A Millennium of Reconfiguring Chinese Armies

From A History of the Modern Chinese Army, by Xiaobing Li (U. Press of Kentucky, 2007), pp. 18-20 (footnote references omitted):

To secure China’s central position in Asia, Han emperors maintained a large army of more than one million men. The conscription system, however, did not meet the extraordinary demands of frequent wars, even though the emperors had extended the age range of service to between twenty and sixty-five. The later Han emperors began to include criminals and paid recruits in the army. These measures failed to stop the decline of the dynasty. Its efforts to create an Asian powerhouse drained its resources and provided no significant economic return.

Chinese historians describe their past as a series of “dynastic cycles” because successive dynasties repeated this story. After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, China had two long periods of division and civil wars (the Three Kingdoms Period, 220-80, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties, 317-582). During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), although the emperors reunified the country, they squandered an enormous amount of manpower and financial resources in building palaces for their own comfort and vanity. They attempted to reconquer Korea three times, and several million peasants were drafted as soldiers and laborers for the military expeditions. As a result, the peasants were exhausted and the Sui treasury was nearly empty. The burdens on the peasants had become unbearable. They began new uprisings, which dealt severe blows to the Sui regime. While the flame of peasant uprisings was burning across the country, local landlords were allowed to recruit troops of their own and occupy various parts of China. They safeguarded and then extended their power and influence. In 617, the aristocrat Li Yuan and his son Li Shimin started a revolt and quickly occupied Chang’an, the Sui capital. The following year, the Sui emperor was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, and his death marked the end of the Sui Dynasty. Li assumed the imperial title at Chang’an and called his new regime the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which became one of the most glorious dynasties and made China central to Asian affairs once again.

Tang emperors needed a self-sustaining army to prevent military spending from bankrupting the dynasty. To secure manpower and economic resources for military needs, Tang rulers carried on the fubing system, a peasant-soldier reserve system established by the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535; established in north China by Turks), as the main source for new recruitments. There were 634 junfu (command headquarters) across the country. Each selected soldiers from among the local peasants who had received land through the land equalization system (juntianzhi). In 624, to increase the source of tax revenue, the Tang ruler adopted this land system and a tripartite tax system. Under the new system, a peasant above the age of eighteen received a small piece of land, of which one-fifth could be sold or left to his children. The other four-fifths must be returned to the government upon his retirement or death. The new land policy slowed the concentration of land in the hands of big landlords and redistributed it among the peasants. The men in the fubing system were peasants in peacetime and reported to the local headquarters to serve in wartime. Locally, the two-tier system of provinces and counties prevailed except in border and strategic areas, which were administered by garrison commands. The chief executive of each command was responsible for military as well as civil affairs as a military governor-general. The local power of military governors-general increased throughout the Tang Dynasty.

To stop the decentralization, after Tang, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) divided the fubing into the central or urban army (panbing) and the local or village militia (xiangbing). The first Song emperor, Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin; reigned 960-76), former commander of the imperial guards, took several measures to prevent the reemergence of separatist local regimes so as to concentrate all power in the central government. The central government took over the authority hitherto belonging to the military governors-general, and only civil officials could be appointed heads of military and administrative affairs at the local level. This civil-military relationship became another part of the Chinese military tradition. Robin Higham and David A. Graff point out that, during the Song Dynasty, “civil bureaucrats and military officers were often rivals for influence at court, and the civil officials attempted to assert their dominance over the military sphere in various ways and generally had the upper hand. Civil officials with no practical military training or experience of command at the lower levels were sometimes sent out to direct military campaigns.” Neiberg considers the domination of the civilian bureaucracy in military affairs as one of the reasons that the Song Army had one of the worst military records of any Chinese dynasty. In 1279, the Mongols destroyed the Chinese army and ended the Song Dynasty.

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