Defense of the Qing Empire


Soldiers from the Green Standard Army.

Defense of the Qing Empire initially fell on the shoulders of the Eight Banners (baqi) and the Green Standard Army (lüying). By 1800, both had long ceased to be effective as the country was subjected to Western intrusion and increasing social upheavals.


Created by the founders of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) prior to the invasion of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the Eight Banners was a military force composed of Manchus, Mongols who had submitted to the Manchu, and the Han of southern Manchuria and some other areas. Of the three ethnic components, the Manchu was by far the largest, estimated at 60 percent of the entire force in the late Qing. The Metropolitan Banners were regular units located in and around Beijing, as well as in Zhili and Fengtian. Some of the “bondservants” (Chinese captured when the Han settlements on the plains of southern Manchuria were overrun by the Qing founders) were organized into separate banner companies. Provincial garrisons were widely distributed among four geographical regions: the capital region, the northeast, the northwest, and the rest of China proper. In addition to these, there were banner units consisting of various frontier peoples who were not formally counted among the provincial garrisons. By the late eighteenth century, the Eight Banners, at one time a first-rate fighting force, had been debilitated by long periods of peace, prosperity, and corruption.


The Han Chinese Green Standard Army was a larger military force, widely dispersed in small garrisons throughout the provinces. Originally the soldiers of commanders of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) who surrendered to the Qing in 1644 and after, these garrisons were stationed mostly in district or prefectural cities as a constabulary force to maintain local order, and their power could not penetrate the village substructure, where rebellions often arose and flourished. The Green Standard Army was inadequate in times of major social upheaval. Moreover, these troops could be brought together in large bodies only under high commanders specially deputed from the capital during emergencies. The chief officers of each garrison were rotated so that none could establish personal loyalties among his subordinates. As with the Eight Banners, these troops had declined in military power by the late eighteenth century.


During the Taiping and other rebellions, the Qing dynasty had to depend on the tuanlian (militia units, grouped and drilled locally) or the yongying (mercenary armies) for its survival. The tuanlian system emerged in the mid-1850s out of the tradition of border-area officials who sought to tighten bureaucratic control over rural society. Such units were later augmented by the militarization of local gentry elite who sought to protect their communities and property from marauding groups of jobless and desperate people, as well as their Confucian way of life from Muslim and pseudo-Christian rebels. Two important examples of militia are the Hunan Army (Xiangjun) formed by Zeng Guofan and the Anhui Army (Huaijun) raised by Li Hongzhang, both of which were trained in traditional fashion, despite the use of some Western arms. Both were loyal to the Qing state, and, as such, local militarization was compatible with the requirements of the imperial state.

Through their loyalty to the throne, and the award of official ranks and titles in return, local elites were drawn into the Qing system and bureaucracy. On the other hand, the tuanlian system contributed to the growth of regional power and posed acute problems for the imperial state, even though central power was not seriously undermined. Once the Taipings were suppressed in the mid- 1860s, both the Hunan Army and the Anhui Army were ordered by the Qing court to disband. However, while large numbers of troops were demobilized, many were also kept at imperial command to quell other rebellions and to defend China against the West and Japan.

Reform of the armed forces began at this time, culminating with the establishment of the New Army in the first decade of the twentieth century, after the Boxer Uprising.


For most of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the navy began to occupy the attention of Qing officials as well. This focus on naval development represented a major change in Chinese military and strategic thinking. Traditionally, China’s invaders had mainly come overland from Inner Asia and the far north; they were nomadic or semi-nomadic horse-riding “barbarians.” This threat, linked as it was to the Great Wall and to the army, dominated traditional Chinese military thinking.

Until the second half of the nineteenth century, China had no naval tradition. The only time previously that China had a fleet was in the early fifteenth century, during the reign of the third Ming emperor, Yongle (r. 1402– 1424), when Admiral Zheng He (1371–c. 1433) made seven voyages to Southeast Asia and beyond, with at least four of them reaching the Red Sea ports of West Asia and the shores of East Africa. These voyages, however, did not lead to Chinese maritime expansion and ended in 1433. It took another four and a half centuries for the rulers of the Middle Kingdom to realize that a modern navy was a vital means of defense and a chief index of great-power status. In the mid-nineteenth century, the British taught Qing military strategists that the greatest external threat to the Middle Kingdom came from the sea and from the south and east, and that a different military strategy was required for coastal defense. Even so, there was a twenty-year hiatus between the Opium War (1839–1842) and the start of naval development in China in the 1860s.


The Foochow Arsenal under construction, between 1867 and 1871. Three albumen prints joined to form a panorama.

The establishment in 1866 of the Fuzhou Navy Yard by Governor-General Zuo Zongtang of Fujian and Zhejiang, with Shen Baozhen as superintendent, was a modest start toward building a naval force. With foreign help, especially from the French, fifteen ships had been built by 1874 and a training program was in full operation. Nevertheless, although new ships were purchased from abroad or were built at Fuzhou and Shanghai, these were not organized into a single national fleet. There were conflicts between those who favored ambitious ship-buying programs and those who wanted to build ships in China. Li Hongzhang, the northern commissioner of trade and the governor-general of Zhili from 1870 to 1895, sought to establish a single national naval command, and he preferred to buy the ships. The result of the conflict was a lack of standardization in China’s fleet.

On the eve of the Sino-French War (1884–1885), China had over fifty modern ships, more than half of them homebuilt. Of the rest, thirteen were British Armstrong gunboats, two were Armstrong cruisers, and two were German ships. There was still no single national fleet and no unified command. The Fuzhou squadron was wiped out in the war with the French. The loss to France was due not so much to French naval superiority as to the structure of the Chinese leadership and the political organization of the imperial state. The insufficiently trained Chinese naval personnel had no grasp of a naval strategy appropriate to China’s new ships.


In 1885 the Navy Board was created. The following years, especially between 1888 and 1894, saw the emergence of the Beiyang fleet. Headed by Prince Chun (1883–1951), the Navy Board proved to be ineffectual in its efforts to centralize naval affairs. Li Hongzhang, for all his national ambitions, was still operating in regional fashion. He reorganized his Beiyang flotilla into a fleet of twenty-five ships, acknowledging British and German precedents in staff organization. Commanded by Admiral Ding Ruchang (1836–1895), the Beiyang fleet was divided into seven functional squadrons. It was the largest of China’s four fleets, the others being the Nanyang squadron along the coast south of Shandong and two squadrons in Fujian and Guangdong. Coastal defense preparations included shore fortifications at Port Arthur (Luxun), Dalianwan, and Weihaiwei, and numerous forts along the southern coast and the Yangzi.

Elsewhere, coastal defense was still carried out the old way, and the water forces on the Yangzi River remained traditional. The Shanghai defenses used mines that were often poorly mapped, and the Ningbo defenses used torpedoes. In the south, Governor-General Zhang Zhidong built forts but, as late as 1886, still resorted to harbor blocking by dumping stones in the river in the face of a threat from foreign ships.

The naval academies at Fuzhou, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Tianjin, and Weihaiwei were in full operation during the 1885–1894 decade. In Fuzhou, there were two naval schools: a French-language construction school and an English- language naval academy for officers in deck and engine divisions. British officers from the Royal Naval College at Greenwich were engaged to help train early groups of students. Later, bright students were sent to England and Germany for advanced training. In 1888, when Li Hongzhang established the Beiyang fleet, he was well served by the Fuzhou-trained men. The faculty of the academy in Tianjin included William M. Lang of the British Royal Navy, who was given an imperial commission and the title of admiral to run the training program in British fashion and to take charge of the Beiyang fleet’s organization and naval yards. He resigned his commission in 1890, after which training at Tianjin went into decline.


Over the years, China’s naval development was hampered by institutional problems and financial difficulties (aggravated by the Qing court’s reluctance to change its system of public financing). Many funds meant for the navy were diverted in 1888 and after into building, or refurbishing, the Summer Palace in Beijing. Naval reforms were undertaken with insufficient coordination among officials, each of whom had his own priorities and preoccupations. There was also a lack of leadership from the center. Few high officials in Beijing took a real interest in the navy. And no one, not even Li Hongzhang, could make the naval service into a respected profession or career in China.


The weakness of the Chinese navy was fully demonstrated in the war with Japan (1894–1895). On the eve of the war, the navy had sixty-six large ships, with over 430 torpedo boats. The Beiyang fleet was the strongest; alone it equaled that of Japan in numbers. Li Hongzhang thus was deeply involved in the war, with the Navy Board playing only a subordinate role while the other squadrons looked on. What little help Li received from the southern fleets was given reluctantly. As a result, the Beiyang fleet was wiped out in the 1894 Battle of the Yalu, which demonstrated how disunited China was and how backward it remained in modern warfare.

After the war, the British continued to assist the Qing dynasty with naval reorganization. But the Beiyang fleet never recovered from the Japanese defeat. This led to a reversion of Chinese military and strategic thinking in the post-Boxer decade to the tradition of land defense, when great store was set on the New Army (xinjun).


After the demise of the imperial state in 1912, the militarization of Chinese society did not cease; it only took a different form. Local elites collaborated with the military regimes at provincial and regional levels to protect themselves and to seek a share of political power in the unstable new order. The New Army in south, west, and central China was largely disorganized, as the revolutionary forces altered the existing military organizations to suit their purposes. New formations of all sorts sprang into existence, with many of the new recruits being unruly elements. In the north, however, the framework of the original New Army organization remained intact, though many divisions had been greatly reduced by war losses and subsequent desertions. Overall, there were too many men under arms. The ascendancy of the military after the 1911 Revolution and the events that unfolded paved the way for a long period of warlord rule in the Republican period.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Fung, Edmund S. K. (Feng Zhaoji) The Military Dimension of the Chinese Revolution: The New Army and Its Role in the Revolution of 1911. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980. Kuhn, Philip A. Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796–1864. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970. Pong, David. Shen Pao-chen and China’s Modernization in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Rawlinson, John L. China’s Struggle for Naval Development, 1839– 1985. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967. Rhoads, Edward J. Manchus & Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late and Early Republican China, 1861–1928. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-chang and the Huai Army: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Chinese Regionalism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964. Wang Gungwu. Anglo-Chinese Encounters since 1800: War, Trade, Science, and Governance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


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