Chinese Warfare Research Paper

This sample Chinese Warfare Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

Before the nineteenth century, China’s wars were waged either internally or with the nomadic peoples along its borders. In further contrast to other nations, China never glorified its warriors, and the protection and defense of towns mattered more than offensive military tactics. Since the nineteenth century, though less isolationist than before, China has fought only to defend what it (broadly) considers its own interests.

China, until very modern times, never faced an equally powerful, proximate civilization; warfare alternated between a unified China contesting with nomadic peoples on its borders and a China divided in internal conflict. Warfare also alternated with the yin and yang of Chinese imperial power. Nomadic peoples never have exceeded several percent of China’s population, and while they might conquer China, they could rule only by Sinicizing themselves.

China favored a model of warfare that combined military arts with psychological factors, including an indirect approach to battle, surprise, and deception. The result is the classic Sunzi (dating to China’s Warring States era, 475–221 BCE) and some 2,500 years later, the theories of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) on peasant revolution and unconventional warfare. Defense, especially the building of walls around towns (the most famous such defense being the Great Wall), mattered more than offense. Also, China has never glorified its warriors, and few left memoirs such as Caesar’s accounts of his battles in Gaul.

We know little of warfare in China prior to 600 BCE. China’s Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) ruled largely through familial and semifeudal relationships, not awesome military power. Sometime in the early eighth century BCE, the Zhou began to decline, and in 771 BCE invading nomads allied with rebel leaders sacked the capital and killed the Zhou king, marking the end of what is known as the Western Zhou period. Thereafter China began several centuries of increasingly violent warfare, culminating in triumph of the Qin dynasty and unification of China in 221 BCE. In this era, the Chinese relied on the crossbow—a more powerful bow than was used by Greek, Persian, and early Roman armies and their opponents—and much less on swords, javelins, and battle axes.

During the Warring States period that preceded Qin unification of China, the chivalry that had supposedly hitherto characterized warfare disappeared, and, with the onset of iron weapons late in the Warring States period, armies grew larger, the role of nobles as warriors declined, and peasants figured prominently as foot soldiers. China did not rely on cavalry formations; the number of chariots one commanded was the principal indication of one’s military power.

The Qin dynasty was short lived, lasting only until 206 BCE. The Qin relied on peasant armies and iron weapons to overwhelm China’s foes and helped connect existing city walls to protect settled China from horsed nomads. Qin forces then began to move south of the Yangzi (Chang) River into present-day Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi provinces and northeast into northern Korea.

From Han to Tang

Qin’s successor dynasty, the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), rivaled Rome for power, and began a long effort to control the northern nomads—the Xiongnu—and to gain control over the lands south of the Yangzi. To meet the barbarian threat, the Han valued cavalry more than their predecessors. From 121 to 119 BCE, the Han battled the Xiongnu in western China, using more than one hundred thousand cavalry; they prevailed and gained control of profitable trade routes to the west. The Han also moved into Manchuria and took over northern Korea to the Han River. In the first century CE the Han conquered the Tarim Basin and seized Turkistan.

But then the balance of power shifted in favor of the nomadic tribes. Revolts at home weakened Chinese power, the Han lost control of Turkistan, and nomads on the frontiers penetrated Chinese defenses, terrorizing the settled peoples on the North China Plain. In 220 CE the Han collapsed and a period of disunity followed, with various regional states coexisting until China was reunited under the short-lived Sui dynasty (581–618 CE). The Sui dynasty suffered from its attempt to do too much too soon. It pushed below the Yangzi watershed, and it attacked Korea four times without much success; that failure encouraged nomadic horsemen to attack and capture the emperor.

The Tang and Song Dynasties

The Tang dynasty ruled China from 618 to 907 CE. The Tang capital, Chang’an, was the world’s largest city and attested to its great military power. Under the Tang, the Chinese first discovered and began using gunpowder, but as an explosive and not as a propellant. Curiously, this was roughly the same time that the Byzantine Empire perfected so-called Greek fire, the formula for which still eludes experts today. Tang armies continued to make use of peasant infantry and aristocratic and nomadic horsemen. At its zenith, the Tang dynasty controlled northern Korea and Manchuria, south as far as the Red River delta, west into the Tibetan lowlands, and then along the trade route toward the Caspian Sea. Four defeats in the 750s, most notably a loss to rising Arab power in the Battle of Talas River (751 CE) and the An Lushan Rebellion (755 CE), were followed by a series of increasingly costly peasant uprisings leading to a relatively rapid dynastic decline.

Once again Chinese military power faded and the nomads gained control. Frontier military commanders succeeded one another in the north, as non- Chinese nomads ruled the North China Plain. In the south, local military leaders ruled various areas. Even when the Song dynasty (960–1279) reunited much of China, its power was economic rather than military, and it relied on diplomacy and the paying of tribute to maintain peace. Nomadic groups continued to control the North China Plain. In time, the Jin, a nomadic ruling house, pushed the Song out of northern China, and from 1127 the Song controlled only the south. The Mongols overwhelmed the Jin and other northern nomads and in 1279 crushed the Song, establishing the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) and bringing China and its periphery together under one ruling house for the first time since the Tang.

The Mongols and the Ming

The Mongols were the greatest military force of the era. They were a horsed people, and they emphasized mobility, with Mongol horsemen having as many as fourteen mounts each, intricate formations, a variety of feints and ruses, and absolute brutality and cruelty to achieve quick victory. The Mongols were adaptive, using techniques of conquered people in one part of their vast empire to seize control elsewhere. They took northern China, but the water-based transport, canals, and rivers of southern China stymied them until they learned how to adapt their tactics. The Mongols eventually learned to augment their limited forces (there likely were never more than two hundred thousand Mongol horsed soldiers total at any given time) with mercenaries from northern China and learned to navigate the waterways of southern China. More interested in exploiting China than in ruling it, the Mongols spent funds lavishly and weakened themselves using Chinese and Korean troops in two failed invasions of Japan in the thirteenth century. The Mongols lacked the numbers to remain in power for long; they refused to Sinicize themselves, and the dynasty fell less than a hundred years after its establishment.

A resurgent ethnically Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644), followed the Mongols, but existed in a dangerous world. The Ming never secured control over the hinterlands and the trade routes to the northwest, where the Mongols remained a threat for many years. The Ming rebuilt the Great Wall to constrain the nomads. Later in the Ming era, Japanese ships raided the Chinese coast, and the Ming ordered the coastal population to move inland.

There was one bright moment in Ming military history, the great voyages of the eunuch admiral Zheng He. Zheng was a Mongol, whom the Chinese castrated, and he came to work for the emperor, achieving an influential position. He led a vast Chinese fleet, with twenty thousand sailors and twenty thousand marines from China, into the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, greatly impressing native rulers at the same time that Henry the Navigator of Portugal was sending individual ships with perhaps a company of sailors to find a route around Africa to the east. But Zheng and sea power were passing events, and the Ming, never as powerful as the Han or Tang dynasties, weakened as Chinese officials and military experts defected to a rising power in the northeast.

The Qing

As the Ming declined, the tribal Manchus in the northeast adopted the trappings of a Chinese dynasty; in 1644 they defeated the Ming and established the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12). Militarily, they organized themselves into companies that were known by the color of their banners (hence this system was known as the Banner system), and they incorporated conquered troops into similar units. With these troops the Qing rulers soon extended their control over the Mongols and Tibetans, and under the great Kangxi emperor (1654–1722; reigned 1661–1722) they even limited Russian expansion eastward with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689).

The reign (1735–1796) of the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799) marked the high point of the Qing dynasty, after which it rapidly declined. Increasing Western presence in China led eventually to military conflict; two Opium wars (one with the British in 1839–1842; one with the French in 1856–1860) demonstrated the weakness of the Qing, whose Banners had lost their fighting edge and whose firearms had not been updated since they were first gained from Portuguese and Dutch traders in the 1600s. Foreign governments encroached on Chinese sovereignty with impunity. The great Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) further exposed Qing weakness; it was only put down with aid from Western powers (the United States and the British) and privately organized Chinese armies. The so-called Boxer Rebellion (1900–1901), which had an anti-Western bent and emphasized martial arts, was also put down with international aid. In 1912 the last Qing emperor abdicated, and China became a republic, albeit one plagued by regional warlordism and foreign spheres of influence.

Wars of the Twentieth Century

Japan’s imperialist visions led it to seize Manchuria in 1932; its aggression in China did not end there, however, and by 1937 the two nations were in a state of war. Equally pressing in the eyes of the Chinese Nationalists—the nominal government of China—however, were the Communist rebels. Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), the Nationalist leader, used German advice and equipment to blockade the Communist base camp in the mountainous southeast, and in October 1933, Mao fl ed with 90,000 supporters on the famous Long March first southwest, then west, north, and eventually northeast, where 8,000 survivors straggled into Yan’an in Shaanxi. At that point Chiang was reluctantly persuaded to put aside his quarrel with the Communists and to join with them to fight the Japanese.

With the end of World War II, China’s civil war resumed in earnest. The Nationalists had support from the United States, which opposed Communism, but the Communists had greater popular support and better military tacticians in Lin Biao (1907–1971?) and Zhu De (1886–1976). In accordance with Mao’s theories of guerrilla warfare, the People’s Liberation Army operated in small groups, seeking to overwhelm isolated detachments of larger Nationalist Army forces. Communist cadres emphasized the psychological, preparing their men and seeking to convert their enemy. In time, as Communist strength increased and Nationalist forces weakened, the Communists fought in larger units, and in 1948, large, well-armed Communist armies with more traditional tactics compelled the surrender of Chiang’s best troops and won the Battle of the Huai Hai, destroying another 500,000 Nationalist troops. In April 1949 Mao’s forces crossed the Yangzi River in many places, and by December 1949, Chinese Communist units had reached as far as southern China and the Vietnamese border.

Since gaining control of the mainland in 1949, the Communist rulers of China have fought only to defend what they perhaps broadly define as their interests. Worried about the intent of the U.N. forces moving to the Yalu River in October and November 1950, China intervened in the Korean War. Following attack and counterattack into April 1951, the front in Korea largely stabilized, and an armistice in July 1953 ended the outright confrontation of the People’s Republic of China and the United States.

There have been border disputes with India in 1962 and in 1979 with Vietnam, and there continues to be tension over the fate of the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalists established themselves after losing the mainland. China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, joining the ranks of the world’s nuclear powers. Today the world’s most populous nation and the world’s third-largest nuclear power, China’s military strength is sobering.


  1. Appleman, R. E. (1989). Disaster in Korea: The Chinese confront MacArthur. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  2. Brent, P. L. (1976). The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, his triumph and his legacy. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
  3. Chan, A. (1982). The glory and fall of the Ming dynasty. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  4. Chassin, L. M. (1965). The Communist conquest of China: A history of the civil war, 1945–1949. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Chi, H. (1982). Nationalist China at war: Military defeats and political collapse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  6. Cottrell, L. (1962). The tiger of Qin: The dramatic emergence of China as a nation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  7. Ellemen, B. A. (2001). Modern Chinese warfare, 1795–1989. New York: Routledge.
  8. Graff, D. A., & Higham, R. (Eds.). (2002). A military history of China. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  9. Hail, W. J. (1964). Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion, with a short sketch of his later career. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corporation.
  10. Hooten, E. R. (1991). The great tumult: The Chinese civil war, 1936–1949. New York: MacMillan.
  11. Hsiung, J. C., & Levine, S. I. (Eds.). (1992). China’s bitter victory: The war with Japan, 1937–1945. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
  12. Kierman, F. A., Jr., & Fairbank, J. K. (Eds.). (1974). Chinese ways in warfare. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  13. Levathes, L. (1994). When China ruled the seas: The treasure fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1400–1433. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  14. Loewe, M. (1974). Crisis and conflict in Han China, 104 BC to AD 9. London: Allen & Unwin.
  15. Mote, F. W. (1999). Imperial China, 900–1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  16. Peers, C. (1998). Warlords of China: 700 BC to AD 1662. London: Arms and Armour Press.
  17. Powell, R. L. (1955). The rise of Chinese military power, 1895–1912. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  18. Salisbury, H. E. (1985). The Long March: The untold story. New York: Harper & Row.
  19. Scobell, A. (2003). China’s use of military force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  20. Torday, L. (1997). Mounted archers: The beginnings of central Asian history. Cambridge, MA: Durham Academic Press.
  21. Westad, O. A. (2003). Decisive encounters: The Chinese civil war, 1946–1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  22. Wilson, A. (1976). The “ever-victorious army”: A history of the Chinese campaign under Lt. Col. C. G. Gordon and of the suppression of the T’ai-ping rebellion. Arlington, VA: University Publications of America.
  23. Wilson, D. (1971). The long march, 1935: The epic of Chinese Communism’s survival. New York: Viking Press.
  24. Wilson, D. (1982). When tigers fight: The story of the Sino-Japanese war, 1937–1945. New York: Viking Press.
  25. Xiao, Q. (1978). The military establishment of the Yuan dynasty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655