The Chinese Military History Society held its 2023 annual conference in San Diego on March 23, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society for Military History.
Ten papers were presented:

Paul Nicholas Vogt (Indiana University), “King Wen’s Just War: The Conquest of Chong 崇 in Early Chinese Discourse.”

King Wen of Zhou, putative first king of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1045‐256 BCE) and moral exemplar in classical Chinese philosophy, is best known as a uniter of people and resolver of conflicts. However, early sources generally agree that King Wen, late in his life, launched a series of attacks on locales between the Zhou homeland and the hegemonic settlement of Shang. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now understand that King Wen was securing Zhou’s strategic position and laying the groundwork for the eventual conquest of Shang by his heir, the future King Wu. From this campaign emerged an image of King Wen as mighty conqueror that figured in the early Zhou state cult.

The practical value of these attacks, however, was of little relevance to certain later historians interested in King Wen’s moral and personal development. Various justifications for the attack on Chong arose in later texts, driven by different takes on the relationship between King Zhou of Shang, his ministers (including King Wen), the populace at large, and the forces of the cosmos. These explanations betray the diversity of early Chinese approaches to the purpose and causal system of historiography, as well as the nature of just war. This presentation will consider how King Wen’s attack on the locale called Chong 崇, and its depictions in later historiography and philosophy, helped delineate a discursive space for moral violence in early Chinese rhetoric.

Chun Fung Tong (Heidelberg University), “The Emergence of Military Logistics Network and State-Level Fiscal Institution during the Qin Conquest.”

This article studies the military logistics of the Qin during its war of unification between 230-221 BCE, and how it propelled the development of the state-level fiscal institution using newly surfaced Liye and Yuelu Qin manuscripts. First, the article discusses an organization called the “Grand Office of Grain Management in Nan Commandery” (南郡治粟大府) appeared in a wooden tablet from the Liye corpus. A textual analysis suggests that this organization had to supply food to the armies stationed in neighboring commanderies. Second, based on the case of the “Grand Office of Grain Management in Nan Commandery,” it explores the potential connection between Qin’s military logistics during its conquest and the emergence of the organization “Grain Management in the Metropolitan Area” (治粟內史), suggesting that one of its major tasks was to handle and deliver rations for armies that were mobilized in the Metropolitan Area. In doing so, it administered the major fiscal revenue of the Qin state: grain. Last, the paper examines how the Qin’s war footing drove an institutional reform on its fiscal organizations. It argues that although the “Grain Management in the Metropolitan Area” was not a state-level fiscal institution by design, it likely grasped the number of grain storage and land tax in the central government and the counties within the Metropolitan Area, which remained the biggest source of Qin’s fiscal income. As a result, the “Grain Management in the Metropolitan Area” became a de facto state-level fiscal organization. In short, the investigation of this article unfolds not only the measures by which the Qin authorities strengthened its control over the fiscal income but also the ways in which war propelled the development of government organizations.

 Nathan H. Ledbetter (Princeton University), “Making the Foreign Familiar: The ‘Global’ Aspects of the Battle of Mimigawa, 1578.”

In 1578, Shimazu Yoshihisa crushed the forces of Ōtomo Sōrin in the Battle of Mimigawa, shifting the balance of power on the southern island of Kyushu. Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s subsequent subjugation of Kyushu, however, relegated the Shimazu-Ōtomo conflict to a regional sideshow, largely ignored in favor of battles that fit a narrative of Japan’s political “reunification” and state formation. Nevertheless, global forces shaped Mimigawa. Advised by Jesuit missionaries, Ōtomo Sōrin, ruler of northern Kyushu, converted to Catholicism and destroyed temples and shrines to clear space for a “Christian kingdom” within the contested territories. The Shimazu, meanwhile, observed traditional ritual practices as an integral element of warfare. Yet a dichotomy of “native” vs. “foreign/Christian” does not map neatly onto the two sides. It was in Shimazu domains that the Portuguese first arrived and taught local smiths to manufacture firearms in the 1540s, and it was dissension within the Ōtomo ranks over Sōrin’s religious violence that weakened his command structure. This paper uses the Battle of Mimigawa to argue that the localization of global technology and ideology in Kyushu influenced the tactical and strategic elements of conflict to varying degrees, independent from and sometimes ahead of trends in the capital region.

Danny Orbach (Hebrew University), “‘Let the Commander Respond’: The Paradox of Obedience in the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces.”

Between 1870 and 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy gave uniquely broad legal protection to subordinates who perpetrated crimes under orders of military superiors. Not only those who followed their superiors in breaching international law were given legal immunity, but also soldiers who violated under orders the standing laws of the Japanese Army. This gave rise to a so-called “paradox of obedience”: while disobedience among officers was rampant, their subordinates were expected to unquestionably obey their orders, even in rebellion against the Japanese government. This mix of blatant disobedience to the system at large on the one hand, and blind obedience to immediate superiors on the other, was a remarkable feature of the Imperial Japanese armed forces. Drawing on law codes and court cases, we analyze the ways in which this “paradox of obedience” encouraged mutinies as well as war crimes, especially in the 1930s and during the Pacific War.

Edward A. McCord (Emeritus, The George Washington University), “Defining Modern Chinese Warlordism: A Comparative Analysis.”

The term “warlordism” is strongly identified with conditions in early 20th century China when military commanders used the armed forces under their control in competitive struggles for political power. Indeed, the Chinese case is often cited as the main referent for the term and as providing an ideal type for warlord behavior. Nonetheless, term warlord has often been applied in other historical and contemporary contexts to refer to a wide range of leaders who have wielded armed force for political power (including medieval lords in Europe, tribal militia commanders in Central Asia, African despots, and elite family politicians in the Philippines). These varying applications raise questions about the definition and utility of the concept of warlordism for analytical purposes. This is particularly true because the term is often deployed more for its pejorative power than as an analytical category. This definitional problem that also has roots in the Chinese case,where the “warlord” (junfa) was often only applied to one’s political enemies. This analytical confusion has often led to a feedback loop whereby features of “warlordism” as defined in other circumstances are inappropriately assumed to have also been characteristic of Chinese warlordism. In the Chinese case, this process has also turned broad pejorative assumptions into defining features for all warlords. The goal of this essay, then, is to reevaluate the definition of warlordism to create greater definitional clarity and analytical rigor, so that the term can be more usefully applied in both the Chinese case and in broader comparative studies.

Harold Tanner (University of North Texas), “Defeating a Superior Enemy with an Inferior Force: Strategy, Operations and Tactics in Liu Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping’s Shanxi-Henan-Shandong-Hebei Field Army, 1945-1947.”

In his essay “On Protracted War,” Mao Zedong argued that despite the unfavorable contrast in material power, an inferior force could, if employed to best effect, defeat a superior power. Putting Mao’s theory into practice would require effective leadership on three levels: strategy, operations, and tactics. The responsible leaders at each level would be the central command (Mao Zedong and the Central Military Commission), the theater commanders, and the officers in the field. Drawing on document collections compiled by the People’s Liberation Army in 1960, this paper will analyze battles fought by the Shanxi-Henan-Shandong-Hebei Army in the first years of the Chinese Civil War to shed light on the thinking and practice of the SHSH Army’s commander, Liu Bocheng and his political commissar, Deng Xiaoping as an example of how the Communist commanders sought to take Mao Zedong’s principle that an inferior force can defeat a superior force from abstract theory to concrete reality.

Yinou Chang (National Chengchi University, Taiwan), “The Power of Encouragement: The Chinese People’s Volunteer Force’s Psychological Strategy and the Success of Its Political Control during the Korean War.”

In the Korean War, the Chinese People's Volunteer Force (CPVF) sustained mass causalities from the superior firepower of the United Nations Command (UNC). However, the CPVF held fast. Soldiers fought valiantly on the battlefield, and many sacrificed their lives to accomplish their missions. Previous studies have attributed the CPVF’s tenacity to its unique political control system. This article examines the mechanisms that allowed the system to succeed. This research utilizes an array of primary materials produced by the Chinese Communist military authorities, personal memoirs by Chinese veterans, and U.S. intelligence reports.

This paper attributes the success of the CPVF's political control system to its intricate implementation of positive feedback principles and extremely effective incentive and meritorious mechanisms. The CPVF replaced the punishment system adopted by the Chinese military in the past with a reward system that motivated soldiers to fight heroically. The system also effectively instilled the ideological dogma of the CPVF in the minds of every soldier, ensuring that they whole-heartedly believed in and remained loyal to the system's 'perfect' narrative that sacrificing their lives on the battlefield was the highest form of patriotism to their country.

The CPVF took full advantage of the psychological effects of positive feedback to boost the morale and discipline of its troops in dire times and forge a belief that sacrificing their lives on the battlefield was a small price to pay for the greater good. More importantly, this psychological strategy enhanced the CPVF’s military effectiveness, allowing them to hold back the UNC advancement successfully for three years against all odds.

Xiaobing Li (University of Central Oklahoma), “Defected PLA Pilots: Psychological Warfare over the Taiwan Strait.”

Tension has mounted in the Taiwan Strait between the Chinese and Taiwanese Air Forces through their increased air recons, aggressive patrols, and intensified psychological warfare since August 2022. Psychological warfare became an effective tool used by Taiwan against the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in the Cold War. This paper examines 17 defection cases in which the PLA pilots flew their military planes to the enemy airfields from 1960 to 1990. My research moves away from conventional explanations of political motives, ideological considerations, and economic benefits, and instead look into personal matters, emotional issues, and social factors. The Chinese Air Force was, and still is, a highly centralized military organization. It was also a social institution. Its pilots, however, lived in a small and closed community. They were isolated from the society and even separated from their ground crews, supporting teams, and security troops. Lack of social life and community support created some personality problems, some of which played an important role in pilots’ decisions to leave the PLAAF and fly to Taiwan.

Zhongtian Han (The George Washington University), “Playing the Dragon against the Eagle: Soviet Policy towards China during the Armistice Negotiations of the Korean War, 1951–1953.”

This paper challenges conventional historical understanding of the strengthening of the Sino-Soviet alliance during the Korean War. Instead, it highlights some structural problems of Soviet policy towards China, as reflected by the Sino-Soviet split, back to the period from 1951 to 1953. This paper shows that there were two fundamental problems in the Soviet Union's China policy in this period. First, the Soviet Union’s China policy was strongly influenced by its handling of the Soviet-American confrontation in Europe. In other words, in making its China policy the Soviet Union mainly considered its own strategic interests in Europe. Second, Stalin and his successors were confident that the Soviet Union was the leader of the Sino-Soviet alliance, and that China would follow the Soviet leadership in foreign policy. Importantly, this belief was also the precondition for Soviet military aid to China. These underlying structural problems evident in the early 1950s are critical to understand Khrushchev’s mishandling of Sino-Soviet relations after 1956.

Yu-Ping Chang (Fulbright Taiwan), “The PRC’s 2016 Military Reforms: Clean House for a Better Future?”

This paper examines the paradigm shift in the People’s Liberation Army since its 2016 reforms from three aspects: the chain of command and control, a new type of operational forces, and legal regimes related to the previous two. Specifically, the analysis concerns new patterns of civil-military relations, military organization, operational trainings, force structure, and the weight of different branches of armed forces and personnel’s professionalism. It explains how the new model, to meet the goal of fighting a future joint warfare with advanced technologies, assigns more importance to jointness of armed forces, the cooperation between local military units and society, the incorporation of actual situations on the battlefield in the military exercises, and integrated systems for digitalized data for coordination and resources employment, all of which were lacking in the old model with a large size of army. The essay also explores the tightened civilian control embodied in a concentration of power within the CMC and a strengthened role of the CCP’s organizations at different levels of forces units aiming to create political loyalty and ensure warfighting capabilities. It further specifies challenges to the new model that may limit the goals of the reforms.