An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Military History of the Three Empires

Sep 20, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

General conditions

The breakdown of the central government in the last decades of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), and the onslaught of the large-scale rebellion of the Yellow Turbans (huangjin 黃巾) that smashed integral parts of the local government made a kind of self-protection on the local and regional level necessary. This duty was taken over by the leaders of eminent families (menfa 門閥) and self-proclaimed military leaders. Landowners transformed part of the serfs into private companies (buqu 部曲) who defended the fortified manors (wubao 塢堡) against marauding bandits and soldiers. The number of private troops ranked from several hundred to 4-5,000 (He 1987: 150). State armies and the troops of condottieri helped to suppress the Yellow Turban movement, but the unification under the central government could not be reestablished. Thus, Han China was around 195 de facto split up into several regions dominated by warlords.

One of the most successful warlords was Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220) who practically controlled north China after the battle of Guandu 關渡 in 200 CE. His son Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226) founded in 220 the Wei empire 曹魏 (220-265). Cao Cao's army originated in a private contingent of 5,000 men whom Cao personally paid and led against the tyrant Dong Zhuo 董卓 (d. 192). After the latter's death, Cao adopted the title of regional governor (mu 牧) of the province of Yanzhou 兖州 and had thus the right to request the production of troops by the eminent families of the province. Some of these battalions, commanded by Li Dian 李典 (180-215), Xu Chu 許褚 (195-230) or Ren Jun 任峻 (d. 204), constituted the core of Cao Cao's army. Other parts of his army originated in surrendering Yellow Turban troops, like the infantry Qingzhou Army 青州軍 established in 192. Cavalry units came from the province of Liangzhou 涼州, where Cao forced the Wuhuan tribes "of the three commanderies" (san jun Wuhuan 三郡烏桓) into submission. Their horse riders gave Cao tactical superiority over his enemies at many occasions.

The advance towards south China made the creation of naval troops necessary. For this purpose, Cao Cao trained troops in the use of boats on the Xuanwu Lake 玄武湖 close to his residence Ye 鄴 (today's Yezhen 鄴鎮 near Linzhang 臨漳, Hebei). In this way, he was able in 208 to receive the submission of Liu Cong 劉琮, regional governor of the province of Jingzhou 荊州, along with his naval troops that were experienced on the waters of the Yangtze. Yet Cao Cao‘s whole naval army was destroyed by the unified army of Sun Quan 孫權 (182-252) and Liu Bei 劉備 (161-222) in the battle of the Red Cliff (Chibi 赤壁) in 208. In 224 and 225, Emperor Wen personally inspected the construction of boats and the training of naval troops. A further campaign for the creation of naval units in the provinces of Qingzhou 青州, Yanzhou, Youzhou 幽州 and Jizhou 冀州 was carried out in 237. Yet the empire of Wei remained backwards in the use of naval troops in contrast to the empire of Wu 吳 (222/229-280). The total number of troops of the Wei empire was about 300,000 men and grew constantly to over 500,000 in the mid-3rd century after the conquest of the empire of Shu 蜀漢 (221-263) in Sichuan (He 1987: 123; Zhang 1994: 11).

The army of Shu relied on a variety of military branches. Apart from infantry and the less numerous cavalry, Shu continued the use of chariots and supported the training of crossbow units. Because its military strength was much lower than that of Wei, the strategists of Shu relied more on traditional tactics. Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234) wrote an own treatise on the eight types of battle arrangements (Bazhentu 八陣圖) in which he described the interplay of infantry, cavalry, chariots, and crossbow units. The latter were of particular interest to counter the numerical superiority of Wei and Wu. Crossbow regiments had sizes of 3-5,000 men and were often constituted by troops recruited from the non-Chinese peoples of the southwest (He 1987: 140). Engineers constructed combined arblasts (called yuanrong 元戎) which could eject ten bolts in one single charge. The cavalry of Shu was an integral part of the armies of Zhang Fei 張飛 (d. 221) and Zhao Yun 趙雲 (161-229). The riders were drafted from among the tribes of the Congsou 賨叟 and Qingqiang 青羌. Naval troops also played a certain role in the battles of Yiling 夷陵 in 208 and Jingzhou 荊州 in 219, but the number of boats was not very large compared with those of the empire of Wu.

Concerning the total size of the army of Shu, a combined size of 250,000 infantry and cavalry can be found for the year 227, but his number is too high in relation to the population size of Sichuan at the time. A total size of about 140,000 seems rather probable for the early time of the Shu empire, and a number of 100,000 for its last years, when the country was exhausted (He 1987: 141, Zhang 1994: 15).

Sun Quan relied on the private military forces of the distinguished families of the lower Yangtze region. The early army of Sun Ce 孫策 (175-200) of just several thousand man could thus be enlarged to over 50,000 by integrating infantry and cavalry units of Liu Yao 劉繇 (156-197) and Yuan Shu 袁術 (d. 199). Sun Quan participated in the battle of Chibi with 30,000 troops (He 1987: 148). Around 250 CE, the army of Wu had a strength of 230,000, and the navy had at disposal more than 5,000 vessels (ibid., 152).

After the battles of Chibi and Jingzhou, Sun Quan became master over the middle Yangtze region with is formidable resources. The water-rich regions of the south gave naval units a special importance. Riverine naval bases were set up at Ruxukou 濡須口 (close to present-day Chaoxian 巢縣, Anhui), and Xiling 西陵 (Yichang 宜昌, Hubei). In Houguan 侯官 (today's Minhou 閩侯, Fujian), Sun had shipyards built the operation of which was taken over by a commandant of ships (dianchuan xiaowei 典船校尉). At least part of the labourers were convicts (see penal servitude). The ships had a length of more than 20 zhang (see weighs and measures) and were able to carry 6-700 troops (He 1987: 147) or close to 100 tons of freight. One ship was reportedly able to carry as much as 3,000 troops (Zhang 1995: 18).

In maritime operations in 230, Sun's navy under the command of Wei Wen 衛溫 (d. 231) and Zhuge Zhi 諸葛直 (d. 231) reached Taiwan (at that time called Danzhou 亶洲 or Yizhou 夷洲) to capture several thousand people from the native tribes to serve in the infantry. In 233, He Da 賀達 (d. 233) was sent out across the sea to the peninsula of Liaodong 遼東 to establish political and military relations with Gongsun Yuan 公孫淵 in northeast China. In 242, a naval expedition was sent to the island of Zhuya 朱崖 (Hainan) to capture tribespeople of the Dan'er 儋耳.

Even after the battle of the Red Cliff, Cao Cao and his successors repeatedly tried to cross the Yangtze to conquer territory of the south, but the riverine navy of the Wu empire was far superior.

Command structure

Even if the armies of the Three-Empires period followed the unit and command system of the Han period, the number of troops per unit and the number of officers in relation to common troops was not standardized. Nominal units and their commanders were (list according to Tongdian 通典, ch. 148, Bingdian 兵典 1):

Table 1. Military unit system of the Wei empire
strength (men) unit commander
3,200 jun brigade 將軍 jiangjun and 副將 fujiang general, vice general
1,600 pi regiment 將軍 jiangjun, 裨將 pijun general, assistant general
800 xiao battalion wei colonel
400 bu troop 司馬 sima major
200 qu company hou captain
100 guan zhang lieutenant
50 dui platoon tou sergeant
10 huo squad tou leader
5 lie section zhang head

The highest field commanders 190-220 still bore the titles cavalry general (piaoji jiangjun 驃騎將軍), general of chariots and cavalry (cheji jiangjun 車騎將軍), and general of the guards (wei jiangjun 衛將軍). These were actually derived from the field commands of the past Han dynasty.

Even if many of the commanders fighting against the Yellow Turbans had autonomously adopted command, Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) of the Han dynasty accepted them as state officials and bestowed formal titles of command. Cao Cao, for instance, was given the title of martial general of mobile fighting (xingfen wu jiangjun 行奮武將軍), while the commanders directly subordinated to him were general-commander of fighting martiality (fen wu jiangjun sima 奮武將軍司馬) or commander in his own rights (biejiang sima 別將司馬). In 196, Cao was given the title of General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) and was thus formally made the highest military commander of the Han empire. Yet because he was only entitled for military command during concrete military campaigns, his actual and permanent general staff (bafu 霸府) did not belong to the formal officialdom, but was a private institution of Cao. This general staff was also the core of the eventual civilian government of the Wei dynasty. Cao Cao also occupied the position of Minister of Works (sikong 司空) which gave him the prerogative to commandeer labourers for various duties, including military ones.

The sections (cao 曹) of Cao's general staff were supervised by an Aide (zhangshi 長史), while military affairs were in the hands of a commander (sima 司馬). Cao's personal advisors in the general staff occupied the post of retainer-gentleman (congshi langzhong 從事郎中). Apart from that, there were quite a few clerks, scribes, and secretaries. The Western Section (xicao 西曹) was responsible for the civilian personnel, and the Eastern Section (dongcao 東曹) for the military personnel of Cao Cao's shadow government. The household section (hucao 戶曹) cared for taxation and revenue, the memorial section (zoucao 奏曹) for the flow and archiving of documents, the discharge section (cicao 辭曹) for judicial matters, the standards section (facao 法曹) for courier service, the officers section (weicao 尉曹) for logistics and the transport of tribute grain, and the storage section (cangcao 倉曹) for granaries. This division of work in Cao Cao's personal general staff was the basis for the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) of the Wei dynasty.

The elevation of Cao Cao to the post of Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) in 208 strengthened not just his civilian, but also his military power. Cao added the functions of military libationer (junshuai jijiu 軍帥祭酒), five chief commanders (junshuai 軍帥, called of the left, right, front, rear, and centre), and a left and a right commander (zuo-you sima 左右司馬). Yet in both institutions, the bureau of the Counsellor (chengxiang fu 丞相府), and bureau of the General-in-chief (da jiangjun fu 大將軍府), Cao Cao was supported by staffs (muliao 幕僚) not belonging to the officialdom of the Han empire.

Cao Cao also created two new bodies of troops, one commanded by a capital commandant (lingjun 領軍, in 207 renamed zhonglingjun 中領軍), and one capital protector (hujun 護軍, in 207 renamed zhonghujun 中護軍). These two officials were the most trusted military advisors of Cao and could take over the command over part of the army during military campaigns. At any time, they commanded the bodyguard (qinjun 親軍) of Cao Cao as well as the guard units of the palace and the residence city (later the capital). When Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate and adopted the imperial title himself, military power was thus directly in the hands of the sovereign. He also left vacant the post of Counsellor-in-chief and appointed men from the general staff to the highest posts of the Palace Secretariat, namely the Secretariat Supervisor (zhongshujian 中書監) and the Secretariat Director (zhongshu ling 中書令).

Regional command was entrusted to members of the imperial house or trustworthy persons who were given the title of Commander-in-chief of all central and exterior armies (dudu zhong-wai zhujun shi 都督中外諸軍事). This title was not just highly prestigious, but also made the holders powerful representatives of the court of the Wei dynasty in the provinces. In the later decades of the Wei period, the Sima 司馬 family emulated the paradigm of the Cao family and abused the revived post of Counsellor-in-chief to create a private general staff from within.

There was a great variety of descriptive terms with the title "general" (jiangjun 將軍) added to the rank of commanders. This means that jiangjun was not an official position (guanzhi 官職), but just a rank (guanjie 官階) used during campaign. Yet in the empire of Wu, jiangjun was a position with command over a body of troops. Many of these titles were even just honorific and did not give the holders the veritable privilege of full generals. Examples for descriptive or decorative general titles used during campaigns were General Suppressing the Bandits (dangkou jiangjun 蕩寇將軍) bestowed on Guan Yu 關羽 (d. 219), General Charging the Enemy (zhenglu jiangjun 征虜將軍) bestowed on Zhang Fei, or General Attacking the Enemy (taolu jiangjun 討虜將軍) bestowed on Huang Zhong 黃忠 (d. 220), all of them being commanders of Liu Bei. Mi Zhu 麋竺 (d. 222?) was General Pacifying the Han (an Han jiangjun 安漢將軍), Sun Qian 孫乾 bore the title of General Holding Together the Centre (bingzhong jiangjun 秉中將軍), Jian Yong 簡雍 was General Displaying Virtue (zhaode jiangjun 昭德將軍), and Yi Ji 伊籍 was General Displaying Culturedness (zhaowen jiangjun 昭文將軍). In the dominion of Sun Quan in the southeast, extravagant titles like General Overcoming the Bandits (yingkou jiangjun 盈寇將軍 for Cheng Pu 程普, General Crossing the Yangtze (heng Jiang jiangjun 橫江將軍) for Lu Su 魯肅 (172-217) or General with a Tiger's Power (huwei jiangjun 虎威將軍) for Lü Meng 呂蒙 were common – apart from the very modest title of deputy general (pian jiangjun 偏將軍). When Sun adopted the title of emperor in 229, he elevated Lu Xun's 陸遜 (183-245) title from Bulwark-General of the State (fuguo jiangjun 輔國將軍) to the elaborated title Superior Grand General-Protector to the Right (shang da jiangjun you duhu 上大將軍右都護), which gave Lu more prestige, but did not enlarge the holder's power.

Liu Bei, eventual founder of the empire of Shu, likewise developed his civilian government out his general staff. He took himself the position of General-to-the-Right (you jiangjun 右將軍), while his close advisor Zhuge Liang, the great strategist, was General-to-the-Left (zuo jiangjun 左將軍), and had a staff of his own, even if he was subordinated to Liu Bei. Zhuge occupied at the same time the civilian post of Counsellor-in-chief and Overseer of the Imperial Secretariat (lu shangshu shi 錄尚書事). When the under-age Liu Shan 劉禪 (r. 223-263 CE) succeeded to the throne, Zhuge Liang took over regency for the infant emperor. He was succeeded in both functions, military and civilian, by Jiang Wan 蔣琬 (d. 246), then Fei Yi 費禕 (d. 253) and Jiang Wei 姜維 (202-264). All of them were allowed to select the personnel of their staffs independently. The staff consisted of army supervisors (junshi 軍師), aides (zhangshi), commanders (sima 司馬), retainers (congshi 從事), recorders, and various clerks and scribes. It was divided into sections each of which was responsible for certain military affairs.

In the empire of Shu, the two highest posts of the imperial army were Army Supervisor (jianjun 監軍) and Protector-General (duhu 都護), while the ranks of the capital commandant (lingjun) and capital protector (hujun) were somewhat lower. Liu Bei arranged his armies into four corps, of which Guan Yu was the General of the Front (qian jiangjun 前將軍) commanding the troops in Jingzhou, Zhang Fei the General of the Right (you jiangjun 右將軍) commanding the armies in the Hanzhong 漢中 region, Ma Chao 馬超 (d. 222) the General of the Left (zuo jiangjun 左將軍) with the troops directed against Liangzhou, and Huang Zhong as the General of the Rear (hou jiangjun 後將軍) protecting the core lands of the Sichuan Basin. The cardinal direction were also attached to the titles of commanders derived from the central army. Wang Ping 王平 (215-248), for instance, was qian jianjun 前監軍, Zhang Ji 張冀 was qian lingjun 前領軍, and Liu Min 劉敏 (b. 190) was zuo hujun 左護軍. An alternative epithet was xing 行 "mobile", like Jiang Wan, who once was Mobile Protector-General (xing duhu 行都護).

The career of the Sun family started as military commanders with titles like General Charging the Adversaries (taoni jiangjun 討逆將軍) or General Attacking the Enemy (taolu jiangjun). They likewise developed a civilian government out of their general staff (bafu). The highest commanders during military campaigns held the titles of commander (du 督), grand commander (dadu 大督) or area commander-in-chief (da dudu 大都督), depending on the size of the unit. These titles were extended by divisional indicators like grand commander of the front (qianbu dadu 前部大督) or commander of the left or right (zuo-you du 左右督).

Each of the Three Empires had a disciplinary code compiled characterized by the obligation to strict obedience to rules, methods and commands (transmitted by drums, bells and signal flags) and a harsh penal system to prevent any offence of duties.

The central army

The army of the Wei empire consisted of three parts, namely the central army (zhongjun 中軍), the exterior armies (waijun 外軍), and the regional armies (zhou-jun jun 州郡軍). In contrast to Cao Cao, Liu Bei conducted military campaigns in person, at least as long as he could. With his passing away, the centralized character of the army of Shu was given up, and the patter of the Cao-Wei empire with central and external commands was also taken over by the empire of Shu.

The capital army included the imperial bodyguard and the palace guard (suweijun 宿衛軍, jinjun 禁軍), but also units protecting the capital city Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan). In case of need, parts of the capital army also participated in military campaigns. The core of the bodyguard was the "cavalry of tigers and panthers" (hubao qi 虎豹騎), commanded by close relatives of the sovereign like Cao Xiu 曹休 (d. 228 CE), Cao Zhen 曹真 (d. 231) or Cao Chun 曹純 (d. 210). Other units obeyed the commander-in-chief (duwei 都尉), mostly trustworthy followers like Xu Chu or Dian Wei 典韋 (d. 197). Emperor Wei created the summary term militant guard regiment (wuwei ying 武衛營) for these protective units. Their members, commanded by a Militant General (wuwei jiangjun 武衛將軍), were carefully selected and displayed greatest prowess in battle.

Apart from the militant guard regiment – the actual palace guard -, the troops of the capital command regiment (zhonglingying 中領營) and the capital protection regiment (zhonghuying 中護營), the capital army included two further contingents, namely the xxx (zhongjianying 中堅營) and the capital garrison (zhongleiying 中壘營). These were the five garrisons (wuying 五營), with a strength of 10,000 troops per unit (He 1987: 127). This body of 50,000 troops was not just entrusted with the protection of the emperor, the palace, and the capital city, but also took as elite troops part in battles.

There were also leftovers of the Han-period five capital garrisons (wu xiaowei ying 五校尉營) with the elite cavalry (yueji 越騎), the garrison cavalry (tunji 屯騎), the [capital] infantry (bubing 步兵, the [capital] navy (zhangshui 長水), and the [capital] archers (shesheng 射聲), with a strength of just a few hundred troops, and virtually no military significance (He 1987: 128). In the empire of Shu, members of these ancient units even carried out functions in the civilian government. In the empire of Wu, each of these units was commanded by a colonel (xiaowei 校尉). The whole pentade obeyed the commander of the five garrisons (wuying du 五營督 or wuxiao du 五校督).

Sima Shi 司馬師 (208-255), who annihilated quite a few members of the house of Cao in 249, forced Emperor Cao Mao 曹髦 (r. 254-260 CE) to bestow him the title of General-in-chief with the rights of a palace attendant (dajiangjun jia shizhong 大 將軍加侍中), bearing a special warrant (chijie 持節), Commander-in-chief of all central and exterior armies (dudu zhong-wai zhujun shi) and Overseer of the Imperial Secretariat (lu shangshu shi). In order to raise his military power, Sima enlarged the central army, on which he had a direct grip, to a size of nearly 20,000 (He 1987: 129), while the exterior armies were under the command of persons loyal to the Wei dynasty. In 255, Wen Qin 文欽 and Guanqiu Jian 毌丘儉 (d. 255) attacked the usurpatorious Sima brothers who were sitting in the capital, but the loyalists were unable to conquer Luoyang. At that time, a great part of the capital army – commanded by the Capital Protector - was already residing in garrisons outside the city walls, while the units residing inside the wall stood under the command of the Capital Commandant. The prestige of the two commanders rose which led to their renaming zhongling jiangjun 中領將軍 and zhonghu jiangjun 中護將軍, respectively. They were responsible for the recruitment and selection of officers and troops of the capital army.

The central army of Shu consisted of left and right Yulin "Forest of Plumes" cavalry regiments (zuo-you yulin bu 左右羽林部), a Tiger Infantry Regiment (hubu ying 虎步營), and a Tiger Cavalry Regiment (hujiying 虎騎營). The commander of the two first, rather small, regiments were called regimental commanders (budu 部督). The strength of the two others was 5-6,000 troops (He 1987: 143). They were commanded by an overseer of the tiger infantry (hubujian 虎步監) and overseer of the tiger cavalry (hujijian 虎騎監), respectively. There was no fix post of highest commander of the central army. Xiang Chong 向寵 (d. 240) held the title of commander of the central regiments (zhongbu du 中部督).

The central army of Wu consisted of the Yulin Guard, the Militant Guard (wuwei), the Winding-Tent Guard (raozhang 繞帳), the Guard under the Tent (zhangxia 帳下), and the Trouble-Freeing Guard (jiefan 解煩), with a size of at least 2,000 troops per regiment (Zhang 1994: 17). The central army of the empire of Wu rose from the private army of the Sun family. After the foundation of the empire in 229, the Yulin, the Militant, and the Tiger Cavalry regiments were commanded by members of the imperial family. Apart from these regiments and the old Han-period five regiments, the central army of the Wu empire included the regiments Below the Capital (jingxia 京下), Below the Residence (duxia 都下), the Central Army (zhongjun 中軍), No-Trouble (wunan 無難), and a further cavalry regiment (ji 騎), each of the led by a commander (du 督).

Apart from Capital Protector (hujun) and Capital Commander (lingjun), the empire of Wu knew the post of Army Controller (dianjun 典軍). Moreover, the post of Capital Protector was split into several commands during campaigns. Zhou Yu 周瑜 (175-210), for instance, was Capital Protector of the centre (zhong hujun 中護軍), Lü Meng Capital Protector to the left (zuo hunjun 左護軍), and Lu Xun Capital Protector to the right (you hujun 右護軍).

In Wu, the title of commanders of mid-size units was du 督, regardless whether the unit stood in the capital in Jianye 建業 (present-day Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu) or in the commanderies outside.

Exterior armies

The exterior armies (waijun) were located in critical regions of the empire, but were commanded by generals under the jurisdiction of the central government. They originated after the battle of Guandu when Cao Cao nominated several generals to guard the provinces of Jizhou, Bingzhou 並州, and Qingzhou he had just liberated from the domination of the warlord Yuan Shao 袁紹 (d. 202). Yet the terms central army and exterior army were only created by Emperor Wen of the Wei dynasty. General Zang Ba 臧霸, for instance, held the title of Commander-in-chief of all armies in Qingzhou (dudu Qingzhou zhujun shi 都督青州諸軍事). The supreme command over all central-government armies was with Cao Zhen and Sima Shi who were conjointly called Commander-in-chief of all central and exterior armies (dudu zhong-wai zhujun shi). Most outer commands were located in the borderlands to the empires of Shu and Wu in order to forestall unexpected incursions of the enemy. Some Commanders-in-chief (dudu 都督) were concurrently entrusted civilian jurisdiction and held thus the title of regional inspector (cishi 刺史). Xiahou Shang 夏侯尚 (d. 225), for example, had the field command of General Conquering the South (zhengnan jiangjun 征南將軍), was Commander-in-chief of all armies in the south (dudu nanfang zhujun shi 都督南方諸軍事), and regional inspector of the province of Jingzhou. In some cases, a commander-in-chief held the command over three provinces, like Cao Ren 曹仁 (168-223), who commanded the central-government troops of Jingzhou, Yangzhou 揚州, and Yizhou 益州, and Xiahou Xuan 夏侯玄 (208-254) was master of the central-government troops in Yongzhou 雍州 and Liangzhou.

The posts of commanders-in-chief were usually occupied by generals with a variety of titles pointing at cardinal directions in question, like "General conquering the north..." (zheng... jiangjun 征[direction]將軍) or "General suppressing the north..." (zhen... jiangjun 鎮[direction]將軍). Persons of high standing were called General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍). On a lower level, the sovereign appointed "Generals pacifying the north..." (an... jiangjun 安[direction]將軍) or "Generals Appeasing the north..." (ping... jiangjun 平[direction]將軍) which had a lower military rank. These titles were known in Wei and Wu.

Depending on the military importance of the region, commanders-in-chief held one of three ranks, namely commissioned with special warrant (shi chijie 使持節), bearing a special warrant (chijie 持節), and with a temporary warrant (jiajie 假節). The different privileges of these ranks referred to martial law. A commissioner with a special warrant was allowed to have executed any officer of rank 2,000 shi 石 (see salaries of officials) and lower under his command. A commander-in-chief bearing a special warrant had this right only during military campaigns, but could execute martial low for common troops in times of peace. A commander-in-chief with temporary warrant could not execute the martial law in peacetime xxx (times of war???).

In the empire of Shu, commanders of the exterior armies likewise held the post of commander-in-chief over certain parts of the territory (Jiangzhou 江州, Hanzhong, Yong'an 永安, Guanzhong 關中 or Kangjiang 康降), but not all of them were generals. In the region of Hanzhong, the military commander was concurrently the civilian administrator, namely governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Hanzhong. Yet these functions of commanders of exterior armies were created at a relatively late point of time in the history of Liu Bei and his empire. The title is first mentioned in 254, but had precursors in the figure of Wei Yan 魏延 (d. 234), who was governor of Hanzhong, and Commanding General Pacifying Distant [Regions] of Hanzhong (du Hanzhong zhenyuan jiangjun 督漢中鎮遠將軍).

With the passing away of Sun Quan, the time was over for the sovereign of Wu to adopt personal command. Instead, the empire of Wu followed the paradigm of Wei and created commanders of "all central and exterior armies" (ling zhong-wai zhujun shi 領中外諸軍事 or du zhong-wai zhujun shi 督中外諸軍事). Zhuge Ke 諸葛恪 (203-253), for example, was chief commander of the armies of the provinces of Jingzhou, and Yangzhou, and at the same time regional governor (mu) of these territories. Sun Jun 孫峻 (291-256) grabbed the titles not just of Counsellor-in-chief and General-in-chief, but also that of highest commander of all central and external armies. The province of Jingzhou in the middle Yangtze region was strategically important. Military commanders therefore bore military and civilian duties at the same time and were concurrently governors (taishou) or even regional inspectors (cishi). Critical points were protected by garrisons under a commander (du). They were appointed centrally and commanded between several thousand and several ten thousand troops.

It is known that in certain regions, news were transmitted by fire signals (suihuo 燧火). News of incursions by the enemy could thus be forwarded to the capital within just one night.

Regional troops

Regional troops were responsible to the governors of commanderies and the regional inspectors of provinces, or – in provinces where no commander-in-chief was appointed – to overseers of provincial troops (jian... junshi 監[province]軍事). The staff of regional inspectors included 從事, 主簿, 書佐, 計吏, as well as 兵曹從事, 武猛從事 and 帳下督. The staff of commandery governors included a 都尉, 司馬, yuan椽, 史督郵, 主簿, etc.

The strength of troops in commanderies and provinces depended on the size, military importance, and the overall situation. The local armies were in the first place used for local defence, but could also contribute to the central army during military campaigns. Regional inspectors usually bore the title of general and had a company (buqu) of their own.

The regional troops of the Shu empire were usually private armies of governors, and therefore did not follow standardized rules. Exceptions from this rather laissez-faire policy were the commanderies of Jianwei 犍為 in the southwest, and Yidu 宜都 in the east whose governors commanded 4-5,000 regional troops each.


During the Later Han period, the system of drafting (zheng bing 征兵) was increasingly replaced by voluntary enlistment (mu bing 募兵 "to enlist troops; enlisted troops", yingmu 應募 "to enlist voluntarily"), even if both methods were used side by side. In addition to traditional drafting of troops as part of corvée service, the custom of a hereditary soldiery emerged (shibing 世兵).

The precondition for conscription were household registers by which a rough number of able-bodied males could be determined. When Cao Cao occupied the province of Jizhou, for instance, the registers yielded 300,000 households. Yet the central government always had conflicts with the eminent families who defended their serfs and client households against the drafting committees. Another factor reducing the potential of draftees was household evasion by which peasants refused to register by escaping into the mountains. Drafted troops were not just used as armoured infantry troops (jiabing 甲兵), but to a great dimension for local defence. Liu Bei, who often changed his base territory, was only able to rely on conscription when he secured the province of Yizhou (Sichuan). Yet in contrast to his opponents in north and south China, the population of the Sichuan Basin was rather small, so that Liu had to rely on enlistment and hereditary soldier households to a much greater extent. Yet the intensification of the conscription system was necessary. After the battle of Yiling, 5,000 troops were drafted out of a number of 12,000 households (He 1987: 145). The recruitment of 5,000 troops out of 12,000 households for Zhuge Liang's first northern campaign was disguised as "enlistment" (mu), but was nothing else than a 'canton regulation' (zheng). The constant warfare with the empire of Wei in the north resulted in the fact that practically all males of Shu had served as soldiers once in their life. It is known that troops in long-time service were allowed 2 months of leave per year (He 1987: 146).

The need for voluntary enlistment or mercenaries therefore grew. Distinguished families supporting the Cao regime occasionally offered their private units (buqu) to serve the government. Such units were called "voluntary troops" (yibing 義兵) and consisted a substantial part of Cao Cao's army in the early period, with commanders like Li Dian, Dian Wei, Xiahou Dun 夏侯惇 (d. 220), Lü Qian 呂虔 or Yu Jin 于禁 (184-221). In the case of Liu Bei, Gongsun Zan 公孫瓚 (d. 199), Tao Qian 陶謙 (132-194), Zhao Yun 趙雲 (161-229), Wei Yan and Huo Jun 霍峻 (180-219) provided private troops to the corps of the condottiere. When Liu evaded north China and took over the province of Jingzhou, he found much less supporters with the only exception of Lei Xu 雷緒, who helped Liu Bei out with his private army. Sun Ce received support by Wu Jing 吳景, Zhou Yu, Lu Su, Lü Fan 呂範 and Gan Ning 甘寧 in his early years. After the conquest of Guiji, Sun Quan was supported by the distinguished families of the region.

Another part of enlisted troops came from landless peasant refugees (liumang 流氓) who were in search for employment. Yet enlistment was not always fully voluntary but can rather be called impressment. Even after the foundation of the Three Empires, individual generals continued to provide their proper regiments (buqu) to the imperial armies.

Apart from troops, supporters of the contending warlords contributed credit or money with which armies could be recruited, equipped and fed. Zhang Shiping 張世平, for instance, a horse trader, lend Liu Bei money to raise troops. Mi Zhu helped out Liu Bei not just with 2,000 troops from among his own serfs, but also with money.

Hereditary military households (junhu 軍戶, shijia 士家, bingjia 兵家) recorded in military registers (shiji 士籍, bingji 兵籍) were supervised either by the civilian government of the commanderies, or by military personnel. The system had its origins in the custom of demanding hostages (contemporary term zhiren 質任) from the side of generals as a way of ensuring their loyalty. The hostages were staying in Cao Cao's residential city Ye, while their relatives were serving as commanders at the front. In the course of time, the hostage system was expanded to common troops. While the latter went to war, their kinsmen and families were settled down in centralized villages. During the time of Emperor Wen, there were already as much as 100,000 military households, half of which was transferred to the new capital Luoyang.

In the course of time, these households were providing soldiers over generations, sons replacing their fathers in military service, and younger brothers the older ones. In case of defection, family members were punished. A basic problem of constant supply with troops was the frequent custom to kill baby girls. This danger of imbalance in the sex ratio made an active marriage policy for the military household necessary. The state cared for marriages in order to guarantee a long-term supply of young men. Girls from military households were only allowed to marry men from military households.

For Liu Bei, military households played an important role because the household registers of the province of Jingzhou were only fragmentary. Zhuge Liang suggested therefore to gather peasant refugees and to transform them into military households from which soldiers could be drafted over generations. They were located in Jiangling 江陵, a city conquered by the Wu empire in xxx. Another part of military households were the private regiments of Liu Bei's generals. After they settled down in Yizhou (Sichuan), they were practically transformed into military households.

While there was a clear spatial separation between garrisons and civilian households, troops and officers of the Wu empire used to dwell in civilian quarters. The several thousand troops of Liyang 歷陽, for instance, lived in quarters in Wuhu 蕪湖. The reason for this practice was that the Sun regime depended on the goodwill and cooperation of the distinguished families of the region. This means that even if many units were officially regarded as subjected to the central government, they stood in practice under the command of individual clan leaders. Most of these units were heredity soldier families with their own family traditions in the officer ranks. Such units could be as large as 2,000 troops (He 1987: 152-153). With the stabilization of the Sun regime, the central military administration ended the hereditary character of many units and put them under the command of centrally appointed officers. A hostage system as in the Wei empire was unknown.

Particularly before the foundation of the Wei dynasty in 220, Cao Cao's army grew by integration of submitted troops of opponents. There seemed to be no fear of rebellion or disloyalty because the harsh military discipline helped to avoid large-scale defection. Sun Jian 孫堅 (155-191) integrated the surrendering armies of Liu Yao with 20,000 troops, Chen Yu 陳瑀 with 4,000 men, Yuan Shu with 30,000 men, and Liu Xun 劉勳 with 2,000 troops.

In northwest China, large groups of non-Chinese tribes had migrated onto Chinese territory. Such were Xianbei 鮮卑, Xiongnu 匈奴, Wuhuan, Dingling 丁零 or Qiang 羌. Cao Cao regularly recruited troops from their villages because they served to staff the cavalry units. The empire of Shu expanded its territory towards the south (Nanzhong 南中), where the males of local tribes could be recruited to fill not just the rank and file of the infantry, but they constituted elite or vanguard units like the "Flying Army" (feijun 飛軍), crossbow units, or of so-called hunting companies (liesheguan 獵射官, which could also serve in war). It was the regular case that their families were forced to settle down in the Sichuan Basin where they began to form military households.

Sun Quan enlarged his army by integrating surrendering units of his enemies, like after the battle of Yiling, when troops of Shu were swallowed, but also by impressing people from the hill tribes (Shanyue 山越) of the southern regions or even from tribes living on the offshore islands of Yizhou and Zhuya. Among the dominating families of the southern hills, local clans (zongbu 宗部) resisted the dominance of the Wu state. They acceded in paying grain or cloth tributes or taxes, but refused to deliver corvée and military service. Sun Quan therefore forcibly compelled them to produce manpower to the army of Wu. It can be estimated that about 60 per cent of the army of Wu consisted of impressed native tribes and men of the zongbu clans (He 1987: 152).


Food supply and expenditure for the armies of the Wei dynasty were organized one the base of the regular tax revenue of that of military agro-colonies. The supply with weapons was under the supervision of a court gentleman master of metals (sijin zhonglangjiang 司金中郎將).

In the empire of Shu, the revenue from the salt monopoly and that of iron were used to finance the army. The salt monopoly war supervised by a salt-supervising commander (siyan xiaowei 司鹽校尉). The supply of grain was mainly to be shipped to the border region in the Hanzhong region where between 50,000 and 100,000 troops guarded the frontier against the empire of Wei (He 1987: 146). The strategist Zhuge Liang had therefore created shipping stations to bring the grain from the Sichuan Basin across the mountains. The state also took care for the supply of sufficient pushing carts (muniu 木牛) and carts simultaneously pushed and pulled (liuma 流馬). Yet even then, two of the five northern campaigns of Shu against Wei had to be abandoned because of the lack of manpower for the transport.

The great importance of private armies in the regime of the Sun family led to a distinct model of supply. Successful commanders were given estates (fengyi 奉邑, fengyi 封邑) from the income of which they supplied their troops. Eminent commanders like Zhou Yu, Lü Meng, Cheng Pu or Lu Su were given estates with a size of no less than four districts. When commanders were transferred to another place of service, their received new estates in exchange for the old ones because the land was not a kind of "fief", but served exclusively for the supply of troops. Yet after the proclamation of Sun Quan as emperor in 229, the system was replaced by a traditional mode of granting land as a lifelong or even inheritable possession, in unison with a title of nobility.

Military agro-colonies

The devastation particularly of north China during the Yellow Turban rebellion led not just to a drastic decline in agricultural production, but in the consequence also to the need to look for other means to feed the huge number of warlord armies operating in China. As many peasants had left their lands in search for a better living (for instance, becoming clients of eminent families), huge tracts of fields fell back to the state as "public land" (gongtian 公田, see office fields), and could be redistributed. Cao Cao used this chance to transform fallow land into agro-colonies where soldiers cultivated the grain they consumed themselves. He had also transferred peasants to the environments of his residence city to deliver the needed agricultural produce. The funds to buy the needed tools and draught animals hailed from the salt monopoly. Civilian agro-colonies delivered annual rents at a quota of 50-60 % (He 1987: 133; see fencheng zhi 分成制). They were administered by special officials (diannong duwei 典農都尉 on the district, and diannong xiaowei 典農校尉 on the commander level) under the central court gentleman for field administration (diannong zhonglangjiang 典農中郎將) and not subject to the commandery they were located in. The system of civilian agro-colonies declined under the assail of the eminent families who tried to accumulate more land.

There were two types of military agro-colonies, namely agro-colonies cultivated by troops (jundui tuntian 軍隊屯田), and agro-colonies cultivated by members of solider households (junhu tuntian 軍戶屯田). The former existed mainly in the border regions to the Shu and Wu empires. In peacetime, the troops (including officers) engaged in agriculture, and served as soldiers in ongoing campaigns. The yield of such a group of colonies was, for instance, 30 million hu 斛 of grain (in a time span of 6-7 years; on hu see weights and measures) which served to feed 100,000 troops for 5 years. The average field size was rather small with 20 mu 畝 per person (He 1987: 134). Members of soldier households were either male relatives of serving troops (yi 役) or soldiers not actively serving (hu 戶). According to the prevalent rule, only one male member of a household could serve as a soldier, a system called mixed service (cuoyi zhidu 錯役制度). Agro-colonies of this type were mainly found in the metropolitan province Sizhou 司州 and in Jizhou. The amount of acreage per person was 50-100 mu, and the rent the same as in the civilian colonies. The supervision of the military colonies was in the hands of tax commanders (duzhi xiaowei 度支都尉), and the Vice Minister of Revenue (duzhi zhonglangjiang 度支中郎將) on the central level.

The number of military agro-colonies in the empire of Shu was much smaller than that of Wei and was concentrated on the Han River valley, close to the border to Wei. They were supervised by the governor of Hanzhong who held concurrently the title of Agricultural Supervisor (dunong 督農).

The Sun family founded agro-colonies at an early point of time, but there was no clear separation between civilian and military colonies because troops were not garrisoned but lived scattered among the civilian populace. There was also no need for separate administration, but the colonies stood under the direct administration of the officers of the unit in question. Nominally civilian colonies were in most cases cultivated by natives of the Shanyue tribes the male persons of which served as troops if they were physically suitable, or as farmers if not. Yet even then, civilian colony households (tuntian hu 屯田戶) could be listed as military households (junhu).

Military thought

The late Han and the Three Empires periods were influenced by military thought as developed during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), yet the military experience of the Former Han fighting against foreign tribes with different military cultures and tactics also played a decisive role.

The warlord Cao Cao, excellently educated, wrote one of the most important commentaries on the highly venerated Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法. Cao himself is also said to have written military treatises like Xu Sunzi bingfa 續孫子兵法 and Wei Wudi bingfa 魏武帝兵法 or excerpts from the military classics Bingfa jieyao 兵法接要, Bingshu jieyao 兵書接要, Bingshu lüeyao 兵書略要. There are also fragments of Cao's book Xinshu 新書.

The great strategist Zhuge Liang is credited with a host of tactics to overcome difficult situations in the field. The books Jiangyuan 將苑 (Xinshu 心書) and Bianyi shiliu ce 便宜十六策 have survived, as well as examples of his grand strategy, for instance, in his memorials to the throne suggesting the conquest of the southwest in order to open up resources, e.g. Nanzheng biao 南征表, Qian chushi biao 前出師表, and Hou chushi biao 後出師表. Only a few paragraphs of his other military writings have survived, for instance, 15 paragraphs of the disciplinary code Junling 軍令, sentences from the Bingfa 兵法, Bingfa bijue 兵法祕訣, 10 paragraphs of the Bingyao 兵要, and his proposal for the management of supply, Zuo muniu liuma fa 作木牛流馬法. The book Jiangyuan focuses on the selection and education and the duties of an excellent general.

In this illustrated methods of the eightfold battle formation, Bazhen tufa 八陣圖法 (also called Wuhou bazhen tu 武侯八陣圖), Zhuge Liang described the combination and mutual support of different types of troops, namely infantry (the bulk of the troops), cavalry, chariots, and crossbowmen. Original charts are not surviving, but the charts were discussed widely, for instance, by Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), and brought into relation with cosmology and the eight trigrams of divination. The mysterious character of the tactic was popularized by the romance Sanguo yanyi 三國演義. The idea of the eightfold forms is reflected in Li Quan's 李筌 book Taibaiyin jing 太白陰經, Long Zheng's 龍正 Bazhen hebian tushuo 八陣合變圖說, and the book Wojijing 握奇經.

The bazhen, literally "formation of the eight [compartments]", is a development of the basis of an earlier model mentioned in the (long-lost) book Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法 (ch. Bazhen 八陣). It was particularly developed for use in the mountainous region of the Hanzhong region, where the weaker army of Shu was confronted with the much stronger units of Wei. For this reason, the bazhen model was quite effective in defence, but less applicable for conquest wars or for the pressing quickly forward the front. Even quick withdrawal was difficult (Qiu 2017: 76). This disadvantage can - apart from the numeric and topographic conditions - be led back to Zhuge Liang's negligence of tactics over strategy (Zhong 2016: 74). The eight compartments consisted of four "orthodox" (zheng 正), i.e. infantry/chariot/crossbows and four "unexpected" (qi 奇) formations consisting of cavalry. Even if the basic idea was that these two types of formations could convert into the opposite, the four types of arms had their distinctive characteristics. In any case, chariots (or much more, logistics carts used to form barriers) were used to protect infantry and crossbow units, and not for charges against the enemy. It can also be assumed that infantry units with different weapons (polearms or swords) were arranged in a mixed manner to strengthen the common power of defence. Remains on the battlefield (or just marks for training?) were once seen in Yufu 魚腹浦 near Fengjie 奉節 close to Kuimen 夔門, Chongqing.

The eight-part formation (ba dazhen) consisted of 8 mid-size and of 64 small formations (xiaozhen). The eight formations had the names of tian, di, feng 風, yun 雲, long, hu, niao, she. In flat territory, the eight formations could separate to a large battle arrays with eight parts, while in narrow territory, the eight formations contracted to one single unit. The commanding general was in the centre (by some authors seen as a ninth formation). Behind them, 24 units of moveable cavalry (youji 游騎) were caring for protection and sudden attacks. When withdrawing, closely tied chariots and "antler horns" (lujiao 鹿角) prevented the enemy from chasing the troops of Shu.

Nonetheless, Zhuge Liang's eight-formations tactics was so famous that during the conquest of Shu in 263, Chen Xie 陳勰 from Wei was sent out to secure documents on this tactics which consisted of charts and descriptive text. The method was also applied in the subsequent centuries, as for instance, by Ma Long 馬隆 during his conquest of Liangzhou in 279, by Huan Wen 桓溫 in the battle of Baidicheng 白帝城 in 346, and Gao Lü 高閭 and Diao Yong 刁雍 during the Southern and Northern Wei dynasties period.

Qiu Jianmin 邱剑敏 (2017). "Zhuge Liang Bazhentu de zuozhan buzhen yuanze 诸葛亮八阵图的作战布阵原则", Junshi lishi 军事历史, 2017 (4): 71-76.
Tian Zhaolin 田昭林 (1999). "Zhuge Liang de bazhentu 诸葛亮的八阵图", Junshi lishi yanjiu 军事历史研究, 1999 (2): 122-125.
Yu Daji 余大吉 (1994). "Zhuge Liang Bazhen tu ji zhenfa shitan 诸葛亮八阵图及阵法试探", Zhongguo shi yanjiu 中国史研究, 1994 (3): 24-32.
Zhong Shaoyi 钟少异 (2016). "Shilun Zhuge Liang Bazhentu 试论诸葛亮《八阵图》", Zhongguo lishi 军事历史, 2016 (4): 32-33+74.