Top 10 greatest Chinese military leaders

Feb 2019
631
Thrace
After the top 10 Roman and Greek generals threads, I suppose this one deserves to be made as well. Here is my own ranking:

Honorable Mention: Sun Tzu (little is known about him so he can't really be ranked, but his teachings had a great impact on Chinese military history) and Zhuge Liang (very impressive person overall; not just a general but also a polymath)

10. Li Shiji (greatest of the early Tang generals)

9. Taizong of Tang (arguably China's most illustrious ruler; was also a competent general)

8. Xiang Yu (even if ultimately defeated, he was no doubt one of the premier commanders of his age)

7. Sun Bin (one of the best generals during the during the Warring States period)

6. Emperor Guangwu of Han (most of all for his victory at the Battle of Kunyang, one of the most outstanding military feats of all time)

5. Guo Ziyi (For ending the An Lu Shan rebellion)

4. Han Xin (Most important general in the establishment of the Han dynasty)

3. Cao Cao (Greatest warlord in China during the Three Kingdoms period)

2. Yu Fei (Was never defeated throughout his entire military career facing mighty Jurchen armies)

1. Bai Qi (Widely regarded as the greatest Chinese military genius in history)

Let's see some other opinions!
 
Sep 2019
125
Vergina
Great list! I'll have to put some more thought into my top ten. I have a high opinion of both Xiang Yu and Cao Cao. A couple names that also come to mind:

Lian Po (Reminds me of Fabius Cunctator in his avoidance of battle with Bai Qi)
Lu Xun (Often overlooked figure of the Three Kingdoms period, very skilled defensive general who repulsed Shu's invasion of Wu)
 
Last edited:

mariusj

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,037
Los Angeles
After the top 10 Roman and Greek generals threads, I suppose this one deserves to be made as well. Here is my own ranking:

Honorable Mention: Sun Tzu (little is known about him so he can't really be ranked, but his teachings had a great impact on Chinese military history) and Zhuge Liang (very impressive person overall; not just a general but also a polymath)

10. Li Shiji (greatest of the early Tang generals)

9. Taizong of Tang (arguably China's most illustrious ruler; was also a competent general)

8. Xiang Yu (even if ultimately defeated, he was no doubt one of the premier commanders of his age)

7. Sun Bin (one of the best generals during the during the Warring States period)

6. Emperor Guangwu of Han (most of all for his victory at the Battle of Kunyang, one of the most outstanding military feats of all time)

5. Guo Ziyi (For ending the An Lu Shan rebellion)

4. Han Xin (Most important general in the establishment of the Han dynasty)

3. Cao Cao (Greatest warlord in China during the Three Kingdoms period)

2. Yu Fei (Was never defeated throughout his entire military career facing mighty Jurchen armies)

1. Bai Qi (Widely regarded as the greatest Chinese military genius in history)

Let's see some other opinions!
I always find Yue Fei to be one of the most overrated generals of all time. I will take Han Xin, Guo Ziyi, Xiang Yu, Wei Qing, Huo Qubing, and I am sure plenty more over him any time 7 days a wk 52 wks a year without a single doubt or hesitation.

Then I do question that Li Shiji as the 'greatest' of early Tang generals when he has to compete against Li Jing, Duke Wei. Li Jing is a scary guy. One of the greatest general of China, whose accomplishment including the destruction of the Goturk camp.

I am a bit iffy on Guangwu. I don't know if he was great, if he was lucky, or he was the main character of the time. Like it's hard to tell.

I think it's better if we remove all the 'leaders' because ultimately it becomes very iffy on who gets credit since the founding emperors are almost always military commanders themselves.



My personal list would include mostly early generals without ranking order in the following

Li Jing, Han Xin, Huo Qubing, Bai Qi, Xiang Yu [unlike other emperors who have many competent generals],


then you got the slight tier below, like a SR instead of SSR but you know, as good as a SSR if you work really hard
Guan Yu, Wei Qing, Li Mu, Wu Yuan, Xu Da


Honorable mention, as he will always gets a soft spot in my heart

the literal legendary White Horse Chen.
 
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Feb 2018
247
US
1-3 Han xin, Bai Qi, Li Jing
4-9 Wei Qing, Huo Qubing, Xiang Yu, Li Shimin, Bayan of the Baarin, Guo Ziyi
10 ?

Han Xin, Bai Qi, and Li Jing
seem to be set apart from the rest: generals who you could give a difficult or impossible task and have them emerge victorious in less than a year with minimal losses. And they did it over and over against a wide variety of foes in greatly differing circumstances. No idea which of them is greater, though Han Xin did defeat the best opponent any of them faced in Xiang Yu.

Wei Qing and Huo Qubing
stand out in that out of all 17 of the generals Han Wudi sent on campaigns against the Xiongnu, none of the other 15 won even a single victory in some 25-30 campaigns. From Chun Shu-Chang's Rise of the Chinese Empire, Wei Qing won 7 campaigns and lost none, while Huo Qubing won 3 and lost none. Given the veteran Han leadership's success in conquering vast swathes territory to the south and the west against weaker foes than the Xiongnu, it appears that the issue was less a talent deficiency than conquering the Xiongnu was just an obscenely difficult problem. That Wei Qing and Huo Qubing could solve it when nobody else came close really sets them apart.

Xiang Yu's
campaigns seem incredible; even though he ultimately lost in the end, a lot of his failures came down to poor governance and grand strategy, such as driving away Han Xin. The only thing that's unclear is how reliable the numbers of his accomplishments were. Sima Qian's details of Xiang Yu's martial heroics seem like they belong in a fiction novel; did he do the same for the coalition army at Pengcheng? I've seen differing views on which way Sima Qian really was biased towards Liu Bang and Xiang Yu: the english historiography seems very lacking on the Chu-Han era.

If you consider the Yuan generals Chinese here, then Bayan of the Baarin is an obvious inclusion. During his conquest of the Song, he was on a completely different level than his subordinates and made what had been a 40 year slogfest look easy in 3 years, with the Song always getting caught flat-footed.

I agree with MariusJ on Yue Fei: his reputation seems heavily due to his tragic end. He did win where his contemporaries failed with innovative tactics, but his record is rather short and limited. So why would he be better than say other limited generals like Kangxi, Yelu Xiuge, or Li Mu? I also do not see how Li Shiji can be compared to Li Jing. Jing reconquered half of China, often against the advice of his subordinates and superiors, and overthrew the (already weakened) eastern Gokturks, and conquered the Tuyuhun at age 63. All of his campaigns were over quickly and with minimal casualties.

It does seem to be interesting that after the Tang, and ignoring the Mongols, you really don't see any any of the superior, faultless generals anymore. Did the selection mechanisms change in the Song/Ming/Qing? There were many talented generals but they all had weaknesses or limited opportunities.

Great list! I'll have to put some more thought into my top ten. I have a high opinion of both Xiang Yu and Cao Cao. A couple names that also come to mind:

Lian Po (Reminds me of Fabius Cunctator in his avoidance of battle with Bai Qi)
Lu Xun (Often overlooked figure of the Three Kingdoms period, very skilled defensive general who repulsed Shu's invasion of Wu)
According to the Shiji, Lian Po fought against Wang He in the initial years of Changping. Then after Qin espionage got Lian Po fired, the Qin secretly put Bai Qi in charge. "When Ch'in heard that Ma Fu's son was to be [Chao's] general, it secretly sent the Lord of Wu-an, Pai Ch'i, as senior general, and made Wang Ho the commanding assistant general, then told the army that those who dared leak word that the Lord of Wu-an was now commanding would be beheaded."