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 Medieval Uyghurs of the 8th through 14th Centuries
Michael C. Brose
The medieval Uyghurs became a political entity in the mid-8th century when they established their steppe empire as the inheritors of the ancient Türk steppe tribal confederation. They ruled their empire for a century from their capital city in the heart of the Mongol steppe. Their empire ended when rival Kirgiz tribes attacked it, and the Uyghur aristocracy fled south into the borderland areas between China and the steppe. Two groups of diaspora Uyghurs built new states in Gansu and the Tarim Basin. The Gansu Uyghurs stayed in that region but never exerted any real power as a state. The Uyghurs who migrated to the Tarim Basin were more successful, building an independent kingdom that maintained a stable rule over the mixed population of city dwellers and nomads who lived in the far-flung oases of the area. The Tarim Basin Uyghurs readily adapted to the sedentary lifestyle and built one of the most highly diverse societies of the age, where Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, and nomads all lived side by side. Even after they became subjects of the Qarakhitai and then the Mongols, the Uyghurs retained some autonomy as political rulers in the Tarim Basin. That ended when Khubilai lost control of the Tarim Basin and most of the Uyghur aristocracy moved to China. The Uyghur diaspora refashioned their identity a third time in China as members of the conquest government and the cultural literati. Their existence as a distinct political entity ended with the eviction from China of the Mongols.
Ancient Steppe Nomad Societies
Throughout more than two millennia, the extensive droughty areas in East Asia were occupied by pastoral nomads. A long history exists of hybridity between steppe and agricultural areas. The ancient nomads had a specific pastoral economy, a mobile lifestyle, a unique mentality that assumed unpretentiousness and stamina, cults of war, warrior horsemen, and heroized ancestors that were reflected, in turn, in both their verbal oeuvre (heroic epos) and their arts (animal style). They established vast empires that united many peoples. In the descriptions of settled civilizations, the peoples of the steppe are presented as aggressive barbarians. However, the pastoral nomads developed efficient mechanisms of adaptation to nature and circumjacent states. They had a complex internal structure and created different forms of social complexity—from heterarchical confederations to large nomadic empires. The different forms of identity in pastoral societies (gender, age, profession, rank) are presented in this article. Special attention is given to how ethnic identity is formed from small groups. The ethnic history of the ancient nomads of East Asia is described, particularly for such pastoral societies as the Xiongnu, the Wuhuan, the Xianbei, and the Rouran.
Hyun Jin Kim
The Xiongnu were an Inner Asian people who formed an empire, a state entity encompassing a multiethnic, multicultural, and polyglot population. The ruling elite of this empire were, for the most part, pastoralists. However, the empire also possessed a substantial agrarian base. In the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries bce, the Xiongnu created the first empire to unify much of Inner Asia. The Xiongnu Empire stretched from Manchuria in the east to the Aral Sea in the west, from the Baikal region in the north to the Ordos and Gansu regions of China in the south. In the 2nd century bce, the Xiongnu also subjected the Han Empire of China to tribute payments. However, late in that century, the Han broke the heqin policy of engagement with the Xiongnu and began a long struggle for supremacy with its northern foe. Political instability arising from protracted struggles over the imperial succession gradually undermined the Xiongnu Empire. In the middle of the first century ce, the state splintered into two halves: the Northern Xiongnu and the Southern Xiongnu. The Southern Xiongnu later conquered Northern China in the early 4th century ce, while the remnants of the Northern Xiongnu became the political and cultural forebears of the later Huns of western Eurasia.
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.
The Uyghur Empire (744–840)
Michael R. Drompp
The Uyghurs (Chinese Huihe迴 紇, Huihu回鶻) were a pastoral nomadic people living in the region of the Selenga and Orkhon river valleys in modern Mongolia; they spoke a Turkic language. The empire that they created on the steppe lasted for nearly a century (744–840) and played an important role, both politically and culturally, in East Asia. Centered on the Mongolian Plateau, the Uyghur Empire at its height controlled numerous other peoples within a territory that included lands to the north in the modern regions of Tuva and Buryatia, as well as some parts of the northern Tarim Basin and eastern Inner Mongolia.1 During its eventful history, the Uyghur Empire sent cavalry to help the Tang Dynasty put down the An Lushan rebellion, maintained strong political and economic ties with China, fought with the Tibetan Empire for control of important international trade routes, built cities on the steppe, celebrated its rulers’ achievements in stone stelae, and—uniquely in the world—adopted Manichaeism as its state religion. After their empire collapsed, the Uyghurs developed new polities in Gansu and the Tarim Basin that continued to exercise influence in Inner Asia.
The Kazakh Khanate
The Kazakh Khanate was a Chinggisid nomadic state that ruled the eastern Qipchaq Steppe (Dasht-i Qipchāq), a steppe zone that roughly corresponds to modern-day Kazakhstan, during the post-Mongol period as one of the most important successor states of the Mongol Empire and the last reigning dynasty of the Chinggisids. The Kazakh Khanate branched off from the Ulus of Jochi, whose people (ulus) were called Uzbeks in 15th-century Central Asia. The Kazakh Khanate was founded by the Uzbeks led by Jānībeg Khan and Girāy Khan, two Jochid princes who sometime in the 1450s had broken away from Abū al-Khair Khan, the Jochid ruler of the eastern Qipchaq Steppe. In the 16th century, like other Chinggisid states such as the Crimean Khanate, the Northern Yuan, and the Shibanid Uzbek Khanate that emerged as regional empires in the territories of the former Mongol Empire, the Kazakh Khanate was transformed into a nomadic empire. During the reigns of Qāsim Khan (r. c. 1512–1521) and his successors Ḥaqq Naẓar Khan (r. c. 1538–1581) and Tawakkul Khan (r. c. 1582–1598), the Kazakh Khanate expanded westward to reach the Yayïq (Ural) River and eastward the Tienshan Mountains. The Kazakh Khanate entered a period of sharp decline at the turn of the 18th century due to the Zunghar Oirat onslaught. As a result, the Kazakh khans and sultans became nominal vassals of the Russian Empire and the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The Kazakh Khanate was annexed by the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, which brought to an end the six-centuries-long reign of the Chinggisids.
Earth, Water, Air, and Fire: Toward an Ecological History of Premodern Inner Eurasia
John L. Brooke and Henry Misa
The histories of humanity and nature are deeply entangled across Inner Eurasia. Great expanses of steppe and mountain connected peoples at the far ends of the landmass and sustained unique civilizational zones of nomadic and settled societies. These are regions profoundly shaped by some of the most complex climatic regimes and by one of the most devastating disease vectors in the world. Viewed in the longue durée of the Holocene, the premodern prehistory and history of Inner Eurasia takes on new dimensions when reviewed in the context of the latest work being done in environmental, climate, and genetic science.