Military

Beginnings and early development

The development of the Qing military system can be divided into two broad periods separated by the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). The early Qing military was rooted in the Eight Banners first developed by Nurhachi as a way to organize Jurchen society beyond petty clan affiliations. There are eight banners in all, differentiated by colours.

Flags and colors of the Eight banners.

The banners in their order of precedence were as follows: yellow, bordered yellow (i.e. yellow banner with red border), white, red, bordered white, bordered red, blue, and bordered blue. The yellow, bordered yellow, and white banners were collectively known as the “Upper Three Banners” (Chinese: 上三旗; pinyin: shàng sān qí) and were under the direct command of the emperor.

Only Manchus belonging to the Upper Three Banners, and selected Han Chinese who had passed the highest level of martial exams were qualified to serve as the emperor’s personal bodyguards. The remaining Banners were known as “The Lower Five Banners” (Chinese: 下五旗; pinyin: xià wǔ qí) and were commanded by hereditary Manchu princes descended from Nurhachi’s immediate family, known informally as the “Iron Cap Princes” (simplified Chinese: 铁帽子王; traditional Chinese: 鐵帽子王; pinyin: tiě màozǐ wáng).

Together they formed the ruling council of the Manchu nation as well as high command of the army.

As Qing power expanded north of the Great Wall in the last years of the Ming Dynasty, the Banner system was expanded by Nurhachi’s son and successor Hong Taiji to include mirrored Mongol and Han Banners.

After capturing Beijing in 1644 and as the Manchu rapidly gained control of large tracts of former Ming territory, the relatively small Banner armies were further augmented by the Green Standard Army, which eventually outnumbered Banner troops three to one.

The Green Standard Army, so-named after the colour of their battle standards, was made up of those Ming troops who had surrendered to the Qing.

They maintained their Ming era organization and were led by a mix of Banner and Green Standard officers. The Banners and Green Standard troops were standing armies, paid for by central government. In addition, regional governors from provincial down to village level maintained their own irregular local militias for police duties and disaster relief.

These militias were usually granted small annual stipends from regional coffers for part-time service obligations. They received very limited military drills if at all and were not considered combat troops.

Peace and stagnation

Banner Armies were broadly divided along ethnic lines, namely Manchu and Mongol. Although it must be pointed out that the ethnic composition of Manchu Banners was far from homogeneous as they included non-Manchu bondservants registered under the household of their Manchu masters. As the war with Ming Dynasty progressed and the Han Chinese population under Manchu rule increased, Hong Taiji created a separate branch of Han Banners to draw on this new source of manpower.

However these Han bannermen were never regarded by the government as equal to the other two branches due to their relatively late addition to the Manchu cause as well as their Han Chinese ancestry. The nature of their service—mainly as infantry, artillery and sappers, was also alien to the Manchu nomadic traditions of fighting as cavalry.

Furthermore, after the conquest the military roles played by Han bannermen were quickly subsumed by the Green Standard Army. The Han Banners ceased to exist altogether after the Yongzheng Emperor’s banner registration reforms aimed at cutting down imperial expenditures.

The socio-military origins of the Banner system meant that population within each branch and their sub-divisions were hereditary and rigid. Only under special circumstances sanctioned by imperial edict were social movements between banners permitted. In contrast, the Green Standard Army was originally intended to be a professional force.

Armours wore by the Eight Banners soldiers.

After defeating the remnants of the Ming forces, the Manchu Banner Army of approximately 200,000 strong at the time was evenly divided; half was designated the Forbidden Eight Banner Army (Chinese: 禁旅八旗; pinyin: jìnlǚ bāqí) and was stationed in Beijing. It served both as the capital’s garrison and Qing government’s main strike force. The remainder of the Banner troops was distributed to guard key cities in China.

These were known as the Territorial Eight Banner Army (simplified Chinese: 驻防八旗; traditional Chinese: 駐防八旗; pinyin: zhùfáng bāqí). The Manchu court, keenly aware its own minority status, reinforced a strict policy of racial segregation between the Manchus and Mongols from Han Chinese for fear of being sinicized by the latter.

This policy applied directly to the Banner garrisons, most of which occupied a separate walled zone within the cities they were stationed in. In cities where there were limitation of space such as in Qingzhou (青州), a new fortified town would be purposely erected to house the Banner garrison and their families.

Bannermen accompanying an Imperial hunting party. Hunting served as a military exercise and to improve coordination between military units.

Beijing being the imperial seat, the regent Dorgon had the entire Chinese population forcibly relocated to the southern suburbs which became known as the “Outer Citadel” (Chinese: 外城; pinyin: wàichéng). The northern walled city called “Inner Citadel” (Chinese: 內城; pinyin: nèichéng) was portioned out to the remaining Manchu Eight Banners, each responsibled for guarding a section of the Inner Citadel surrounding the Forbidden City palace complex (Chinese: 紫禁城; pinyin: zǐjìnchéng; Ma: Dabkūri1.png Dabkūri dorgi hoton).

The policy of posting Banner troops as territorial garrison was not to protect but to inspire awe in the subjugated populace at the expense of their expertise as cavalry.As a result, after a century of peace and lack of field training, the Manchu Banner troops had deteriorated greatly in their combat worthiness.

Secondly, before the conquest the Manchu banner was a “citizen” army, and its members were Manchu farmers and herders obligated to provide military service to the state at times of war.

The Qing government’s decision to turn the banner troops into a professional force whose every welfare and need was met by state coffers brought wealth, and with it corruption, to the rank and file of the Manchu Banners and hastened its decline as a fighting force.

Soldiers from the Green Standard Army.

During peace time, soldiering became merely a source of supplementary income. Soldiers and commanders alike neglected training in pursuit of their own economic gains.

Corruption was rampant as regional unit commanders submitted pay and supply requisitions based on exaggerated head counts to the quartermaster department and pocketed the difference. When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850s, the Qing court found out belatedly that the Banner and Green Standards troops could neither put down internal rebellions nor keep foreign invaders at bay.

Transition and modernization

General Zeng Guofan.

Early during the Taiping Rebellion, Qing forces suffered a series of disastrous defeats culminating in the loss of the regional capital city of Nanjing in 1853. The rebels massacred the entire Manchu garrison and their families in the city and made it their capital. Shortly thereafter a Taiping expeditionary force penetrated as far north as the suburbs of Tianjin in what was considered imperial heartlands. In desperation the Qing court ordered a Chinese mandarin, Zeng Guofan, to organize regional (simplified Chinese: 团勇; traditional Chinese: 團勇; pinyin: tuányǒng) and village (simplified Chinese: 乡勇; traditional Chinese: 鄉勇; pinyin: xiāngyǒng) militias into a standing army called tuanlian to contain the rebellion. Zeng Guofan’s strategy was to rely on local gentries to raise a new type of military organization from those provinces that the Taiping rebels directly threatened.

This new force became known as the Xiang Army, named after the Hunan region where it was raised. The Xiang Army was a hybrid of local militia and a standing army. It was given professional training, but was paid for out of regional coffers and funds its commanders — mostly members of the Chinese gentry — could muster. The Xiang Army and its successor, the Huai Army (淮軍), created by Zeng Guofan’s colleague and student Li Hongzhang, were collectively called the “Yongying” (simplified Chinese: 勇营; traditional Chinese: 勇營; pinyin: Yǒngyíng; literally “Brave Camp”).

Prior to forming and commanding the Xiang Army, Zeng Guofan had no military experience. Being a classically educated Mandarin his blueprint for the Xiang Army was taken from a historical source — the Ming general Qi Jiguang who, because of the weakness of regular Ming troops, had decided to form his own “private” army to repel raiding Japanese pirates in the mid-16th century. Qi Jiguang’s doctrine was based on Neo-Confucian ideas of binding troops’ loyalty to their immediate superiors and also to the regions in which they were raised. This initially gave the troops an excellent esprit de corps.

Qi Jiguang’s army was an ad hoc solution to the specific problem of combating pirates, as was Zeng Guofan’s original intention for the Xiang Army, which was raise to eradicate the Taiping rebels.

However, circumstances led to the Yongying system becoming a permanent institution within the Qing military, which in the long run created problems of its own for the beleaguered central government.

In 1894–1895, fighting over influence in Korea, Japanese troops defeated Qing forces.

Firstly, the Yongying system signalled the end of Manchu dominance in Qing military establishment. Although the Banners and Green Standard armies lingered on as parasites depleting resources, henceforth the Yongying corps became the Qing government’s de facto first-line troops.

Secondly the Yongying corps were financed through provincial coffers and were led by regional commanders. This devolution of power weakened the central government’s grip on the whole country, a weakness further aggravated by foreign powers vying to carve up autonomous colonial territories in different parts of the Qing Empire in the later half of the 19th century.

Despite these serious negative effects the measure was deemed necessary as tax revenue from provinces occupied and threatened by rebels had ceased to reach the cash-strapped central government.

Finally, the nature of Yongying command structure fostered nepotism and cronyism amongst its commanders whom as they ascended the bureaucratic ranks laid the seeds to Qing’s eventual demise and the outbreak of regional warlordism in China during the first half of the 20th century.

The Beiyang Army in training。

By the late 19th century, China was fast descending into a semi-colonial state. Even the most conservative elements within the Qing court could no longer ignore China’s military weakness in contrast to the foreign “barbarians” literally beating down its gates. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the capital Beijing was captured and the Summer Palace sacked by a relatively small Anglo-French coalition force numbering 25,000.

Although the Chinese invented gunpowder, and firearms had been in continual use in Chinese warfare since as far back as the Song Dynasty, the advent of modern weaponry resulting from the European Industrial Revolution had rendered China’s traditionally trained and equipped army and navy obsolete.

The government attempts to modernize during the Self-Strengthening Movement were in the view of most historians with hindsight piecemeal and yielded little lasting results. Various reasons for the apparent failure of late-Qing modernization attempts have been advanced including the lack of funds, lack of political will, and unwillingness to depart from tradition. These reasons remain disputed.

Losing the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 was a watershed for the Qing government. Japan, a country long regarded by the Chinese as little more than an upstart nation of pirates, had convincingly beaten its larger neighbour and in the process annihilated the Qing government’s pride and joy — its modernized Beiyang Fleet then deemed to be the strongest naval force in Asia.

In doing so, Japan became the first Asian country to join the previously exclusively western ranks of colonial powers.

The defeat was a rude awakening to the Qing court especially when set in the context that it occurred a mere three decades after the Meiji Restoration set a feudal Japan on course to emulate the Western nations in their economic and technological achievements.

Finally, in December 1894, the Qing government took some concrete steps to reform military institutions and to re-train selected units in westernized drills, tactics and weaponry. These units were collectively called the New Army.

The most successful of these was the Beiyang Army under the overall supervision and control of a former Huai Army commander, General Yuan Shikai, who exploited his position to eventually become President of the Republic of China, dictator and finally abortive emperor of China.

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