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Later Han Military Organisation

An Outline of the Military Organisation of the Later Han Empire


Rafe de Crespigny

Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University

Extract from the Introduction to Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling   being the Chronicle of Later Han for the years 189 to 220 AD as recorded in Chapters 59 to 69 of the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang, translated and annotated by Rafe de Crespigny and originally published in the Asian Studies Monographs, New Series No. 21, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra 1996 ISBN 0 7315 2537 X.
© The whole work is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism, or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Enquiries should be made to the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

Table of contents


In the Introduction to Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, I gave a summary account of the civil administration of Later Han. As the imperial government, however, became all but irrelevant in the years of war which began in 189, I present below a survey of the military structure of the dynasty as it entered its final years.

At the end of the reign of Emperor Ling, the facade of civil government remained intact. In formal terms, immediately below the ruler, the Three Excellencies (san gong), with rank expressed by a nominal salary of Ten Thousand shi of Grain (wan shi), and the Nine Ministers (jiu qing), rank/salary of Fully Two Thousand shi (zhong erqian shi), headed the administration, while the office of the Masters of Writing (shangshu), the imperial secretariat, drew up and circulated the edicts and orders with which government was carried out. Outside the capital, provinces (zhou) were headed by Governors (mu) or Inspectors (cishi), and these were divided into subordinate commanderies (jun) under Grand Administrators (tai shou) or states (guo), nominal fiefs of kings (wang) which were in practice ruled by Chancellors (xiang). Commanderies and states were in turn divided into counties (xian), the basic level of Han government, ruled by Prefects (ling), Chiefs (zhang) and equivalent officers. All local units were responsible for police work and basic control of banditry and other minor troubles, but there was also a military establishment to guard the person of the emperor, to maintain the frontiers, and to quell disturbance within the empire.


The Northern Army (bei jun), based at the capital, Luoyang, was the central strategic reserve of the empire. Under Later Han the Northern Army comprised five regiments (ying): the Archers Who Shoot at a Sound (shesheng), the Footsoldiers (bubing), the Elite Cavalry (yueji), the Garrison Cavalry (tunji) and the Chang River Regiment (Changshui). Each was commanded by a Colonel (xiaowei), whose rank was expressed by nominal salary Equivalent to Two Thousand shi of Grain (bi erqian shi), and the whole force was supervised by a Captain of the Centre of the Northern Army (beijun zhonghou), with rank/salary of Six Hundred shi.

The men of the Northern Army were professional, skilled soldiers, who could be sent to any point of danger or disturbance as stiffening to forces recruited locally. The numbers were not great: each regiment had an official complement of some 700 men with between 60 and 120 junior officers. Below the colonel, the second-in-command was a Major (sima), with rank/salary of One Thousand shi; the Chang River regiment, whose troopers were recruited from Wuhuan and other non-Chinese auxiliaries, had an additional Major of Barbarian Cavalry (huji sima).

The Captain of the Centre of the Northern Army, as his rank implies, had no authority to give orders to colonels of regiments: his position was that of an adjutant and supervisor. Officially, command of the force was in the hands of a General (jiangjun), usually the General-in-Chief (da jiangjun).

The General-in-Chief, however, was not a professional soldier: during Later Han the position was given to the senior male of the imperial relatives by marriage, father or brother of the Empress. By the latter part of the second century, particularly in the time of Liang Ji at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Huan, and of Dou Wu at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Ling, these men held effective power of regency, they ranked with the Excellencies as the highest officials of the empire, and they had authority over the imperial secretariat and the government as a whole. Command of the Northern Army was designed to confirm and consolidate their political power at court and in the capital. From 184, the position was held by He Jin, brother of the Empress He of Emperor Ling.

Below the General-in-Chief, appointment as General of Agile Cavalry (jiangjun) was held in 189 by Emperor Ling's distaff cousin Dong Zhong, with no direct military command. Title as General of Chariots and Cavalry (juji jiangjun) had been awarded as an honour to imperial relatives and favoured eunuchs, but some holders of the appointment also served in the field. At the end of the Yellow Turban rebellion of 184, victorious commanders were honoured as Generals of Chariots and Cavalry on the Left or on the Right, and a full General of Chariots and Cavalry was sent against the rebels of Liang province in the northwest. Soon afterwards, however, the position reverted to a sinecure, and in 187 it was granted to He Miao, half-brother of the Empress.

The list of titles in the Treatise also includes a General of the Guards (wei jiangjun), and generals of the Van (qian), of the Rear (hou), of the Left (zuo) and of the Right (you), though to the time of Emperor Ling these posts had not been filled under Later Han.

In the autumn of 186 the Emperor established a new military organisation under Eight Colonels of the Western Garden. (Xi yuan). There are differing versions of the titles of the commanders, and we know nothing about the numbers, the origins or the quality of these troops, but are told that the eunuch Jian Shi, Colonel of the First Army (shangjun xiaowei), was the senior officer, and even the General-in-Chief He Jin was under his orders.

It is difficult to tell what the Emperor had in mind when he created this force, for it was never put to use and there is no further reference to it in the histories. Since the Western Garden was the Emperor's private treasury, the new grouping was presumably designed as a personal army, while the appointment of Jian Shi was an attempt to set up an alternative to the regular chain of command under the General-in-Chief. Presumably to confirm that system, in the winter two months later Emperor Ling held a grand review where he was acclaimed as General Supreme (wushang jiangjun), and took ostentatious precedence over He Jin.

With the possible exception of the Western Garden troops, the Northern Army was the only competent military force in the vicinity of Luoyang, but there was a sophisticated system of guards and defence for the palace and the person of the Emperor.

Outside the palace, the Colonel Director of Retainers (sili xiaowei), with rank/salary Equivalent to Two Thousand shi, was head of the capital province. His territory of seven commanderies extended from west of the old capital of Former Han, Chang'an to the east of Luoyang. The Intendant (yin) of Henan, whose rank/ salary of Two Thousand shi matched that of the heads of comparable units throughout the empire, governed the commandery about the capital, with responsibility for the markets and the supply of goods to them, including the grain stores at the great Ao Granary east of Luoyang. And the Prefect of Luoyang, with rank/salary of One Thousand shi, controlled daily administration in the capital. Each of them had staff for police, guard and para-military duties, with formal authority over nobility and officials of the court as well as ordinary citizens.

This hierarchy of local government was matched by an separate system of protection about the city and the palaces. The Colonel of the City Gates (chengmen xiaowei), Equivalent to Two Thousand shi, was in charge of the guards at the twelve gates about Luoyang. The Bearer of the Gilded Mace (zhi jinwu), at the same rank and salary, was responsible for the capital city outside the palace, and for the arsenal. His duties evidently duplicated those of local government, and his staff, which included scholars, clerks and Cavalrymen Dressed in Red (tiji), may have acted as security agents as well as regular police.

Besides these officials outside, the Commandant of the Guards (weiwei), one of the Nine Ministers with rank/salary of Fully Two Thousand shi, was in charge of security for the imperial palaces, particularly the walls and gates between the various compounds. The guardsmen under his command in Luoyang numbered almost two thousand, divided between the Northern and Southern Palaces, with contingents at each gate and tallies to identify every person as they went in or out. Another Minister, the Superintendent of the Imperial Household (guanglu xun), was responsible for the Emperor's personal security. His subordinates included courtiers at every level, but the main body for defence were five corps under Generals of the Gentlemen of the Household for All Purposes (wuguan zhonglangjiang), on the Left and Right, Rapid As Tigers (huben) and of the Feathered Forest (yulin). Each had rank/salary Equivalent to Two Thousand shi.

The numbers of Gentlemen in the first three corps, those for All Purposes, the Left and the Right, appear to have varied from as low as 700 to almost 2000. They were, however, of small military value, for they were composed of candidates recommended for civil office and undergoing a period of probation, and the All Purposes group was intended for men over the age of fifty. The other two units, Gentlemen Rapid As Tigers and of the Feathered Forest, with a strength between 1500 and 1700, were probably cadets of some military skill and experience who were training for commissions in the army, and were thus of more professional standard.

Finally, the private areas of the palace, notably the harem, were guarded by eunuchs, who were officially under the Privy Treasurer (shaofu), one of the Nine Ministers, but were in practice independent. The eunuch guards and servants were arranged in many separate divisions, with no formal lines of authority, but during Later Han the most senior eunuchs, the Regular Palace Attendants (zhong changshi), with rank/salary Equivalent to Two Thousand shi, were recognised as leaders of their colleagues, while Junior Attendants at the Yellow Gates (xiao huangmen), rank/ salary of Six Hundred shi, gained authority from their position as confidential messengers, and the Prefect of the Yellow Gates (huangmen ling), rank/salary also Six Hundred shi, had disciplinary command over all eunuch servants of the emperor.

And within this apparatus of protection, it was the eunuchs who were in the best position to affect the politics of the empire with a well-timed coup. For the person of the Emperor was the key to government, and the eunuchs controlled access. In 125 they played a leading role in placing Emperor Shun upon the throne, in 159 Emperor Huan relied on eunuch supporters to eliminate the General-in-Chief Liang Ji, and in 168 the eunuchs acted on their own to destroy Dou Wu. Each operation was carried out with light forces, applying pressure at a critical point: the attack on Liang Ji used no more than a thousand men, Gentlemen of the Feathered Forest and Rapid As Tigers with grooms from the imperial stables; and the first move against Dou Wu required an even smaller number. Once the Emperor gave his support, whether deliberately or through deceit, nothing could stand against his authority. 

Despite notional checks and balances, therefore, the conventions of Later Han had established a most centralised regime at the capital, and so long as the contest was confined to that arena the eunuchs held a dominant position. A few months after the death of Emperor Ling, however, the pressures of political conflict broke those bounds, and the struggle for power was opened to all the empire.


Up to the time of Emperor Ling, chief attention had been focussed on defence of the northern frontier, with three types of military array. First there were garrison troops along the Great Wall and in other fixed defences; second, there was the army of the General Who Crosses the Liao (du-Liao jiangjun), based on the Ordos loop of the Yellow River near present-day Baotou, and commonly assisted by auxiliary troops from the Southern Xiongnu and other non-Chinese tributaries; and thirdly there were the citizen levies of the northern provinces, where every man was trained in war and could be required to serve in the field.

We have noted that the two units of Gentlemen of the Household Rapid as Tigers and of the Feathered Forest were probably cadets in training for military commissions. Other troops on the frontier were recruited locally or came through one of three depots: the Camp at Yong l in Youfufeng, west of Chang'an; the Tiger Tooth Encampment (huya ying) near that former capital; and the Camp at Liyang in Wei commandery by the Yellow River in the west of the North China plain. This structure for recruitment and training had been maintained all through Later Han, and the troops who manned the garrisons and base camps on the frontiers of the empire were trained and competent.

By the end of the reign of Emperor Ling, however, the system had collapsed. In 177 the defeat of a major Chinese punitive expedition at the hands of the northern Xianbi confederation broke the power of the field armies and removed the former loyalty of their auxiliaries, and in 184 the mutiny in Liang province forced the defences in the northwest back towards Chang'an. In the region of the Ordos and present-day Shanxi province, the Southern Xiongnu were effectively independent, and over all this territory the government held little beyond the lower valley of the Wei. At the same time, the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans and the troubles which followed brought endemic disturbance to many regions within the empire which had long been largely at peace.

The command structure of the armies raised to deal with these internal disorders followed the formal pattern of Han and the hierarchy we have described for the army at the capital. The highest field command was that of general, often identified by a special prefix either in literary style or indicating the campaign for which the officer was appointed. As warfare spread, a multitude of generals were appointed or proclaimed themselves, and there are occasional references in the records to Lieutenant-Generals (pian jiangjun) and Major-Generals (pi jiangjun), though neither post is listed in the regular system of Later Han.

The usual appointment below the rank of general was General of the Gentlemen of the Household, initially, as we have seen, the style of an officer in charge of guards at court, but later used for commanders on active service outside the capital. Thus Generals of the Gentlemen of the Household took part in operations against the Qiang in 115 and in 162, against the Xianbi in 177, and against the Yellow Turban rebels in 184., while from the outbreak of civil war, officers with that title frequently hold command in the field.

Under Later Han, appointment as Chief Commandant of Cavalry (ji duwei) had normally been a sinecure, without subordinates or particular duties, but with rank/salary Equivalent to Two Thousand shi, the same as a General of the Gentlemen of the Household. From the time of the Yellow Turbans, however, officers with that title appear on active service. It appears from context that their troops were not necessarily restricted to horsemen, but the status of the office was not quite so high as that of a General of the Gentlemen of the Household.

As in the Northern Army at the capital, an army in the field was organised into regiments (ying) commanded by colonels (xiaowei), with battalions (bu) under majors (sima), while there was provision for appointment of senior Majors with a Separate Command (biebu sima). We are also told of companies (qu) under captains (hou), and platoons (tun) under chiefs (tunzhang), though these lower units and appointments are seldom referred to in the texts.

The headquarters of the General-in-Chief at Luoyang included a Chief Clerk (changshi) and a Major, each with rank/salary of One Thousand shi, together with Gentlemen of the General Staff (congshi zhonglang), at Six Hundred shi, and a secretary, the Master of Records (zhubu) Similar appointments may be found in the headquarters of field commanders, and towards the end of Han there were officers described as Advisers to the Army (canjunshi), who might take part in council. In the army at large, a Chief Controller (dudu) acted as adjutant, and the Protector of the Army (hujun) was responsible for discipline.

While generals and colonels were appointed primarily for operations in the field, much of the outer and inner defence of the empire was based upon fixed encampments, territorial or garrison command, generally under the authority of a Chief Commandant (duwei). In this way, there were Chief Commandants for the depots at Liyang, at Yong, and the Tiger Tooth Encampment at Chang'an, while during the Yellow Turbans rebellion eight garrisons were established under Chief Commandants to guard the passes leading from the east of the empire towards Luoyang.

In similar fashion, each regular commandery within the empire had a Commandant (wei), and each kingdom a Commandant of the Capital (zhongwei). These were senior assistants to the Grand Administrator or Chancellor, including among their duties the policing of the territory and conscription for military service. In frontier commanderies, however, and in territories particularly disturbed by banditry, Chief Commandants were appointed, either with authority over the whole commandery or with charge of one region or division (bu) within it.

From the beginning of the second century AD, moreover, the government of Later Han established a number of commandery-level Dependent States (shuguo) on the northern and western frontiers. Largely inhabited by non-Chinese peoples, these territories on the margin of imperial control were subject to a stricter military government than the settled regions of the interior, and the Chief Commandant of a Dependent State, with rank/salary Equivalent to Two Thousand shi, had responsibilities similar to a Grand Administrator.

The structures described above were designed to deal with trouble along the frontier and emergencies within the empire. In normal times, banditry and lesser disturbances were dealt with by the local authorities. The head of each county had a small police or para-military force at his disposal, and the commandery unit above him could bring reinforcements if necessary. Should the problem be too great for the commandery to handle, the Inspector of a province had authority to raise troops from all the region. At nominal salary of Six Hundred shi, an Inspector ranked below a Grand Administrator or Chancellor (Two Thousand shi), and was normally entitled to do no more than report on their conduct to the capital. For the central government, however, there was always a threat that the head of a commandery unit might seek to extend his power, and local troops were therefore forbidden to operate independently outside the borders of their territory. Should it become necessary to levy troops on a larger scale, the Inspector took command and the heads of commanderies and kingdoms came under his orders for the duration of the emergency.

In 188, in the aftermath of the Yellow Turbans rebellion, the government of Emperor Ling restored an earlier system, so that in some provinces Inspectors were replaced by Governors (mu). These were selected from men of ministerial rank, higher than that of the heads of commanderies, and they held executive rather than supervisory authority over the province. In the civil war which followed, therefore, the province rather than the commandery became the chief unit of military and civil power, and when Inspectors were appointed during this period they were usually lieutenants of a major warlord who had taken title as Governor in a neighbouring province.

Below this administrative superstructure, recruitment of troops in the provinces was haphazard. Officially, all male citizens were liable to conscription: as each man came to the age of twenty-three he served one year in a local training battalion, then spent one year on guard at the capital or in his home territory; and thereafter, until his middle fifties, he could be called up in time of emergency. In practice, however, within the empire the two-year service was not intensive, it was often commuted by scutage, and there was no provision for an effective militia. In effect, the rulers of Later Han preferred to have their people untrained for war rather than face the possibility that competent forces could be raised in local rebellion or mutiny.

By the end of the reign of Emperor Ling, however, though lack of training had long meant that levies from the inland could seldom match the demands of real warfare, years of disorder had brought up a new generation within the empire. They lacked the discipline of regular troops, and their steadiness in any cause was doubtful, but they knew how to fight and they were available for conscription or recruitment by a recognised commander. Furthermore, the soldiers and citizens of the northern frontier did have experience, and the men of Liang province in particular, tempered by combat against the non-Chinese and fiercely loyal to their leaders, soon became a threat to the government.

As we have seen, any able-bodied man was liable for service in time of emergency, and the armies which fought rebels and bandits for the government of Han gained most of their troops by the technique of a press-gang. In the early 170s, for example, the future general Sun Jian obtained his first command against rebels in the southeast as a major with commission to recruit men as he found them and bring his contingent to join the forces of order. Men of rank and substance recruited their followers from retainers and mercenaries: so Cao Cao raised troops in 189 by distributing his family property.

At the core of any such levy, however, there was always a small group of family members or trusted friends, and this band of Companions (qinjin) gave security to the leader and coherence to his unit. As the civil war began with "loyal rebellion" against the court controlled by the usurper Dong Zhuo, conflicting claims of right action and allegiance soon defied the sophistries of even the highest officers who sought to serve the state. In practical terms, as social and economic conditions deteriorated ordinary men and their families were concerned primarily with survival, and the best chance for that was the protection of a successful warlord. As a result, whether the leader was a man of good family or a soldier of fortune, his power was based on personal loyalty, not upon an abstract concept of public duty, while his own security depended upon the support of the men he sought to command.

As we consider these years of disaster, therefore, we must bear in mind the reality which lay beneath the formal titles and heroic words of a traditional Chinese history. As the structure of empire dissolved, these ragged armies of desperate men and their camp-followers ravaged the country and brought ruin to themselves and their fellows. Their loyalties were limited and personal, for though the name of Han remained, there was no government to make effective claim upon their allegiance.

So in the five chapters dealing with the reigns of Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling, ZZTJ describes the thirty years when the seeds of error and conflict were sown. In the next section of his great work, the five Chapters 59 to 64 covering a period of only eleven years, Sima Guang tells of the whirlwind which swept the dynasty from power and turned the empire of China into a swirling chaos of competing warlords and miserable war. And in Chapters 64 to 68, the chronicle from 201 to 220, he describes how the new rulers of the broken empire strove without success to restore the unity and the coherence of Han.


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