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Military Strategy in the Manchu Dynasty

Jeremy Black—

In the last iteration of dynastic change, the rise of the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty and its replacement of the Ming in 1644–52, a process in which campaigning, winning allies and legitimation were interlinked strategies of the takeover, encouraged interest in further Chinese expansionism and helped make it possible. The resulting conflicts both countered possible external threats and made it easier to sustain the Manchu presence within China, which was a classic instance of the congruence of international with domestic themes. The awareness of challenge and threat was a key element in Manchu strategy. More generally, there is a balance between positive and defensive reasons for a strategy of expansionism, with the two frequently part of the same equation.

Creating an important link between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Manchu established a dynamic system willing and capable of subjugating at least some of China’s neighbours, and repeatedly fought to expand. In 1680–1760, indeed, China conquered more territory than any other power in the world, principally Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang. This expansionism was imperialistic, and for glory and possessions, rather than for resources and trade. Indeed, a cost–benefit analysis would have focused on the costs of conquest and occupation, and the limited economic benefit from the areas conquered. At the same time, such a benefit could have been readily discerned in the shape of protecting core Chinese areas from attack.

Traditionally, the chief characteristic of the Chinese military was a certain remorseless persistence, but the Manchu brought a new dynamic and a greater ability to campaign successfully in the steppe. Thus, they took forward the traditional Chinese strategy of playing off steppe forces in order to win allies and weaken opponents, a strategy that was a way to cope with the scale of the steppe and its seeming intractability. The Manchu, indeed, created a military system that was in effect a Manchu–Chinese hybrid, as well as having distinctive goals. Impressive in its operational extent, the army was able to act in very different terrains, producing strategic capacity as a result. The ability to deliver power at a great range into Inner Asia matched the situation within the European world: organisational developments, range and capability were more important than military technology itself. These are points that, to a degree, challenge the standard interpretation of military development, especially that of technology-based revolutions.

This ability was at the service of a set of cultural and geographical assumptions, and of the need to revise constantly the empire-building strategy. In a mechanistic interpretation, this was a case of adjusting the strategy to changed realities. However, there is always the risk that such an interpretation ignores the role of cultural assumptions in both the perception of realities and the adjustment, and thus of what is referred to as strategic culture. In particular, on a longstanding pattern, the Chinese were more ambitious and more successful in central Asia than on their southern frontiers. As with the Roman and Russian empires, for which the subject has been studied, the location of garrisons was a reflection of strategic, political and cultural factors, although these cannot be readily distinguished from each other. The major work on Russian strategy, that by John P. LeDonne, focuses heavily and valuably on the location of troops in terms of opportunities and threats, which can be seen in terms of functional and instrumental or ideological factors. As the former were perceived in terms of assumptions, different ideological factors can also be seen in play.

Under the Manchu rulers, the bannermen – Manchu and Mongols who were regarded as more reliable troops – were stationed in northern China, around the centre of authority, Beijing, and down to the Yangtze River, and the garrisons lived in segregated walled compounds. In contrast, the more numerous Han Chinese Green Standard troops, who focused on dealing with rebellions, were stationed all over the country, but with many in the south, where the first permanent garrison of bannermen was not established until 1718. In addition, the generals sent to the southern frontiers were less competent.

In its most significant conflict to the south during the eighteenth century, China was defeated in Burma (Myanmar) in the late 1760s. War with Burma in 1765 broke out over what had hitherto been the buffer zone of the Shan states, but this was less important to China’s rulers than eastern Mongolia, which had been contested with the Zunghars in the 1690s, a struggle followed by one with the Zunghars over western Mongolia. The Manchu, indeed, were much more comfortable with the people and cultures of central Asia than with the south. Similarly, Russia, and then the Soviet Union, were to be much more concerned with Europe than the Far East. There was a crucial geographical element in strategic culture.

From Military Strategy by Jeremy Black. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter, UK. He has published widely in military history, including War and the Worldand Air Power. His other works include Maps and History and Naval Warfare.


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