For thousands of years, powerful dynasties ruled over China. Each dynasty—or distinct line of rulers from the same group, order, or family—produced powerful emperors and leaders, each of whom sought to hold sway over the entirety of the massive region. Throughout these dynasties, many armies were raised and thousands of battles were fought throughout Eastern Asia; it was during these various conflicts that some of the greatest military commanders in ancient Chinese history rose to prominence. From Sun Wu (also known as Sun Tzu) to Wu Qi, these elite leaders, generals, and emperors had the tactical acumen needed to achieve incredible victories, effectively altering the course of Chinese history through military campaigns that would directly influence social and political outcomes in the nation of China for centuries to come.
Sun Wu (Sun Tzu)
Sun Tzu is the author of The Art of War, which is widely recognized as one of the most important books written on the subject of warfare. Though there are few accurate details of Sun Tzu’s early life, scholars have determined that he was born in the Chinese state of Ch’i and served King Ho-lu of Wu as a military specialist during the late Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE to 256 BCE). Through his knowledge and experience, Sun Tzu developed unique military theories that focused on psychological warfare—an innovative concept during a period when most militaries were generally focused on suppressing their enemies through overwhelming physical force.
The lessons contained within The Art of War can be distilled down to one primary theme: the use of unconventional means and deception to exert psychological dominance, producing invaluable leverage over enemies in military situations. In his teachings, Sun Tzu encouraged tactics like eroding enemies’ alliances, using surprise attacks to gain a tactical advantage, and even avoiding battle or retreating in order to produce a favorable outcome. By studying Sun Tzu’s philosophy of mental warfare and strategy versus total reliance on physical force, military historians can enhance their understanding of how The Art of War influenced military tactics employed by countries across the globe to this day.
Wu Qi was a highly successful military leader and politician born in 440 BCE, during the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty, which featured seven large Chinese states competing for control of resources and territory. Wu Qi initially managed to position himself as a highly effective military strategist whose leadership was instrumental in winning numerous battles for the protection of the Wei State. After noticing Wu Qi’s prowess in combat strategy and leadership, King Dao of the State of Chu appointed him Prime Minister to the Chu State.
While serving as Prime Minister, Wu Qi initiated political reforms that brought forth major advancement of the Chu State, the largest Chinese territory during the Warring States period. These reforms included policies that rearranged the Chu State’s financial system, restructured ineffective government programs, and concentrated power to the king instead of the many aristocrats who were taking advantage of the system. Wu Qi’s efforts to siphon power from the aristocracy increased the wealth of the Chu State’s treasury, and the excess funds were used to train a highly skilled and well-organized military. However, after only a year of prioritizing military spending, the plans were cut short, as King Dao passed away and the aristocrats whom had lost their power to Qi’s reforms used the king’s death as an opportunity to assassinate Wu Qi. Through this example, modern military strategists can study the ways in which sudden shifts in the political landscape can often be more compromising to a state’s military strategy than an advancing enemy army.
Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang, of the Qin State, achieved a seemingly impossible feat when he conquered all of the other Warring States during a brutal ten-year campaign that ended in 221 BCE with the formation of the first Chinese Empire, the Qin Empire. In his time as emperor, Qin established the first centralized Chinese government institutions and replaced the outdated military system—which was normally comprised of disorganized peasant fighters—with established military institutions that, to this day, produce career soldiers that are systematically trained in the most advanced defense tactics. Huang is also renowned for commissioning the production of the famous Great Wall of China as a military strategy designed to keep foreign nomadic tribes from invading Chinese territories and managed to keep China secure for 15 years while finalizing the unification of the empire.
A member of a once prominent family within the former Chu State, Xiang Yu and his family were stripped of their privileges and forced into poverty once the Qin dynasty officially rose to power. The Qin dynasty, which abolished the Warring States that Chu had been a part of, was the target of widespread hatred by Chinese citizens due to their cruel methods of enforcing government rule. Seeking power, Xiang Yu, coaxed by his uncle, Xiang Liang, decided to take up arms against the empire. As the battle between the combined rebel forces and the Qin empire progressed, Yu eventually succeeded his uncle as supreme-commander of the Chu rebel forces, later successfully overwhelming the Qin empire’s capital, and executing the Qin emperor. With the emperor dead, the major generals all tried to grasp imperial supremacy; Yu entered a treaty with General Liu Bang, stating that the two would split Chinese territory equally. Unfortunately, Xiang Yu’s forces were defeated by Liu Bang’s army when he surprisingly broke the truce in the year 202 BCE. After his defeat, Yu took his own life before the enemy could capture him. Today, historians remember him for his displays of heroism in the heat of battle, as well as the critical role he played in dissolving the hated Qin empire. Yu’s legacy is eternalized by countless stories, songs, and poems.
Cao Cao made history as one of the most powerful Chinese generals of the Han dynasty, which spanned 206 BCE – 220 CE. Cao was promoted to the rank of general thanks to his significant contributions to ending the Yellow Turban Rebellion—an uprising of peasants and common folk that began in 184 CE and ended in chaos. At the end of the rebellion in 205 CE, China was divided into three unstable kingdoms, each to be led by a number of major generals. High ranking generals, like Cao, fought and maneuvered to unite the kingdoms under a sole ruler. After claiming a strategic position near the Emperor Xian’s capital in the North, Cao took the emperor as his prisoner.
Cao then coerced Emperor Xian into assembling hundreds of thousands of soldiers under his command, becoming the most powerful warlord in Northern China. His goal was to win the allegiance of the other major generals, and when they refused to honor his command, he made them submit by force. Using his control over the Chinese political and military landscape, Cao Cao took on the role of Prime Minister, and through careful administration of resources, he pushed to reunite all of China. Despite his efforts, Cao was unable to fully unify China due to the sheer number of generals who adamantly contested his rule, but he is still remembered as a brilliant and infamous commander who battled tirelessly to claim power and change the ancient Chinese sociopolitical landscape. Cao is also a prime example of a leader who used political strategy—in this case, turning the emperor into a puppet ruler—in lieu of military tactics or brute strength to win the day.
Han Xin served in the Chinese military during the Han Dynasty, climbing the ladder as a low-level guard before being promoted to the rank of senior general in merely a few years. Lord Liu Bang recognized Xin’s military prowess and predicted that the man had the potential to become a vital asset. This eventually proved to be true, as Xin’s decisiveness and strategic thinking helped paved the way for Bang to be able to establish himself as one of three rebel leaders who competed to gain military superiority in the region. Under the charge of Liu Bang, Han Xin played a critical role in forcing the end of a five-year war between the Chu and Han armies.
During this conflict, Xin waged battles with Chu armies much larger than his own, using tactics that involved psychological warfare, as well as surprise attacks and strategic positioning to gain the upper hand in conflicts. A primary display of Xin’s combat effectiveness can be found through the Battle of Jingxing, during which Xin positioned approximately 30,000 of his men with their backs against a river (blocking any potential for a surprise attack), ensuring that they would fight at the peak of their ability when facing off against an estimated 200,000 enemy soldiers. Concurrently, he sent a small number of soldiers on horseback to capture the enemy camp and replace their flags, so that as the opposing army faced defeat on the battlefield, the shocking discovery that they had no base to retreat to would cause their army to collapse, allowing Xin to capitalize on their confusion and secure a tactical victory. Despite his military expertise, Han Xin was executed in 196 BCE under accusations of conspiracy against the state after being caught housing a Chu refugee in his home.
Qi Jiguang was born in 1528 CE during the Ming dynasty, which spanned 1368-1644 CE. When the Mongol army—which had been forced out of power at the end of the previous dynasty—attempted to reclaim Chinese territory by breaching the Great Wall of China in 1549 CE, Jiguang served as a general in the defense of Beijing and contributed significantly to repelling the Mongol invaders. After successfully defeating the Mongols, Jiguang was eventually appointed assistant commander in charge of defending the Zhejiang coastal area against pirate raids occurring circa 1556 CE. Jiguang fended off attacks by Japanese pirates by training a group of volunteers to defeat the invaders using an innovative tactical formation dubbed the Mandarin Duck formation. This creative new approach used advanced collective combat tactics to ensure that a 12-man group would protect their leader at all costs during a conflict; if the leader were to die, Jiguang commanded that all survivors from that unit be put to death, ensuring that soldiers put forth every ounce of available effort. This cold but effective strategy allowed Jiguang to push back the Japanese invaders permanently in 1567 CE, earning him the respect and career momentum necessary to reach the Chinese military’s highest rank, Commissioner-in-Chief, by 1574 CE. The core concepts of Jiguang’s time as Commissioner-in-Chief were instrumental in improving the overall effectiveness of the Chinese military and advancing their defensive tactics.
Wars in ancient China produced new political systems, military strategies, and philosophies that form the foundation of what the People’s Republic of China represents today. The lessons left behind by generals and military strategists from this era have continued to impact global military events, as their strategies, theories, and tactics are often applied to modern military situations; many modern American generals admire Sun Tzu’s psychological and defensive battle tactics in military campaigns. These Chinese leaders provided more foreboding lessons as well – such as the impact a sudden political shift or well-orchestrated deception can have on the outcome of a military campaign. By earning a master’s degree in military history, individuals can deepen their knowledge of these Chinese leaders, allowing them to apply their enduring theories and practices to a career devising modern day military strategies.
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Five Major African Wars and Conflicts of the Twentieth Century
Eight Women in the Military Who Have Made History
Career Outlook: Military Analyst
5 Chinese Leaders You Should Know, History
Sun Tzu, History
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Xiang Yu, 232-202 BC, historyofwar.org
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