Ancient China Soldiers

The military structure, as well as the role and status of soldiers, changed a bit through the history of ancient China.

However, some things were always the same. Starting from the Warring States period, some soldiers – including all officers – were professionals. Before that, one could become an officer only by birth.

In addition to professional soldiers, the majority of troops were made of either conscripts or mercenaries.

Chinese Troops

Also, convicts, well as captured soldiers, could serve as soldiers to earn their freedom. Ambitious young aristocrats, hungry for glory and adventure, sometimes joined the cavalry.

Pre-Waring States Soldiers

  • Early in Chinese history, troops consisted of conscripts. They were mostly peasants who in peaceful times lived an ordinary life of agricultural workers. They depended on the king of their home state and had the obligation not only to provide grain but also to fight for him. In times of war, and whenever the need arose, these men were pressed into service.
  • The troops were armed with bronze weapons and armor. They were ill-equipped and supplied, and weren’t able to campaign for longer than a couple of months.
  • Wealthier men contributed as well, and they served as charioteers. During this early period, if you belonged to the nobility, that was enough to earn you the title of an officer.

Warring States Soldiers

  • Political changes – especially the end of feudalism – changed the army and the status of soldiers. Troops needed to develop certain skills so that they could use newly developed iron weapons and crossbows.
  • These new weapons made infantry much more efficient. As a result, elite charioteers lost their previous importance.
  • Conscripts now had to go through one to two (depending on the state and period they lived in) years of training before joining the troops.They weren’t as skilled as professionals, but they were part of a large, highly organized and disciplined army. Everyone’s role was highly defined, and they were incredibly efficient as a whole.
  • Some states had high standards and wouldn’t let anyone join the army. In the Wei state, even ordinary foot soldiers needed to march 50 kilometers a day under full equipment – which was rather heavy as it consisted of iron armor, a helmet, spear, sword, crossbow with fifty arrows, and three days’ supply of food.Of course, this state gave its soldiers a series of benefits. They were free from paying taxes and working on state projects that required corvee labor.
  • Ancient Chinese enemies were mostly nomads with superior cavalry, so the Wei (and later the Zhao) came to the idea to create their own division of cavalry archers.

Foot Soldier

Qin and Han Dynasty Soldiers

  • When China became the empire, all its soldiers served a single, centralized army. A major change was the army’s mobility – troops had to get to remote parts of the empire to protect its borders from enemies.Luckily, thousands of miles of newly-made roads and canals made it possible for the soldiers to cross these distances.
  • It still wasn’t easy for the troops to move from one border to another. That’s why the emperor decided to move nearly sixty thousand soldier-farmers as human defense around the Great Wall.
  • While these farmers were able to fight on foot, they weren’t good cavalry troops. To deal with this weakness, new cavalry was needed, and soon it was made – mostly of mercenaries.

Three Kingdoms Soldiers

  • The Wei dynasty made a great change that affected the army and the lives of soldiers. A new class, called the Buqu, was formed.The Buqu were hereditary soldiers, and they provided the greater part of the infantry.
  • When they weren’t fighting, they Buqu lived normal lives on the land that was given to their families. However, they were a closed caste.Children and relatives of soldiers would inherit their profession. Moreover, the children of soldiers were only allowed to marry into Buqu families.

Terracotta Army


How many years of training were required in the Warring States period before new soldiers could join the troops?

The training typically lasted between one and two years.

Who defended the border marked by the Great Wall?

First, it was a regular imperial army, then tens of thousands of soldier-farmers, and eventually the state employed mercenaries who provided cavalry.

What was the name of the military class that emerged in the Wei state during the Three Kingdoms period?

The Buqu