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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frank A. (Ed.) Chinese Ways in Warfare. Harvard University Press. Cambridge,
John. The Imperial History of China. Curzon Press. London, England. 1897.
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.