In no country in the world have soldiers dominated politics as extensively or for so long as in China. Modern Chinese politics has revolved around armies and military figures. Yet the convention of Chinese historiography has been to minimize, if not ignore, the role of the military in Chinese history. In truth, at each stage of Chinese history, soldiers and armies have generally been more important than contemporary observers or subsequent historians have allowed. Even though every dynasty was established by military force and the rule of all emperors depended ultimately upon their armies, the Confucian interpretation of government insisted that soldiers were insignificant and ranked near the bottom of the social scale. What was true in traditional China is still largely true today in Communist China. At a time when the People's Liberation Army has become the key to government in China, the formal doctrines of Communism, while acknowledging the merits of martial qualities, continue to suggest that events are shaped more by peasants and workers than by soldiers.
In the early years of the Republic, however, it was impossible to deny that the military was decisive in public affairs. Enlightened Chinese were mortified, partly by the conduct of the warlords and possibly even more by the shame of having to admit that the arbiters of Chinese society were the military — the very element the Chinese always liked to treat as insignificant. It is not only that military calculations and actions have been decisive in the establishment of every regime in China since 1911; in the daily operations of government for sixty years, armies have never been far from the center of the stage. For example, even during one of the most dramatic and apparently politically inspired periods of modern Chinese politics, the Cultural Revolution, when students and Red Guards seemed to be in aggressive command and when the structure of the party was being torn apart, it was the People's Liberation Army that was in fact becoming the vital institution of rule; Mao's rhetoric was of