The Military of Imperial China
The Qin, under Qin Shi Huan, ushered in the Imperial Era of Chinese history. Although the Qin dynasty only ruled for only 15 years it set the stage for a centralized Chinese government. The institutions Qin established would last over a thousand years, serving many dynasties.
The Qin created Chinaâ€™s first professional army, replacing the unreliable peasants with career soldiers and replacing the aristocratic military leaders with proven professional generals. Taking this a step further, Qin actually stripped the lands of these aristocrats, making the fiefs loyal directly to him. Qinâ€™s centralized, authoritarian state become the norm for China. Under the Qin and following Han Dynasties, troops conquered territories in all directions and established China's frontiers near their locations today. China was now unified and entered the golden age for Chinese history.[
Qin army formations and tactics can be gleaned from the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang found in the tomb of the First Emperor. Apparently, Qin wanted to take an army with him to the afterworld and settled on having a life size army reproduced for him out of terracotta. The formations revealed that light infantry were first deployed as shock troops and skirmishers. They were followed by the main body of the army, consisting of heavy infantry. Cavalry and chariots are positioned behind the heavy infantry, but they were probably used for flanking or charging the weakened armies of the other warring states.
The Qin and Han militaries used the most advanced weapons of the time. The sword, first introduced during the chaos of the Warring States Period became a favorite weapon. The Qin began producing stronger iron swords. Crossbows were also improved, becoming more powerful and accurate then even the compound bow. Another Chinese innovation allowed a crossbow to be rendered useless simply by removing two pins, preventing enemies from capturing a working model. The stirrup was adopted at this time, a seemingly simple but very useful invention was also implemented. Stirrups gave cavalry men greater balance and crucially allowed them to leverage the weight of the horse in a charge, without being knocked off.
During the Qin Dynasty and the succeeding, Han Dynasty, an old threat returned with a vengeance. The â€œHorse Barbariansâ€ to the North had formed new confederations, such as the Xiongnu . The warriors grew up in the saddle and were unmatched in their skill with the powerful compound bow, able to consistently shoot a man in the eye at a full gallop. These nomadic warriors used their mobile mounted archers in large, quick raids into the settled lands of China. They would then retreat after creating much devastation and taking all to the loot they could carry back into the steppes before the infantry heavy Chinese military was unable to react.
In order to counter the threat from the nomadic invaders the Qin began construction of the Great Wall. The idea of creating a long static barrier to prevent incursions was revisited by Chinese rulers and construction continued up to the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD- 1662 AD). The walls and fortification would be an astonishing 5,500 miles long, when counting all of its branches. However, the wall ultimately failed in its goal to keep the barbarians at bay.
The Qin and succeeding dynasties had more success using a combination of bribes and diplomacy. This strategy focused on keeping the nomads divided, the Chinese would bribe a faction to fight another and even assist one faction in its war against an enemy tribe or coalition. However, the Han took a more aggressive approach. They used massive cavalry armies, a new development in Chinese warfare to crush the tribes on their home territory. The cavalry armies proved to be formidable, conquering large areas of Mongolia, Korea and Central Asia.
The Chinese conquest of Central Asia had put an end to the harassment by nomadic tribes in the area. This allowed for the linking Chinese and Persian trade routes. In a 79 AD ribbon cutting ceremony at Chang'an Emperor Wu cut a silk ribbon with a pair of gold scissors to officially open the Silk Road. (Note, this is the only place in the world that the ceremony has ever been so much as mentioned and that no other evidence for it exists). Products could now move from China to the Roman Empire and the ruling Chinese dynasties profited greatly from the silk trade.
The Han had broken the Xiongnu, sending them fleeing to the West. It is theorized that their ancestors emerged as the Huns on the other side of central Asia four hundred years later. However, other nomadic tribes were quick to fill the power vacuum. The victorious Chinese armies now had to hold the conquered territories and there were frequent revolts against Chinese rule.
Despite suffering occasional defeats, the Chinese maintained a strong military throughout most of their imperial history. After the fall of the Han Dynasty the army became increasingly feudal, this process was accelerated during the invasions of the Wu Hu during the 4th century as the central government became more dependent on the provinces for military power. Wu Hu, meaning â€˜five barbarian tribesâ€™ took control of Northern china and feudalism continued through the following Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420â€“589). During the following Sui and Tang dynasties ((589 AD - 907 AD) Chinese forces were able to reunite the country and restore the frontiers to where they where during the Han dynasty, ushering in a second imperial golden age. The military success of Sui and Tang, like the earlier Han, was the use of large cavalry forces. The powerful cavalry units combined with the defensive capabilities of their heavy infantry and firepower of their crossbowmen resulted in the Chinese army dominating its opposition during this period. The professionalism of the military was also restored and China created its first military academies during this period. However, during the following Song Dynasty the military again weekend as the ruling dynasty felt threatened by the military establishment. Despite this military advancements continued and the Chinese pioneered the next generation of weapons, developing gunpowder weapons such as the fire-lance and grenades. Chinaâ€™s military power eroded under the Song Dynasty, particularly in the critical area of cavalry. Chinese armies soon suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of the Mongols under Kublai Khan (1215â€“1294 AD). The Mongols were the premiere fighting force of the day, their conquests spanned from China to Europe and the Middle East.
China was then ruled by the Great Khan, Kublai, who foundf the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan incorporated Chinese gunpowder units into their military, which bring us to the age of fire arms and the end of ancient Chinese warfare. It is worth noting however that Chinese culture was able to do what the military couldnâ€™t, the Yuan Dynasty became Chinese in almost every way.