In ancient China warfare was a method for one region to gain ascendancy over another, because that the state come expand and also protect that is frontiers, and also for usurpers to change an existing dynasty of rulers. With armies consisting of tens of thousands of soldiers in the an initial millennium BCE and also then numerous thousands in the very first millennium CE, warfare became more technologically advanced and ever much more destructive. Chariots gave method to cavalry, bows to crossbows and, eventually, pho stones to gunpowder bombs. The Chinese intelligentsia may have actually frowned upon warfare and also those who involved in it and also there were significant periods the relative tranquility but, as in many other old societies, for ordinary human being it was an overwhelming to escape the insatiable demands of war: either fight or die, be conscripted or enslaved, success somebody else"s possessions or lose every one of one"s own.

Attitudes come Warfare

The Chinese bronze age saw a good deal of military competition in between city-rulers passionate to take the wealth of their neighbours, and also there is no doubt that success in this endeavour legitimised reigns and increased the welfare of the victors and also their people. Those who did not fight had their possessions taken, their dwellings destroyed and also were normally either enslaved or killed. Indeed, much of China"s background thereafter entails wars between one state or one more but it is additionally true that warfare was probably a little less glorified in old China than it was in other old societies.

You are watching: Why was ancient china locked in warfare for 40 years

The absence of a glorification of war in China was largely due to the Confucian philosophy and its accompanying literature which emphasize the prestige of other matters of civil life. Army treatises were composed but, otherwise, stirring story of derring-do in battle and martial themes, in general, room all rarer in Chinese mythology, literature and also art than in modern-day western cultures, for example. Also such famous works as Sun-Tzu"s The Art of War (5th century BCE) warned that, "No country has ever before profited from protracted warfare” (Sawyer, 2007, 159). Generals and ambitious police officers studied and also memorised the literary works on just how to win at battle but beginning from the an extremely top with the emperor, warfare was an extremely often a policy of critical resort. The Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) was remarkable for the expansion, together were some Tang empire emperors (618-907 CE) but, in the main, a strategy of payment off neighbors with large tributes of silver and also silk, in addition to a parallel exportation that “civilising” society was seen as the best means to defend imperial China"s borders. Then, if war eventually proved unavoidable, that was much better to recruit international troops to acquire on with it.


Joining the intellectuals with their disapproval of war were also the bureaucrats who had no time because that uncultured army men. No doubt, too, the vast majority of the Chinese peasantry were never that to crawl on war either for it was they who had actually to endure conscription, heavy taxes in kind to salary for costly campaigns, and also have their ranches invaded and also plundered.

With the emperors, the landing gentry, intellectuals and also farmers every well-aware the what they might lose in war, the was, then, rather disappointing because that them all the China, in any kind of case, had just as many conflicts as almost everywhere else in the civilization in particular periods. One cannot disregard the typical presence of fortifications in the bronze age, together chaotic centuries as the Autumn and Spring duration (722-481 BCE) with its one hundred plus rival states, the Warring States period (481-221 BCE) through its tremendous 358 separate problems or the fall of the Han as soon as war was as soon as again incessant between rival Chinese states. North steppe people were also constantly prodding and also poking in ~ China"s borders and also emperors were not averse to the odd international folly such as attacking ancient Korea.


The great weapon that Chinese warfare throughout its history was the bow. The most common weapon the all, skill in its use was likewise the many esteemed. Employed because the Neolithic period, the composite variation arrived during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) and so became a much more useful and an effective component of one army"s attack strategy. Bowmen regularly opened up the fight proceedings by shoot massed volleys right into the enemy and then defended the flanks that the infantry together they advanced, or your rear once they retreated. Bowmen also rode in chariots and bows were the main weapon of cavalry.

Perhaps the most distinctive and symbolic weapon the Chinese warfare was the crossbow. Introduced during the Warring States duration it collection China apart as a country capable of technological innovation and also the training crucial to use it effectively. The Han provided it to good effect versus “barbarian” people to increase their empire, your disciplined crossbow corps even seeing off opposing cavalry units. Similar to bowmen, crossbowmen were commonly stationed at the flanks that infantry units. Over the centuries brand-new designs made the crossbow lighter, may be to be cocked making use of one hand, fire lot of bolts and also fire lock further, more accurately and with an ext power than before. Artillery versions were occurred which can be mounted on a swivel base. Apart from its potential together an offensive weapon, the crossbow ended up being a much-used way of defending well-fortified cities.


Swords only appeared reasonably late top top Chinese battlefields, most likely from around 500 BCE, and never quite challenged the bow or crossbow as the prestige weapons of Chinese armies. Occurring from long-bladed daggers and spearheads which were provided for stabbing, the true knife was make from bronze and also then, later, iron. Throughout the Han duration they became much more effective with much better metalworking techniques giving stronger chisels with sharper cutting edges. Various other weapons used by Chinese infantry contained the ever-popular halberd (a mix the spear and also axe), spears, javelins, daggers, and also battle-axes.

Artillery was current from the Han period when the first stone-throwing, single-armed catapults were used. Castle were probably mostly limited to siege warfare however were to work by both attackers and defenders. The an ext powerful counter-weighted catapult was not offered in China till the 13th century CE. Artillery fired stones, missiles do of metal or terracotta, incendiary bombs using naphtha oil the “Greek fire” (from the 10th century CE) and, indigenous the Sung empire (960-1279 BCE), bombs utilizing gunpowder. The earliest text referral to gunpowder dates to 1044 CE when a silk banner defines its usage in the 9th century CE (if its date is accurate). Gunpowder to be never fully exploited in ancient China and also devices using it were minimal to missiles made through a soft casing the bamboo or file which to be designed to start fires ~ above impact. The true bomb, which spread lethal pieces on explosion, was no seen until the 13th century CE.



With arrows and crossbow bolts ending up being ever more lethal, it is no surprised that armor made leaps forward in architecture to much better protect warriors. The earliest armor was certainly the many impressive - tiger skins, for instance - but additionally the the very least effective and by the Shang empire hardened leather was being worn come cover the chest and earlier in a an ext serious effort to dampen and deflect blows. By the Zhou empire (1046-256 BCE) much more flexible armour tunics to be being created made that rectangles the tanned and lacquered animal leather or bronze linked in addition to hemp or riveted. Instances of this type can be watched in the Qin warriors of the Terracotta military of the 3rd century BCE. Native the Han period, iron to be used much more and an ext in armour.

Helmets & armour, on occasion, to be decorated through plumes, engravings & paints of fearsome creatures.

Additional protection was detailed by shields, the earliest being made only of bamboo or leather but then, prefer body armour, they began to incorporate steel elements. Helmets adhered to the same path of material evolution and also usually safeguarded the ears and ago of the neck. Helmets and armour, on occasion, were decorated v plumes, engravings and also paintings the fearsome creatures or beautified with additions in precious steel or ivory. Specialty armour developed for warriors in chariots who did not need to move so much and could wear full-length armoured coats. Over there was, too, heavy mounties where the legs of the rider and also the totality horse were protected.

Chariots & Cavalry

Chariots were supplied in Chinese war from about 1250 BCE but were viewed in the biggest numbers in between the 8 hours and fifth century BCE. An initial as a commander"s status symbol and also then together a helpful shock weapon, the chariot usually brought a rider, bowman and spearman. Castle were very often deployed in teams of five. Traction by two, three or 4 horses, they come in different versions - light and fast for relocating troops approximately the battlefield, heavy bronze and armoured versions because that punching feet in adversary ranks, those converted to lug fixed hefty crossbows, or even towered version for commanders to better view the battle proceedings. The chariot corps could also pursue an military in retreat. Needing a wide area to turn and also flat ground to function, the limitations of chariots supposed they were at some point replaced by cavalry from the fourth century BCE onwards.


Cavalry to be probably technology from the northern steppe people which the Chinese realised available much much more speed and also mobility than chariots. The trouble was to obtain the ability not only to ride the horses but likewise to fire weapons from them as soon as the saddle was not much more than a blanket and the stirrup had yet to it is in invented. Because that these reasons, it to be not till the Han period that mounties became critical component the a field army. Cavalry riders were armed with a bow, lance, knife or halberd. Like chariots, mounties was provided to defend the flanks and also rear the infantry formations, together a shock weapon and also as a means to harass an foe on the relocate or conduct hit-and-run raids.


Surrounding a settlement with a protective ditch (sometimes submarine to make a moat) dates back to the 7th century BCE millennium BCE in China and also the building of fortification walls making use of dried earth days to the late Neolithic period. Siege warfare was no a common occurrence in China, though, until the Zhou dynasty when war entailed the total destruction that the foe as opposed to simply their army. By the Han period, city walls were generally raised come a elevation of increase to 6 metres and made that compacted earth. Crenellations, towers and monumental entrances were another enhancement to a city"s defence. Walls likewise became an ext weather resistant by covering the reduced parts in stone to withstand neighborhood water resources being re-directed by one attacking force in order to undermine the wall. Another technique to strengthen walls was come mix in pottery sherds, plant material, branches and also sand through the earth. Ditches up to 50 metres wide, regularly filled through water, and also even a dual ring the circuit wall surface were other techniques designed come ensure a city might withstand attack long sufficient for a relieving pressure to arrive from elsewhere.

Remove AdsAdvertisement


The great Wall the China
Emily mark (CC BY-SA)

Not only cities but state frontiers were protected by high walls and also watchtowers. The earliest might have been in the north from the 8th century BCE yet the practice came to be a common one in the Warring States period when numerous different an effective states vied for manage of China. Most of these frameworks were dismantled by the victor state, what would come to be the Qin dynasty from 221 BCE, yet one wall was greatly expanded to end up being the an excellent Wall of China. Expanded again by succeeding dynasties, the wall surface would at some point stretch part 5,000 kilometres from Gansu province in the east to the Liaodong peninsula. The framework was not continuous but that did, for number of centuries, assist protect China"s north frontier against invasion indigenous nomadic steppe tribes.

Organisation & Strategies

China"s history is really long one and also each time period and dynasty saw its own practices and innovations in warfare. Still, part themes run v the background of war in China. Police officers were often professionals (although they typically inherited their status), simple troops to be conscripts or recorded soldiers; convicts could also be pressed into service. Over there were also volunteers, typically young males from noble families who joined as cavalrymen looking for adventure and also glory. The organisation of an military in the ar into three divisions had a lengthy tradition. So, too, did the five-man unit, typically used to infantry wherein squads were composed of two archers and three spearmen. By the Warring claims period, an army was generally divided into five divisions, each represented by a flag which denoted that function:

Red Bird - VanguardGreen Dragon - Left WingWhite Tiger - ideal WingBlack tortoise - behind GuardGreat bear Constellation - commander & Bodyguard

When the crossbow became an ext common troops skilled with the weapon often created an elite corps and also other certain units were supplied as shock troops to help out where essential or confuse the enemy. As already noted above, archers and cavalry protected the flanks of more heavier infantry and chariots, as soon as used, can fulfill the same role or bring up the rear. Such positions, i beg your pardon are described as ideals in the military treatises, are shown by the Terracotta military of Shi Huangti. Flags, unit banners, drums and bells were provided on the battlefield to far better organise troops and deploy them in the way the command wished.

Supporting the soldiers were dedicated officers responsible for logistics and also supplying the military with the vital food (millet, wheat and rice), water, firewood, fodder, equipment and shelter they required while ~ above campaign. Material was transported by flow whenever feasible and if not, on ox carts, horses and also even wheelbarrows indigenous the Han duration onward. Indigenous the Warring says Period, and especially the Han period, sections of militaries were collection the job of agriculture so as to acquire the necessary vitals the foraging, confiscation native locals or catch from the enemy can not supply. The establishment of garrisons with their very own food production and also improvements in supply roads and canals likewise went a long means to lengthening the moment an military could successfully stay in the field.

Full-on infantry battles, cavalry skirmishes, reconnaissance, espionage, subterfuge, and also ambush to be all existing in Chinese warfare. Lot was do of gentlemanly etiquette in war during the Shang and Zhou periods but this was likely an creation of later on writers or at finest an exaggeration. Certainly, once warfare became much more mobile and the crest made higher from the 4th century BCE, a commander was supposed to victory with and by any way at his disposal.

One final theme which runs through much of China"s background is the use of professional diviners who could study omens, observe the movement and position of celestial bodies, gauge the meaning of natural phenomena and consult calendars all in order to recognize the most auspicious time and also place to engage in warfare. Without this considerations, it to be believed, the ideal weapons, men and tactics would certainly not be sufficient to bring final victory.

See more: What To Do If Your Cat Drinks Pee, Why Is My Cat So Thirsty

Editorial ReviewThis article has to be reviewed for accuracy, reliability and also adherence to scholastic standards prior to publication.


We want people all end the human being to learn about history. Aid us and also translate this definition into an additional language!

Mark is a background writer based in Italy. His unique interests encompass pottery, architecture, human being mythology and discovering the concepts that all people share in common. That holds one MA in political Philosophy and is the posting Director at WHE.