On War And Warfare

THE CHINESE ON WAR: The Battle of Ch'Eng P'U (632 B.C.)

Timothy J. Kutta

The Chinese military have a reputation in the modern world of being a mindless human steam roller. Western experiences with the Chinese during World War Two and Korea have convinced many analysts that the Chinese military commanders only know how to order human wave assaults against the enemy. Without benefit of sophisticated strategies or tactics, the Chinese military  is looked down upon the Western world as a backward nation struggling to catch up.

However, such views are decidedly nearsighted. Lost in the human wave assaults of Korea is the fact that the Chinese military has been a force to be reckoned with in the Far East for several thousand years. They have fought every nation and tribe from the Mongols to the Japanese and survived. They have won major victories against nations that were more sophisticated, better armed and at times more numerous. Their leaders have shown a flair for the ability to adapt, overcome and win.

Steeped in thousands of years tradition, well educated and prepared to defend their homeland, the Chinese military is a force to be both reckoned with and studied. Perhaps a look at one of the earliest recorded battle in Chinese history is in order. This is the story of The Battle of  Ch’Eng P’U. It was fought in 632 B.C. As a point of reference, during this period the Etruscan Kings were just coming of age in Italy. Carthage was just starting its commercial expansion and England was controlled by barbaric tribes. This then is a look at one of China’s early battles and an example of Chinese military leadership.

Tzu-Hsi, the commander of the left wing of the Ch'u army eyed the approaching enemy formation with interest. He was a bold and aggressive commander who feared no enemy but having the enemy come to him was a new experience. He ordered his archers to ready their bows as the right wing of the Chin army came within range. At his command the archers unleashed a rain of deadly arrows and the enemy's advance wavered.

Suddenly, without warning, the entire right wing of the Chin army turned and ran. Tzu-Hsi could not believe his eyes. The enemy was running after only a brief fight. He smiled in delight as he was certain to win a great victory on this day. He ordered his entire force to advance. The smell of victory was heavy in the air as warriors of Ch'u charged forward after the fleeing enemy. As they did a number of enemy chariots also turned and retreated kicking up dust and debris as they drove away.

Order in the advancing army soon broke down. Individual Ch'u warriors broke formation to get at the enemy and units became intermingled in the confusion of the advance. Commanders desperately tried to regain control of their units but their efforts were hampered by the dust of the retreating chariots.

The advance ended as the army emerged from the dust cloud. There before them, the enemy had reformed and was prepared to give battle. The disorganized Ch'u army had little time to react. The Chin army began a systematic advance at the same moment that their retreating chariots wheeled and fell on the Tzu-hsi's exposed flanks. 

The battle was vicious but brief. The warriors of Tzu-hsi fought with great energy but their disorganization and exposed position made them an easy target for the enemy. In a matter of minutes the entire left wing of the Ch'u army was annihilated. The Battle of Ch'eng-P'u had begun.

The battles of ancient China are seldom studied because of the country's unique language and lack of European involvement.  These barriers have left the events of many great battles untold and unexplored.  However, many of these battle were influential in the politics of China and in the development of military strategy and tactics.  Indeed, during the Battle of Ch'eng-P'u the Chin army under the command of the Duke of Wen actually carried off a double envelopment of the enemy's left wing.

Ancient China was made up of about 150 small states ruled by families or clans. As one clan grew in power they was able to conquer or annex neighboring states. The combination of several states under one clan was classified as an Empire or Dynasty. When a Dynasty was created it did not usually encompass all of China nor was it necessarily a stable political element. The powerful  families and clans, whose state had been conquered, usually had heirs who wanted their birthright back. It was not unusual for the states under dynastic control to be very independent and hostile to the central government. The degree of independence increased with the distance from the Imperial City and the size of the army the independent state could muster. 

The first Empire of the Chinese was created by the Shang clan in 1523 B.C. The Shang Dynasty was built on the coast of China along the Wei river. The Dynasty was relatively civilized and managed to keep the many neighboring barbaric and independent states at bay.

Sometime about 1027 the Chou, a barbaric tribe who lived in the Yangtze river area, moved north against the Shang. The Chou were led by Wu Wang who was known as the "Martial King". He crushed the Shang and created the larger Chou Dynasty between the Wei and Yellow rivers in the north and the Yangtze river in the south.

The new Dynasty was quite strong and managed to bring several of the larger independent states of ancient China under its rule. Its strong and powerful army was able to keep its enemies at bay and managed, by force of arms, to maintain internal order.

The riches and comforts of several hundred years of civilization dulled the Dynasty's appetite for war and conquest and bureaucrats soon took over running the government. During the next 200 years, between 800-600 B.C., the Chou power declined and the Dynasty began to disintegrate. In 771 B.C. the Duke of Shen paid Hsiung-nu mercenaries to kill the king. The mercenaries were quite effective, managing to kill the king and overthrow the government.  After the death of the king, independent states began to emerge and by 600 B.C. the Dynasty had collapsed.

The two most powerful states to emerge from the former confederation were Chin and Ch'u.  Chin's western boundary lay on the Yellow river while its southern boundary extended to the Wei river. The northern border ran along the great wall and the eastern border of the state stretched almost to the sea.

Ch'u had its eastern boundary along the sea while its northern border extended to the Wei river.  It extended south below the Yangtze river and in the west it shared a common border with Chin.  The two states were comparable in size and were the most powerful states in the area.  Beside these two powerful states there were 13 smaller states, mostly to the northeast of Chin and Ch'u, which were all that remained of the former Dynasty.

The Ch'u saw opportunity in the collapse of the Dynasty and pursued an aggressive policy of expansion. Their armies under the leadership of Tzu-wen led the barbaric state to new heights. They solidified power in their own state and then began to influence events in other states as well. The mere threat of invasion was often enough to scare a rival or independent state into an alliance. They had become so powerful by 632 B.C. that they were able to hobble Chin, their main rival, by driving Prince Ch'ung-erh, the Duke of Wen and rightful successor to the throne of Chin, into exile.

With the prince gone, Chin struggled with the right of secession and a weak leader while the Ch'u consolidated their position. They quickly brought the states of Hsu, Wei, Ts'ao and Lu into a firm alliance and drove all but two of the remaining states into neutrality. This left only the two states of Sung and Ch'i friendly to Chin and it was obvious their days and those of Chin were numbered.

The only person that could unify the country was the exiled prince. The nobles of Chin realized that he had to be returned to power if the people were to rally to the cause. Without a unified state they were doomed. With that in mind several emissaries were sent out to find the prince and bring him home.

The delegation found the prince but he did not want to return and reclaim the throne.  He was a kind, mild-mannered man who did not like the trials of leadership or the political intrigues of court.  Undaunted the emissaries, with the use of lots of strong drink, discussed the situation with the prince long into the night.  Finally, the prince passed out from the effects of the drink and the emissaries took that to mean that he had accepted their offer.  They spirited him away from his exile and when he regained consciousness he was well on his way back to Chin.

The return of the prince angered Tzu-yu ,the leader of Ch'u, and he assembled his army for the invasion that would destroy Chin once and for all.  Tzu-yu was a stubborn, unmannered man who ruled with an iron hand and did not hesitate to kill opponents or those who displeased him.  He called out his army and demanded that his new allies provide him with troops.  Having assembled an army of between 30,000 and 50,000, about of third of which were drawn from the states of his new allies, he headed north toward the border with Chin.

Upon hearing of the movement of the enemy, the Duke of Wen called his ablest generals and assembled his army.  He was able to assemble an army roughly equal to that of Tzu-ys's but he had one advantage.  All of his troops were from Chin.  There were no allied or auxiliary troops to be concerned about.

Both armies were equipped and fought in a similar manner.  Warfare during this period was fought by the nobles on their chariots.  These chariots could be of the two, three or four horse type and manned by a crew of three.  The nobleman drove the chariot while an archer stood on one side and a pikeman on the other.  Each chariot was supported by a force of 25 armored men and 75 unarmored men.  Thus each chariot represented a company-sized military unit.  The 25 armored men wore bronze armor and carried a shield and sword (if they were lucky) while the unarmored men carried a spear, sword or whatever else was at hand.  Some certainly carried bows but they were not organized into purely archer units at this time.  Both armored and unarmored men were organized into ranks that were two or three deep.  The early Chinese had not adopted the complex military formation movements.  Men in the first line fought until they were killed or wounded and then men from the second line would move up to fill the space.

Both armies also maintained a number of light chariot units which were only used for reconnaissance.  These were two horse chariots which carried a driver and bowman.  However, when the battle was joined these light units moved off until the fight was resolved.

Each army also had elite guard units to protect its sovereign and other nobles.  These units were generally known as Shi for the sovereign and Lu for the nobles although other more exotic names were often associated with the units.  The elite guards were composed of the most trusted warriors in the army.  They were better paid and trained then their normal army counter parts and they were often pampered by the men whom they protected.  A sovereign normally had between 1,000 and 2,500 men in his Shi while a noble would have about 500 men in his Lu.  Once the two armies drew close to one another the battle was initiated by the chariots.  The nobles would charge at one another and the infantry was used to protect the loser or to follow the winner to victory.

These two armies were from barbaric tribes.  They had seen a little of civilization but not enough to really accept all its principles.  Thus neither army was well trained.  The soverign presented his commanders with a rudimentary plan of attack or defense and once the battle began the nobles simply did as they pleased.  It was easier to attack then to defend and consequently nobles tended to charge until defeated.

The soverign and noble marked their position on the battlefield with large highly visible banners and flags.  As long as they stayed in view the army would continue to fight.  However, if the standard fled the battlefield or fell the army quickly disintegrated.  The poorly trained infantry fled in fright while the Shi or Li stood its ground until their commander made good his escape or until they were overwhelmed.

The battle around these elite guards was certainly the most vicious and final part of the battle.  Battles during this time period tended to be short, perhaps day long concerns, which ended in the total defeat or route of the losing army.

The two armies met at Ch'eng-p'u in the summer of 632 B.C. Ch'eng-p'u has never been located exactly although its probably in modern day Honan or Shantung provinces.  The accounts that survive the battle identify the area as a flat open field near the ruins of the temple of Yu-hsin. The ruins were located on a hill top which buttresses up against the center of the field.  There was a marsh on one side of the battle field and a stream must have run nearby although there is no mention of it effecting the deployment of troops or battle itself.

 The Ch'u Army was organized into three divisions of Center, Left and Right.  The Center division was commanded by Tzu-Yu and contained the best troops in the army including six companies of Tzu-Yu's personal body guard which were called the Jo-Ao.  The Left division was commanded by Tzu-hsi who was an aggressive commander with a strong desire to win great fame in the battle.  The Right division was commanded by Tzu-shang and contained the allied troops with a stiffening of Ch'u troops for good measure.

Across the field the Chin army lined up in a similar manner. Their army was composed of three divisions which were called Center, Upper (right) and Lower (left).  The Center division of the Chin Army was composed of the best and most powerful units including Duke's elite personal guard called the Kung-Tsu and an independent chariot detachment.  The right or upper unit was commanded by Hu Mao and contained well disciplined and well led units.  On the other side, the left or lower unit was commanded by Hsu Ch'en who was an aggressive but disciplined commander.

As the two armies lined up to face one another The Chin Army implemented a bold and daring plan.  Prior to the battle the Duke of Wen and his staff had received an intelligence report detailing the way the Ch'u fought.  The report obviously came from high ranking deserters because in addition to troop strengths it detailed the individual personalities of the top leaders.

When the Chin lined up to give battle the generals and troops were deployed with a specific plan of attack already in mind.  In the opening moments of the battle the lower division would charge the Ch'u right division.  The intelligence report indicated that the Ch'u allies would give way quickly and run if confronted with a spirited attack.

Once the right flank had collapsed the massive bulk of the Ch'u Center division would have to refuse its flank to keep from being taken in the flank and destroyed.  The Chin lower division was not powerful enough to attack the Ch'u Center division but with the enemy on its flank the Ch'u center could not move either.  Thus the Chin lower division could pin and immobilize the powerful Ch'u Center division and neutralize the most powerful enemy formation.

After the lower division had succeeded in its attack the Chin upper division would present the aggressive Tzu-hsi and his Left division with the opportunity for victory they craved.  Certain that Tzu-hsi would lead his men in an attack, the upper division would wait for the attack to draw near and then retreat.  The enemy would of course follow breaking formation and ranks to get at the "fleeing enemy".

Just before Tzu-hsi and men approached the former position of the enemy, a group of specially trained Chin chariots under the command of Luan Chin would sweep across the front of the advancing Ch'u troops.  The chariots would drag tree branches behind them to cause the maximum amount of dust and confusion possible.  Hidden by the dust the upper division would turn and make its stand.

Once the Ch'u had closed with the upper division they would be slightly behind and the right of the Chin center division.  At this point a separate brigade commanded by Hsi Chen would leave the  Chin center division and sweep into the flank Tzu-hsi's division.  The combined effect of finding the "fleeing enemy" full of fight and being attacked in the flank was certain to crush the Ch'u division.

The plan was exceptionally complicated even by today's standards but it was a quick and efficient way of destroying the Ch'u army.  If any portion of the plan failed there was still the possibility of retrieving the situation by simply attacking and if either flank attack succeeded it would bring a great advantage to the Chin army.

Once the two armies closed to within range the Chin executed their plan and it worked to perfection.  The Ch'u allied armies broke under the vicious attack by the Chin lower division and Tzu-hsi attacked as predicted and was virtually annihilated in the trap.

With the loss of both flanks, Tzu-yu, the commander of the Ch'u forces had little choice.  He and his banners left the field while his six companies of Jo-Ao guards fought a desperate delaying action.  By the end of the day the Ch'u army and its invasion had been shattered.  The survivors returned home as a beaten and demoralized army.  It would take them years to recover from the defeat and although they were still a strong state they could do little to threaten the safety of Chin.

After the victory the Duke of Wen took his victorious army on a series of less than brilliant campaigns.  He tried to invade several neighboring states and failed in each attack. It was obvious that Army of Chin, like many other past and present, was more than prepared to fight tenaciously in defense of their own territory but lost its motivation once it was outside of its homeland.

The Battle at Ch'eng-P'u is one of the great battles of ancient China.  It decided the fate of two powerful states and indeed of a nation.  If the Army of Ch'u had been victorious that day they might well have consolidated all of known China under a single, powerful dynasty.  A dynasty which might have rivaled the greatest dynasties of China and Empires of the western world as well.




The Chinese auxiliaries, the men of the smaller states, were often badly treated at the hands of their larger more powerful allies.  No commander wants to see his men die in combat but knows that casualties are a part of war.  When commanders were given auxiliary units they often "saved" their own men by putting the auxiliaries in the front ranks.  In fact, one of the normal procedures was to break up the auxiliary unit and assign small groups of them to each of the regular units.

The practice of breaking up the auxiliaries may have had a sound military reason. Generally, neither force had worked with the other and the auxiliaries were generally unfamiliar with the larger force's operating procedures.  Putting the men of the auxiliaries with the regular units certainly allowed for a faster integration but there was generally too little time to assimilate them into the larger army.

The men from the auxiliary units were always assigned to front rank and suffered the heaviest casualties.  If the auxiliaries fought well, the regulars in the second and third ranks would move up to help in the fight.  If the battle went badly, the auxiliaries were simply abandoned while the regular troops fell back.          

Generally, the practice quickly reduced the morale of the auxiliaries.  Used to working with men of their own state and trained to trust their leaders they were suddenly broken-up literally in the face of the enemy and were thus prone to break and run under any serious enemy attack. 



Kierman, Frank A. (Ed.) Chinese Ways in Warfare. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1974.

MacGowan, John. The Imperial History of China. Curzon Press. London, England. 1897.

Twitchett, Denis and Michael Loewe (ed). The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge University Press. London, England 1986.



Timothy J. Kutta is a retired Marine Officer and the former Head of the History Department at the United States Army Transportation School, Ft. Eustis, Va.

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