common for a commoner to rise to the level of a great general. The martial qualities of bravery, discipline, and strength made the Mongols a very successful military organization.

The Ming military organization mirrored that of the Song. Its focus was directed primarily toward the defense of China and the control of the military. The government implemented a system that divided the country into military districts under the control of the civilian leadership. The logistics, supply, and training for the military were controlled by a Board of War.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Military strategy and doctrine in the period between 581 and 1644 were profoundly influenced by the writings of China’s great ancient military philosophers. These theorists were in turn influenced by the important philosophical systems that dominated ancient Chinese intellectual life. The four most important early schools of thought were Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and Legalism. Both the ethical codes and social models espoused by these philosophies formed the intellectual framework in which China’s military theories were constructed.

Confucius Confucianism(551-479 b.c.e.), who wrote prior to the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.), believed that China’s social and political chaos was due to the fact that the nation was divided into competing regional states. He stated that the only solution to this situation was the development of a strong centralized government. A philosophically strong ruler supported by a Confucian bureaucracy would bring the peace and prosperity the Chinese nation so desperately needed. This would be a government based upon the development of personal morality. Later military theorists used this Confucian system to develop their doctrines, believing that the most important factor in preparation for war is the stability of one’s own nation. The emperor must be a virtuous ruler whose actions have created a harmonious state. Before an emperor goes to war, he must have both the loyalty of his people and the “Mandate of Heaven” behind him.

The fifth century b.c.e. philosopher MohismMozi (Mo-tzu) challenged Confucianism with his Mohist philosophy of universal love, which rejected all offensive war as immoral. To attack one’s neighbor would be in violation of this most basic principle, causing the ruler to lose the Mandate of Heaven. According to Mozi, the only justifiable war is a defensive one, conducted to protect the population.

These two opposing philosophical schools would have the deepest impact on the evolution of Chinese military doctrine. The Confucian emphasis on the development of a strong personal ethical code would always be in conflict with the aggressive nature of the martial arts. This would be the basis for placing the military under the control of the gentry-dominated bureaucracy. The Mohist stand against offensive war would lead to the development of a “Grand Defensive Strategy” that would greatly influence the development of training, tactics, and weaponry.

The philosophical foundation for tactical operations can be found in the writings of the DaoismDaoist military philosopher SunziSunziSunzi (Sun Tzu; fl. c. fifth century b.c.e.). In keeping with the philosophical premise that the laws of nature were the ultimate reality, Sunzi developed a tactical doctrine that synthesized Confucian, Mohist, and Daoist beliefs. Sunzi, incorporating the Daoist concept of natural order, wrote that war is governed by five eternal elements. The correct application of all five by the military commander was necessary in order to carry out a successful campaign. Every military commander had to develop a plan of action that would take into consideration the moral law, weather, geography, the commander and his rules, and finally the military organization he was commanding. The success or failure of any military campaign depended upon all five of these factors operating in harmony with one another.

Finally the implementation of these theories under battlefield conditions was influenced by the philosophy of Legalism (China)Legalism, which emphasized order and strength. Every successful leader, before he engaged the enemy, had to be assured that his orders would be executed without question and that his forces were always operating from a position of superior strength.

Medieval Sources

The vast majority of Chinese sources have yet to be translated into English, although some have been translated into French, German, and Russian. The most important medieval sources are three military manuals that were used by the Tang, Song, and Ming Dynasties. The earliest of these is Li Li QuanLi QuanQuan’s (Li Ch’üan; fl. 759), Shen chi chih ti T’ai-pai yin ching, a manual that was utilized by the armies of the Tang Dynasty. The most respected source is the Wujing (Wu-ching), or “Five Classics,” a collection of treatises written during the Song Dynasty giving detailed accounts of medieval Chinese military strategy.

Sunzi, the military theorist who wrote Bingfa (c. 510 b.c.e. ; The Art of War, 1910), was active in military affairs during the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty and had a profound influence on later Asian military thought. He was largely unknown in the West until the eighteenth century and received widespread appreciation only in the twentieth.

The primary chronicle of the Yuan Dynasty is the Yuan Shih (1370), originally composed in ten volumes by Song Song LianSong Lian Lian and Wang Wang WeiWang Wei Wei, and revised and rewritten in 1934 by Ke Shaobin in 257 volumes as Xin Yuanshi. It contains not only the history of the conquests and the military in general but also includes biographies of most of the commanders throughout the Mongol Empire.China;medieval

Books and Articles
  • Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • _______. “Yüeh Fei.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Huang, Ray. “Ch’i Chi-kuang: The Lonely General.” In 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
  • Lorge, Peter. “War and Warfare in China, 1450-1815.” In War in the Early Modern World, edited by Jeremy Black. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.
  • _______. War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • McNeill, William H. “Ch’i Chi-kuang.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Peers, Chris. Imperial Chinese Armies, 200 B.C.E. to 1260 C.E. Illustrated by Michael Perry. 2 vols. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1995.
  • _______. Late Imperial Chinese Armies, 1520 to 1840 C.E. Illustrated by Christa Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1997.
  • _______. Medieval Chinese Armies, 1260-1520. Illustrated by David Sque. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1992.
  • _______. Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies, 1500 B.C.-A.D. 1840. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. A History of China, Prehistory to c. 1800. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Chinese Walled Cities, 221 B.C.-A.D. 1644. Illustrated by Steve Noon. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2009.
Films and Other Media
  • Eternal Emperor: Emperor Wu Zetian in the Tang Dynasty. Documentary. Peninsula Audiovisual Press, 2007.
  • Khubilai Khan: Fall of the Mongol Hordes. Documentary. Atlantic Productions, 2005.
  • The Warrior. Feature film. Sony Pictures, 2001.

China: Ancient

China: The Qing Empire

China: Modern Warfare

Japan: Medieval

The Mongols

India and South Asia: Medieval

Southeast Asia

Categories: History Content