DESPITE THE ANALYSES PROFFERED by a growing number of books on primitive or early warfare, the point at which societies shift from being peaceful and rustic to being dominated by martial values in order to survive remains opaque.1 Whether an idyllic age of tranquility ever existed apart from later imagination and the projections of theorists who embrace the dogma of matriarchal equality might equally be questioned. 2 However, in China many of the classic Warring States writings already envisioned a sudden devolvement from an era of virtue and tranquility, of simplicity and harmony (whether natural or enforced), through a stage when the members concerned themselves with warfare only when threatened, to the final advent of segregation and conflict.

References scattered throughout the wider collection of pre-imperial materials indicate that growing unrest already troubled the highly idealized, semi-legendary Sage progenitors. Sun Pin noted that seven groups didn’t obey Yao’s mandates, including two among the Yi and four in the central area, and that he pacified the realm with force.3 Other observers such as Hsün-tzu suggest that Shun found it necessary to subjugate fourteen recalcitrant entities and that he attacked the Miao, then entrusted Yü with the same task and actually perished in a campaign against them. When Yü finally acquired power he found thirty-three groups refused to submit, and he had to “forcefully impose his teachings.” Fortunately, the Tung Yi did not support the Miao in their conflict; otherwise, the Hsia’s comparatively paltry forces would have been crushed.4

However insubstantial and unreliable, these laconic references still accurately reflect an accelerating trend toward localized and global conflict, the failure of vaunted Virtue to prevail, and a purported unwillingness to recognize what would later be termed “Heaven’s will.” More significantly, particularly for the weaker or less populous areas, alliance building had already emerged as an important factor. Even the neutrality of supposedly natural allies could doom the isolated to defeat, prefiguring the validity of the Art of War’s admonition a millennium and a half later to thwart alliances and thereby incapacitate enemies.

Historians have traditionally argued that accumulating wealth, class differentiation, and the evolution of authoritarian structures are the crucial elements underlying the emergence of conflict and early warfare. 5 Although the temptations of material goods and suffering of deprivation no doubt beget greed and rapaciousness, neither hierarchical structure nor class differentiation was necessary for bands of marauders to begin pillaging simply because it was more profitable than farming and hunting. Strife and conflict, once unleashed, stimulate not just a need for defensive measures, but also esteem for the warriors who can preserve life, as well as for those fighters who trample the cowardly and unprepared, with admirers of the latter comprising the growing pool of miscreants.

Specialized weapons with no useful purpose other than attacking and slaying upright human enemies rapidly multiplied at the end of the Yangshao and early Lungshan.6 Apart from empowering and emboldening their wielders, their growth, coincident with the emergence of fortified population centers, shows how low-intensity warfare can stimulate inventiveness, organization, and authority. The massive defensive walls that appeared in the Lungshan and are considered one of the distinguishing features of the culture have long been recognized as a disproportionately important development in the inexorable evolution of Chinese civilization, a step in the unremitting march toward fulfilling the subsequently articulated idea that “ch’eng [walls] were erected in order to protect the ruler and kuo [external walls] were constructed in order to preserve the people.”7

Despite increasing differentiation in dwellings and other evidence of an incipient hierarchical structure such as ancestral temples, the absence of fortified internal quarters indicates the defensive focus was externally directed, toward unknown others, rather than locally oriented and therefore intended to protect emerging power groups that were increasingly claiming authority over others.8 In the ancient period it is only at the two Yi-luo capitals of Yen-shih and Cheng-chou that inner palace quarters and fully formed encircling fortifications are found. Even the final Hsia and Shang capitals at Erh-li-t’ou and Anyang are famously unprotected by visible fortifications.

As warfare became more complex and its lethality increased in the late Neolithic, the hard lessons derived from ever-accumulating martial experience prompted the realization that topography inherently conveys strategic advantages and disadvantages. In deciding where to locate their settlements the first “urban planners,” a term hardly misused here as many fortified towns clearly implemented a preconceived plan, were confronted by vital choices. Foremost among them was relatively high but dry terrain that ranged from hillsides through hillocks and mesas, versus the alternative of well-watered areas situated alongside rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water.

Height and inaccessibility are key factors in deterring and repulsing marauders, but in the absence of extensive wells even minimal quantities of water require laborious effort to acquire and transport for communities located any distance from aquatic resources. Conversely, settlements near streams and rivers, even though significantly protected by natural barriers and generally located amid fertile alluvial plains, must contend with seasonal flooding and moisture-borne diseases. In providing enemies skilled enough to employ rafts and canoes with virtual highways, these same waterways also enhance perversity’s mobility.

Early communities therefore tended to inhabit naturally raised terrain alongside streams and rivers, whether slight mounds or relative heights created by the forces of erosion. However, particularly in the central plains, terrace settlements soon sought the enhanced protection of deliberately excavated perimeter ditches, except where deliberately situated amid the confluence of flowing streams or protected by the presence of a lake and perhaps another river. Despite being a simplistic though onerous measure, the ditches’ effectiveness is evident from their continued employment well past the Yangshao and Lungshan periods, including to enhance the complex defensive systems deployed at Yen-shih and Erh-li-t’ou.9

Although many of these early ditches were dry, a significant number functioned as moats in the rainy season or when deliberately connected to a water source, augmenting their inherent ability to impede and frustrate aggressors. Claims have also been made that they provided protection against flooding, but it is highly unlikely that they would have been effective because even moderately rising river levels would have rapidly exceeded their limited capacity. Nor could they have functioned as drainage canals in alluvial plains marked by minimal declination.

At first the soil that had been removed was employed to raise the village floor’s overall height and construct building foundations, but later it was mounded up on the ditch’s interior to form primitive walls. Even these low mounds constituted a significantly enhanced challenge for early aggressors who now had to negotiate not just the shallow ditch but also ascend a low embankment, all the while exposed to spears, rocks, and arrows. Although never universal, solidly pounded walls that soared several meters in the air and extensive conjoined moats soon followed that confronted enemies with more formidable challenges.

Agricultural activities would certainly have consumed most, if not all, of the time of the few hundred able-bodied people who populated the typical late Neolithic settlement, leaving little energy for martial endeavors. Unless the inhabitants devoted some effort to self-defense, an aggressive band of forty or so warriors would probably have had sufficient strength to overpower them, seize their property, and carry away prisoners. Therefore static measures—the exploitation of extant water barriers, excavation of ditches and moats, and the building of walls—frequently provided the only means for sedentary communities to thwart raiders. As the Art of War would subsequently state, “Those who cannot be victorious assume a defensive posture, those who can be victorious attack. In such circumstances, by assuming a defensive posture strength will be more than adequate, whereas in offensive actions it will be inadequate.”10

Although a few Neolithic villages seem to have been burnt to the ground11 and King Wu Ting dispatched an attack party to prevent the walling of a town (thereby showing that the defensive advantages provided by fortifications were well understood), little evidence yet exists that assaults were undertaken against fortified towns. Moreover, whether they were too costly or simply doomed to fail, sieges did not commence until the Chou. However, human determination ensured that fifty-meter-wide moats and five-meter-high walls would not be insurmountable unless they were stoutly defended. Even then the San Miao’s virtual disappearance despite the extensiveness of Shih-chia-ho fortifications shows the most expansive fortifications would not provide an infallible refuge if the combatants engaged in open field battle.

According to traditional sources, the first known failure dates to the legendary period when Yao, also known as T’ang-shih, embarked upon a remarkably aggressive external policy to vanquish a number of peripheral states, including the Hsi Hsia, an entity of uncertain identity to the west. A brief paragraph in the Yi Chou-shu notes: “One who doesn’t practice the martial will perish. In antiquity the Hsi Hsia were benevolent rather than warlike in nature. Their walls were not maintained and their warriors lacked positions. Instead, they practiced beneficence and loved rewards, but when their material wealth was exhausted they had nothing to use for rewards. When T’ang-shih attacked them their walls were not defended, their martial warriors were not employed, and the Hsi Hsia perished.”12 Having failed to maintain their walls and integrate their warriors into their sociopolitical structure, the Hsi Hsia lacked the means to either mount an active defense or stimulate the requisite behavior at a crucial moment. As Sun Pin subsequently observed, “No one under Heaven can be solid and strong if they mount a defense without anything to rely upon.”13

Even though history shows that the forces of destruction normally overwhelm constructively oriented efforts, the defensive solidity provided by the earliest walls and moats made possible the gradual accumulation of the goods produced by the weaving and handicraft industries, facilitated the domestication of animals, protected the emergence and expansion of agriculture, and harbored metallurgical workshops. It also fostered social cohesion and nurtured a sense of identity by separating the community from the external realm. By the middle Lungshan period increasing strength and prosperity enabled these early cultures to construct and occupy fortified towns that encompassed dwelling areas of several hundred thousand to even a million square meters.

The transition, however fitful, from isolated settlements to more centrally focused power centers, the repulsion of aggressors, and the execution of successful external campaigns in aggregate allowed, as well as stimulated, the essentially unimpeded evolution of political structures and authority. The incredible effort required over a sustained period to erect these defensive fortifications and accompanying palace foundations provides evidence of not only a new ability to mobilize a vast labor force with a sense of common purpose, but also the emergence of chieftains strong enough to coerce compliance. Fortifications also made power projection possible and thus no doubt contributed to the growth of multi-tiered settlement patterns whose lesser members could similarly be compelled to participate in their construction. Nevertheless, though the inhabitants may have come to feel walls were essential, they apparently lacked full faith in them; otherwise, they would never have been built on such a massive scale or reinforced with ditches and moats.

This shift from simple circular defensive ditches to well-integrated, technologically sophisticated rectangular fortifications can be interpreted as incontrovertible evidence for an unremitting increase in warfare’s frequency and lethality from perhaps 3000 BCE. Equally revealing is the rapid proliferation in the types and numbers of weapons, especially bronze variants dating from their true inception in the late Hsia, as well as their widespread production in the Shang in comparison with bronze ritual vessels.14 This multiplication was accompanied by a comparatively rapid rise in the number and proportion of weapons interred with the deceased in every cultural manifestation, ranging from the much earlier Yangshao through Hung-shan, Ch’ü-chia-ling, Liang-chu, and Lungshan, highly indicative of the emergence of military authority and of a growing esteem for martial achievement and values. (Confirmation of the latter appears as early as the Ta-wen-k’ou in lavishly decorated but empty tombs intended to honor military heroes whose bodies had not been recovered.)15 More sorrowfully, the number of humans whose skeletons still betray the effects of violence or torture, who must have been sacrificed, wounded, or perished in battle, also rapidly multiplied.16


A fundamental question that might be posed about the nature of ancient Chinese warfare is how one group or culture succeeded in dominating, displacing, or extinguishing another. Attention has been largely focused on the growth of significant power centers and the evolution of states, the process by which a few fortified towns began to exceed the common 10,000-square-meter settlement size before a pattern of primary and secondary centers encompassing several hundred thousand and a few 10,000 square meters, respectively, emerged.

Food surpluses, population increases, and improvements in tools and productivity allowed manpower to be allocated to secondary, nonsubsistence tasks such as wall building, military training, and ultimately military campaigns that could, contrary to much traditional thought, be highly productive in acquiring possessions and terrain. (In the brutal context of history it would be astonishing if anyone enj oying surpassing military success ever spontaneously desisted from aggressive activities, whether prompted by greed, a desire for power, or simple hatred of others.) However, the forces that actually enabled any particular group to excel, to culturally and politically, if not physically, overwhelm nearby peoples, remain a mystery even though a few charismatic chieftains may have been disproportionately effective leaders and motivators.17

The evolution of multiple cultural centers in ancient China,18 some in close proximity, others dispersed across the greater landscape, ensured a potential for conflict was inherently present. The theory of a dominant central culture whose aggressive expansion acts as an agent of change,19 whose technology and craft techniques tend to disperse outward, directly or indirectly, though now viewed as outmoded, may yet accurately characterize some aspects of the dynamics of cultural ascension. Even when the central culture dominates militarily and culturally, indigenous elements often continue to comprise the core content in locally produced items, particularly in areas that later experience a resurgence.

Several groups developed the internal strength to physically and culturally resist challenges, even transform the aggressors, but others were conquered and assimilated. Their totems were destroyed, their cultural manifestations suppressed, and their identity largely obliterated. However, a few that lacked the strength to vanquish potential aggressors, either concretely or abstractly, managed to continue on as independent enclaves until being overwhelmed by the next wave that might wash over them, even though the resulting amalgamation might retain a semblance of uniqueness. Still others responded to the ongoing challenges by evolving highly self-sufficient, warrior-oriented organizational structures and augmenting their martial power, ensuring not just their own survival but even their ascension into the ranks of formidable political entities.

Broadly envisioned, ancient China might be divided into five regions populated by ethnically distinct peoples or disparate cultures, the four quarters plus the core, the latter an inescapable concept since Chinese (Hua-Hsia) culture and power are currently identified as Yi-Luo River basin manifestations.20 According to their identities in traditional literature, the Yi dwelled in the east, Miao in the south, Ti in the west, and Jung in the north, though it is also possible to limit the dichotomization to simply the Hsia, Yi, and Miao before charting the dynamics of their interaction. Even though clashes of Yi with Yi were not unknown and the Hsia’s relationship with the Tung Yi was generally strong, the major schism frequently fell along an east-to-west axis.

Topographically, the terrain in the west was higher and problems with flooding were fewer, but agriculture more difficult; the heavily watered south had vastly more natural resources, ranging from mineral through animal and aquatic, including rice and China’s virtually ubiquitous bamboo, but was prone to semitropical diseases such as malaria and cholera; the east was susceptible to flooding but had abundant fishing and hunting and could easily sustain agricultural efforts; and the north quickly transitioned into the semiarid steppe and frigidity. Lifestyles and customs varied from region to region, totems were different and religious beliefs dissimilar, languages highly localized and often mutually unintelligible. To the extent that differences spawn antagonism and antagonism breeds conflict, the vectors of warfare were inescapable.

Surprisingly, the cultures with the greatest natural advantages did not invariably dominate increasingly larger areas despite their initial superiority. Even though the south and southeast enjoyed a hospitable climate and reportedly the relative absence of warfare,21 the millet-based cultures in the center initially proved more forceful. Furthermore, Liang-chu culture in the southeast and Tung Yi culture in Shandong were materially advanced over contemporary central plains manifestations, but as already seen they ultimately perished, raising numerous fundamental questions.22 Only after the Hsia strengthened did the Tung Yi become relatively quiescent and nominally acknowledge Hsia authority before becoming closely allied with the Shang.

Subsequently, just as the San Miao when they were being pummeled by the Hsia, perhaps because the Tung Yi lacked a sense of self-identity and were too fragmented to initiate the concerted action against the Shang necessary to survive, they were vanquished.23 Thereafter, apart from an adumbrated threat from Ch’u, it would be the peripheral entities of Chou and Ch’in somewhat to the northwest rather than any southern conglomeration that would ascend to power, lending credence to the idea, however limited in applicability, that environmental challenges stimulate self-reliance, that strong political entities more readily evolve out of deprivation than abundance.

Viewed year by year, ancient Chinese history appears highly static, bereft of monumental events or violent changes, but when the centuries are compressed an energetic swirl becomes visible in which groups grow and disperse, cultures rise and fall. In times of low population density the inhabitants of an entire village could easily move about, select a comparatively advantageous site, and establish themselves without clashing with others. But by the middle Neolithic most of the choice locations had been occupied and resident groups faced challenges not just from marauders and raiders but also from various-sized groups forced to relocate en masse by natural disasters, environmental degradation, or overpopulation.

As productivity nurtured population growth, new fields had to be opened to produce the grains necessary to sustain ever greater numbers, enlarging what might be termed the village’s radius of activity. This increased the likelihood of friction between members of settlements originally a full day’s walk away and depleted the small game and other wild resources in the intermediate zone. At the same time fields that required more than two hours to access tended to foster the establishment of locally clustered dwelling places that in turned served as the nucleus for new settlements. This further augmented the population density and the potential for clashes with preexisting communities, who were then compelled to fortify their perimeters in order to deter or exclude potential interlopers.

Whether the nature of warfare in any particular civilization is culturally determined, although an important question, is essentially irrelevant at the incipient stage of conflict.24 Based on the patterns visible in ancient China, it may be that the development of highly fortified permanent communities was a greater stimulus to conflict and warfare than the mere accumulation of targetable wealth because of the inherent tension between the “provocative” sedentary lifestyle and seminomadic variants. Farming, even the slash and burn type that may have commenced about 7000 BCE and quickly exhausted the land, required a comparatively fixed lifestyle. Clearing the terrain for agricultural purposes immediately reduced the number and types of plants and animals that had previously been harvested from the former woodlands and marshes and therefore increased the community’s dependence on semicultivated and cultivated productivity, including the raising of animals for foodstuffs, which commenced with pigs around 6000 BCE.25

The emergence of vital crafts such as ceramics further reduced the otherwise inherent mobility of settlement members. For example, ceramic kilns were not easily disassembled, and the transport of fire bricks and other essential components such as turning wheels to other locations in the absence of vehicles would have been an onerous task. Building even the simplest production facilities would have similarly required enormous effort despite the advances in tools and the emergence of copper and bronze implements. In addition to thus having a major stake in preserving the gains wrought from the environment and protecting their dwellings, including increasingly opulent palace structures whose foundations required thousands of working days to construct, the settlement’s members needed to defend the infrastructure and the community’s very being.

Several modes of conflict seem to have characterized ancient China: purely localized clashes that may have stemmed from personal challenges or revenge but escalated to involve members of a greater alliance or tribe; a fundamental collision of major cultures; explosive friction between minor peoples and a major group, the latter often but not necessarily sedentary, the victim of opportunistic raiding and plundering; and conquest activities undertaken by a major power in the quest for space and control. After becoming dominant, though not all-powerful, the Hsia and Shang can be characterized as having undertaken increasingly frequent, limited-strength campaigns to discourage and repress minor enemies, as well as occasionally more prolonged efforts to expel them from contiguous areas or annihilate them and annex their lands. Despite the lack of animal-powered transport that would have provided increased mobility and facilitated enlarging the domain of conflict, the expanding Shang also confronted the Hsia at several focused points before vanquishing it with a major expeditionary force, changing the nature of warfare.

Postconquest treatment of the defeated seems to have been largely determined by initial objectives. Late Neolithic warfare was not an idyllic exercise or some form of ritual activity, but very much a battle to the finish, as attested by often dramatic and compelling evidence that one group had subjugated another, such as by inscribing the victor’s name on sacred vessels of the vanquished26 or the sacrifice of prisoners, and numerous graves populated by a high proportion of youthful individuals, including women and children, who had violently perished. Whether in legendary Hsia battles or Shang conflict with the steppe peoples, it was preferable for those facing imminent defeat and remnants of conquered clans to migrate to more remote and even less hospitable terrain than to be absorbed, enslaved, or annihilated.

Perhaps most important of all, focused mental effort was applied to warfare and the problems of survival, coincident with more intelligent approaches to authority, administration, and the efforts of life. Although most clearly witnessed in the increasingly thorough planning of towns and fortifications together with the choice of strategically advantageous terrain, new developments in weapons, tactics, and even rudimentary strategy all resulted. The Hsia’s conquest of the San Miao, however long it may have required, was apparently made possible by the latter’s failure to adopt a viable guerilla strategy, exploit the advantages of their mountainous and marshy terrain, and capitalize on their superior archery power. Fragmented and isolated from potential allies, the tribal groups must have been defeated in detail by a Hsia field force that probably never exceeded a few thousand men.

Traditional accounts portray the Hsia-San Miao clash as a decisive campaign with a preconceived objective that was conducted at long range, further implying that the stage of strategic planning had been realized. However, archaeological indications and demythologizing reveal that the events of a century or more were probably compressed, immediately suggesting that rather than an epic battle undertaken by massed forces on some sacred plains, their war proceeded as a series of localized clashes along their fluctuating boundary as the Lungshan/Hsia increasingly encroached upon the Miao.

Although the consequences of defeat were dispersal and extinction, traditional accounts fail to acknowledge the brutality of a quest prompted by Hsia expansionist ambition. Instead they focus on the proclaimed justness and inevitability of the victory, one mandated by Heaven but resisted by the “ignorant,” “uncivilized,” and “unruly” Miao, who failed to fathom the inevitability of history. Yet many of their cities far exceeded those identified with the Hsia in multiple ways, and their culture rivaled it in most material aspects, including the perfection of jade objects. Here “Virtue” had failed, whether because it was insufficient or because virtue always proves insufficient in the face of mutual antagonism and a desire for empire.

Warfare in ancient China thus stimulated innovation, social evolution, material progress, and creativity in general, but also shattered the tranquility and security of myriad settlements whose inhabitants had formerly been absorbed in the task of wresting a living from their often harsh environments.27 Whether out of a desire for additional space or simply an expression of the will to domination, human perversity and malevolent intent quickly ended any possibility of peaceful coexistence except for isolated villages and a few hermits ensconced in remote mountain hideaways. In the absence of any overarching political authority or other form of unification, conflict with external groups became an inescapable aspect of life. Anyone unprepared to do battle could have their possessions confiscated, have their family members enslaved, or be slain.

By not just exploiting martial skills but also thoroughly integrating warrior values, the Shang, if not the Hsia, can be said to have set China on a trajectory of state building and aggressive activity. Whatever degree of credence may be given to the concept of a dynastic cycle, only the leisure of postconquest tranquility would allow for extolling the civil virtues deemed necessary for a sedentary society. Paradoxically, despite the ever-increasing lethality of essentially unremitting warfare, the disparagement of martial values and deprecation of battlefield prowess that would pervade court views throughout the imperial age would first emerge in the Warring States period. Though often detrimental to framing a viable response to external threats, resulting in China’s defeat and subjugation, the impact of this disparagement and deprecation remained superficial, unable to blunt the expansionist intent and numerous expeditionary campaigns witnessed across the centuries in the virtual interplay of yin and yang already prefigured in the dynamics of ancient conflict.

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