Military History War in Imperial China
by
Peter Lorge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0012

Introduction

Imperial China, beginning with the Qin unification of China in 221 BCE and continuing until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, has an extensive military history contained in vast troves of primary sources. Very few scholars have exploited these sources, however, leading many to assume that little was written about war in traditional China. The available primary sources are often bureaucratic and “official” in the sense of being written, compiled, and stored as part of the regular functioning of a dynastic government. Every imperial government transmitted and recorded vast amounts of documents related to every aspect of the exercise of state power, including war, the military, logistics, and personnel. Consequently, imperial Chinese sources are extremely strong on issues of organization, and on those areas that concerned government bureaucrats overseeing military actions. Chinese bureaucrats were also generally far more numerate than historians in other premodern cultures, leading to somewhat more reliable figures for troops and supplies than we would expect for comparable periods elsewhere in the world.

General Overviews

A handful of useful overviews of Chinese military history are available, making it possible to gain some grasp of the general course of that history. No single text has yet attempted to delineate a unified vision of Chinese military history. At this time there is also very little disagreement about what is known, or how to interpret it, a sure sign of the immaturity of the field. None of these works provides a detailed history of individual battles. Just as significant, from a historical and historiographical perspective, is that there are very few famous battles in Chinese history. This is a product of both traditional history writing and modern attitudes about military history. While Graff and Higham 2011 offers a useful selection of topics, the best approach would be to proceed from Graff 2001 to Lorge 2005, and then to Worthing 2007 or Elleman 2001.

  • Elleman, Bruce A. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795–1989. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Usefully surveys the period from 1795 until 1989, with considerable attention to diplomatic as well military history. Should be read in combination with Worthing 2007.

  • Graff, David. Medieval Chinese Warfare 300–900. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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    The fundamental discussion of Chinese military history from 300 to 900 CE. Unparalleled in any language for its coverage and insights.

  • Graff, David, and Robin Higham, eds. A Military History of China. 2d ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

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    The best general overview of Chinese military history available. Broad coverage of time and subjects, aimed at nonacademic readers.

  • Lorge, Peter. War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900–1795. New ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    General coverage of the period from 900 to 1795. More concerned with fitting military history into the social and political history of the time than with a providing an account of the wars, campaigns, and battlefield events.

  • Worthing, Peter. A Military History of Modern China: From the Manchu Conquest to Tian’anmen Square. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

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    The best military history of modern China in English. Clearly written and reliable. The best starting point for an overall perspective on the subject.

  • Zhongguo ren min jie fang jun jun shi ke xue yuan 中国人民解放军军事科学院. Zhongguo jun shi tong shi (中国军事通史). 20 vols. Junshi kexue chubanshe. 1998.

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    A useful comprehensive overview of Chinese military history.

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