The Tang Dynasty took place between 618 and 907. It is often considered to be a high-watermark of Chinese military power and influence. This reputation was largely built on a series of conquests in Inner Asia; particularly in Xianjiang and the northern Himalayas, events which continue to have political resonances down to this day.
The Early Tang Dynasty
The first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty was Li Yuan (Emperor Gaozu). He came from the north-west frontier of China and brought with him many of the military traditions of the nomadic peoples who lived in the area. The background to his ascension took place during the early years of the seventh century, a time when the central authority of the state had broken down and had been replaced by a series of local warlords. But by the 620’s the Emperor had largely succeeded in wresting back control from them, in doing so he had absorbed many of these warlords into the political and military structure. These individuals were often uneducated and low-born but had managed to get themselves into influential positions through sheer talent and force of personality. One of the most notable of these was Li Shiji, a man who rose from being a bandit to the heights of chief minister. This transition meant that they early Tang Dynasty could rely on a pool of experienced and innovative officials who had proven talent and leadership.
On of the main changes that the Tang Dynasty imposed on the military was a new plan for dealing with troublesome frontiers. The defensive strategy was made more sophisticated and relied on large garrisons being based at strategic points; the goal was not to prevent an invasion but instead to deny it the opportunity to gain a foothold in Tang lands.
The Fubing System.
The core of the early Tang military was the fubing system. This recruited units from prefectures and was predicated on the fact that soldiers could be part-time and spend some time on military service while still supporting themselves through farming. The soldiers were essentially unpaid and expected to supply most of their own equipment, however the incentive was that they could win privileges; most notably the right to own more land.
Each unit was periodically rotated to serve as part of the Imperial Guard; the further the unit was from the capital the less frequently they had to serve but the longer the tour they did. The purpose of this rotation was to minimise the opportunity for the guards to seize power. Research has shown that in practice the fubing were not recruited from across the empire but instead were heavily concentrated in the north-west, this probably reflects both the power-base of the Emperor and the martial culture of the region.
The fact that the soldiers were tied to the land for their livelihood meant that the fubing system was far from ideal when it came to campaigning. To counter this conscripts (bingma) were regularly called up and the Emperors also relied heavily on vassal states and alliances with local tribes to augment the army.
The composition of the armies were uncertain but, according to works attributed to Li Jing, a typical campaign army would be made up of a force of around 10% crossbowmen, 10% archers, 20% cavalry and the remainder as foot soldiers. Each infantry soldier was expected to carry a sabre, lance, a bow and armour.
The nature of the army was heavily influenced by the sort of fighting that it engaged in. For most of the Tang dynasty the wars were fought against the mobile, nomadic tribes of Inner Asia. As a result the Tang largely abandoned heavy cavalry in favour of the more nimble and versatile light cavalry (qingji) and battles frequently relied on feints by small forces to lure the enemy into traps (eg. Irtysh in 657). Indeed the use of cavalry is one of the most notable aspects of the Tang Dynasty and considerable effort was invested in breeding and training horses, the result of this was that the Tang Dynasty was able to field a larger cavalry element than ever before.
The Decline of the Tang Dynasty
As the Dynasty went on there was an increasing isolation between the palace-bound Emperors and high officials from direct military experience. The inevitable result of this was that the military began to be run in an increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible manner. In 702 a system of regular military examinations had been introduced, this was designed to resolve the problems but was instead counter-productive – there was now an enforced conformity and book-learning approach to leadership which did not suit the type of fast warfare that they were engaged in.
By 680 it had become clear that the fubing system was no longer fit for purpose, although it managed to continue in name until 749 when it was formally ended. The demise had been hastened by setbacks in the Korean Penninsula and in particular a large reverse in 676. The fubing concept was replaced by the mubing system – a more professional standing army which could be augmented by conscripts when necessary. The price of this professionalism was a financial one – there is some evidence to suggest that the cost of the military increased seven-fold between 712 and 755. This approach also meant that soldiers were motivated by money and now owed their loyalty to the highest bidder, the number of mutinies soared and where soldiers were dismissed they frequently turned instead to banditry.
From the 750’s there were regular uprisings by generals and other leaders who could now call upon the loyalty of the troops that they commanded. The most notable of these was the An Lushan rebellion of 755 in which An Lushan was able to rely on a force of some 100,000 soldiers to join with him.
When the Tang Dynasty eventually came to its ignoble end in 907 it is not a surprise that the last Emperor was deposed by a military governor.