Ancient China Wars

In ancient China, wars had at least three different purposes. Within the Chinese realm, one region often wanted to gain control over another.

Later, the empire sought to expand and defend its frontiers. Also, the war was the means for usurpers to change places with an existing dynasty of rulers.

In the first millennium BCE, Chinese armies comprised tens of thousands of soldiers. In the first millennium CE, the number of soldiers reached hundreds of thousands.

Over time, weapons and equipment became more technologically advanced. As a result, wars became more destructive.

Chariots replaced cavalry; bows gave way to crossbows and, much after the ancient era, catapult and stones got replaced by real bombs.

The Chinese intellectuals were essentially against wars, but sometimes it was hard to avoid conflicts – and that’s especially true for those ancient times.

Here is the list of important wars involving ancient China

Establishing Four Commanderies

Gojoseon–Yan War

  • This conflict took place near the end of the 4th century BCE. The army of feudal state of Yan, led by General Qin Kai, conquered the Gojoseon kingdom and the Liaodong Peninsula

Gojoseon Empire

Qin’s wars of unification

  • During the second half of 3rdcentury BCE, the Qin state became the most powerful among the Seven Warring States. Its ruler, Ying Zheng, in 230 BCE launched a series of campaigns against the other six major states — Han, Yan, Wei, Zhao, Qi and Chu.
  • The result of this war is the unification of China and its transformation into the Qin empire.

Qin Unification

Qin’s campaign against the Xiongnu

  • The Qin emperor, Shi Huang, believed that the Xiongnu tribes were a possible threat to the empire.To prevent a threat from that tribe, in 215 BCE, the emperor sent an army led by General Meng Tian to attack them.Chinese army conquered the Ordos region and forced the Xiongnu away from their land.
  • The Qin Empire expanded their territory at the expense of the Xiongnu. On the other hand, different Xiongnu tribes realized they needed to make an alliance to defend from the Qin in the future.
  • At the end of this war, the Chinese built the Great Wall of China around the newly conquered region.

Qin campaign against the Yue tribes

  • The Yue were a tribe of wealthy, successful traders who lived on the coasts of the Yangtze River.Emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted access to the resources that they had – mild climate, maritime trade routes, fertile land, luxury tropical products, and a safe distance from the warring sides.
  • The emperor sent an army on the Yue five times (between 221 and 214 BCE) before he managed to defeat them.

Chu–Han Contention

  • During the period between 206 and 202 BCE, right after the fall of the Qin dynasty, two large forces fought for supremacy over China.
  • The Han forces defeated Western Chu, and the Han leader, Liu Bang, became the first emperor of the new dynasty of Han.

The southward expansion of the Han dynasty

  • Both Qin and Han emperors were determined to conquer the southern territories, including those that now belong to Northern Vietnam.
  • Between 135 and 109 BC, the Han armies invaded the Yue tribes of Minyue, Nanyue, and Dian. Those tribes were later either assimilated of displaced.

Han–Xiongnu War

  • Between 133 BCE and 89 CE, the Han Empire fought a series of battles against the Xiongnu alliance.Emperor Wu dealt with the frequent Xiongnu raids on the northern border by attacking the Xiongnu and suppressing them further, while expanding the frontier of China.Then the Han expelled the Xiongnu from other areas too.
  • The Han Empire grew stronger and expanded its political influence into Central Asia. The Xiongnu, on the other hand, weakened and the alliance between the tribes broke.The Southern Xiongnu surrendered in 50 CE, and the Northern Xiongnu fell in 89 CE.

The war between Cao Cao and Zhang Xiu

  • The two warlords, Cao Cao and Zhang Xiu, fought for supremacy between 197 and 199 CE. It ended with the capitulation of Zhang Xiu’s forces.

Goguryeo–Wei War

  • The Korean kingdom of Goguryeo attacked the Chinese state of Cao Wei in 242 CE. Two years later, the Chinese started a series of invasions and eventually destroyed the Goguryeo capital of Hwando.Goguryeo king managed to escape, but he no longer presented any threat to the Chinese.

The uprising of the Five Barbarians

  • Between 304 and 316, leaders of five ethnic groups, the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Qiang, Jie, and Di, attacked the army of Jin dynasty – one at a time – and ended it.These peoples then established their own sixteen independent kingdoms.


Which one out of the Seven Waring States managed to unify China thorough the “war of unification” and create an empire?

It was the Qin state.

What was the name of the ethnic group that was most often a target of Chinese armies in ancient history?

The Xiongnu

What did the Chinese do after expelling the Xiongnu from the Ordos region?

They build the Great Wall of China.