Ancient China Military

Ancient Chinese weren’t aggressive people. Following their traditional Confucian philosophy, they preferred peaceful political solutions over brute military force.

However, they were surrounded by “warlike” tribes (they called some neighboring tribes Xirong, and the word Rong meant warlike people).

On top of that, different elite Chinese families and tribes could not agree on who was in charge, so they started developing their military forces quite early in history.

The first armies were formed around 2200 BCE. The first naval forces started operating much later – during the Three Kingdoms period.

The first major naval battle in ancient China history took place in 208 BCE.

Pre-Warring States (Spring and Autumn Period)

  • China wasn’t a centralized state during the rule of Shang and Zhou dynasties.Different city-states had their own local kings and feudal lords, and each of them developed their military power independently.
  • At this first stage, the military of different ancient Chinese states looked very much alike.The elite had horses and rode chariots, and peasant levies were the infantry.
  • The only weapons that early Chinese military forces had were bronze bows, swords, and spears. Their armor was also made of bronze.
  • A lack of training, skills, and supplies was evident. These armies had no ability to campaign for more than a couple of months.Even so, they managed not only to defend but also to expand China’s territory and influence over the whole North China plain.

Warring States

  • The political changes after 475 BCE brought various advances to the military. The way armies were organized changed profoundly.The title of general now had to be earned, while in previous centuries all interested aristocrats had it. Trained professionals, along with drafted peasants, served the army.
  • Technological innovations were massive. Soldiers now had iron weapons and crossbows. Near the end of this period, the armies of Wei and Zhao had cavalry.
  • Chinese states of the Wei and Zhao had large professional standing armies. Whenever a major conflict would arise, all grown-up men were drafted, and they were remarkably well organized and disciplined, compared to conscripts from the earlier period.
  • The army the Wei state was above the others. The soldiers’ training consisted of marching 50 kilometers a day while wearing full armor, helmet, sword, spear, crossbow with arrows, and plenty of supplies.It was a great honor to be in that army. The soldiers were given tax benefits. Also, they were free from other commitments, such as unpaid labor.

Qin Dynasty

Qin and Han Empire

  • The unification of China under Qin Shi Huang resulted in creating the most powerful Chinese military force of ancient times.In the place of many smaller troops, there was one large army. Other developments within the empire – such as road building in particular – made the Chinese military easier to move and control remote parts of the empire.
  • Since the Great Wall was not enough to protect the empire from a couple of nomadic confederations from the North, a professional army was permanently set on the empire’s borders.
  • The army on the frontiers consisted of mercenaries of various backgrounds. Some of them belonged to the northern Han tribe (the future Han dynasty); others belonged to the Xiongnu people.Also, convicts from around the empire were given a chance to work as soldiers to earn their freedom.
  • The Han dynasty introduced further changes, ended universal military conscription, and gave more importance to the cavalry.

Han Dynasty

Three Kingdoms and the Jin Dynasty

    • After the fall of the Han dynasty ended, three powerful local governors formed their kingdoms (the Three Kingdoms – Wei, Shu Han, and Wu).Each had their separate military forces, and their organization changed.
  • By this time, Chinese navies developed, and the Wei state became a great naval force. The famous Battle of Red Cliffs was one of the largest naval battles in ancient history.
  • The Wei dynasty still relied on Xiongnu cavalry. The infantry no longer consisted of random volunteers. Instead, a whole new class of hereditary soldiers emerged.They were called the Buqu. Also, provincial armies became more important, and the central army became merely a reserve.This didn’t change with the end of the Three Kingdoms. The Jin dynasty kept the same military structures.


During the Pre-Warring States period in China, infantry came from which social class?

Infantry only included peasants during that era.

Did ancient Chinese states have their navies?

At first, they did not, but later the Wei kingdom became a great naval force.
Warring States Period

When was cavalry introduced?

The Chinese formed their first cavalry units near the end of the Warring States era. For most of the time, Chinese rulers relied on the Xiongnu, who had remarkable cavalry.

Which dynasty rulers ended universal military conscription in ancient China?

The Han dynasty