Warfare in Chinese History

By Hans J. Van Der Ven | Go to book overview

THE HAN ABOLITION OF
UNIVERSAL MILITARY SERVICE
MARK EDWARD LEWIS

It is virtually impossible to train all the subjects of a commonwealth in the arts of war, and at the same time keep them obedient to the laws and magistrates. Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la république.


INTRODUCTION

Founded in a protracted civil war, the Han dynasty (202 BC—AD 220) carried forward many of the institutions of its predecessor, the ill-starred Qin (221–206 BC) state that had created China's first unitary empire. One of the most important of these institutions, indeed the very organizing principle of the state, was the system of universal military service and the ranking of the male population with titles awarded, in part, for success in combat. Service in the army was the foundation of state authority in the countryside, weightiest and most time-consuming of all the forms of labour from its subjects, and an avenue to social advancement.1

Yet universal military service was abolished under the Eastern Han dynasty and disappeared from the Chinese world, unlike many other Han institutions which became formal models for subsequent dynasties. This abolition had a major impact on the Han state, and in some accounts of the period it is assigned the primary responsibility for the ultimate collapse of the dynasty.2 In his classic essay

____________________
1
Mark Edward Lewis, Sanctioned violence in early China (Albany: State University of New York, 1990); Tu Cheng-sheng, Bian hu qi min: chuantong zhengzhi shehui jiegou zhi xingcheng [Registering households and ordering the people: the formation of the traditional socio-political structure] (Taipei: Lianjing, 1989); Robin D.S. Yates, 'Social status in the Ch'in: evidence from the Yün-meng legal documents. Part One: Commoners', Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 47:1 (June 1987), 197–231.
2
Sun Yutang, 'Dong Han bingzhi de yanbian [The evolution of the Eastern Han military system]', in Zhongguo shehui jingji shi congkan 6 (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1939), 10–13.

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