NO STUDY OF MILITARY AFFAIRS can ignore the crucial issue of logistics, herewith understood in the constricted sense of the art of supplying and sustaining armies both in movement and at rest. (Logistics thus encompasses the acquisition and transport of materials and provisions, feeding of the forces, and movement of armies rather than, as Jomini said, “all aspects ancillary and apart from the ‘conduct of war itself’.”) 1 Pioneering studies of Western armies provide exemplary models, and the probable requirements of individual soldiers can be projected, even historically employed, to assess the believability of massive campaign forces.2 However, armies often achieved seemingly impossible tasks, little is known about ancient dietary requirements, and concrete evidence is lacking for most of antiquity. Accordingly, our consideration of logistics is necessarily confined to a few introductory comments, an exploration of the main difficulties identified in Warring States writings and subsequent practice, and a brief overview of the measures and structures that may have characterized supply and support efforts in the Hsia and Shang.

The problems inherent to supplying expeditionary armies in China rarely deterred military initiatives and were never articulated until broached by the classic military writings. The earliest forces, which numbered less than a few thousand, survived by carrying large quantities of foodstuffs at the outset, being supplied (willingly or not) by allies and subject peoples en route, seizing accumulated resources, foraging, and frequently pausing to fish and mount massive hunts in forested areas.3 Nevertheless, the onerous requirements of campaign sustainment gradually prompted the assignment of supply responsibilities in even the most primitive administrative structures. Thereafter, the passage of time and fielding of increasingly larger forces compelled the development of specialized positions.

For the Chou, Shang, and remote Hsia, the Chou Li’s discussion of administrative hierarchies and functional responsibilities is generally acknowledged as an unreliable idealization. Officials noted as having exercised logistical duties may have existed but not necessarily been assigned the indicated role, or the titles may be wrong but the activities correct. Even then, “quartermasters” are not actually described until late in the Warring States period in a chapter of the Six Secret Teachings outlining the essential members of a general staff.4 Among the eighteen basic categories of officials, there should be four “supply officers responsible for calculating the requirements for food and water; preparing the food stocks and supplies and transporting the provisions along the route; and supplying the five grains so as to ensure that the army will not suffer any hardship or shortage.”

The army’s first priority in the field would have been locating adequate water resources and ensuring they had not been poisoned or contaminated, two pernicious measures that would be practiced from the sixth century BCE onward.5 Water, especially its denial, is a focal issue in the later military writings, but even Hsia and Shang forces must have been acutely conscious of the need for it, particularly when venturing out against enemies in the semiarid steppe.6 How much water they carried, what sort of containers they employed (such as gourds), and whether wheeled vehicles—either human or animal powered—were used are all unknown. However, being heavy, bulky, and fluid, water is inconvenient to transport; the countryside was still relatively unpopulated; techniques for digging wells were already known; and potential sources were numerous, especially leading up to the early Hsia and in the Shang from Wu Ting’s reign onward, suggesting they depended on ongoing acquisition.

Because the primary nourishment was provided by millet, then wheat, and finally rice, and all three require cooking, firewood had to be gathered and primitive stoves or other cooking arrangements set up. (To secure the allegiance of their troops, Warring States writings advised commanders to emulate famous generals like Wu Ch’i, who never ate or drank until the army’s wells had been completed and the fires lit for cooking.)7 Once they exhausted the local firewood, the inability to boil water and prepare hot food would have immediately increased the army’s misery and the likelihood of disease, especially in winter months and the rainy season.

In the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, campaign provisions would be increasingly sourced through official confiscations that took several forms, including outright seizure and military impositions (fu), while laborers were assembled through broad-based conscription and onerous work levees. Tax obligations might include supplying any of the grains, furnishing an ox or horse, or providing certain types of equipment, and it is claimed that conscripts in the Warring States period were required to report for duty fully equipped and even to sustain themselves for brief periods, though this quickly proved ineffective. Across the centuries monetary impositions would be increasingly imposed, allowing the government greater flexibility in purchasing the requisite equipment and provisions while minimizing the inconvenience and expense of transporting bulky commodities in every conceivable amount around the realm.

By improving trails and demarking regal highways, the Shang initiated an unbroken heritage of increasingly ambitious road projects intended to facilitate administration, communication, and the rapid dispatch of troops to quell unrest or counter peripheral threats. Nevertheless, because oxen rapidly consume a high percentage of their grain loads, and horses were comparatively few and inordinately inexpensive, ordinary soldiers still carried hefty rations.8 However, the small boats that began to ply China’s extensive rivers and lakes in the middle to late Shang could have been employed to transport grain, and oracular inscriptions indicate the king actively contemplated the possibility of moving troops over water. Many centuries later, at the very inception of canal building in the Spring and Autumn, the state of Wu would construct a canal solely to facilitate moving troops and provisions from the southeast into the heartland. Lengthy canals intended for military and dual-use purposes such as supplying interior capitals would also multiply in the Ch’in and subsequent dynasties.

Although the expenses incurred in the Hsia and Shang for military activities are likely to remain unknown, some sense of martial costs and their greater impact can be gleaned from later calculations and comments. The average 100,000-man Warring States operational force, with its numerous chariots and complex siege equipment (but no cavalry), required an extensive supply train, numerous support personnel, and Herculean efforts. The Art of War, attributed to Sun-tzu, but probably compiled sometime early in the Warring States period, notes that, “if there are 1,000 four-horse attack chariots, 1,000 leather-armored support chariots, 100,000 mailed troops, and provisions are transported 1,000 li, then the domestic and external campaign expenses, the expenditures for advisers and guests, materials such as glue and lacquer, and providing chariots and armor will be 1,000 pieces of gold per day. Only then can an army of 100,000 be mobilized.”9

A thousand pieces of gold being an almost incalculable expense at that time, Sun-tzu warned that prolonged warfare would not only exhaust the people, but also consume some 60 to 70 percent of the state’s resources and entangle seven families for every man who served: “Those inconvenienced and troubled both within and without the border, who are exhausted on the road or unable to pursue their agricultural work, will be 700,000 families.”10 (These numbers may have been derived from rather late, idealized concepts of the well-fielded organization, in which eight families were supposedly allotted individual plots arrayed much like a tic-tac-toe board around a center portion that they farmed in common to sustain the government.)

Seconding Sun-tzu’s conclusion that “one bushel of the enemy’s foodstuffs is worth twenty of ours, one picul of fodder is worth twenty of ours,”11 most military writers subsequently advised capitalizing on whatever might be acquired en route or seized in enemy territory, including from the enemy themselves in armed clashes. Victorious Spring and Autumn forces occasionally captured “three days of supplies,” suggesting that this might have been the minimal reserve for a field force, and larger amounts were sometimes noted.12 In no doubt characterizing Warring States practices, the Six Secret Teachings states that the vanguard should carry three days of “prepared food” to facilitate rapid movement and transitioning to combat as necessary. However, the advance force that preceded the vanguard had a six-day supply, and “the main army set out with a fixed daily ration.”13

To implement Sun-tzu’s belief that “if you forage in the fertile countryside, the Three Armies will have enough to eat,” generals across the ages routinely dispatched contingents tasked with plundering and foraging. 14 However, the prospects for success would depend on the terrain’s accessibility and the existence of warehouses, granaries, animal herds, and readily harvested crops. Yet armies around the world have managed to sustain major field efforts for almost unimaginable periods, though always at a devastating cost to the local populace. (At a minimum the land is denuded, the infrastructure damaged, heavy collateral casualties suffered, the local population displaced, and starvation endured, especially when seed crop allotments are confiscated.)

Population and agricultural yields both continued to increase throughout the Lungshan period, resulting in local surpluses. As previously noted, recently investigated storage pits indicate that surprisingly large amounts of grain could be accumulated, a situation that probably persisted in the Hsia and Shang. The production of inebriating liquors, attested by the proliferation of drinking vessels in the Shang as well as being a purported cause of their downfall, is generally seen as further evidence of a grain surplus.15

Contradictorily, the early military writings also decried confiscation policies as counterproductive because they would stiffen enemy resistance. 16 Moreover, even the stupidest commander would have herds shifted away from projected lines of march, structures dismantled, goods moved into fortified towns, a scorched earth policy implemented, and as many provisions as possible acquired before becoming entangled in a probable siege situation, just as outlined in sections of the Mo-tzu and the Wei Liao-tzu.

Battlefield experience would stimulate an acute consciousness of the value of food and its denial as a weapon, both in practice and in the classic theoretical writings. For example, in stressing the role of measure and constraint in campaigns, Wu Ch’i said:17 “If their advancing and resting are not measured, drinking and eating not timely and appropriate, and they are not allowed to relax in the encampment when the horses are tired and the men weary, then they will be unable to put the commander’s orders into effect. When the commander’s orders are thus disobeyed, they will be in turmoil when encamped and will be defeated in battle.”

Armies operating in the field for prolonged periods often found themselves either out of supplies or cut off by the enemy, resulting in weakness, starvation, and even death should they be compelled to surrender, as happened to the 400,000 from Chao at Ch’ang-p’ing in the third century BCE. The middle Warring States Six Secret Teachings counseled trickery when confronted by a lack of supplies or inability to forage,18 and even included a five-inch strip for “requesting supplies and additional soldiers” among its set of tallies for secret communications. 19

The Wu-tzu, an early Warring States compilation nominally attributed to the great general Wu Ch’i, included exhaustion of the food supplies and an inability to acquire firewood and fodder as such debilitating conditions for the enemy that they could be attacked without further contemplation or assessment.20 The critical importance of supplies is also evident from their deliberate abandonment, a desperate measure designed to stimulate death-defying resolve in the troops and impress upon them the finality of their situation as they battled on “fatal terrain.”21

By the Warring States period well-provisioned cities would be viewed as relatively impregnable to attack, but those who had not made appropriate preparations remained highly vulnerable: “If the six domesticated animals have not been herded in, the five grains not yet harvested, the wealth and materials for use not yet collected, then even though they have resources, they do not have any resources!”22 Conversely, “collecting all the grain stored outside in the earthen cellars and granaries and the buildings outside the outer walls into the fortifications will force the attackers to expend ten or one hundred times the energy, while the defenders will not expend half.”23

When sieges commenced in the Spring and Autumn period, aggressive actions against fortified towns sometimes had to be abandoned because the attackers had exhausted their food supplies. Thus, in later periods the problem of sustaining a prolonged siege was sometimes partially solved by assigning a portion of the troops to undertake localized farming efforts, a sort of precursor to deliberately having longemplaced garrisons simultaneously farm and perform defensive functions along the border from the Han onward. Warring States writers were acutely aware of how intertwined war and agriculture had become, no doubt accounting for Shang Yang’s views and the state of Ch’in awarding rank only for achievements in war and agriculture.24

Early in the Spring and Autumn period, Ch’in therefore tried to undermine Chin by refusing any aid when the latter was suffering from famine, despite having previously benefited from their largess. Even more perniciously, at the end of the period Yüeh reportedly sought to debilitate its nemesis Wu through an unorthodox biological attack effected by offering them high-yielding but secretly damaged seed for the next year’s crop, thereby enticing them into consuming their reserves.

Because victory invariably depends on securing adequate materials and provisions, severing the enemy’s supply routes could compel them to segment their forces or dispatch disorganized raiding parties that might then be assaulted in detail, thereby winnowing down their forces while reducing them to a starving, ineffective rabble. Under the unrelenting pressure of severe deficiencies, commanders tended to mount hasty actions that often turned out to be premature or ill-conceived. In addition, people trapped in fortified cities under extended siege not infrequently resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Acquiring accurate knowledge of the enemy’s condition, particularly how long they might endure before hunger would totally dispirit or starvation kill them, could prove critical in formulating effective tactics. As early as the Art of War Sun-tzu noted that “those who stand about leaning on their weapons are hungry” while “if those who draw water drink first, they are thirsty.”25 The status of the enemy’s provisions—“whether the army is well prepared or suffers from inadequacies, whether there is a surplus or shortage of foodstuffs”—accordingly came to be viewed as a key factor in assessing enemy vulnerability.26 The late Warring States, Taoist-oriented Three Strategies of Huang-shih Kung somewhat expansively advised:27

The key to using the army is to first investigate the enemy’s situation. Look into their granaries and armories, estimate their food stocks, divine their strengths and weaknesses, search out their natural advantages, and seek out their vacuities and fissures. A state that does not have the hardship of an army in the field yet is transporting grain must be suffering from emptiness. If the people have a sickly cast they are impoverished. If they are transporting provisions for a thousand li the officers will have a hungry look. If they must gather wood and grass before they can eat, the army does not have enough food to pass one night.

Accordingly, anyone who transports provisions a thousand li will lack food for a year; two thousand li, two years; and three thousand li, three years. This is what is referred to as an empty state. When a state is empty the people are impoverished. When the people are impoverished, the government and populace are estranged. While the enemy is attacking from without, the people are stealing from within. This is termed a situation of “inevitable collapse.”

Commanders therefore sought to deny this information through increased security, wide buffer zones, outright deception, and other means. For example, General Ho of the Northern Chou created phony grain mounds by heaping grain on top of piles of sand, causing the local people who had been stealthily observing the camp to report the existence of ample supplies to the enemy.28

In terms of logistical practices, it must be conceded that the Chinese Neolithic remains unknowable. However, most clashes were localized affairs, basically raids and brief encounters conducted by a few dozen men within a day’s march, and the combatants probably carried sufficient provisions to sustain them for a day or two. However, as regional powers such as the Hsia, San Miao, and proto-Shang arose and conflict escalated to involve hundreds, then thousands, of men, some administrative and organizational measures must have been initiated.

Archaeological discoveries provide evidence that the adoption of agriculture and then its rapid expansion in the Lungshan period meant that edible stores ranging from millet to seeds had come into existence, would be found at every village, and could easily be seized by forces in the field. In addition, pigs and other mobile animals that were raised in large numbers greatly increased the potential food supply, but could also entangle the troops in slaying and cooking them, making them vulnerable to the sort of surprise attacks that would be advocated and exploited in later centuries.29

Insofar as hunting and the gathering of fruits and other edibles still played a vital role in the Neolithic and even the Shang, small bands of a few hundred could probably find adequate sustenance in the generally uninhabited countryside about them. Large-scale hunts in which several hundred animals might be captured or slain prior to a campaign would also provide significant provisions. Furthermore, since almost all the settlements and villages, the era’s most likely targets, were located near rivers and lakes, fishing and trapping offered another, though somewhat more time-consuming, possibility. Some animals such as the sheep found buried with the Shang chariot formation could have been herded along in viable numbers if the armies, proceeding on foot, did not advance too far or too quickly, thereby lessening the protein burdens of hunting.

The relative advantages and disadvantages of cattle and horses apart, the fundamental problem of providing fodder was simply one of weight and bulk. However, the limited forces fielded prior to the Shang were probably not accompanied by animals, and even Shang armies had few chariots and wagons, so their requirements would have been low and probably satisfied simply by letting the horses and any cattle employed as motive power for so-called ta ch’e or large vehicles graze in the immediate area. Reconstructed campaigns indicate that Shang armies on campaign rarely remained encamped for any lengthy period and were thus able to avoid exhausting the locally available fodder and provisions or suffering the many other logistical and health problems posed by stalemates and prolonged sieges.30

In the Eastern Chou and later periods winter was generally thought to be the proper season for the military activities of punishing and slaying, in accord with the ascendancy of yin and the natural characteristics of the correlated elemental phases of metal (autumn) and water (winter). Thus the officials charged with administering punishments appear among those correlated with autumn in the Chou Li, and several weapons makers are subsumed under winter. In addition, military activities undertaken at this time could take advantage of the lull in agricultural obligations and live off recently harvested crops. However, the oracular inscriptions show that the Shang initiated military campaigns in response to external stimuli and perceived threats throughout the year. Even though the effects of cold weather had to be endured, autumn and winter campaigns were no doubt facilitated by the maturation of fruits and nuts and the enhanced availability of agricultural reserves, but clearly were not constrained by their existence.

Warehouses and granaries were maintained in the core area from which the initial supplies for military campaigns could be allocated. In addition, the Shang constantly opened new fields on the periphery and converted conquered areas into farmland, particularly to the west. Armies necessarily passing through these areas could take advantage of locally harvested and stored provisions, and it appears that some of the subjugated states also retained foodstuffs and animals for such use rather than forwarding them to the Shang as tribute, thereby reducing not only any initial amount that might have to be allotted, but also the cost and effort of transport.31 However, large numbers of animals—up to several hundred oxen on at least one occasion—were also received by the Shang, and though many were consumed and used for sacrificial purposes (prior to also being consumed), some would certainly have been available to supply military requirements.

Under Wu Ting the Shang further reduced its military expenses by dispatching subservient states and coercing allies who were responsible for sustaining themselves in the field. They also seem to have provided supplies when necessary. For example, one inscription preserves a query as to whether the proto-state of Yüeh will supply the needs of the (regiments) on the march.32 The value of such contributions should not be underestimated. As the Art of War notes, “The state is impoverished by the army when it transports provisions far off. When provisions are transported far off, the hundred surnames are impoverished. One who excels in employing the military does not transport provisions a third time.”33

Even though many Shang campaigns probably required only a few weeks, weapons questions would have still loomed large. Apart from the piercing and crushing weapons carried from the outset, a huge number of arrows had to be supplied as the campaign progressed. For a single engagement the total of twenty arrows carried in each archer’s two quivers might have sufficed, but even at a very slow rate of fire of perhaps five shots per minute, a daylong standoff or intense pre-clash archery duel would easily consume a few hundred per man. No archer could have carried that many, as suggested by the large number of bundles often recovered from Shang tombs, so there must have been some system of supply and resupply.

Opinion differs about whether the Hsia’s rudimentary administrative structure included officials responsible for weapons or they were simply provided by the individuals themselves or the various Hsia clans.34 However, as previously noted, it is generally thought that the Shang monopolized the manufacture and bulk storage of weapons, even though a wide variety of dagger-axes, dirks, axes, and bows must have been in the possession of the Shang warrior elite. Conversely, it has been asserted that the early Chou dynasty military proclamation known as the “Fei Shih,” included in the Shang Shu but probably dating to the early Spring and Autumn, provides evidence that the troops furnished their own weapons in the early Chou and thus, by projection backward, in the Shang.

However, the highly laconic “Fei Shih” is a very indeterminate collection of statements promulgated by an unknown commander prior to a campaign against the Yi located around the Huai River. Even though they are instructed to prepare their armor and weapons by repairing, sharpening, and generally putting everything in order, there is no information on the origin of these weapons. (The troops are also ordered to prepare cooked rations of grain, but whether the materials were supplied by the government is unknown.) Even the official in charge of weapons noted in the Chou Li, who clearly provides them to the users (including those about to learn archery), cannot be realistically envisioned as having existed in the Shang.

Different clans seem to have specialized, whether deliberately or through historical accident, in certain types of productive activities. If so, they could be tasked with responsibility for furnishing or otherwise overseeing various categories of essential military goods ranging from weapons through provisions. Various peoples with expertise in horses, oxen, and grazing animals, such as the Chiang, and the specialized officers for dogs and perhaps livestock would also have provided a ready core of competent officials for sustained military operations and probably served on an ad hoc basis throughout the Shang. In particular, responsibility for providing meat in the field seems to have fallen to the Tuo Ch’üan or Chief Canine Officer.35 Standing border forces under these officials and the shu also seem to have undertaken local farming for sustenance purposes.36

Finally, the nature and degree of road development in the Hsia and Shang would have considerably impacted the transportation of goods and materials, as well as facilitated (or hindered) the army’s movement. Although well-tamped roads have been found in many early sites, including Erh-li-t’ou and Yen-shih, all the discoveries to date have been confined to early cities and towns, the natural focus of excavations. Whether the Hsia or, more likely, the Shang had administrative officials entrusted with the task of road improvement and early bridge building is unknown, though the forwarding of tribute and passage of troops would seem to have stimulated the dispatch of work crews responsible for clearing trees and the simple upgrading of well-traveled paths.37 No doubt there was a reciprocal relationship between the opening of transport routes as a result of trade and administrative necessity, including the passage of large numbers of troops, and the facilitation of commerce and military activities.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!