Ancient China Army

First Chinese armed forces were formed around 2200 BCE. There’s little information about those early armies.

They were poorly organized during the period that is called the Pre-Warring States. The next period, called the Warring States, brought some reorganization and technological advances.

Finally, the biggest and most organized army in ancient China was the imperial army under the Qin and Han dynasties.

Ancient China Army

The goal of the army was to protect China from invaders and to expand the borders of China and its influence.

Pre-Warring States (also known as the Spring and Autumn Period)

  • At first, China consisted of several city-states, governed by local kings and feudal lords, who were more or less loyal to the ruling Shang and Zhou dynasties.All of those states had their armies. The nobles had horses and chariots, and their role was similar to that of the European Knights. The infantry consisted of peasant levies.
  • These armies were not well equipped. The only weapons that they had were bronze bows, swords, and spears. Their armor was made of bronze too.Most often, the soldiers did not have proper training and weren’t very skilled. On top of that, they were never supplied enough to campaign for more than a couple of months.
  • Despite all weaknesses, these armies served their purpose well. China’s territory and influence expanded over the whole North China plain.
  • When, in 771 BCE, the Zhou Dynasty collapsed, China turned into a number of tiny states, the armies of which soon started fighting each other.

Warring States

  • The armies of the seven warring states that existed in China from around 475 BC to 221 BC were much more advanced than those before that period, in every sense.First of all, it wasn’t enough to be an aristocrat to become a general. The prestigious title now belonged to remarkable professionals.Some soldiers were trained professionals, while others were still drafted.
  • Technological innovations changed the Chinese armed forces for good. Soldiers were armed with iron weapons and crossbows.
  • Those professional standing armies were large. In times of major conflicts, when all grown-up men were mobilized, an army sometimes consisted of a few hundred thousand men. The conscripts were organized and disciplined.
  • The army the Wei state had high standards that were difficult to meet – the soldiers had to march 50 kilometers a day while wearing full armor, helmet, sword, spear, crossbow with arrows, and plenty of supplies – but the soldiers enjoyed special treatment.Men who were able to do so were given tax benefits. Also, their households were exempt from other obligations, such as unpaid labor.
  • Cavalry was introduced near the end of this period. The first states that had their cavalry divisions were Wei and, later, Zhao.

Qin Empire

  • The most powerful Chinese army of ancient times was created in unified China under the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
  • Instead of several smaller troops, China now had a single army for the first time in its history.Other developments – such as road building throughout the empire – increased the mobility of the troops.
  • In that time, the greatest threat to the empire came from a couple of nomadic confederations that came from the North.The newly built Great Wall was a superb defense, but it was not enough to prevent the intruders from entering Chinese settlements.The idea to move tens of thousands of soldier-farmers to the frontiers did not make results either, so finally a professional army was permanently set on the empire’s borders.
  • The troops on the frontiers consisted of mercenaries from the northern Han tribe (the future Han dynasty), the Xiong-nu people, and convicts from around the empire who worked to earn their freedom.

Qianlong Emperor

Han Dynasty

  • The imperial army improved even more during the Han dynasty. Universal military conscription was ended by 31 BC.Cavalry was more important than ever, and large cavalry expeditions were launched against the nearby tribes.As a result, the Han Empire conquered much of the Northern and Western China, Central Asia, present-day Mongolia, and Korea.

Three Kingdoms and the Jin Dynasty

  • When the Han dynasty ended, several local governors rebelled and formed their armies.The three kingdoms that emerged that way – Wei in the North and Shu Han and Wu in the South – changed the way the army was organized.
  • The Wei dynasty relied on a class of hereditary soldiers called the Buqu, rather than volunteers, for their infantry.The cavalry did not change so much, as the Wei rulers relied on the Xiong-nu mercenaries.
  • Under the Wei, provincial armies became more important than the central army, which now became a reserve. This didn’t change when the next dynasty –Jin –unified China.

The Northern and Southern Dynasties

  • In 304 CE, a major civil war happened, and twelve years later Jin lost the territories on the North, which now belonged to tribes such as the Xianbei.The Xianbei created the fubing system in the army. Under this system, military units consisted of around one thousand farmer-soldiers.
  • Chinese dynasties on the south continued the military system that existed in the previous period, during the rule of the Jin dynasty.

Soldier Statue


Were there professional troops during the Pre-Warring States period in China?

No, the armies mostly consisted of mobilized peasants at that time.

Did ancient Chinese armies use horses?

Yes. At first, only wealthy individuals had them, and they rode chariots. Cavalry was introduced later.

When was cavalry introduced?

The Chinese formed the first cavalry near the end of the Warring States period. Cavalry was of great importance later in the imperial army.

Which ancient Chinese army was the most powerful?

It was the imperial army under the Qin and Han dynasties.