The Qin and Han Dynasties: The Flexibility and Adaptability of Military Force and Expansion
The Q in and Han Dynasties: The F lexibility and Adaptability of Militar y Force and Expansion
Christopher Hallenbrook 0 1 2
0 Thi s item is available as part of Virtual Commons, the open-access institutional repository of Bridgewater State University , Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Copyright © 2008 Christopher Hallenbrook , USA
1 Wills Jr., John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press , 99
2 Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press , 99
Follow this and additional works at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/undergrad_rev Part of the Asian History Commons, and the Military History Commons Recommended Citation Hallenbrook, Christopher (2008). The Qin a nd Han Dynasties: The Flex ibility and Adaptability of Military Force and Expansion. Undergraduate Review, 4, 121-125. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/undergrad_rev/vol4/iss1/22
Christopher is pursuing a double major in
History and Political Science. He developed
this paper for History of Imperial China with
Dr. Wing-kai To in Fall 007. Christopher
plans to attend graduate school upon
completing his Interdisciplinary Honors
The Qin and Han Dynasties:
The Flexibility and Adaptability
of Military Force and Expansion
he course of human history has shown that there is no guaranteed
Topponents, but they can also be outmaneuvered or rendered
method of conquest and expansion. Large scale armies can crush
ineffective by terrain; yet more maneuverable forces can be beaten by
superior force when constricted by terrain. Changes in tactics can make what was
an advantage one day a liability the next. There are even situations in which the
circumstances make a conventional military offensive an inefficient or ineffective
way for an empire to spread its control and influence. Furthermore, growing
empires are confronted with a wide variety of circumstances - geographical,
tactical and strategic - from region to region and people to people. As a result,
an essential feature for empires seeking significant expansion has been the
ability to recognize and adapt, specifically the ability to recognize the specific
requirements of the situation and adapt their course of action accordingly. In the
history of imperial China, the Qin and Han dynasties both demonstrated this
ability to utilize methods of warfare and expansion as dictated by circumstances
in order to bring about success. The Qin built their military to exploit the
weaknesses of the feudal armies of the Chinese states opposing them, while the
Han utilized combinations of large-scale armies, maneuverability, colonization,
military adventurers operating independently of the imperial court and small
expeditions to expand their domain.
Before the ascension of the Qin and Han Dynasties, China was a land divided.
The nearly two centuries prior to Qin unification are known to historians as
the Warring States Period, and with good reason. The Zhou king, whose
theoretical domain was much of China, was but a figurehead, powerless to
intervene as leaders of numerous regional states intrigued and battled to extend
the portions of China under their control. These leaders were frequently the
feudal lords who were in principle vassals of the Zhou king. At the height of
their power, the Zhou had used a feudal system to rule China. Noblemen of
the landed aristocracy took oaths of loyalty to the Zhou king, and in return
were responsible for ruling over their particular domain. All administrative and
military positions were appointed by and responsible to the lord. Each region
had such a system under its particular lord, encompassing officials high and low
within the civil administration and military, from ministers and commanders
down through the ranks to the serfs, who, bound to the land, formed the bottom
of the feudal hierarchy.1 The result was the creation of political
and military hierarchies that were highly decentralized. As the
power of the Zhou waned, these feudal domains became de facto
states unto themselves, with the lords becoming the leaders who
struggled for supremacy. Such struggles continued until the rise
of the Qin, whose conquest restored unity to China. In working
to consolidate their power, the Qin established the centralized
bureaucracy necessary to the direct rule of a large empire by
an imperial court, and its successor dynasty, the Han, extended
and solidified the work begun by the Qin. These two dynasties
thus began the administrative system that would characterize
imperial China for many dynasties to come, making the methods
they used to expand to the position from which they were able
to influence the development of bureaucratic rule throughout
China an essential element of Chinese imperial history.
would be able to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the feudal
armies that opposed them. The most fundamental adaptation the
Qin made was to create a professional army. Having no crops
to tend or harvest, professional soldiers could be deployed year
round, making their use a huge advantage over feudal powers.
Furthermore, with these professional troops, the Qin emphasized
sheer numbers and maneuverability.5 In order to overwhelm
the feudal armies, which were constantly gaining or losing
detachments based on any number of local factors that could
draw men away from the army for a portion or the duration of
the campaign, the Qin developed their army “as the most massive
striking force of the age.”6 But this army was built on more than
just sheer numbers; in order to exploit the limited range of feudal
armies, the Qin army deployed a strong cavalry force that had
incorporated the most useful aspects of the non-Chinese peoples
who lived on their borders.7 Size and speed therefore gave the
Qin army two major tactical advantages over the other Chinese
states, and in utilizing them it was, in part, “this cavalry, trained
in Frontier warfare, whose rapid maneuver and striking power
won an empire for Ch’in [Qin].”8
Prior to Qin expansion, the method of Chinese warfare matched
the feudal nature of Chinese politics. Feudal lords raised their
armies through levies of the peasants under their control. Such
armies were limited by the nature of their composition. Farmers
could only be called away from their fields at certain times of
year. Not only did this limit the duration of feudal campaigns,
but it also limited their range, as with less time to march out
and return, an army cannot go as far afield. This range factor
was further compounded by the fact that those peasants who
composed feudal armies simply did not like campaigning a
significant distance from their homes and fields.2 Thus, feudal
society yielded feudal armies that were hampered by their very
But it was not just in tactics that the Qin differed from feudal
China; they also pursued a different set of goals. The Qin fought
for total victory and absolute conquest; not merely content
to add the defeated lord and his territory to the realm as an
additional feudal appendage, administered by the defeated lord’s
administrators, as was the prevailing practice, the Qin sought to
bring the vanquished region under the direct control of the Qin
emperor and his bureaucracy. The result was the first uniform
implementation of a new set of strategies, vastly different from
The political results of warfare between these feudal armies were those of the feudal states. In order to obliterate the independent
as constricted as the forces themselves. As long as they became structure of a newly subjugated state, the victorious Qin wiped
vassals of the victor, defeated lords retained control over their out the entirety of the vanquished royal house. Yet this was
lands. They had to pay tribute to their new feudal master, but just the tip of the iceberg. Whenever the Qin won a battle as
as they retained powers such as tax collection, their power base part of its conquest of China, the entirety of the defeated army
endured even in defeat.3 As a result, allegiances and tributaries was annihilated by decapitation. But this was never capricious
were ever shifting, “altering the grouping but not the structure slaughter; it was policy. In the face of such complete destruction,
of power.”4 So while this system did bring defeated regions under the feudal power structure of the defeated state could not
the control of the victorious power, the conquered states retained remain intact, not with both lord and those who fought for him
such autonomy that the political situation remained ever fluid. dead.9 Thus, the brutality of Qin conquest existed for an explicit
purpose, facilitating the consolidation of victory into conquest
and conquest into empire.
It was amidst this backdrop that the Qin moved to conquer the
rest of China. To do so, the Qin developed a military that
. Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 33.
. Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China (New York: Capitol
Publishing Co., Inc., and the American Geographical Society, 1951) 438.
. Lattimore, 400.
. Lattimore, 401.
While the Qin Dynasty was short-lived, the more lasting Han
Dynasty would prove itself equally adept at adapting their military
techniques to fit the particular circumstances of the campaign.
. Lattimore, 438-439.
. Lattimore, 437.
. Lattimore, 421.
. Lattimore, 422.
. Lattimore, 401.
In the second century BCE, the long-reigning Emperor Wudi
engaged in a series of campaigns against the Xiongnu, the nomadic
people of the Asia steppe along China’s northern frontier. He sent
out huge armies to fight the tribesmen, with one army reaching
300,000 men and several others of over 100,000 troops.10 But
numbers alone could not carry the day on the steppe, forcing
China to adapt to the requirements of the terrain.
The grassland of the Asian steppe lends itself to cavalry warfare.
Living in this region made the nomads expert horsemen, as
mobility was vital to surviving on the sparse steppe. Additionally,
the requirements of hunting on the steppe made its inhabitants
highly skilled with the bow and arrow. That they learned, in part
as a requirement of hunting on the steppe, to combine these two
skills and shoot their bows while mounted made the Xiongnu
all the more deadly a foe.11 Xiongnu warfare was thus perfectly
suited to the terrain in which they lived.
Thus, in order to defeat the Xiongnu in their own territory,
the Chinese had to fight like the Xiongnu. The Han therefore
incorporated Xiongnu tactics into their armies, relying heavily
on cavalry forces to counter the mounted nomads.12 As crucially,
campaigning deep in the Asian steppe took the Chinese armies
far from their frontier bases. This resulted in long supply lines
that became ever longer as the Chinese drove back the Xiongnu.13
Given the mobility of the Xiongnu as a result of their horsemanship,
this left the Chinese in a precarious position, susceptible to being
cutoff from supplies and encircled. Neutralizing this vulnerability
involved learning to live off of the steppe as the Xiongnu did.14 By
thus achieving independence from their bases, the Chinese armies
were able to extend their range even further and, unburdened by
supply trains, become more mobile. Thus, that the Han were able
to defeat the Xiongnu and move deep into the Asian steppe was
a result of the fact that when Emperor Wudi deployed massive
armies against the Xiongnu, he did so “with troops that matched
the nomads in mobility and striking power.”15 But in the south,
the Han could not effectively deploy massive armies of any kind.
First of all, the terrain prevented it. Southward expansion brought
the Han into a region of swamps, mountains and thick jungles
entirely unsuited to the deployment, maneuver and use of armies
numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, the
peoples native to this region did not typically fight in organized
armies. They would resist incursion every step of the way, but the
0 . Ebrey, 69.
. Ebrey, 68.
. HarperCollins Atlas of World History, Geoffrey Barraclough, ed. (Ann Arbor,
MI: Borders Press, 1998) 81.
. Lattimore, 484.
. Lattimore, 499.
. Lattimore, 484.
set-piece battle was not to be had.16 Thus, the primary role of the
imperial army was to maintain garrisons to protect Han gains
after they were made.17
In light of this reduced role for Chinese armies, southern expansion
took on two main forms, the first of which was colonization.
Chinese settlers were sent south along the rivers to establish
themselves in the new territory. These settlers brought with them
Chinese goods, creating a trade relationship that marked the first
stage of tying the people of the region to China. The settlers of
course also brought with them their culture, exposure to which
instigated the process of assimilation through which China would
incorporate these southern regions. Once a region was possessed
of a sufficiently high number of settlers, the imperial government
was able to send south administrators to oversee the region and
promote the process of assimilating the natives to its fullest.18 In
this way the Han were able to add territory to their empire with
The second method for establishing control over the south was
through adventurers. The most famous of these men to be active
in the south was Chao Tuo, whose career spanned from the final
years of the Qin to the reign of the Han emperor Wudi. After
marrying into a clan of the Yue in what is now Guangdong province
in south China, he was able to systematically build a powerbase
for the creation of his own domain. As Chao continued to expand
his territory as a self-proclaimed king, the first Han emperor
enlisted him as a vassal. While Chao did not allow himself to be
constricted by this relationship, continuing to campaign on his
own accord and conquering part of present day Vietnam, after
his death Emperor Wudi was able to assert control over those
who succeed Chao to rule his domains.19 Chao Tuo thus serves
of an example of how, in terrain in which large Chinese armies
could not operate efficiently, the military adventurer could use
local forces to build a kingdom that could later be incorporated
into the greater Chinese empire.
Meanwhile, in the west, expansion into Central Asia posed
another set of problems for the Han Dynasty. Central Asia is a
barren and often desert region, interspersed with a number of
settled oases. As such, this landscape provided little opportunity
for colonization. Additionally, as it lay far from the center of the
Han Empire, distance and desert thus served to isolate the region
and any Chinese presence there from the rest of the empire.20
Furthermore, as at each oasis there was an established society that
could provision a Chinese force, “war among the oases of Central
. Lattimore, 439.
. Ebrey, 82.
. Ebrey, 82-83.
. Ebrey, 83.
0 . Lattimore, 503.
Asia required only that the field force not be too cumbrous to
make long marches yet strong enough to overawe each oasis
it entered.”21 The former requirement effectively ruled out the
use of massive armies on the scale of Wudi’s steppe campaigns.
Combined, all of these factors severely curtailed the options
available to the Han for expansion into Central Asia.
The result of these constraints was that individual commanders
of small detachments were able to operate in Central Asia with
almost complete autonomy. Among such leaders was Ban Chao,
brother of the famous female scholar Ban Zhao. Ban Chao was
sent to Central Asia in the first century CE with thirty-six men
to promote and protect Chinese interests in the region. During
his nearly three decades in Central Asia, despite rarely receiving
any reinforcements or direction from the Han Empire, Ban
Chao successfully spread Chinese influence at the expense of
the Xiongnu.22 Ban Chao accomplished this through what the
Chinese came to call “containing barbarians with barbarians.”23
He made alliances with certain oasis powers and, exploiting long
standing animosities among the peoples of the region, used them
to fight against other groups that were potential threats to Chinese
interests.24 He was thereby able to shape the politics of Central
Asia and draw the area into the Chinese orbit, placing China on
the Xiongnu’s western flank instead of having the Xiongnu on
China’s, all with a modicum of Chinese military presence.
Thus, the first two dynasties to rule over a unified China following
the Warring States Period demonstrated skill in adapting to the
particular attributes of a situation. The Qin did so by developing an
army that would be able to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of
the feudal armies deployed by its rivals. In subsequent centuries,
the Han made a number of adaptations as they expanded their
empire on multiple fronts. In the north, they utilized large
armies that learned how to maneuver, live and fight on the
steppe as their enemy, the Xiongnu, did. To the south, where
such methods would have been largely futile, the Han utilized
policies of colonization and adventurers to bind the region to the
empire. And in the west, it was the autonomous commander who
advanced the cause of the Han by playing the various peoples of
Central Asia off of each other in order to bring the region under
the influence of China. In seeking to extend their realms, the Qin
and Han Dynasties proved to be flexible in how they utilized
military force to facilitate expansion and empire.
. Lattimore, 491-492.
. John E. Wills, Jr., Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994) 93-94.
. Bernard Martin and Shu Chien-Tung, Makers of China: Confucius to Mao
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972) 39.
. Wills, 94.