Military units and structural organization slowly but continuously evolved from the inherited, extemporaneous methods that characterized Wu Ting’s early era to more permanent forces and organizations. Nevertheless, as Western military history shows, a certain amount of “organizational fluidity” (more aptly termed chaos) invariably arises during periods of change and retrenchment. Carefully crafted units designed to replace presumably outmoded variants often fail to fully displace the latter or to be tightly integrated into the revised hierarchy, unexpectedly resulting in the simultaneous existence of vigorous new contingents and antique remnants. Factors other than simple military conservatism can also intervene, including a need to preserve clan-based forces to maintain internal control and manipulate power. Assumptions of structural rigor and homogeneity are therefore often fallacious and counterproductive.

Several new organizational units were created in the late Shang, but they essentially drew upon the same personnel, just differently grouped and segmented. Whether these innovations in affiliation and command resulted in an increasingly formalized hierarchy of company, brigade (or regiment), and army (hsing, , and shih), similar in structure to that found in the Spring and Autumn period, remains a much-debated question. Unfortunately, even when supplemented by later textual tradition the evidence that can be derived from the oracular inscriptions remains insufficient to determine unit strength or discern unit composition. Nevertheless, despite the appearance and predominance of the “army” (shih) and “brigade” or “regiment” () as fundamental operational units, rather than a thorough organizational revolution, an admixture of units evidently persisted.46

Insofar as historians have expended enormous energy in subsuming these presumably distinctive contingents into encompassing schemes, their probable nature merits brief consideration. Preliminary to reviewing the possibilities, it should be noted that a unit’s full complement may not have been mobilized. Because even a few absences would dramatically impact small contingents, serious deficiencies in units such as the 100 archers would have been highly visible and therefore subject to severe accountability. However, the larger units of 1,000 and especially 3,000 might have only achieved the staffing levels of 700 or 800 per thousand often seen in later ages. The accuracy of figures cited for this period therefore depends on how strictly the officials entrusted with responsibility for the levies were held to consistent standards. In contrast, despite a natural inclination to inflate the count and thereby garner greater rewards, reports of the numbers slain and taken captive in actual engagements, being fairly low and highly specific, were probably more accurate.

Based on inscriptions that indicate the existence of three shih, the first use of the character shih, the traditional term for “army,” has been attributed to Wu Ting’s era.47 The character has been interpreted as originally depicting an accumulation of men, closely related to a mound or hillock, and derived from the character for town (yi). Without doubt, armies in the late Shang were primarily associated with towns and functioned in a protective capacity when not deputed for field duty, including guarding cities at night.48 However, the range of activities they might undertake would have been constrained by the contingent’s composition and size.

On the assumption of institutional continuity, another pronouncement embedded in a prognostication generally ascribed to the consecutive reigns of Wu Yi and Wen Ting, stating that the king “created three armies,” has been interpreted as signifying the addition of three more armies, bringing the total to six, rather than the formalization or reinstitution of a three-army system that had perhaps fallen into disuse in an interim of reduced military activity.49 Primary justification for attributing six operational shih to this era is derived from the conspicuous existence of six armies in the early Chou, the latter’s institutions being deemed reflective because traditional literature and relatively early bronze inscriptions indicate that the Chou imitated many Shang organizational practices.

It has also been argued that Wu Yi, the “wu” emphasizing military prowess, not only conducted numerous aggressive campaigns against external enemies but also was greatly enamored of martial values and practices, accounting for his apparent addiction to hunting, an activity that reportedly claimed his life. His spirit and commitment would have nurtured a highly charged martial ethos conducive to army building, one that should have persisted even if the actual edict was issued by his successor, Wen Ting (who also merited a posthumous “wu” in his designation as Wen Wu Ting), as some analysts claim.50

Whether the army existed before Wu Ting’s ascension, he deliberately created it through a conscious act, or it simply evolved during his reign, the shih first becomes visible in inscriptions from his era.51 His frequent summoning of men in units of 3,000 from the very beginning of his monarchy suggests that the contingent of 3,000 was already a fairly well-defined, functional unit and a likely candidate for shih despite other numbers such as 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 also having been levied. However, a certain degree of flexibility probably characterized these extemporaneously constituted field forces, and units of almost any size may have conventionally been designated as shih. Perhaps, as suggested, the shih originally numbered just a thousand before expanding in accord with the historically attested tendency of units to strengthen over time. This would partially account for the persistence of 1,000-man operational field units.

In addition to multiplying the army’s logistical burdens, Wu Ting’s increasingly lengthy peripheral engagements must have imposed escalating manpower requirements and stimulated military specialization. These voracious needs seem to have compelled a gradual shift from temporary levies to the shih’s more consistently organized and stable forces, explaining the disappearance of the term teng (“levy”) after his reign. However, though certainly expressive of an intent to reorganize and probably a step toward greatly expanded standing forces, there is no evidence that these armies were permanent or that the designated members were extemporaneously mobilized.

Although no formal pronouncements have been recovered, even in Wu Ting’s era Shang field armies already consisted of a central force bolstered by two flanking commands. Segmentation into left, right, and center characterized not only the army but also the (regiment), archers, chariots, hang (companies), and tsu. As early as his famous southern campaign three armies denoted as left, right, and “my” (or the king’s) forces were dispatched, and references to the “army of the left” and “army of the right” are seen throughout his reign, attesting to both the concept and actuality of their existence. However, three armies need not always have been fielded, and any army could be segmented for operational purposes into its constituent components.

Late in Wu Ting’s reign, when an astonishing 23,000 troops may have been summoned in a short period for an expeditionary campaign against the T’u-fang, a basic operational field force of 9,000 comprising three 3,000-man armies would have been both reasonable and readily sustained by expanding Shang economic resources. However, in accord with Shang decade-based practices, it has also been suggested that the shih may have numbered as few as 100 men52 (which seems extremely unlikely) to as many as 10,000 men, though the latter would have required a massive, highly unlikely increase in manpower and constituted a dramatic shift away from the basic 3,000-man complement.53

Nevertheless, in the face of eastern challenges and given the martial character of the Shang’s despotic rulers, it would be surprising as well as contrary to the natural tendency of states to constantly augment their military power if the army had remained petrified at 3,000 men. Although the numbers reputedly fielded by the Shang at the Battle of Mu-yeh must be severely discounted because they transcend the realm of possibility, they should still be understood as indicating the presence of a massive force rather than be completely dismissed. Ten-thousand-man armies that were probably unattainable in Wu Ting’s reign may well have been realizable by the dynasty’s ignominious end, when a professional military force that proved capable of sustaining campaigns down into the southeast had clearly evolved.

Near the end of its existence the Shang deployed a number of armies at its secondary capitals. Although force levels of 3,000 men would have been more easily encamped, armies of 10,000 would certainly have cohered with the ruler’s personality. Six such armies would have provided the Shang with a core force of roughly 60,000 at the final clash, to which would be added whatever strength their allies might have provided. Given the urgency of the developments, the latter may not have exceeded 10,000 men, accounting for the 70,000 traditionally (and more realistically) said to have confronted the Chou.

Conversely, being an emerging power, the Chou had to rely on allied contributions to bulk out their own highly motivated forces. At this time their shih are more likely to have still numbered a traditional 3,000, or perhaps only 2,500 if based on pyramids of five, as is sometimes claimed.54 Six armies with a nominal strength of 3,000 men augmented by 3,000 elite tiger warriors and the contributions of their allies, presumably at significantly diminished force levels because of their comparatively smaller size, would have resulted in a force somewhat less than half the Shang’s vaunted might.

Next in the hierarchical order stood the , whose character has traditionally been understood as depicting two men under a pennant (clearly referring to a military unit from inception) and entailing a sense of “multitude.” Discounting the validity of the one inscription that indicates 10,000 men had been levied, it was a unit whose numbers seem to have varied greatly but probably averaged 500 or 1,000 men.55 In subsequent eras it would be an intermediate organizational unit that would integrate several companies into a shih, the latter then being best understood as a regiment within the context of the new term for army, chün. then, separately and in combination with chün, would come to designate the army in general, appearing in such terms as chen-lü, “review and order the troops,” a ritual that apparently was already being implemented in the Shang before dispatching the troops on campaign. Although numerous questions remain about its composition and function, in the Shang, can be envisioned as an independent brigade or regiment that was fielded in conjunction with levied armies, but was not subsumed under the latter’s organizational umbrella.

References to the unit remain sparse, but from the famous (if perhaps dubious) inscription “levy Fu Hao with 3,000 and levy 10,000,” it has also been concluded that the ’s composition somehow differed from that of a normal levy and was still an ad hoc unit in Wu Ting’s era.56 (This ad hoc nature and its early appearance would argue against claims that the represents a shift toward military formalization and specialization.) Moreover, based on a notation that “the chung should be conjoined with the right ,”57 it is evident that their members were distinct. Even though the term had already appeared in King Wu Ting’s era, ’s operational inception seems to date to the reigns of Ping Hsin and K’ang Ting, reflecting a shift toward expanded operations.58 If the king’s is understood as the “middle” force, inscriptions from Ping Hsin and K’ang Ting’s era suggest that the three standard components of left, middle, and right were all being fielded, though not necessarily simultaneously.59

The few inscriptions referring to mention them being called up for both training and field action.60 Suggestions have been made that in the later reigns they continued to provide an operational umbrella for forces temporarily called to duty and thus represent a major step toward the concept of “people’s soldiers,” in comparison with the essentially professional warriors populating the government and forming the core of the semipermanent military forces. It has also been asserted (without substantiation) that they subsumed the clan armies within their structure.61 However, this would not only constitute a shift away from discrete, individual martial entities to a true state force, but also contradict the tendency toward these people’s forces. In addition, inscriptions referring to both the and tsu (clan forces) are not uncommon, evidence that they continued to coexist as operational contingents.62

The other large entity frequently ordered onto the battlefield was the tsu or clan regiment, whose character has traditionally been interpreted as depicting an arrow under a pennant. The oldest of all units, it must have originally drawn its fighters from among the physically qualified clan warriors who had the privilege and responsibility of serving. Insofar as the Shang loosely encompassed other prominent clans apart from the ruling Tzu house and its collateral lines, including some that had originated among the Yi or other early allies with whom they intermarried and enjoyed cultural exchanges, there were a number of such entities.63

Most prominent among them was the wang tsu or king’s clan, also referred to as “my clan” in the king’s prognostications, but the tzu tsu and tuo tzu tsu, referring to the royal house and many princely clans respectively, also played major battlefield roles.64 Naturally the king’s clan served as the central force when they fielded the full complement of left, right, and middle, but prognostications referring to just the left or right tzu tsu suggest they were also deployed singularly and together. The tsu’s basic size has been suggested as 500 men or roughly a battalion, in comparison with the shih and when, in comparison with chün, lü is understood as brigade or perhaps regiment.

Because these clan forces must have shouldered core responsibility for the campaign that overthrew the Hsia, postconquest their members certainly would have been reluctant to give up their privileges and honors for routine administrative duties. The other important clans contending for influence (or even survival) amid the evolving Shang state must have held similar views. Some sort of clan-based standing force had to be deployed from the outset to dominate the Hsia enclaves at Yen-shih and the vital crossroads to mineral-rich areas such as Tung-hsia-feng and P’an-lung-ch’eng. Clan forces would also have been required to protect the ruler and the interests of the ruling house. The Shang also took thousands of prisoners through combat, apparently retaining and employing at least some of them for domestic service and productive labor. Even if the Shang was not fundamentally a slave-based society, clan forces would still have been required to maintain control over enslaved elements of the populace and ensure internal security.

As military needs escalated, larger units evolved that necessarily drew on an expanded population base. No doubt the Shang began to include non-clan members who served the major clans or were otherwise associated with them through marriage relationships, before eventually reaching down to the ordinary inhabitants, peasants, and perhaps even slaves, some of whom may have already been accompanying their masters into battle.65 However, the multiplication and formalization of new field units created an additional problem: whether the older, high-prestige heritage units would be subsumed into the regular forces, perhaps serving as an active core, or continue to operate independently as well as act as the king’s guard. As already mentioned, oracular inscriptions and subsequent historical materials indicate that imperial clan forces played a persistent field role well into the Chou, and the five tsu were even charged with defensive responsibilities along the frontier in the last decades of the Shang.

One other unit, the hang, seems to have emerged and played a somewhat nebulous battlefield role late in the Shang. (The Chinese character for hang, best known under its more common pronunciation as hsing except in a military context, fundamentally entails the idea of movement but also came to mean a row or line in later ages.) A paucity of relevant inscriptions has prompted considerable speculation about its exact nature, many commentators noting that it would be deviously used during the Spring and Autumn to designate an army-sized force without actually employing the term shih/chün, to avoid infringing upon still nominally acknowledged royal prerogatives.66 In subsequent ages it would become a subunit within the army, something like a company, but it seems to have operated as a separate battlefield entity in the Shang.

Inscriptions indicate that the usual tripartite deployment of left, right, and middle applied to the hang, and another pair designated as east and west seems to have existed. In addition, the term ta hang (large or great hang) appears, presumably referring to a battlefield entity that integrated the three component forces of left, right, and middle hang. Although there are scattered references to the hang in Wu Ting’s period, it only became more common during the subsequent era of increasing military specialization and formalization. Definitive numbers are lacking, resulting in assessments ranging from 100 to a very unlikely 1,000 and even claims that it exceeded the shih, though the latter would have to be conceived as a mere 100 men.67

These larger field units were frequently supplemented by at least two highly specialized contingents, the archers and chariots, both generally ordered forth in units of 100 or 300.68 Their mode of reference implies that the chariots served intact rather than being dispersed, contrary to claims that they represent aggregate figures for apportionment among the 1,000 or 3,000 serving in the army or that each chariot was assigned some fixed number of fighters ranging from five to twenty-five. Although the Chou would see the evolution of the chariot-centered squad, chariots were at a premium in the Shang and therefore reserved for command purposes. A regiment of 100 chariots, unhampered by attached fighters, could have proved a decisive force for penetration and flanking on the dispersed battlefields of Chinese antiquity.

There are several references to “300 she,” suggesting that in addition to archers exercising a command function atop the chariots, dedicated regiments of archers were deployed.69 Assuming that the tripartite segmentation witnessed in the era’s armies also applied to the archers, the 300 would encompass three companies of 100. In an effort to envision a cohesive military hierarchy, it has been further asserted that their being called up in numbers identical to the chariots—100 or 300 at a time—indicates that these are in fact the archers known to have manned the chariots.

However, not only is this an unsubstantiated assumption, but archery was normally the prerogative of the chariot commander. Furthermore, as will be discussed in a subsequent section, to function effectively the chariot crew—whether consisting of just an archer and driver or accompanied by a weapons man on the right—would have had to train together as a team before they could achieve the minimal coordination necessary to function on the battlefield. Archers could not simply be assigned at the last minute to chariots that were manned solely by a driver and would probably prove useless for military purposes.

Instead, whatever their operational size—10, 25, or 100—archery companies were almost certainly employed as discrete units on the battlefield to provide the mass volley fire needed to decimate the enemy and shape the battle space. Unfortunately, historical materials prior to the late Warring States have failed to preserve any passages on the early employment of archery contingents, with only Sun Pin advising that roving crossbow companies be used “to provide support in exigencies.”70

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