This is a very ambitious book, attempting to cover several thousand years of Chinese military history, from the myths of the pre-Shang dynasties to the conflicts of Communist China. This is a vast and complex story, covering the rise and fall of dozens of kingdoms and dynasties, often engaged in near-constant warfare between each other, with ever changes alliances. The picture is further complicated by the reuse of dynasty names, with two Han states, and Western, Eastern, Later, Northern and Chen Han dynasties spread over two thousand years.
There are some flaws in this book. For me the author gets too bogged down in the fine details of the ancient and medieval period, so we are presented with a seemingly endless array of names who flit across the stage without much explanation of who they actually are. This section could have done with more background and summaries of the various wars and a bit less on the individual campaigns. In addition the period between the completion of the Mongol conquest of China and the start of the revolts that overthrew their Yuan dynasty is almost ignored.
The book includes a lot of maps (well over one hundred!) which do help trace the events of the many campaigns. This comes in especially handy in the periods of multiple dynasties, often with overlapping names -
The author is much stronger when examining the motives for China’s wars, and especially those that would appear to be simple wars of imperialist aggression. Instead many of them would have been justified either as attempts to ‘restore order’ in a neighbouring state or to regain ‘lost’ provinces. Of course the original wars that had conquered those provinces can’t be justified in the same way, and many of periods of occupation weren’t terribly lengthy (Chinese rule in Vietnam being one example), but as the biggest bully in the playground the various dynasties clearly had no trouble justifying their often rather feeble claims.
One thing this book makes abundantly clear is that the image of China as a largely stable, monolithic empire, ruled by a succession of single dynasties with the occasional burst of conflict is entirely false. In reality the area of modern China has been divided for much of its history, often into a surprisingly impressive number of competing dynasties. When the country was united under a single ruler, large scale revolts were common. Few of China’s neighbours haven’t been the target of at least one attempt at conquest, and most were seen as vassal states during the later Imperial period. In more recent times the century from the Taiping revolt of the 1850s to the final Communist victory after the Second World War was dominated by near constant warfare, revolts, civil wars and foreign invasions.
1 – Pre-Shang Military History
2 – Military History of the Shang Dynasty
3 – Military History of the Early Zhou Period
4 – Military History of the Warring States Period
5 – The Rise and Fall of the Qin Dynasty
6 – Wars of the Han Dynasty
7 – Road to the Three Kingdoms Period
8 – Three Kingdoms Period
9 – Jin to Tang Dynasties
10 – Five Dynasties to the Fall of the Song
11 – Military History of the Ming Dynasty
12 – The Qing Dynasty and the Arrival of the Western Armies
13 – The Republic of China
14 – Military History of the People’s Republic of China
Author: David Richard Petriello