An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ming-Period Military Affairs

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald


Early in his rebellious years, Zhu Yuanzhang and each of his allies had military structures and recruitment methods of their own. Zhu himself, for instance, organized his troops through Military Affairs Commissioners (shumi[shi] 樞密[使]), administrators (pingzhang 平章), *chief military commanders (yuanshuai 元帥), route commanders (zongguan 總管) and brigade commanders (wanhu 萬戶). Each officer had to care for the weapons and mounts of his own unit.

After his adoption of the title of King of Wu 吳 in 1365, he decided to regularize the military organization of his forces. At the top were seventeen bodyguards (qinjun zhihui si 親軍指揮司), each of which constituted of one guard (wei 衛). The route commands (zongguanfu 總管府) were transformed battalions (qianhusuo 千戶所). In fact, battalions the regional armies were, according to five-units-method (buwufa 部伍法), organized in units of different size, namely:

Table 1. Early organisation of Zhu Yuanzhang's army
指揮 zhihui 5,000 brigade
千戶 qianhu 1,000 battalion
百戶 baihu 100 company
總旗 zongqi 50 platoon
小旗 xiaoqi 10 squad

The system was known as the guard-and-battalion system (weisuo zhi 衛所制).

In 1372, Zhu Yuanzhang's army already consisted of 164 guard units, and 84 battalions. Guard units comprised more than 10,000 troops, but the size was reduced in 1374 to 5,600 troops per guard unit, and defined as 1,120 troops per battalion (Du & Fang 1996: 293). The emperor was protected by 12 guard units whose size was elevated to 22 by the Yongle Emperor 永樂帝 (r. 1402-1424), and expanded by 4 special units called the Charging Guard (tengxiang 騰驤) during the Xuande reign-period 宣德 (1426-1435). The capital guards were subordinated to the Chief Military Command (da dudufu 大都督府), while those in the provinces stood under the supervision of regional military commissions (du zhihuishi si 都指揮使司, brief dusi 都司) and "itinerant" or branch regional military commission (xing du zhihuishi si 行都指揮使司, brief xing dusi 行都司). In 1380, Emperor Taizu split up the Chief Military Command into the Five Chief Military Commissions (wujun dudufu 五軍都督府), in order to curtail the power of any central military administration. At the same time, he decided to give up the distinction between the guards (wei) and the battalions (suo) system and replaced the brigades (zhihui) by the unit "guard" (wei):

Table 2. Organisation of Ming-period armies
五軍都督府 wujun dudufu Five Chief Military Commissions
都司 (行都司) (xing) dusi (branch) regional military commission
wei guard
千戶所 qianhusuo 1000 battalion
百戶所 baihusuo 100 company
總旗 zongqi 50 platoon
小旗 xiaoqi 10 squad

The Five Chief Military Commissions were called according to directions (zhong 中, zuo 左, you 右, qian 前, hou 後), but their jurisdiction was not spread over geographical regions. Instead, each of the Commissions supervised several military units in the northern capital Beijing, the southern capital Nanjing, and the provinces. This was clearly an attempt at preventing secession of one region as based on military power.

By the Yongle reign-period, there were 21 regional military commissions (dusi), 2 capital guards (liushou si 留守司), 493 guard-and-battalion garrions throughout the empire, and 359 xxx 守御, 屯田, and 屯牧 battalions, with a total number of 2.8 million troops (294). With the settlement of dynastic succession, the Ming army transformed from a conquest army to a peace-time army residing throughout the provinces (zhufang 駐防) that had to nourish itself and to carry out training in order to retain their fighting forces.

In 1388, Emperor Taizu had proclaimed the agro-colony law (junwei tuntian fa 軍衛屯田法), according to which garrisons had to care for their food supply themselves, basically by engaging in agricultural activities in peacetime. The law was applicable for 80 per cent of regional troops, and half of the troops in critical regions (chongyao di 衝要地) and the guards of the princely establishments (wangfu huwei 王府護衛). In 1392, the order fixed the quota of agricultural work at 70 per cent, but only for garrisons in peaceful areas, not in borderlands. The guard-and-battalion units had also the duty to transport tribute grain along the grand canal, as so-called "grain troops" (caojun 漕軍).

This system of self-sustainment led to the lack of fighting power of the guard-and-battalion units. During military campaigns, only the best fighters among the units were therefore sent out to war. The Yongle Emperor had formed special fighting units out of this practice, namely the so-called "Training Division" of the Five Armies (wujun ying 五軍營). They had a special status and belonged, together with the Division of the Three Thousand (sanqian ying 三千營), and the Firearms Division (shenji ying 神機營), to the Three Great Training Divisions of the capital armies (jingjun san da ying 京軍三大營).

There were practically two military systems during the Ming period, namely the guard-and-battalion system (weisuo zhi) that served as a kind of organizational pattern for military households, the organization of local defence, policing actions, and certain public work, and the division system (yingbing zhi 營兵制) that was applied to create military units ready for combat in veritable wars. In other words, weak and older troops of the weisuo garrisons cared for supplies, while the young and stronger ones did the fighting and special organizations, the divisions (ying 營).

The difference between the legal organisation in guards and battalions and practical organisation in other units can also be seen in local and regional units. Their total number amounted to about 1.5 million troops (305). In 1402, Emperor Chengzu split off the regional commands of Liaodong, Ningxia, and Guangxi, and thus created a parallel structure of the regular regional military commanders (dusi) and the special provincial commanders (zongbing guan 總兵官). They were not subordinated to the Chief Military Commissions.

Table 3. Local defence commands (zhenshu jun 鎮戍軍) and officers
Border regions (bianzhen 邊鎮) Interior (neizhen 內鎮)
鎮守 (總鎮) regional command 總兵官 regional commander 鎮守 (總鎮) regional command 總兵官 regional commander
協守 vice command 副總兵 vice commander
分守 branch command 參將 branch commander 分守 branch command 參將 branch commander
游擊將軍 mobile corps commander
守備 commandant 守備 commandant
把總 squad leader

In interior provinces like Jiangsu and Henan, no defence commands were established. The higher officer positions (zongbing, fu zongbing) were filled with members of the nobility or dudu, while mid-ranking offices (canjiang, youji) were given to duzhihuishi. There were also regional differences to the table above, like the ranks and units *sub-lieutenant guantie 管帖 commanding one platoon (50 men), squad leader (bazong) commanding a half-battalion (si 司) of 500 men, *major (qianzong 千總) commanding a battalion (shao 哨) of 1,000 men, and *adjutant general (zhongjun 中軍) commanding a small brigade (ying 營) of 3,000 troops.

In the two capitals of the Ming empire, there were two types of troops, namely the capital guards (jingjun 京軍), and the imperial bodyguard (qinjun 親軍, shiwei shangzhi jun 侍衛上直軍) that was also responsible for the defence of the Imperial City.

In the early years of the Ming period, all capital troops were organized in one 大元帥府 , which was later split up onto five 大都督府. The Five Armies 五軍 consisted of 48 衛 and a total number of more than 200,000 soldiers, which were trained in two army schools. When the Yongle-Emperor transferred the main seat of the Ming government to Beijing, he decided to have troops selected from relatively close weisuo garrisons in Zhongdu 中都, 大寧, Shandong and Henan to take over, in half-year turn, the duties of the capital guard. These troops of 80,000 strength were called „rotation troops” (banjun 班軍). The troops from these garrisons had thus two duties, namely to protect Beijing, and to participate in military campaigns. The capital guard units were called the Three Grand Garrisons 三大營—the two others were the Three-Thousand Guard (三千營), the the Firearms Division (神機營). In 1452, they were expanded to ten garrisons, and in 1467 to twelve garrisons. In 1511, the were reorganized under two 東西兩官廳. In 1550, however, the original Three Capital Guards were revived. The guard troops in Beijing were subject to greater challenged than those of Nanjing because the northern capital was exposed to the threat of the steppe region, where the Mongols still exerted considerable power. Part of the Nanjing guard troops were therefore moved to Beijing, to reach the whole number of 62 衛 with more than 300,000 men of strength. On top of this were 280,000 troops from eight garrisons of the capital region (Jinei jun 畿內軍), and the “rotation troops”, making more than half a million soldiers able to protect Beijing. Then the Yongle Emperor organized the capital troops into five different fighting divisons, each consisting of infantry and cavalry troops. These were 中軍, 左掖,右掖,左哨,右哨. These fighting units were also called 五軍, but had nothing to do with the original wujun organization. The campaign junjunying were commanded by 1 提督內臣 2 武臣 2 掌號頭官 1 大營坐營官 2 把總 Jede der fünf: 1 坐營官, 1 馬步把總 xxx The Three-Thousand Guard (三千營) consisted of 3,000 cavalry troops of non-Chinese tribes. The size grew later to several ten thousands. They were commanded by 2 tidu neichen and 2 wuchen, and 2 zhanghao touguan, 34 見操bazong, 16 上直把總, and 4 明甲把總. The guard was divided into 5 司, headed by 坐司官. These si operated according to the principle of labour division to protect the sovereign, transmitting orders and cracking enemy formation during battle. - - - - - The Firearms Division was etablished in xxx when the Ming army took over firearms units from the Vietnamese side. It was composed of five units that were called like those of the wujunying and were commanded by one 坐營內臣 and a wuchen. Each unit was again divided into three companies (the zhongjunying in 4) with one 監槍內臣 and 1 把司官 and 2 把總官. A special unit under the Firearms Division was the 五千下營 that consisted of 5,000 cavalry arranged in 4 司.


During the early Ming period, hereditary military households (junhu 軍戶) existed from whose male population soldiers were recruited. The military households were hereditary ones, which means that the progeny had automatically the duty to serve as troops – this was the hereditary military system (shijunzhi 世軍制). Even if the system remained until the end of the Ming period, it was gradually overshadowed by the enlistment system (mubingzhi 募兵制), where persons voluntarily joined the army to become professional soldiers. These two recruitment systems corresponded to two different types of garrisons, namely the Guards-and-Battalions system (weisuo zhi 衛所制) and the garrison system (yingbingzhi 營兵制).

The early army of Zhu Yuanzhang, the rebel, consisted of troops contributed by himself and his followers. They were called "comrades in conquest" (congzhengbing 從征兵) and were given defined regions to guard (liushu 留戍). Troops of vanquished enemies that changed side and supported the cause of Zhu Yuanzhang were called "newcomers" (guifubing 歸附兵). Most of them had been troops under the Yuan dynasty or of other warlords and rebels. A third type of troops of the pre- and very early Ming era were delinquents who were convicted to by penal military service on a hereditary basis. They were known as "degraded and committed troops" (zhefabing 謫發兵), "soldiers by grace" (enjun 恩軍, as the death penalty was commuted to military service) or "eternal soldiers" (changshengjun 長生軍). While the first two types constituted the core part of Zhu Yuanzhang's army in the early phase and after the foundation of the Ming dynasty, convicted soldiers became more important after the dynastic consolidation. A fourth type of troops were "supplementary soldiers" (duojibing 垛集兵) which were drafted as one person from every three households (one "bunch" duo 垛). During the recruitment process, households with many male persons (zhenghu 正戶) were preferred over such that were not so blessed with men (tiehu 貼戶). Households from which a man (zhengjun 正軍) was drafted were spared labour service (yaoyi 徭役), while the other two households had to pay a compensation fee (junfei 軍費). If the soldier died, the other two households had to produce a person for replacement. From the Yongzheng reign-period on, the three households had to produce draftees in turn. The draft system was used to fill vacancies in the strength of military garrisons where the three other systems did not yield sufficient troops. To a certain extent, the process of supplementary troops was thus also a kind of hereditary system of recruitment.

In the hereditary system with "military households", only one man usually served as a soldier (zhengjun), while other males were his reserve (ciding 次丁, yuding 餘丁). The household registers of military households were compiled and administered by the garrison and the regional military commission (du zhihuisi 都指揮司), and copies were submitted to the Chief Military Command (dudufu 都督府) and the Ministry of War. The same data were collected by the local civil administration of the village defence organisation (lijia 里甲), the district, and the prefectural administration and handed over to the military administration for counter-checking.

This system ensured a constant and guaranteed flow of troops into the Ming army, but it had also substantial shortcomings. The whole system was inherited from the Mongols, a steppe people whose whole male population was seen as "professional" soldiers. But the system's application to the sedentary and highly differentiated society of China transformed soldiers practically into slaves. This was all the more serious in a society where civilian scholarship was highly esteemed and the business of war rated as unworthy. Regarding the "soldiers by grace", military service as a penalty for the misdoings of ancestors was utterly unfair, and deprived capable men of their chances to engage in civilian business. Finally, the fighting spirit of men condemned to do military service cannot be rated as the best. On top of this comes the use of troops for public construction work, courier service or the transport of grain barges along the Grand Canal.

The outcome of the whole system was a high number of deserters throughout the Ming period, and grew over time. Statistics from the time show desertion quota of 50 and even up to 80-90 per cent (311). In order to remedy the problem, the household register helped to either search and arrest (genbu 跟捕) the deserted man (goujun 勾軍) or to replace him (goubu 勾補) by another male person from his household.

Another solution was the increasing reliance on enlistment (mubing).

The enlistment system originated in two military emergency cases, namely the dynastic war between the xxx Emperor and , the eventual Yongle Emperor, the Jingnan War 靖難; and the Tumi Incident, when the Mongols threatened to conquer Beijing. After the settlement of the Tumu Incident, the enlisted troops were transferred to regular garrisons and – forcibly – made regular, hereditary soldiers in order to replace the great number of deserters.

Official advertisements (bangyu 榜諭) for enlistment of troops specifically included slaves, refugees (wangming 亡命), and convicted persons to voluntarily join the army, but in fact, these social groups only constituted a small number among the recruits. The greatest part of enlisted troops hailed either from military households, where "supernumerary" men (yuding) not obliged to serve listed voluntarily, or from the common populace.

Regularly enlisted troops (mubing) from among the common populace were given military pay and monthly rations of grain. Yet enlisted troops originating from military households (muminzhuang 募民壯) were trained and nourished by the garrison to which their brothers belonged as hereditary soldiers and were only given pay (in the shape of two bolts of fabric from which they could tailor their uniforms) and 4 dou 斗 of rice when they were dispatched for a military campaign. Their basic military equipment was provided by the state, but for everything else they had to pay themselves, even if their household was spared 5 dan 石 of tax grain and labour service. Because the enlisted troops hailed from the military households of the local garrisons, they were also known as "local troops" (tubing 土兵).

In the coastal provinces, the custom to recruit troops for local defence against pirate raids was widespread. Some of these militia enlisted voluntarily, but others were drafted according to the self-defence system (baojia 保甲). These early institutions of self defence were called "volunteer brigades" (minbing wanhufu 民兵萬戶府). The system was intensified in 1494 by the "Rules for Fillings Ranks by Enlistment" (qianchong minzhuang fa 僉充民壯法). It stipulated to produce "volunteers" according to a quota geared to the size of the prefecture. The forcibly enlisted troops of each village were trained and their household received tax waivers. In fact, this system imposed new types of labour services on the common populace, and degraded a system of voluntariness (jishen 及身) to a more or less hereditary one, in other words, an enlistment system to a draft system. Wealthy households were allowed to buy off the military service obligation.

The recruitment regulations (mu tubing tiaoli 募土兵條例) from 1437 stipulated an annual pay of 5 liang of silver per person (315, 318) and promised promotion to officers (and reinstalment of dismissed officers) who had recruited a certain number of troops. In later years, when more and more troops were enlisted, the pay rose to 1 liang per month or even 18 liang per year (318), which constituted a substantial burden on the state treasury. Of the 4-5 million liang of revenue, 2-300,000 liang were due for military payment of the enlisted troops (318).

Enlistment was very urgent for the border regions of the north, but also in the coastal provinces. In the sixteenth century, some provincial governments also requested to stop the regular payment to hereditary troops for military campaigns and instead use the money to pay enlisted troops. Gu Qiyuan 顧起元 stressed the advantages of enlisted soldiers over hereditary ones: The garrisons could enlist young men from the native place and for service close to their home villages, reduce causes for desertion, gather them quickly, dismiss old and sick persons without having to care for them, and it was possible to bring young, strong and unemployed men into the army and avoid that they become bandits.

The reasons why the central government did not abolish the hereditary troops by enlisted troops were the that hereditary troops served as the backbone of the whole army, that they nourished themselves by the agro-colony system (tuntian) and that some powerful military leaders like Li Chengliang 李成梁 or Qi Jiguang relied on enlisted troops as a kind of "personal army".