An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Yuan Dynasty Military

Aug 30, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The military machine was the most important tool for the development and expansion of the Mongol empire of Činggis Qaɣan (c. 1162-1227) and his successors. It took the Mongols decades to conquer north China (empires Jin 金, 1115-1234, and Western Xia 西夏, 1038-1227), the Western Territories (Turkestan), Tibet, and southern China (Song empire 宋, 960-1279). While mounted archers, fast in surprise attacks and difficult to ward off, played important roles in the conquest of the Eurasia, the siege of cities in China and Central Asia required expert and specialist troops. The military system of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) therefore consisted of different types of troops.

A distinctive feature of the military system was an ethnic separation between Mongols and Chinese. There were four types of troops, namely Mongolian troops (Menggu jun 蒙古軍), tanmači troops (Chinese transcription tanmachi 探馬赤軍), Chinese troops (Hanjun 漢軍), and new Chinese troops (xinfujun 新附軍).

Central command

The highest command was in the hands of the emperor (the Great Khan), but the executive institution was the Bureau of Military Affairs (shumiyuan 樞密院). It controlled all types of soldiers, from the imperial guards to the outposts in distant areas. The head of the Bureau was called Administrator of the Bureau (zhi shumiyuan shi 知樞密院事), and his deputy had the title Vice Military Affairs Commissioner (shumi fushi 樞密副使). Their staff included administrative assistants (yuanpan 院判), consultants (canyi 參議), registrars (jingli 經歷), office managers (dushi 都事) and many other officials. During military campaigns, the emperor was supported or represented by a *Grand Minister of Military Affairs (shumi dachen 樞密大臣), who commanded a staff called mobile Bureau of Military Affairs (xing shumiyuan 行樞密院). This method was similar to the creation of mobile palace secretariats (xing zhongshusheng 行中書省) for the civilian administration of what was to become the provinces (sheng 省) of China.

The highest posts of the Bureau were occupied by Mongols or Semuren 色目人, in some cases also by Chinese, like for instance Shi Tianze 史天澤 (1202-1275) or Zhang Wenqian 張文謙 (1216-1383). Even if they were allowed to take over certain responsibilities in the course of military campaigns, Chinese were not permitted to consult the military archives. Even the exact number of total troops and such participating in a campaign were not revealed to Chinese officials. As the Mongolian sources were destroyed after the foundation of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), the size of armies or information on its operations remain a secret.

Following the precedent of the Chinese political system, the Yuan dynasty also founded a Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部) that was subject to the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng 尚書省). While the Bureau of Military Affairs was responsible for strategy and operations, the Ministry of War controlled local garrisons, courier stations, military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) and pastures.

Mongolian troops

Recruits for the Mongolian troops were chosen among male persons between the age (sui) of 15 and 70. The system of units was based on the ancient Mongolian custom, ten troops forming a squad (pai 牌), commanded by a squad leader (paizitou 牌子頭, paitou 牌頭), ten squads forming a company (yibaihu 百戶), ten companies a regiment (qianhusuo 千戶所), and ten regiments a division (wanhusuo 萬戶所). In practice, the numbers of troops in such units deviated from this ideal model. Regiments - the basic units in military operatins - had a size of between 3,000 and 7,000 men, and not, as the (native) name suggests, 10,000. All larger units were therefore divided into "large", "middle-size" and "small" divisions, regiments, etc. The word hu 戶 reveals the military units were filled with men coming from "military households" (junhu 軍戶).

These Mongolian troops were all equipped with horses. In peacetime, soldiers were to rear horses and kettle. The recruitment system did not take into consideration of the size or wealth of a family: membership in the army was obligatory for all young Mongolian men. In later decades, the need for new recruits made it necessary to conscript Semuren persons, too.

Tanmachi troops

The tanmachi troops, also called qianjun 簽軍 "conscript troops", were consisting of recruits from among the tribes which were part of the Mongolian federation, or of Semuren, like Uyghurs or other Turkish tribes, and not – as some authors believe – exclusively of Muslim persons (huihui jun 回回軍). A smaller number of tanmachi were Kitans, Jurchens or Chinese. The tanmachi were masters in firearms, while Mongols preferred bow and arrow. Similar to the Mongolian troops, the tanmachi also were herdsmen when living in the garrisons.

The first tanmachi units were created during Činggis Qaɣan's conquest of the Jin empire 金 (1115-1234) in 1217. At that time, their tribal composition was Onggirads (Hongjila 弘吉剌), Uru'ut (Wuluwu 兀魯兀), Manghud (Mangwu 忙兀), Jalayir (Zhalayi'er 札剌亦兒) and Ikires (Yiqiliesi 亦乞烈思, a band of the Dürlüqin or Törölkin, Die'rlijin 迭兒列斤). If some units of the tanmachi were Muslims, they entered the tanmachi at a later date. In the other Mongolian empires, like the Ilkhans in Persia, the tamna or tanmachi were of course made out of Muslim persons.

The word tanmachi is derived from Turki (in Chinese transcription damozhi 答摩支) or Kitan (tama 撻馬), the former meaning "henchmen", the latter "vanguard". The last word described their use in battle. Tanmachi units were used to break up the enemy's line or to guard important positions.

As recruits of certain tribes, the tanmachi units were composed ethnically, and stood under the command of a prince of the respective tribe, a position that was inheritable. This "federal" type of troops made it not easy for the Mongolian central military administration to control them. In order to solve this problem, the Mongols used tanmachi units as "occupation troops", leaving them in as garrisoned troops in newly conquered territory, and so separated them physically from their tribal homeland.

Chinese troops

The first Chinese troops (Hanjun) were recruited in northern China in 1229 by Ögödei Khan (c. 1186-1241). Not all of them were ethnically Chinese. Kitans and Jurchens were found among them as well. The Mongols used Chinese troops to learn more about tactics and weapons of the Jin, Western Xia and Southern Song 南宋 (1127-1279) empires. After the conquest of the Jin empire, the importance and size of Chinese armies grew, and for the conquest of the Southern Song empire, they played the most decisive role.

Chinese troops were recruited according to the census (see household registers). In 1241, the figures were as follows: 105.471 recruits out of 1.004.656 households. This means that every seventh household contributed a young man for military service. During the period of the southern conquest, up to one third of the household in north China contributed a soldier (He 1987: 388).

The Chinese military units incorporated after 1279 were called "new troops". They mainly consisted of units of the vanished Song dynasty.

There were even some units composed of deserters having defected to the Mongols before the Song were finally defeated. The Mongols even offered to receive such units peacefully and to pay them according to the regulations of the Song.

Guard units

The Mongols discerned between the guard troops (suwei 宿衛) serving around the emperor/khan, and local garrisons troops (zhenshu 鎮戍) serving in all parts of the empire. The most important "interior army" (neijun 內軍) was the qišig ᠻᠢᠱᠢᠭ (also written kheshig, Chinese transcription quexue 怯薛), the bodyguard. Members of the guard were called qišigten ᠻᠢᠱᠢᠭᠲᠡᠨ (quexuedai 怯薛歹).

The total "exterior" guard consisted of three parts, namely the palace guard (suwei 宿衛), the imperial guard (shiwei 侍衛), and the "surrounding guard" (huanwei 環衛). During the time of Činggis Qaɣan, each team of the bodyguard served for three days before it was exchanged. The troops of the personal bodyguard did not normally take part in military campaigns, unless the Great Khan himself was in personal command. In the latter case, the guardsmen were esteemed as elite troops.

Qubilai Khan (1215-1294) changed the structure of the guard. It was commanded by four grand ministers called dörben külüg ᠳᠥᠷᠪᠡᠳ ᠬᠦᠯᠦᠭ (sheliban qulü 攝里班曲律). These were Boroqul (Borokhula, Bo'erhu 博爾忽, d. 1217), Boɣorǰi (Bo'orchu, Bo'erzhu 博爾朮, 1162-1226), Muquli (Muqali, Mukhali, Muhuali 木華黎, 1170-1223), and Čilaɣun (Chilaun, Chilaowen 赤老溫). In later decades the command of the guard was usually taken over by the Right Counsellor-in-Chief (you chengxiang 右丞相).

The number of guardsmen was small in the beginning, but gradually rose to 14,000 men. Because the Great Khan was always accompanied by guardsmen, the commanders of the guards were trusted officials of the ruler. The size of the imperial guard was about 129,000 men (He 1987: 388-389).

Recruits for the guard were selected carefully by a noyan ᠨᠣᠶᠠᠨ (nayan 那顏) official from among Mongolian families. The guardsmen became bondsmen of the Great Khan, and thus the ties to their own families, bands and tribes were cut: The members of the imperial guard dedicated all their loyalty to the ruler, not to their kinsmen.

Apart from the qišig guard, the other guard units stood under the command of the Bureau of Military Affairs. This was the personal militant guard (wuwei qinjun 武衛親軍), in 1264 renamed personal imperial guard (shiwei qinjun 侍衛親軍. It was organized in two wings (zuoyi 左翼, youyi 右翼), and from 1271 on in three divisions (zuowei 左衛, zhongwei 中衛, youwei 右衛). Each division consisted of 10,000 troops, commanded by a chief military commissioner (du zhihuishi 都指揮使).

Units of this guard protected court assemblies (weisujun 圍宿軍), court sacrifices (yizhangjun 儀仗軍), imperial tours (huxongjun 扈從軍), the state treasury (kanshoujun 看守軍), and patrolled the court during the night (xunluojun 巡邏軍). Some units of the guards also protected the shipment of tribute grain (caoyun 漕運) from the lower Yangtze area to the capital (zhen'ejun 鎮遏軍).

In the later decades of the Yuan period, new guard units were created which consisted mainly of Semuren, like the left and right Kipchak Guard (zuo-you qinchawei 左右欽察衛), the left and right Protection Guard (zuo-you Asu wei 左右阿速衛, asu XXX being a Mongolian word for "guard") or the Tangut Guard (Tangwu wei 唐兀衛), or of Chinese troops, like the militant guard. The troops were garrisoned in the environment of the capital Dadu 大都 (today's Beijing) and protected the capital and patrolled the streets. During leisure time, they worked on the fields of agro-colonies (tuntian) to supply their garrisons with food, and during wartime, participated in campaigns.

Guard units in provinces stood under the command of imperial princes. A substantial number of guard troops from local garrisons (zhenshu) was found in the western parts of the empire, like in Huocheng 霍城 (under the command of Prince Beiping 北平王, for the protection of Almaliq, Alimali 阿力麻里), in Ili 伊黎 (under the command of the Prince of Ningyuan 寧遠王, for the protection of Mongolia), or in Wuwei 武威 (under the command of the Prince of Xiping 西平王, for the protection of Hexi 河西, what was to become Gansu). Northern China was protected by Mongolian and tanmachi troops, and southern China mainly by Chinese troops (old and new), apart from some strategical points like Yangzhou 揚州 (today in Jiangsu) or Tanzhou 潭州 (near today's Changsha 長沙, Hunan), where tanmachi troops were garrisoned.

In border regions, ethnic troops were caring for peace and order, like zhajun 乣軍 (zha 乣 was a contemporary term for northern tribes), Qidan jun 契丹軍 (Kitans), Nüzhen jun 女真軍 (Jurchens) or Gaoli jun 高麗軍 (Koreans) in the northeastern region, the cunbaijun 寸白軍 in Yunnan, or Shejun 畬軍 in Fujian. They were equipped with bow and arrow, but not required to participate in military campaigns.

Cavalry, infantry, artillery, engineering and naval corps

Among all types of troops, most belonged to cavalry units (qibing 騎兵, Mongol and tanmachi troops) or infantry units (bubing 步兵, old and new Chinese troops). Smaller units were specializing in artillery (paobing 炮兵), crossbow archery (nubing 弩兵) or in engineering (gongbing 工兵). The artillery units consisted of Uyghurs or other Central Asians who were experts in metalwork. They were exclusively used for the siege of cities and produced, maintained and used guns, many of them mortars firing grenades. In the field, mounted archers units carried with them a second man sitting behind them on the crupper of the horse. They could dismount and be used as infantry lancers. Yet Mongolian archers were also equipped with lance, mace and sword.

The guard units all included crossbow regiments, and the Chinese personal militant guard (wuwei qinjun) also engineering units for the construction of defense work. Sappers were also part of the XXX hubi qinjun duzhi huishi si of the capital Shangdu 上都 (close to modern Dolon Nor, Inner Mongolia).

The 22 naval units were operating on the Yangtze River and at the southeastern coast. They were supervised of Mongolian and Uyghurian staff. The garrison at Qiantang 錢塘 (close to Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang), for instance, operated with 100 war ships (zhanjian 戰艦) and 20 non-fighting ships (haichuan 海船).

Household conscription system

In the traditional Mongolian military system, each Mongolian household was obliged to give its young men to the army, which means that male persons were automatically recruits, and each Mongolian household was a military household (junhu 軍戶). Bondservants or slaves (war captives, qukou 驅口) were not allowed to serve as troops, but accompanied their master, for instance, as horseboys (kötölči XXX, kuoduanchi 闊端赤). This custom was continued after the foundation of the Yuan dynasty. Military households were found in military registers (junji 軍籍). According to Mongolian law, it was not allowed to change the profession within a household. The job of a soldier was inherited from father to son (shibing 世兵) or from older brother to a younger one.

The regulations for inheritance discerned between death in the garrison and death in battle. In the first case, the successor would be hired after a vacation of 100 days, in the second case, one year after the death of his father or older brother. If the father had died by illness (and not in the field), the household was granted half a year of repose. If no heir was available, the household was eliminated from the military household register. This system was also applied to other types of troops, including the old and new Chinese troops.

Should the household member liable for military service desert his unit, the registers would allow the authorities to recruit a younger brother. The treatment of common troops, even of Mongolians, was usually harsh. The salary consisted of 5 dou 斗 (c. 50 l, see weights and measures) of grain and 1 jin 斤 (c. 500 g) of salt monthly.

The case was different with new Chinese troops. They were given 6 dou of rice and 1 jin of salt monthly, and the family was granted 4 dou of rice and likewise 1 jin of salt.

Horse, weapons, equipment and daily necessities were to be organized and paid by the troops themselves, even the expenditure for a journey home to visit the parents. For this reason, poor households could hope to be spared when it came to conscription. The military expenditure under the Yuan was so low that the government did not want to pay subsidies to poor military households, and therefore drafted troops almost exclusively from wealthier families.

The Yuan dynasty discerned households generally according to wealth (size of fields, income) and the number of male and female household members, and created a household classification system (hudengzhi 戶等制), with three classes (sandeng 三等) and nine subclasses (jiujia 九甲). According to the class, tax and corvée (yaoyi 徭役) was determined. A household providing a man for military service was saved the field tax for 4 qing 頃 (c. 16 hectares) of land, which corresponded (in north China) to a yield of 12 dan 石 (c. 1200 l) of grain.

This tax reduction was called fengzhuangqian 封裝錢 "monetary [donation] in an envelope" or panchan 盤纏 "[redemption of] travelling expenses", and the reduction of calculated land was called zhanjundi 贍軍地 "land support for military (service)". In addition to these favours, military households were taxed at a lower rate than its actual class prescribed. This was called shujincang 輸近倉 "transport close to the granary". Also, the other household members were reduced the amount of labour service due, and saved some miscellaneous taxes.

For the old and new Chinese troops, recruitment was far less strict. The custom prevailed that one from two, three, or even five households presented a young man for service, while the others paid a substitutional fee (jintie 津貼, hutie 戶貼) from which the conscript's equipment and other expenses were paid. The conscript's own household was called "main household" (zhengjunhu 正軍戶) or "head household [of a group of households]" (juntou 軍頭, hutou 戶頭), the others "fee households" (tiehu 貼戶, tiejunhu 貼軍戶). In some regions, the substitutional fee was paid in textiles (silk, linen), which a still common means of tax payment during that time.

In case of Mongolian or tanmachi troops, released slaves (qukou) were automatically defined as households paying the substitutional fee. It is quite probable that released slaves were the only group of persons profiting from the tiehu regulation among the non-Chinese troops.

Chinese units whose commanders were not in possession of registers of military households from time to time recruited their troops from non-military households, the "common people" (minhu 民戶). It was generally possible that every family could be transformed into a military household. Only experts and certain professional groups were generally exempted from military service. Such were physicians, rice-cultivating peasants or servants of the Imperial Household. Poor families were sometimes granted tax remittances.

In cases families had no son, the Yuan invented the system of the transferal of military service to relatives, and also created a joint system, in which widows were married with widowers (shouji hun 收繼婚) to create new households liable for military service. This custom was even extended to Chinese households in China in the shape of levirate marriage.

Military training was prevalent among Mongolian and tanmachi troops, but most Chinese troops were originally peasants, and often continued to work as such in the garrisons during peacetime. When a military campaign was imminent, wealthier soldiers "hired" (gumi 雇覓, mudai 募代) someone (like servants or released slaves) who would go to war for him. In some instances ten percent of military units consisted of such replacement persons. The morale of units composed of "hired troops" was accordingly not quite high.

The baggage train

Following the tradition of a pastoral people, in which the baggage with women, children, animals and carts (zizhong 辎重) followed the army and remained in a secure distance during battle, the Mongol government also cared for the baggage train, in Mongolian called ahuruq, in Chinese transcribed as aolu 奧魯, and translated as laoxiaoying 老小營 "camp of elderly and children", yingpan 營盤 "camp circle" or jiamen 家們 (jiamei 家每) "the families". The baggage was administrated by specialized officials, overseers of the baggage (aolei zongguan 奧魯總管), but the task often carried out concurrently by normal officials. A paymaster or "field usher" (fengzhengguan 俸正官) was responsible for the service of 50 troops or more. He did not only care for the salaries and food of the company, but also cared for law and order during the march to the battlefield, and served as an ad-hoc judge in case there were conflicts with the civilian population.

Units of new (southern) Chinese troops did not have the institution of a baggage train.

Troops were given their daily rations (kouliang 口糧) of rice, but had to pay for all other types of food. During military campaigns, the monthly salary was handed over to the family in the aolu, The latter had also to care for the communication between the household and the soldier in the field. In 1345 the aolu system was abolished because it was difficult to handle and too much corruption had crept into the complicated system.

Volunteer troops

Apart from the conscripts (qianfa) system, there was also a – much less important – system of volunteer troops (zhaomubing 招募兵, in Mongolian called dalahan 答剌罕). Many artillery, crossbow, naval or engineering units consisted of volunteers. During the conquest of southern China, many units consisted of volunteer Semuren which had been captured during the campaigns in the west. Volunteer troops also made out the units reclaiming lands for agro-colonies. Quite a few of them were delinquents sentenced to death, but pardoned under the condition of military service.

Evaluation of the Yuan military system

The military system of the Yuan dynasty had the advantage that desertion was a rarely seen incident – the household system would provide for new troops. Second, the expenditure for the army was considerably low because part of the cost was paid by the households and individual troops, while under the Song, the government had to cover all related expenditure. A third advantage was the high recruitment potential. While the Southern Song fielded just 700,000 troops or somewhat more, with a rate of 1 soldier per 15-20 households, the Mongol army attacking the Song had a size of 350,000 troops, with a rate of 1 soldier per 7 households (He 1987: 395).

Military agro-colonies

The Yuan administration discerned between civilian agro-colonies (mintun 民屯) and military agro-colonies (juntun 軍屯, see tuntian 屯田), yet both supplied the army. The civilian colonies stood under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Revenue (da sinong 大司農) and the Palace Provisions Commission (xuanhuiyuan 宣徽院) or the provinces directly.

Troops were usually divided into fighting troops (zhengjun 正軍) and agro-troops (tunjun 屯軍). While the former trained for battle and took over guarding duties, the latter (mainly elderly persons and Chinese troops) cultivated field crops to supply the garrison. All types of garrisons, from the Imperial Guard down to local troops, were supplied from agro-colonies. Each regiment of the personal imperial guards was nourished by two agro-regiments (tuntian qianhusuo), and six agro-regiments supplied the thirteen personal militant guards. The average field size cultivated by an individual agro-soldier was more than 50 mu 畝. Ploughs, draught animals and seeds were provided or paid for by the government. The harvested grain served to feed the troops, and also made out part of the salary. From around 1300, this efficient system gradually relaxed and proved useless in the middle of the 14th century.

The Courier System

The Mongols are particularly famous for the invention of the courier system (yichuan 驛傳), with stations (yizhan 驛站, in Mongolian ǰamči, transcription zhanchi 站赤) all over the country. This postal relay system brought imperial orders to all parts of the empire and was famous for its efficiency. Envoys of the Song empire to the court of Činggis Qaɣan called the horse system "travelling equipped by horses" (chengpuma 乘鋪馬). Under Ögödei Khan, the postal stations already numbered more than 1,400.

Each station was cared for by a station company under a superintendant (tiling 提領) and a lieutenant (fushi 副使). The households were called "station households" (zhanhu 站戶), and the system was very similar to that of military households with inheritable duties. In crucial spots, the station was run by more than thousand persons, while in less frequented regions, 30 persons did do as well. It can be assumed that in the whole Yuan empire, the postal system was managed by no less than 300,000 men (He 1987: 396).

In the beginning, the system stood under the Bureau of Transmission (tongzhengyuan 通政院), but between 1311 and 1320, all stations in China proper (not those in Mongolia and the west) were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War.

In regions with high traffic, like between Dadu and Kaifeng 開封 (the former capital of the Jin empire, today in Henan), express stations (jidipu 急遞鋪) were built in a distance of 10-15 li 里 (5-8 km). Express messengers (puding 鋪丁) wore leather belts, from which small bells were hanging to announce the rider's coming. They were also equipped with a lance (qiang 槍), oilcloth (xieyu yi 挾雨衣) and a torch (by night). Each station minutely recorded the passing of the messenger, including information on the individual, to track the correct forwarding of a message. The message itself was covered with protective material to avoid any damage.

Depending on the territory, postal stations used horses, carts, boats, camels or even oxen for the forwarding of messages. Sources also know stations using dogs (gouzhan 狗站). Stations delivering by boat were known as "water stations" (shuizhan 水站), the others as "land stations" (luzhan 陸站).

Messengers were only allowed to be given fresh horses if they were able to produce an imperial messenger permit (puma shengzhi 鋪馬聖旨, puma zhazi 鋪馬札子, yubao shengzhi 御寶聖旨). Troops or special envoys were given an inscribed golden plaque (jinzi yuanfu 金字圓符, yuanpai 圓牌, tiezhi 鐵制) or a silver one. These permits also included the provision of food and other necessities.

He Shouquan 何壽全 et al., ed. (1987). Zhongguo junshi shi 中國軍事史, Vol. 3, Bingzhi 兵制 (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe), 385-398.

Further reading:
Hsiao, Ch‘i-ch‘ing (1978). The Military Establishment of the Yüan Dynasty (Council of East Asian Studies, Harvard University).
Li Zhi'an 李治安 (1990). "Qiexue yu Yuandai chaozheng 怯薛與元代朝政", Zhongguoshi yanjiu 中國史研究, 4: 110-117.
Shim, Hosung (2014). "The postal roads of the Great Khans in Central Asia under the Mongol-Yuan empire", Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, 44: 405-469.