Did the ancient Chinese have the command and control system and logistics to control and supply hundreds of thousands of men in a single battlefield

Nov 2014
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ph
If you look at accounts of numbers of ancient Chinese armies where you have hundreds of thousands of men fighting in a single battle, these numbers are so much larger than the battles you see in classical antiquity in the Greco Roman world, where numbers of 40000 to 50000 each side seem to be the norm, are these numbers for ancient Chinese armies in a single battle accurate? And why are there no very detailed reports of Chinese battles in ancient times, unlike what you see in the Mediterranean world with accounts of Greek/Hellenistic and Roman battles where accounts are very detailed.
 
Feb 2017
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Some have argued that this is because of high population density and high amounts of bureaucracy. I myself have become skeptical of this. We're talking of levels of mobilisation close to the ones achieved in the Napoleonic era despite the industrial or semi-industrial economy of Western and Northern Europe and its bigger population. Ge Jianxiong estimates about 40 million people during the late Zhou dynasty, but this should be seen as the whole of China and not just the Zhongyuan. The Persian Empire also had about that same number of people (give or take some 5 million persons), and this is an empire that had nearly 8 million square kilometres, or close to the size of the whole of modern China from Xinjiang to Manchuria. In any case, 40 million is still significantly less than the Western and Northern Europe of the Napoleonic era, mainly Britain, Iberia, France, Scandinavia, Germany and Russia, the main participants in the wars, which combined had a population of around 70 million people (obviously not counting their colonies, which were only negligible providers of soldiers).

And not only that, but the 40 million of ancient China are distributed into various states. Some were bigger, but the biggest could hardly go beyond 15 million at most. It's therefore simply not believable that they were regularly mobilising armies of up to 400 thousand people. One can agree this was the case for very special occasions, but not every two or three years for centuries.
 
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Also, even Herodotus records his ridiculously high numbers solely for the Persians and never for the Greeks. Greek numbers are always believable in Herodotus, but even the Persian numbers, although still preposterous, are the numbers that an ancient writer would think an empire the size of Persia could mobilise and have. In other words, even such high numbers were only conceivable by writers even back then when coming from massive empires such as Persia, and not statelets like Athens and Sparta, and the same should go for China, where no state prior to the Qin Empire has a population comparable to the Persian Empire, and even the Qin Empire should still be smaller.
 

heavenlykaghan

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
4,513
Some have argued that this is because of high population density and high amounts of bureaucracy. I myself have become skeptical of this. We're talking of levels of mobilisation close to the ones achieved in the Napoleonic era despite the industrial or semi-industrial economy of Western and Northern Europe and its bigger population. Ge Jianxiong estimates about 40 million people during the late Zhou dynasty, but this should be seen as the whole of China and not just the Zhongyuan. The Persian Empire also had about that same number of people (give or take some 5 million persons), and this is an empire that had nearly 8 million square kilometres, or close to the size of the whole of modern China from Xinjiang to Manchuria. In any case, 40 million is still significantly less than the Western and Northern Europe of the Napoleonic era, mainly Britain, Iberia, France, Scandinavia, Germany and Russia, the main participants in the wars, which combined had a population of around 70 million people (obviously not counting their colonies, which were only negligible providers of soldiers).

And not only that, but the 40 million of ancient China are distributed into various states. Some were bigger, but the biggest could hardly go beyond 15 million at most. It's therefore simply not believable that they were regularly mobilising armies of up to 400 thousand people. One can agree this was the case for very special occasions, but not every two or three years for centuries.
First, it wasn't just the bureaucracy, but the system of universal conscription (it's 2 years compulsory military service for all male between 15-60 in the Qin) that makes Warring States armies big. It's close to those during the Napoleonic era precisely because Napoleonic Europe started to do the same (and no its not because of industrialization, which was only introduced to Continental Europe in the 1820s; besides, industrialization requires more work force in the factories, and doesn't imply that larger proportions of the population could be conscripted for war).


With the capacity for direct rule, Revolutionary France was prepared to take another measure that was common in the late Warring States period but unprecedented in the early modern Europe: the introduction of universal military conscription in 1793. The levee en mass soon revolutionarized the character of international competition by facilitating significant reduction of war costs, drastic expansion of army strength, and dramatic improvement of fighting capability. Compared with employment of mercenaries, the use of national armies allowed the state to draw upon virtually the whole adult male population at little-and relatively constant-cost.......National conscripts were also better soldiers than mercenary troops. As Niccolo Machiavelli observed, a national army "fights for its own glory" will display "sufficient firmness of purpose... to withstand an enemy who is at all determined." In contrast, mercenaries "have no motive or principle for joining beyond the desire to collect their pay. And what you pay them is not enough to make them want to die for you.".... In the age of mercenaries, quasi-independent military entrepreneurs would not support one another to carry out any grand strategic plans, and mercenary troops could not be trusted to engage in any tactical maneuvering. As Jeremy Black puts it, wars were "limited" in a very real sense-namely in the restricted ability of armed forced to carry out the grand strategic or political aims ordered by their rulers." In sharp contrast, Napoleon could forge the multitude of national conscripts into "an articulated organism" composed of a hierarchy of units and divisions. He could also order different divisions to take different routes and employ different tactics and yet make sure that the separate divisions would support one another. Napoleon further perfected various battlefield tactics, such as attack in independent columns, maneuver of the central position (dividing more numerous opposing forces and then defeating them separately), envelopment of weaker forces (pinnig them down with part of the forces and then cleaving past the and cutting their lines of supply with the rest), and surprise attacks by night. As French troops could be trusted to forage for themselves without the support of cumbersome supply trains, Napoleon could move his armies so quickly as to strike "lightning war" against his enemies. Moreover, with a highly motivated army that would not disintegrate to search for booty the moment an advantage was seized, French commanders could pursue their enemies to achieve decisive victories. All these practices were common in Warring States China and are widely discussed in Chinese military classics. But they were revolutionary in the modern European world, which had followed self-weakening expedients for centuries. With overwhelming strength and innovative strategies and tactics, the French levee en masse easily outnumbered and outmaneuvered its targets - War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe, pg 128-130.


Second, Ge Jianxiong estimated a minimum of 45 million, not 40 million, for the late Warring States Period. Considering the populations of the areas (Chang an, Quni county, and Linzi) he compared with the Han in 2 AD (with around 60 million people in the same territory) were at least similar or even bigger, 45 million is actually a conservative estimate; the actual population of the late Warring States might be even bigger than that. The population of the state of Qin itself by the mid 3rd century BC should already be at least 10-15 million, and those for Chu shouldn't be much smaller.


Lastly, the figures of Warring States might reflect just the numbers on registration, as David Graff noted, what the registered number of soldiers were and what actually fielded are often quite different because of desertion, sickness, miscounting, etc. and the actual number of soldiers marching might be almost half as small as those on the registrar. So the figures mentioned for Warring States might reflect ideal upper limits rather than the norm, but the larger armies should still easily be in the low hundreds of thousands, especially since unlike Greek accounts of Persian armies, the figures on Chinese army sizes often came from the records of these states themselves; for example, Sima Qian's figure of the Qin army at 600,000 that Wang Jian supposedly mobilized against Chu most likely came from the Qin archives.
 
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Feb 2017
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Second, Ge Jianxiong estimated a minimum of 45 million, not 40 million, for the late Warring States Period. Considering the populations of the areas (Chang an, Quni county, and Linzi) he compared with the Han in 2 AD (with around 60 million people in the same territory) were at least similar or even bigger, 45 million is actually a conservative estimate; the actual population of the late Warring States might be even bigger than that. The population of the state of Qin itself by the mid 3rd century BC should already be at least 10-15 million, and those for Chu shouldn't be much smaller.
The Persian Empire, which had enormous degrees of urbanisation (see the centres at Anatolia, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Bactria-Margiana, the Indus Valley) and was nearly 8 million square kilometres had a high-end estimated population of nearly 50 million people according to the Encyclopedia Iranica. You want me to believe that Qin or Chu had more population than Persian Satrapies of considerably bigger territory and with urban centres the size of Troy or Babylon. 10-15 million doesn't seem to be the "least" but rather the maximum of the biggest states of Zhanguo China.
 

heavenlykaghan

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
4,513
The Persian Empire, which had enormous degrees of urbanisation (see the centres at Anatolia, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Bactria-Margiana, the Indus Valley) and was nearly 8 million square kilometres had a high-end estimated population of nearly 50 million people according to the Encyclopedia Iranica. You want me to believe that Qin or Chu had more population than Persian Satrapies of considerably bigger territory and with urban centres the size of Troy or Babylon. 10-15 million doesn't seem to be the "least" but rather the maximum of the biggest states of Zhanguo China.
It's unlikely that any Persian cities were bigger than Linzi or Xianyang, which probably had over 300,000 each in the Warring States Period (Ge Jianxiong and a number of demographic historians noted that). The upper estimate of the population of the Persian Empire is around 30-35 million, given by Walter Scheidel, the lower end estimate by McEvdy and Jones puts it only at 17 million. These are the only professional demographic estimates around, the figure of the Encyclopedia of Iranica is not a professional demographic estimate (if its an estimate at all and not a gross guesstimate) and has no authority on the issue.

Second, you do realize that the Qin controlled nearly half of Warring States China in 250 BC do you not? With at least 45 million people, other than the state of Qi in Shandong, the Qin had one of the densest populations among the warring states; having 15 million people is very much a conservative estimate (especially since Simaqian stated that Guanzhong had 6/10 of the world's wealth). It occupied all territory west of the Wei river and some beyond; including the modern provinces of Shaanxi, parts of Shanxi, eastern Gansu, Sichuan and Hubei. The Chu also controlled a significant population of the the remainder; always having around 1/5 of the population of all of China.


1574243809985.png

This is a map of the warring states in 260 BC, by 250 BC, the Qin also took parts of the Ordos from the Zhao, as well as garnering up the remaining Zhou states.


So yes, the states of Qin and Chu are bigger than the biggest Persian Satraps and far more populous. If you challenge that, then provide the professional demographic estimates. Using the higher end estimates of Ge Jianxiong and Walter Shiedel respectively, we have 45 million people for China (not including the Baiyue of the south) vs 30-35 million people for the Persian Empire. This mean the state of Qin in the 3rd century BC should have about half as much people as the Achaemenid Empire and arguably more populous than the Seleucid, whereas the Chu should have 8-9 million people and have nearly a third the population of the Persian Empire.


The bureaucratic centralization of the Qin was also far greater than Persian Satraps, with over 50 commanderies established over a territory barely half the size of the later, yet Achaemenid Persia only had 23 satraps. This meant the Qin had on average 4 times as many provincial administrative units per area than Persia. And if we break the provinces down to counties, which the Qin central government also had direct control and appointment of officials over (which the Persian empire had no equivalent), there are nearly 1,000 xian during the Han in an empire smaller in area than the Achaemenid Empire; meaning the bureaucratic control of the former over the population was much more direct. The ability for small states in China to mobilize armies comparable to the Achaemenid is therefore the result of universal conscription system under what is arguably the world's first centralized Weberian style bureaucracy. This is nothing out of the ordinary, for the French army almost tripled in size after adopting universal conscription in 1793, and this is with the same bureaucracy we are talking about. France in the 13th century, with roughly the same territory and a population about 2/3 that it had in the 18th century could barely mobilize an army 1/10 the size of what Napoleon could even when combining all the fiefs because of its decentralized nature.
 
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It's unlikely that any Persian cities were bigger than Linzi or Xianyang, which probably had over 300,000 each in the Warring States Period (Ge Jianxiong and a number of demographic historians noted that). The upper estimate of the population of the Persian Empire is around 30-35 million, given by Walter Scheidel, the lower end estimate by McEvdy and Jones puts it only at 17 million. These are the only professional demographic estimates around, the figure of the Encyclopedia of Iranica is not a professional demographic estimate (if its an estimate at all and not a gross guesstimate) and has no authority on the issue.
The Encyclopedia Iranica is written and edited by experts on Iran's history, so to say it is not a professional demographic estimate is wrong. The number itself comes from the early 20th century German historian Eduard Meyer in the work Geschichte des Altertums, vol. 4. The relevant quote is from page 85. What's the evidence that demographers like Ge use to assert that Linzi or Xianyang had a population of 300,000? That's almost the same population as Paris, one of the most urbanised centres of medieval Europe, in the 14th century before the bubonic plague from perhaps the most populated state of Western Europe and that's with improvements in agriculture that ancient China didn't have thanks to the windmill and crop rotation. Are these Chinese centres as highly urbanised as Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Elam, Egypt or the Indus Valley? Are they comparable to such centres like Thebes, Bactria-Margiana and Mohenjodaro? These places not only have enormous monuments but underground sewers as well as being very large in area, so it is not hard to see why they could be densely populated and that they could indeed sustain a population that when put together is nearly 50 million.


Second, you do realize that the Qin controlled nearly half of Warring States China in 250 BC do you not? With at least 45 million people, other than the state of Qi in Shandong, the Qin had one of the densest populations among the warring states; having 15 million people is very much a conservative estimate (especially since Simaqian stated that Guanzhong had 6/10 of the world's wealth). It occupied all territory west of the Wei river and some beyond; including the modern provinces of Shaanxi, parts of Shanxi, eastern Gansu, Sichuan and Hubei. The Chu also controlled a significant population of the the remainder; always having around 1/5 of the population of all of China.


View attachment 24810

This is a map of the warring states in 260 BC, by 250 BC, the Qin also took parts of the Ordos from the Zhao, as well as garnering up the remaining Zhou states.

So yes, the states of Qin and Chu are bigger than the biggest Persian Satraps and far more populous. If you challenge that, then provide the professional demographic estimates. Using the higher end estimates of Ge Jianxiong and Walter Shiedel respectively, we have 45 million people for China (not including the Baiyue of the south) vs 30-35 million people for the Persian Empire. This mean the state of Qin in the 3rd century BC should have about half as much people as the Achaemenid Empire and arguably more populous than the Seleucid, whereas the Chu should have 8-9 million people and have nearly a third the population of the Persian Empire.

What's the exact area of Qin when adding Zhao? From the maps it doesn't seem to be that big. Compare Qin even when adding Zhao to some of the bigger satrapies below:

1574277023046.png

The Great Satrapies like Bactria and Arachosia are definitely bigger. Even Egypt alone seems to be bigger, and certainly more so if we include Libya and Kush (Ethiopia) as part of it. And again, like I said above, I challenge any number above 15 million for the biggest Chinese states like Qin of the Zhangguo period, even the late Zhangguo period, because of the seemingly greater urbanisation rates in the Persian Empire compared to China (cities like Troy, Babylon, Memphis, Mohenjodaro) and because you haven't presented what evidence or methods demographers use to establish that even the number of 45 million is a conservative estimate for China at the time. There's also absolutely no reason to trust Sima Qian's statement that Guanzhong had over half of the world's wealth, when even the archival records he used like you said were not completely accurate and Chinese knowledge about the world was extremely imperfect back then. His statement may help in comparison to other regions within East Asia, but that hardly helps us establish that China was more densely populated than the Persian Empire when we can actually back up the wealth of the Persian Empire with archaeology.


The bureaucratic centralization of the Qin was also far greater than Persian Satraps, with over 50 commanderies established over a territory barely half the size of the later, yet Achaemenid Persia only had 23 satraps. This meant the Qin had on average 4 times as many provincial administrative units per area than Persia. And if we break the provinces down to counties, which the Qin central government also had direct control and appointment of officials over (which the Persian empire had no equivalent), there are nearly 1,000 xian during the Han in an empire smaller in area than the Achaemenid Empire; meaning the bureaucratic control of the former over the population was much more direct. The ability for small states in China to mobilize armies comparable to the Achaemenid is therefore the result of universal conscription system under what is arguably the world's first centralized Weberian style bureaucracy. This is nothing out of the ordinary, for the French army almost tripled in size after adopting universal conscription in 1793, and this is with the same bureaucracy we are talking about. France in the 13th century, with roughly the same territory and a population about 2/3 that it had in the 18th century could barely mobilize an army 1/10 the size of what Napoleon could even when combining all the fiefs because of its decentralized nature.
These two elements (high bureacratization and universal conscription) have to still be accompanied with high population numbers to justify the belief that even the biggest of Zhangguo states were mobilising armies in the low hundreds of thousands like you said, except perhaps on very rare occasions, and even then, it's unlikely they could have mobilised more than 200 thousand (certainly "low hundreds" but your statement implies they could mobilise well into the 300 and even 400 thousand range) when there's the possibility that the entire population of Qin Shi Huangi's empire is the almost the same as 1793 France when universal conscription was introduced (since I believe Ge's estimate of around 45 million is should be applied to the entirety of China's current borders, not just the territories ruled by the Qin and early Han empires around the year 200 BC). Even the number of 15 million for the Qin at its largest extension during the mid third century is considerably less, almost half, than the 25 million of Revolutionary France.

And while the Persian Empire may have been less bureaucratic overall, its mass resources definitely make it more believable that it had a standing army of around 1 million people and could actually mobilise almost half of it. We're talking about an army that conquered as far as Sudan and Libya from Iran and subjugated densely populated and highly urbanised areas from Ukraine to Punjab. We know it was also recruiting men from all over the empire.
 
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Nov 2019
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Solar System
with improvements in agriculture that ancient China didn't have thanks to the windmill and crop rotation. Are these Chinese centres as highly urbanised as Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Elam, Egypt or the Indus Valley? Are they comparable to such centres like Thebes, Bactria-Margiana and Mohenjodaro? These places not only have enormous monuments but underground sewers as well as being very large in area, so it is not hard to see why they could be densely populated and that they could indeed sustain a population that when put together is nearly 50 million.
Where do you get the idea that China didn't have crop rotation? China had been an agricultural civilization since the Neolithic Age, and I don't think with such a long history of agriculture they didn't even know what's crop rotation. I checked some Chinese sources and I found that the earliest mention of two-field crop rotation dated back to the bronze age Zhou dynasty. And by the Qin and Han periods, crop rotation had already been implemented in much of Northern China.

And yes ancient China might not have windmills, but we did have many watermills. And we had underground sewage pipes as well, made out of ceramic.
 
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Sep 2012
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The problem I see is transportation of food supplies. If the campaign was along a river, you could have a chance of ship transport. Look at how the Persians supplied their army in the Invasion of Greece.

Pruitt
 
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Where do you get the idea that China didn't have crop rotation? China had been an agricultural civilization since the Neolithic Age, and I don't think with such a long history of agriculture they didn't even know what's crop rotation. I checked some Chinese sources and I found that the earliest mention of two-field crop rotation dated back to the bronze age Zhou dynasty. And by the Qin and Han periods, crop rotation had already been implemented in much of Northern China.

And yes ancient China might not have windmills, but we did have many watermills. And we had underground sewage pipes as well, made out of ceramic.
In medieval Europe, people no longer engaged in two-field crop rotation but three and even four field rotation. And were those sewers as big as these?
(5:10 on)

And here's Mohenjodaro:

In general, urban centres ruled by the Persian Empire seemed to have been significantly bigger, with apparently greater division of labour. Doesn't mean Chinese cities were underpopulated, but the point is that in the first millennium BCE, they were comparable in the number of people. Even Western Europe had large urban centres that rival or at least are not so far behind those that came to be ruled by the Persians.