The Qin and Han Dynasties: The Flexibility and Adaptability of Military Force and Expansion


The Qin and Han Dynasties: The Flexibility and Adaptability of Military Force and Expansion

By Christopher Hallenbrook

The Undergraduate Review, Vol.4 (2008)

Introduction: The course of human history has shown that there is no guaranteed method of conquest and expansion. Large scale armies can crush opponents, but they can also be outmaneuvered or rendered ineffective by terrain; yet more maneuverable forces can be beaten by superior force when constricted by terrain. Changes in tactics can make what was an advantage one day a liability the next. There are even situations in which the circumstances make a conventional military offensive an inefficient or ineffective way for an empire to spread its control and influence. Furthermore, growing empires are confronted with a wide variety of circumstances – geographical, tactical and strategic – from region to region and people to people. As a result, an essential feature for empires seeking significant expansion has been the ability to recognize and adapt, specifically the ability to recognize the specific requirements of the situation and adapt their course of action accordingly. In the history of imperial China, the Qin and Han dynasties both demonstrated this ability to utilize methods of warfare and expansion as dictated by circumstances in order to bring about success. The Qin built their military to exploit the weaknesses of the feudal armies of the Chinese states opposing them, while the Han utilized combinations of large-scale armies, maneuverability, colonization, military adventurers operating independently of the imperial court and small expeditions to expand their domain.




Before the ascension of the Qin and Han Dynasties, China was a land divided. The nearly two centuries prior to Qin unification are known to historians as the Warring States Period, and with good reason. The Zhou king, whose theoretical domain was much of China, was but a figurehead, powerless to intervene as leaders of numerous regional states intrigued and battled to extend the portions of China under their control. These leaders were frequently the feudal lords who were in principle vassals of the Zhou king. At the height of their power, the Zhou had used a feudal system to rule China. Noblemen of the landed aristocracy took oaths of loyalty to the Zhou king, and in return were responsible for ruling over their particular domain. All administrative and military positions were appointed by and responsible to the lord. Each region had such a system under its particular lord, encompassing officials high and low within the civil administration and military, from ministers and commanders down through the ranks to the serfs, who, bound to the land, formed the bottom

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