Ancient China’s Military System

2012-04-03 (China Military Article released by — The earliest reported military system of China dates back to the Xia Dynasty (21st century – 16th century BC), the first Chinese dynasty recorded in written documents. Armies at that time composed of peasant conscripts, who grew crops in peacetime and joined the forces in wartime. The later dynasties of the Shang (1600 – 1046 BC) and the Western Zhou (1046 – 771 BC) inherited this system.

Descriptions were left on tortoise shell and animal bone unearthed from the time. One piece from the Shang Dynasty mentioned that the state was “registering the masses” for war, which faithfully described the way the government levied armies. In the Shang Dynasty, all soldiers, except royal guards, were non-professionals enlisted only in wartime. In the Western Zhou Dynasty, only slave owners and citizens in and around the capital city were eligible to serve in the army, while slaves were left to fatigue duties. Military service at that time was also divided into “Zhengzu” (standing army) and “Xianzu” (reserve army). Men enrolled for military training at the age of 20: they were given a weapon and “Zhengzu” status at 30.


In the state of Qin. which later unified China, all males older than 17 were required to register at local offices

Military duty ended for those who reached 60. One rule of that time also exempted or delayed service for “the distinguished, wise, talented, government workers, the elderly and those debilitated by disease” (Rite of Zhou). Restrictions on slaves in the army, however, were gradually lifted in later years of the dynasty.

Changes in the social structure of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty in the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC) also led to changes. Many vassal states at that time enforced conscription through administrative units of prefectures, counties, and townships. Peasants were the principle source of soldiers. In the state of Qin. which later unified China, all males older than 17 were required to register at local offices. After registration, they served two years in the army and could be recalled at any time. Several states, including the Wei, Qi, and Qin, also recruited valiant or talented warriors, except for convicts, into their armies by means of selection.

From Qin to Qing

Universal conscription based on local registration continued in the Qin (221 – 206 BC) and Han (202 BC – AD 220) dynasties. After Ying Zheng unified China and established the Qin Dynasty, he reinforced household registration and improved the conscription system. In the early years of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 9), all males above the age of 17 were required to register locally and serve an initial two-year military term at 20 —the first year in their registered prefecture or county, where they learned riding and archery and were called “Zhengzu,” and in the second year they became “Weishi” or “Shuzu,” guarding the capital or the border. When the term concluded, they became reserve forces and could be called up any time until the age of 60. In the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, voluntary recruitment was introduced to supplement conscription. Volunteers replaced conscripts in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25 – 220), at a time when civil wars and border troubles disrupted conscription. In the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280), the last phase of the Han Dynasty, competing warlords largely relied on volunteers. As frequent wars diminished the population and recruitment pools, they turned to the “Shibing” system.

Shibing, meaning hereditary soldierdom, also thrived in the succeeding Jin Dynasty (265 – 420). Under the system, “military households” were registered and given privileges over ordinary families. In those households, military service passed from father to son, and from elder to younger brothers.

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