Warfare and the military were at the center of the imperial Chinese state, though their significance was downplayed by government officials and the literati. Chinese dynasties fielded armies organized and supported by the central government that combined infantry and cavalry forces, and mixed part-time (militia) and professional soldiers. Cavalry and infantry forces were strongly, though not exclusively, connected to ethnic background. The best and most numerous cavalry came from steppe groups, and the best and most numerous infantry were Chinese. The stirrup and guns were invented in China, changing the course of both Chinese and world military history. China also had a highly developed tradition of military thought that drew upon a classical tradition and was vastly elaborated and expanded upon during the imperial period. What most distinguished imperial China from its earlier period was the effective use of war to create and support a unified state. Overall, the history of warfare and the military in imperial China was one of technological and intellectual sophistication in support of state power.
Military Technology and Organization in Imperial China
The Influence of Central Asia on Horse Use
Since humans first captured horses and processed them for meat and hides about eight thousand years ago, the uses of the horse have expanded to riding and drafting. Breeding introduced some varieties of conformation, which affected the early human adaption to early chariot warfare, mounted archery, and cavalry. Subsequently, more systematic breeding increased the height, strength, and endurance of some horses. Increasing use of the horse in long-distance communications and transport, often by displacement of donkeys and oxen, changed assumptions about time and space, which contributed to the emergence of large empires. Central Asia—in the sense of the steppes and grasslands extending from Ukraine in the west to Mongolia in the east—had been the venue for early horse domestication, and in the historical period it remained a critical supplier of horses to empires on the Eurasian peripheries of Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, a pattern that continued into the 19th century. This was consonant with the need for compact horses of Central Asian types that could perform the needed tasks for riding and transport, but did not excessively strain the ability of agricultural societies to provide horses with grain and grazing land. Variations in horse use were manifested in differences in saddle design after the 4th century, reflecting differences in social stratification that cut across military and civilian status. This led to a distinct riding complex for mounted archers, laying the foundation for the expansion of the empires of the Mongols and Mughals, as well as the Qing Empire in China. Between about 500 and 1500, the genetic influence of Central Asia in the global horse population gradually waned as the influence of North African horses increased, corresponding to the expanding role of the horse in European and Middle Eastern transport and agriculture. In the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, aristocratic tastes across Eurasia encouraged the use of even more stallions from North Africa and Arabia, while Central Asian riding patterns became confined largely to nomadic and pastoral economies.
Warfare and Arms of the Early Iron Age Steppe Nomads
At the turn of Bronze and Early Iron Ages, the nomads of the Eurasian steppe brought about a new and progressive phenomenon in world military history: cavalry warfare. Spanning the vast distance from the Danube in the West to the Hwang Ho in the Far East, among nomadic peoples including the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sakas, Sarmatians, Xiongnu, and Xianbei, a universal mode of warfare, more or less similar in tactics, battle, arms and armor, and horse harness, dominated. The chronological frames of the Early Iron Age are differently determined in various historiographical traditions, but for the history of steppe Eurasia the frame is customarily considered to begin in the 10th century bce and end in the 5th century ce. The main sources used in studying the military art of Early Iron Age nomads are of two categories: the literary sources (Greek, Roman, Chinese), and archaeological finds of weapons, armor, and horse harnesses belonging to the various archaeological cultures of steppe nomads. The literary sources noted the Cimmerians (10th–8th c. bce); people of the Scythian ethnic group (7th–3rd c. bce), the proper Scythians and the Sakas, Massagetians, Issedonians, and Sauromatians; the Sarmatians (2nd c. bce–4th c. ce); the Xiongnu (2nd c. bce–1st c. ce); their contemporaries the Wusun and Yuezhi, and some other peoples. The light-armed cavalry was a basic military force of the nomads. Each nomadic man was an armed and skillful warrior. Judging from archaeological material and narrative sources, the nomadic light cavalryman was armed by bow and arrows, light javelin and/or lance, and probably lasso. The light cavalry consisted of the common nomads. Since the 7th c. bce noble nomad formed the heavy armored cavalry where the horsemen, and sometimes their horses, wore body armor and helmets. The tactical principles and fighting methods of nomads were conditioned by the composition of their army, with light cavalry prevailing. One of the main methods was raids, which varied in duration, range, and composition of personnel involved. The battle tactics of nomadic troops developed due to a need to overcome a resistance of deep infantry formation. Since the long spears of infantry inhibited close combat, nomadic horsemen first covered the adversary with a massive and dense, although undirected, torrent of arrows. After that, light horsemen approached and threw spears and javelins from shorter distances, thus causing confusion in the ranks of the infantry. Then heavy cavalry rushed into the breach for fighting with close-combat weapons, spears, and battleaxes.
Warfare in Premodern Southeast Asia
Michael W. Charney
Warfare in premodern Southeast Asia, roughly that fought up until the end of the 19th century, was shaped by the environment across the region. Maritime trade connections brought the introduction and circulation of external models of warfare that would help to frame the way warfare in the region was depicted in some of the indigenous literature and art (including the influence of the Indian epics on shadow puppet theater). Firearms played a more direct role in determining the development of warfare in the region over the course of the early modern period. As a result of better firearms, the elephant declined in battlefield importance and was increasingly replaced by cavalry. In the 18th century, Southeast Asians fielded some of their best-organized armies, and in the early 19th century there was a temporary revival of naval strength in parts of the region, particularly in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the introduction of the steamship and better European military technology from the 1820s ushered in the decline of the remaining Southeast Asian armies by the end of the 19th century. Although indigenous states would attempt to modernize and catch up with Europe militarily, all of Southeast Asia, save for Thailand, fell under European control.
The Maratha Empire
The Marathas, now sometimes called “Maharashtrians,” are an Indic people, speakers of the Marathi language. The boundaries of the modern Indian state of Maharashtra were drawn so as to include all majority Marathi-speaking areas. The Marathi language emerged a thousand years ago, but the Maratha Empire took shape only after 1674. Its leaders contended with the Mughal Empire and contributed to its downfall. They created a loosely knit but dynamic political system that grew within the frame of Mughal imperial power while reducing it to a shadow of its former self. Maratha governors ruled the great cities of Agra and Delhi, and it was from them that the British wrested control of north India in 1803–1806. The residual Maratha states still put up a fierce resistance before succumbing to the new British Empire in 1818. British historians wrote the first draft of Indian history. The English public was uninterested in the Marathas. The Mughal dynasty and the older states of Rajasthan received far more favorable attention. The historical narrative that the British rescued India from chaos also required a depiction of the Marathas as predatory sources of disorder. This representation has resulted in minimizing the commercial dynamism and flexibility of Maratha administration. Maratha taxation was far from destructive. It operated within a dynamic political economy. While periodically affected (as Indian governments had long been) by climatic catastrophe or political breakdown, this economy could recuperate quickly in better times. The Maratha Empire also represented a unique identification between a people and an empire. Ordinary Maharashtrian farmers served in its armies, were proud of its political achievements, and identified with the Maratha patria. The empire was also marked by a continuity with the symmetrical patterns of kinship and marriage customary in Maharashtra. While sons of secondary wives could rise to high positions in the lineage, primary marriages continued to be with women of status. Affinal relatives were recognized and played a large role in governance. Also, unlike the Mughal Empire, the Marathas used their own language wherever they ruled, enriching and elaborating it all the while. This prefigured the rise of linguistic nationalisms more generally in India under British rule.