Frontier defence commands (fanzhen 藩鎮) were established during the mid-Tang period 唐 (618-907) in order to secure China's northern and northwestern borders against intrustions by foreign states and tribes, like the Uyghurs (Huihu 回鶻), Tibet (Tubo 吐蕃), or Koryŏ. They were administrated by military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使), for which reason the word fanzhen soon became a synonym for these mighty functionaries and the territories they controlled. In the late Tang period, the whole empire was divided into defence commands, some of which became autonomous in the early 10th century and transformed into short-lived states of their own.
Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) was convinced that distant regions of the empire would fare better when given a certain grade of autonomy under the administration of military commissioners. The latter had military and financial autonomy and all rights of censorship, i.e. the control over the officialdom. The emperor therefore appointed nine military commissioners and one regulatory commissioner (jinglüeshi 經略使)* in south China. These ten functionaries were known as the "ten military commissioners of the Tianbao reign-period (742-756)" (Tianbao shi jiedushi 天寶十節度使). In fact, some commissioners controlled two or even three defence commands, like An Lushan 安祿山 (703-757), who was master of the commands of Fanyang 范陽, Pinglu 平盧, and Hedong 河東, which means that he controlled the whole of northeast China.
|command||seat||modern place||military strength (men)|
|Fanyang 范陽||Youzhou 幽州||Beijing||91,400|
|Pinglu 平盧||Yingzhou 營州||Chaoyang 朝陽, Liaoning||37,500|
|Hedong 河東||Taiyuan 太原||Taiyuan, Shanxi||55,000|
|Shuofang 朔方||Lingzhou 靈州||Yinchuan 銀川, Ningxia||64,700|
|Hexi 河西||Liangzhou 涼州||Wuwei 武威, Gansu||73,000|
|Longyou 隴右||Shanzhou 鄯州||Xining 西寧, Qinghai||75,000|
|Anxi 安西||Qiuci 龜茲||Aksu 阿克蘇, Xinjiang||24,000|
|Beiting 北庭||Tingzhou 庭州||Ürümqi 烏魯木齊, Xinjiang||20,000|
|Jiannan 劍南||Yizhou 益州||Chengdu 成都, Sichuan||30,900|
|The five prefectures of Lingnan 嶺南五府*||Guangzhou 廣州||Guangzhou, Guangdong||15,400|
Figures according to Jiutangshu 舊唐書, 38 Dili 地理 1
The unforeseen factor disturbing this border defence system was An Lushan, who rose in rebellion and occupied the capital Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). For this reason, the Tang government decided to expand the system of defence commands to all parts of the empire, with the aim that one military commissioner might check the other in case of rebellion. In this way, the defence commands overlapped the civilian administration of circuits and prefectures. In the later part of the Tang period therefore, the system was called regional defence commands (fangzhen 方鎮).
Not all heads of defence commands were military commissioners. In less critical places, they were headed by defence commissioners (fangyushi 防御使) or military training commissioners (tuanlianshi 團練使). Even if the basic idea was to entrust these functionaries only with military matters, most of them were concurrently acting as surveillance commissioners (guanchashi 觀察使) or investigation commissioners (caifangshi 采訪使) and had thus all civilian and judicial rights in their hands. In some cases, the relationship between the civilian and military realms was the other way around, meaning that civilian officials were entrusted with military matters.
The military commissioners collected taxes and delivered the due part to the central government. They were also subject to central decisions related to the appointment and dismissal of local officials. Most obstreperous in this respect were the military commissions in north China whose masters ignored imperial orders from Chang'an and refused to deliver taxes. For some time, many military commissioners in east and central China did so, too. This situation of quasi-autonomy is called "secession of defence commands" (fanzhen geju 藩鎮割據). Chen (1993) compares the military commissioners with the eminent families (menfa 門閥) of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) who also unofficially worked as intermediaries between the state and the local population, while they retained full autonomy in matters of finance and defence.
The tendency of secession began directly after the end of the rebellion of An Lushan and Shi Siming 史思明 (703-761) in 763, when the Tang court appointed new military commissioners in order to bring down the last troops of the rebels, and to secure the northeast. Li Huaixian 李懷仙 (d. 768) was appointed military commissioner of Lulong 盧龍 (i.e. Fanyang; Beijing), Li Baochen 李寶臣 (718-781) military commissioner of Chengde 成德 (also called Zhenji 鎮冀 or Hengji 恒冀; Zhengding 正定, Hebei), Tian Chengsi 田承嗣 (705-779) military commissioner of Weibo 魏博 (Daming 大名, Hebei), and Xue Song 薛嵩 (d. 773) military commissioner of Xiangwei 相衛 (Anyang 安陽, Henan). Tian Chengsi soon devoured the defence command of Xiangwei, and the remaining three were the powerful and quasi autonomous "three defence commands of Hebei" (Hebei san zhen 河北三鎮).
A particular aspect underlining the character of autonomy was a hereditary system which evolved for the appointment of high military posts, leading to the emergence of 'military dynasties', like in the case of Li Zhengji 李正己 (732-781), military commissioner of Ziqing 淄青 (Pinglu 平盧; Yidu 益都, Shandong), who was succeeded in office by his son Li Na 李納 (759-792), his grandson Li Shigu 李師古 (d. 806), and later another grandson, Li Shidao 李師道 (d. 819).
Liang Chongyi 梁崇義 (d. 781), military commissioner of the circuit of Shannan-Dong 山南東道 (Xiangyang 襄陽, Hubei), resisted the Tang court for nineteen years, before order in his territory was forcibly restored. In 782, Li Xilie 李希烈 (d. 786), military commissioner of Huaixi 淮西 (Caizhou 蔡州; today's Runan 汝南, Henan), rebelled and adopted the title of King Jianxing 建興, and joined with the military commissioners of the north who likewise called themselves kings. In vain, Emperor Dezong 唐德宗 (r. 779-804) tried to solve the problem by military means, as the military commissioners of the neighbouring defence commands were unable to gain ground. Moreover, troops from Jingyuan 涇原 (Jingchuan 涇川, Gansu) in the west, sent out to support the fight against the northeastern rebels, invaded Chang'an and proclaimed Zhu Ci 朱泚 (742-784) emperor of Qin 秦. In 784, Li Xilie proclaimed himself emperor of Chu 楚 and adopted the reign motto Wucheng 武成. In the same moment, the military commissioner of Shuofang, Li Huaiguan 李懷光 (729-785), rose in rebellion. Just having returned from Fengtian 奉天 (Qianxian 乾縣, Shaanxi), the emperor had to flee again and went to Liangzhou 梁州 (Hanzhong 漢中, Shaanxi). In early 785 the rebellions in the west were put down, and the northeastern military commissioners pledged obedience to the Tang court.
The Tang court decided to raise the strength of the imperial guard in Chang'an (shencejun 神策軍) and to increase the holdings of the state treasury.
The second period of turmoil began in 806, when Liu Bi 劉辟 (d. 806), military commissioner of Jiannan-Xichuan 劍南西川 asked the court to be given jurisdiction over the whole region of Sanchuan 三川 (Jiannan-Xichuan, Jiannan-Dongchuan 劍南東川, and Shannan-Xi 山南西道), a request that was refused. Liu thereupon rose weapons and conquered Zizhou 梓州 (Santai 三臺, Sichuan), seat of the military commissioner of Jiannan-Dongchuan. The imperial guard suppressed the rebellion very quickly, and also that of Yang Huilin 楊惠琳 (d. 806), military commissioner of Xiasui 夏綏 (Xiazhou 夏州; today's Jingbian 靖邊, Shaanxi). A year later, the rebellion of Li Qi 李錡 (741-807), military commissioner of Zhenhai 鎮海 (Zhexi 浙西; Zhenjiang 鎮江, Jiangsu), was suppressed.
These victories made Emperor Xianzong 唐憲宗 (r. 805-820) over-confident. After the death of Wang Shizhen 王士真 (759-809), military commissioner of Chengde, his son Wang Chengzong 王承宗 (d. 820), just took over the post, without consent of the court. An army under the eunuch general Tutu Chengcui 吐突承璀 (d. 820) was unable to discipline the new commissioner, and the court had to accept him. The military commissioner of Weibo, Tian Ji'an 田季安 (d. 820) was planned to be succeeded by an under-age son, but the Tang court appointed Tian Xing 田興 (Tian Hongzheng 田弘正) general-in-chief (dajiang 大將) of the defence command. Tian expressed his loyalty to the court, submitted household and tax registers, and obeyed the emperor in all matters of civilian appointments.
Wu Shaoyang 吳少陽 (d. 814), military commissioner of Huaixi, had ben succeeded by his son Wu Yuanji 吳元濟 (783-817). The court did not have a unified opinion over the case, but Emperor Xianzong decided to challenge the illegal commissioner. Yet Wu received secretly, and then open support by the commissioners of Ziqing and Chengde. They killed the Counsellor-in-chief Wu Yuanheng 武元衡 (758-815), who participated in the military campaign. Emperor Xianzong appointed Pei Du 裴度 (765-839) Counsellor, and entrusted him with the high command of the imperial troops.
After three years of war, Li Shuo 李愬 (773-821), military commissioner of Tangdeng 唐鄧, arrested Wu Yuanji. Yet the war was only ended in 819, when the military commissioner, Li Shidao, was killed by an officer. The remaining rebels, Wang Chengzong of Chengde, and Li Zong 劉總 (d. 821) of Lulong, declared their submission to the Tang, and thus ended the long war between the defence commands of the Yuanhe reign-period 元和 (806-820). The cost for the military campaigns were defrayed from new revenues created by a change in the taxation system and the adoption of the twice-taxation system (liangshuifa 兩稅法).
Emperor Muzong 唐穆宗 (r. 820-824) was forced to cut expenditure for the military and therefore dismissed large bodies of troops. This tense situation provocated the rebellion of the generals of Lulong (Beijing), who killed the whole staff of Zhang Hongjing 張弘靖, who had been sent as the new commissioner. Therafter, the officers of Chengde killed Tian Hongzheng, who had been sent from Weibo as new commissioner. The Tang court thereupon entrusted Counsellor-in-chief Pei Du with the command over a punitive campaign, and ordered Tian's son Tian Bu 田布 to attack the defence command of Chengde, but his troops disobeyed and forced him to commit suicide. The three defence commands of Hebei welcomed the many troops dismissed by the central government, and thus strengthened their military potential.
Zhu Kerong 朱克融 (d. 826), Wang Tingcou 王廷湊 (d. 834), and Shi Xiancheng 史憲誠 (d. 829) had full control over their territories and successfully resisted the attacks of Pei Du. In the end, the Tang court had to accept the situation that northeast China would remain independent for a long time. Yet other parts of Tang China won autonomy, too, like Xuzhou 徐州 (Jiangsu), where general Wu Zhixing 王智興 (758-836) demoted the military commissioner Cui Qun 崔群 (772-832) and made himself master of the defence command. The military commissioner of Zelu 澤潞 (Changzhi 長治, Shanxi), Liu Wu 劉悟 (d. 825), threw the imperial army supervisor (jianjunshi 監軍使) into jail, and established a 'dynasty' with his successors being his son Liu Congjian 劉從諫 (d. 843), and his grandson Liu Zhen 劉稹 (d. 844). The latter was defeated in 844 in the so-called "suppression of the rebellion of the Huichang reign-period" (Huichang fapan 會昌伐叛).
In the last phase of the military conflicts concerning the defence commands, the central government played only a subordinated role, and instead, the military commissioners tried to conquer the territories of others. In that time, the Tang court was weakened not only by financial distress, but also by the large-scale rebellion of the peasant leaders Wang Xianzhi 王仙芝 (d. 878) and Huang Chao 黃巢 (835-884) which devastated large regions. After 881, when Huang Chao conquered Chang'an, the central government had practically ceased to exist. Some military commissioners acted autonomously or ignored orders of the court, like Gao Pian 高駢 (821-887), military commissioner of the military prefecture of Zhenhai 鎮海軍 (northern Zhejiang). Others were originally military leaders and then accepted by the Tang court as military commissioners, but openly proclaimed their independence, like Yang Xingmi 楊行密 (852-905, founder of the state of Wu 吳, 902-937), Dong Chang 董昌 (847-896, short-time emperor of Yue 越), or Qian Liu 錢鏐 (852-932, founder of the state of Wu-Yue 吳越, 907-978).
In 907, the multiple military commissioner of Xuanwu 宣武, Xuanyi 宣義, Tianping 天平, Huguo 護國軍 (former Hezhong 河中), and Zhongwu 忠武軍 (former Chenxu 陳許), Zhu Wen 朱溫 (852-912), ended the Tang dynasty and founded the (Later) Liang 後梁 (907-923), the first of the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) in north China. This was the occasion for military commissioners in south China to found independent polities, known as the Ten States 十國 (902~979).
The official dynastic history Xintangshu 新唐書 includes two chapters focusing on defence commands and military commissioners, namely 64 Fangzhen biao 方鎮表 "Chronological table of defence commands", and 210-214 Fanzhen zhuan 藩鎮傳 1-4 "Biographies of [hereditary] military commissioners". The latter includes the biographies of Tian Chengsi 田承嗣, Shi Xiancheng 史憲誠, He Jintao 何進滔, Luo Hongxin 羅弘信, Li Baochen 李寶臣, Wang Wujun 王武俊, Wang Tingcou 王廷湊, Li Huaixian 李懷仙, Zhu Tao 朱滔, Liu Ping 劉怦, Zhu Kerong 朱克融, Li Zaiyi 李載義, Zhang Zhongwu 張仲武, Zhang Yunshen 張允伸, Li Maoxun 李茂勳, Li Quanzhong 李全忠, Liu Rengong 劉仁恭, Li Zhengji 李正己, Cheng Rihua 程日華, Li Quanlüe 李全略¸ Liu Xuanzuo 劉玄佐, Wu Shaocheng 吳少誠, and Liu Wu 劉悟, and their sons and brothers succeeding them in the post of military commissioner. The former provides detailed information on the names and jurisdictions of defence commands.