Mercenaries and Norms in Chinese History

The Mercenaries and Military Manpower blog got underway with a multipart review (still unfinished) of Mercenaries: The History of a Norm in International Relations by Sarah Percy (Oxford U. Press, 2007), which latter appears to be rather too Eurocentric, leading the reviewer to summarize the vicissitudes of mercenary use in the history of China. The following excerpt omits notes and references.

For over two thousand years, Chinese mandarins trained in the Confucian classics often shared an ideological preference for conscription of farmers rather than the employment of foreigners to fill the ranks of the Middle Kingdom’s armies, but despite this, they very frequently employed nomadic warriors from their borderlands during times of crisis, or whenever they felt it was necessary, regardless of idealistic norms. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, when Chinese court officials dreamed of raising hundreds of thousands of farmer-soldiers to fight the Taiping rebels, hard-headed realists such as Zeng Guofan realized the need to employ well-trained, well-paid troops rather than temporarily mustered militias, and it was with these professional troops whose loyalty was primarily to their paymasters rather than to the Chinese state, who were most effective in defeating the huge Taiping armies. In cities like Shanghai, merchants and other wealthy notables employed foreign mercenaries to establish what came to be called “The Ever Victorious Army,” which also played an important part in defeating the Taiping rebels.

What impact did the anti-mercenary norm of Chinese mandarins have on the composition of the armies in the nineteenth century? It delayed an effective response to the almost fatal threat to the Taiping army, and it failed to prevent a switch from reliance on almost completely ineffective hereditary soldiers and amateur militiamen to well-paid local or foreign mercenary soldiers. At the turn of the twentieth century, the venerable ‘founding father’ of both Communist China and Taiwan, Sun Yatsen, used money collected from numerous overseas Chinese communities to hire mercenaries to launch numerous attacks on Chinese imperial outposts that he hoped would spark a revolution. After the 1911 Revolution finally toppled the Qing dynasty, Sun Yatsen felt compelled to employ mercenaries once again to establish and maintain a local government in southern China which he hoped to use as a base to unite China again, in the form of a republic. It was only when the Chinese communists finally united the country in 1949-50 and imposed a monopoly on the use of force, that the market for military labor declined sharply in China.

The anti-mercenary norm of Chinese mandarins has never effectively or permanently prevented the use of professional soldiers or mercenaries during crises in Chinese history. When new dynasties won ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ and expanded to impose their monopoly on the use of force over large territories, or when governments face serious rebellions, they frequently used mercenaries. Once empires stopped expanding and stability was achieved, the employment of mercenaries diminished. When empires disintegrated, mercenaries flourished. The fluctuating use of mercenaries in the history of China, a country whose leaders have frequently shared an ideological hostility to the use of mercenaries, supports the view that, when states face military crises, anti-mercenary norms do not prevent the turn to a more realist policy of hiring whoever they can, if need be, to address the challenge at hand. To ignore such evidence and restrict one’s vision to Europe since the 12th century is very problematic, to say the least, for a book making theoretical claims about the impact of norms in international relations.

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