The Chinese army has long been one of the most significant military forces in the world. From the Qin dynasty to the modern era, Chinese strategic thinking and capabilities have been honed in the crucible of war. But how big was the ancient Chinese army?
The Chinese army has an impressive history of militarization and battle. Chinese forces have fought in countless battles over the centuries, against both foreign and domestic enemies. From the great walls of its northern border to the iconic Terracotta Army, China has a long record of marshalling military forces. It would be impossible to accurately count the size of China’s ancient army, but historians have made some estimates.
Research and Facts
The size of the Chinese army during various periods in ancient history is open to debate. According to historical sources, the size of the Qin dynasty army (221–207 BC) comprised of about 600,000 troops. Under the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) the size of the military force doubled, reaching numbers of up to 800,000 men. In the period of the Three Kingdoms (220–280), Chinese forces numbered an estimated 1,000,000.
Dr. Jian Zhang, a professor at Peking University and expert on Chinese military history, suggests that during the Warring States period (475–221 BC) China had what could be considered the world’s “first standing army”. The size of this army was said to be 1.5 million by some sources, though it was likely much lower, at around 400,000.
The Mongol conquest of China in the 13th century disrupted the development of the Chinese military, but it was re-established during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Historical records suggest the force was composed of a million foot soldiers and nearly 40,000 cavalry.
The Chinese military has traditionally been organized into a unified command structure, which has enabled it to effectively coordinate large forces. In early periods of Chinese history, the emperor was commander-in-chief, but from the Han dynasty onwards, the military was led by various ranks of generals.
The central figure of the Chinese military was the generalissimo, who had overall command of the armies. A series of rising generals–the most famous being Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who led armies under the Warring States period–succeeded each other in leading the Chinese military. From the Han dynasty onwards, the military was held by a civilian bureaucracy of scholar-officials.
The Chinese military’s capabilities have been aided by its leading edge technology, from the invention of gunpowder to movable type printing, which helped disseminate military texts, such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The Chinese military has also employed innovative tactics and strategies–including, most notably, the crossbow volley–and developed its own martial arts, such as the martial art of Qin.
The Chinese military has also developed a network of fortifications, the Chinese Great Wall–the largest set of fortifications ever built in history–which ran along the northern border of China. This helped protect China from the incursions of Mongol and other nomadic forces, and was a testament to the military capabilities of China during this period.
Due to its geographical position and its large population, foreign invasions of China have often been attempted. But despite this, China’s ancient military forces have often managed to repel foreign forces.
In the 16th century, for example, the Chinese armies decisively defeated the Mongolian forces of the Tumet. The Mongols attempted to invade China in the 17th century, but their forces were once again repelled. The Manchu forces of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) also attempted to invade China, but the forces of the Ming dynasty managed to repel them, too.
Impact of the Chinese Army
The impact of the Chinese army on world history is undeniable. From its earliest beginnings, the Chinese army has been a formidable force, and during its development, has had a significant influence on military thinking throughout the world. The Chinese army’s use of innovative tactics and strategies has helped shape warfare as we know it today.
The ancient Chinese army played an important role in protecting the Chinese state from foreign incursions, and its troops were renowned throughout history for their bravery and loyalty. It is no exaggeration to say that without the Chinese army, the Chinese civilization as we know it today would not exist.
The Chinese Army underwent a period of reformation and modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following its defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the Chinese military was subject to a period of reform and reorganization. This was a period of great change for the Chinese Army, as new technologies such as machine guns, torpedoes, and railways were introduced.
Modernization continued through the 20th century, until the rise of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 led to a period of purging and restructuring, which resulted in the expulsion of many senior military officers. This resulted in a major transition in the Chinese army, as new tactics, technology, and equipment were adopted and the army focus shifted from traditional personnel-based warfare to mechanized, nuclear, and chemical warfare.
The Chinese army also developed a network of communication and coordination, which enabled it to effectively deploy and manoeuvre large forces in battle. During the Warring States period, a system of beacon tower networks was developed to instantaneously warn of impending attack and to coordinate battlefield movements. During the Qing dynasty another development was the formation of military ‘saluting stations’, which were organized to alert and coordinate troops.
In more recent times, modern technology has enabled the Chinese army to develop a highly sophisticated system of command and control. This involves the use of advanced telecommunications, computer networks, and satellite reconnaissance technology to provide real time information about battlefield conditions and to coordinate battlefield movements.
Capabilities and Uses
The modern Chinese army is one of the most powerful in the world. It is capable of carrying out possible nuclear retaliation against enemy forces in the region, making it a formidable adversary for any potential adversary. The Chinese Army has also been deployed in recent years in peacekeeping and other operations, including anti-piracy operations near Somalia and the Suez Canal, and humanitarian operations in the Middle East.
In addition, the Chinese army has increasingly taken an active role in international affairs, engaging in development initiatives abroad and increasing its levels of military cooperation with other countries. China has also been an active participant in United Nations peacekeeping missions and has increased its military presence in regions such as the South China Sea.
The Chinese Army is among the most well funded in the world, and its soldiers are rewarded with incentives such as subsidized housing, material benefits, and retirement benefits. These have helped attract the nation’s most promising young citizens to the military.
The Chinese government has also undertaken various efforts to improve the morale and motivation of its troops, ranging from the issuance of commemorative coins to the encouragement of public discourse in the army. These efforts have helped foster a sense of esprit de corps and patriotism amongst Chinese soldiers.
In recent years, the Chinese army has become increasingly engaged in outreach programs, ranging from academic exchanges with foreign militaries to joint military exercises. The Chinese military has also been active in promoting patriotism amongst the youth, through events such as the annual “National Unity Day” celebrations.
These initiatives have helped to strengthen the sense of national identity amongst the people, and strengthen the bonds of loyalty between the people and the Chinese army.
When compared to other major militaries in the world, the Chinese army stands out as one of the most powerful. Though it does not have the same level of technological sophistication as the U.S. military, the Chinese army is still a formidable fighting force, with a highly trained and motivated fighting force, and an extensive network of fortifications and weapon systems.
Chinese military strength also stems from its extensive internal logistics capabilities and its growing influence in international affairs. As a result of these advantages, the Chinese army will continue to be a major player in international security and global politics in the years to come.