Despite extensive speculation, how the chariot and any accompanying forces may have been coordinated remains murky and confused. Operationally the crucial question is whether the foot soldiers, if any, were nominally attached or were integrated in some sort of close spatial configuration that would enable the commander to direct them in the execution of basic tactics. Vestiges in the oracular records, bronze inscriptions, and traditional historical works note soldier-to-chariot ratios ranging from 10:1 to 300:1, with those preserved from the early Chou commonly being 10:1, a reasonable contingent to have been commanded by a chariot officer.26 However, significant variation is seen with the passage of time, and standing ratios for states in the late Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods lack consistency. Operational and historical discussions in the military writings describe attached contingents as numbering anywhere from 10 or 25 through 72 (plus 3 officers), even as many as 150, further complicating any assessment of prebattle formations and tactical deployments, both of which varied over time and were subject to local organizational differences, as in Ch’u.27

Battle accounts and memorial inscriptions perhaps offer a more realistic picture. When chariots were few in comparison with total troop strength, as in the Shang, the overall battlefield ratio was doubtless much higher. According to Shang oracle inscriptions, 100 chariots were occasionally assigned to a fighting force of 3,000, with the chariots apparently acting as an operational group rather than being dispersed and accompanied by a designated number of infantry. Traditional accounts also indicate that the Chou vanguard that penetrated the Shang lines at the battle of Mu-yeh consisted of 3,000 tiger warriors accompanied by 300 chariots. Although this is a highly realistic 10:1 ratio, given the assault’s ferocity the 10 may have simply been running behind their assigned vehicles.

Based on 100 chariots being accompanied by 1,000 men, the famous Yü Ting, dating to the reign of King K’ang of the Chou (1005-978 BCE), similarly indicates a ratio of 10:1. The 100 chariots that had to be dispatched as reinforcements in the conflict with the marquis of E were also basically accompanied by 1,000 men, even though supplemented by another 200 in support. Despite being a Warring States work, the Kuan-tzu indicates that feudal lords were enfeoffed with 100 chariots and 1,000 men and that major lords were expected to supply 200 chariots and 2,000 men for military efforts, minor ones (hsiao hou) only 100 chariots and 1,000 men.28 However, several other ratios are also recorded, including 300 chariots accompanied by 5,000 men and 800 chariots with 30,000 men;29 a taxation system specifies seven armored soldiers and five guards for each of the chariot’s four horses, yielding an odd number of 48 men per chariot;30 and the state of Ch’i supposedly had 100,000 armored soldiers but only 5,000 chariots, still an astonishing number, for a 20:1 ratio.31

With the inception of specialized vehicles for dedicated purposes, the ratios were apparently revised and troops attached only to certain vehicles such as the attack chariots.32 Although the configurations described in texts such as the Liu-t’ao may never have been deployed, they incontrovertibly conjoin ground troops with chariots, further supporting the link’s historicity.33 However, even if one or another of these ratios characterized Shang armies, the problem of how the accompanying infantry actually functioned in any era remains unresolved, because the early military writings fail to provide any useful information.

The only evidence to date for the existence of prescribed numbers of men being attached to Shang chariots is an intriguing aggregation of graves at Yin-hsü that has rather controversially been interpreted as an array intended to deliberately depict the composition of a chariot company and therefore prompted claims that the late Shang fully integrated ground troops with chariots in an organized manner.34 The excavators have categorized the graves into eleven types based on the occupants and accompanying artifacts, ten of which are seen as having direct martial implications. Mainly slain by decapitation, all the occupants appear to have been sacrificed on site rather than brought for interment after dying in battle or other violent circumstances.

Five chariot graves laid out in a roughly T-shaped pattern comprise the core of the contingent. Two are offset at the ends of the T; the other three are arrayed in an essentially vertical line that commences somewhat below, giving the group a south-facing orientation. On the assumption that each grave contains one chariot and a crew of three warriors armed in the traditional manner, the site apparently preserves the first concrete evidence that the five-chariot company, long pronounced as a virtual matter of faith, actually existed.35

A horizontal line of five graves, each of which contains five warriors with red-pigmented bones, runs across in front of the chariot group, apparently the contingent’s vanguard. Although analysts immediately concluded that they represent the so-called provocateurs employed in later warfare to enrage the enemy and raise the fighting spirit of one’s own troops, the sole reference found in the oracle bones to dispatching a small forward contingent shows a unit of thirty horses being employed as an advance element. Therefore, if the practice of deliberate provocation in early Chinese warfare ever existed other than in the imagination of historical writers, its inception should be traced to the Spring and Autumn, not projected back into the Shang, with small units subsequently being employed in Warring States warfare to deliberately probe the enemy.

More or less to the right of the chariot group lie three groups of graves containing a total of 125 young, strong fighters, some complete but others just skulls, variously distinguished by the presence of ritual objects, red pigment on their bones or skulls, and some sort of headband, all deemed indicative of rank. Without becoming entangled by the numerous details engendered by these finds and the several controversies prompted by their imaginative interpretation, it appears that these burials constitute a contingent assigned to the chariot company.

This force apparently was based on the squad of five, the standard number that would essentially underpin Chinese military structure for the next three millennia. Each squad had an officer, but rather than twenty-five squads there were only twenty, giving a base of 100, a number that well coheres with the Shang practices and penchant for units of 100 and 1,000. Because four higher-level commanders are distinguishable, the twenty squads were apparently grouped into units of five. With the addition of the contingent’s commander, the total reaches the subsequently sacrosanct number of 125 and would essentially cohere with the Chou Li articulation of 100 men to a tsu, but only on the assumption that the officers were not encompassed by the century.36 However, if the officers are excluded and the twenty-five men in the vanguard seen as an integral part of the infantry contingent, the number would again reach the magic 125.

A third aggregation of graves marked by a wide variety of utensils and weapons individually interred with single bodies has been interpreted as representative of the full range of support personnel required by the chariot company. Apart from two officials who seem to have had responsibility for overseeing the food and beverages, they appear to have been divided into groups of five and seven, with the former entrusted with responsibility for the weapons, the latter various other vessels, including the portable stoves and associated utensils. Further confirmation is seen in a grave that contains ten sheep, apparently the contingent’s mobile food supply.

It has been concluded that these graves show that Shang contingents were systematically organized around the chariots and that the additional ground forces were merely supplementary or auxiliary.37 However, even though the burials certainly seem to represent a deliberate array intended to honor the king, a few objections have been raised and a number of questions remain. Most prominent among the latter is whether, as evidenced by a certain arbitrariness in selecting the graves for inclusion, the military organization discussed in Warring States writings is not being projected back onto the Shang.38 In addition, issues of chronology have apparently been ignored in several instances, because a couple of the graves overlap or intrude upon others, evidence of either sloppiness (which is unlikely given the precision of Shang palace and tomb construction) or ignorance of previous burials, synonymous with the absence of any intent to execute a grand design.

Somewhat broader questions might also be raised, including whether this array is merely an idealization, a deployment appropriate solely for the march rather than any operational utilization just as units paraded in review throughout history, or even a form of organization that only characterized the king’s personal force. This would explain the apparent overstaffing with support personnel, an extremely inefficient and unrealistic approach for a field army, even though later traditions suggest a small contingent entrusted with such responsibilities was attached to chariot squads.

How this contingent would operate on the battlefield also remains unknown. Presumably the vanguard of twenty-five protected the chariots during the archery exchange, but if they raced ahead on foot during the move to melee, the speed advantage of the chariots would be lost. If the chariots dispersed during the engagement, these elite ground fighters could have been assigned as accompanying infantry, one squad to a chariot, for protection. But similar questions also plague any understanding of the function of the 125 men deployed on the right, whether they operated in aggregate as close support, as dispersed units of 25, or shed any connection with the chariots in the chaos of battle, the most likely possibility.

Despite these significant issues, with allowance for possible chronological problems and considerable arbitrariness in selecting the graves, it appears that the aggregate preserves the elements of a late Shang military formation. Nevertheless, the foot soldiers constitute the true power, and as the era of chariot-to-chariot combat had not yet dawned, they no doubt bore the brunt of the fighting subsequent to the initial archery exchanges. Rather than being a key fighting element, the dagger-axe warrior on the chariot probably acted as a bodyguard for the archer, while the driver merely controlled the chariot, presumably under the direction of the archer.

Formations for advancing, prebattle methods of deployment, and alignments for combat (such as seen in the Liu-t’ao) were eventually developed for the chariots, infantry, and chariots intermixed with infantry, possibly beginning in the early Chou. However, dismissing assertions that King T’ang employed nine chariots in a goose formation, the only pre-Warring States confirmation that chariot formations had begun to evolve is a debate found embedded in the Tso Chuan over whether it or the crane formation should be employed for the chariots.39 Moreover, assertions that the platoons were deployed to the left and right only increase the degree of puzzlement, because in the reality of fervent combat the chariots would have had to shed them to act as a rapid penetrating force, enjoy the requisite freedom of maneuver, and pursue fleeing enemies.40

Unless the chariots were broadly dispersed, conjoining more than a few men to them would simply have clogged the immediate area. Mobile combat becoming impossible, the chariot would have been reduced to functioning as an archery platform and localized command point. Presumably this is the reason the Liu-t’ao’s authors subsequently devised a rather dispersed deployment: “For battle on easy terrain five chariots comprise one line. The lines are forty paces apart and the chariots ten paces apart from left to right, with detachments being sixty paces apart. On difficult terrain the chariots must follow the roads, with ten comprising a company, and twenty a regiment. Front to rear spacing should be twenty paces, left to right six paces, with detachments being thirty-six paces apart.”41 This dispersed formation would allow enemy chariots to pass through while providing the necessary operational space for maneuver.

All the military writers considered open terrain to be ideal ground for chariot operations. The great middle Warring States strategist Sun Pin therefore continued to advocate exploiting it with chariots (and cavalry) even when confronted by superior infantry strength:42

Suppose our army encounters the enemy and both establish encampments. Our chariots and cavalry are numerous but our men and weapons few. If the enemy’s men are ten times ours, how should we attack them?

To attack them carefully avoid ravines and narrows. Break out and lead them, coercing them toward easy terrain. Even though the enemy is ten times [more numerous], [easy terrain] will be conducive to our chariots and cavalry and our Three Armies will be able to attack.

Tso Chuan depictions of Spring and Autumn military clashes frequently reduce the chariot’s role to facilitating the exchange of provocative taunts and initiating individualized combat between chivalrous warriors—highly romanticized, unrealistic portraits of bravado that had little impact on the battle’s outcome—yet instances of massed chariot charges undertaken across relatively open terrain are also recorded. The ultimate chariot clash occurred in the spring of 632 BCE at the epochal Battle of Ch’eng-p’u, wherein a coalition of older, northern states vanquished imperious Ch’u’s initial thrust out of the south into the Chinese heartland. Although the rarity of Shang and steppe chariots precludes such clashes from having arisen in antiquity, it can still be pondered as an example of the potential effectiveness of employing chariot contingents en masse. Chin’s commanders secured victory through several unorthodox measures, including targeting the enemy’s weakest components:43

When they had finished cutting down the trees, Chin’s forces deployed north of Hsin. Hsü Ch’en, in his role as assistant commander for Chin’s Lower Army, deployed opposite the forces from Ch’en and Ts’ai [allied with Ch’u].

When Tzu Yü, accompanied by six companies of Juo-ao clan troops, assumed command of Ch’u’s Central Army, he said: “Today will certainly see the end of Chin!” Tzu Hsi was in command of Ch’u’s Army of the Left and Tzu Shang their Army of the Right.

Hsü Ch’en covered their horses in tiger skins and initiated the engagement by assaulting the troops from Ch’en and Ts’ai. Their troops fled and Ch’u’s right wing crumbled.

Hu Mao [of Chin] set out two pennons and withdrew his forces. Meanwhile Luan Chih [of Chin] had his chariots feign a withdrawal, dragging faggots behind them. When Ch’u’s forces raced after them, Yüan Chen and Hsi Chen cut across the battlefield to suddenly strike them with the Duke’s own clan forces. Hu Mao and Hu Yen [of Chin] then mounted a pincer attack on Tzu Hsi’s army that resulted in Ch’u’s left wing being shattered and Ch’u’s forces decisively defeated. Tzu Yü gathered his clan forces and desisted from further action, avoiding personal defeat.

Two actions shaped the battle’s course and determined its outcome. First, Hsü Ch’en’s elite warriors initiated contact with an unexpected, concentrated thrust while the preliminary posturing was probably still under way. Its surprising fervency shattered Ch’u’s insecure allies deployed on the right wing, giving Chin’s forces unconstricted mobility and exposing the field to flanking attacks. Second, coordinated feigned retreats by Chin’s right wing and elements of the left wing that had not participated in the initial thrust, masked by clouds of dust that were deliberately created by the branches that had been cut down and attached to the rear of the chariots, easily drew the overconfident Ch’u armies forward in a disordered attack. Presumably Ch’u’s central forces, under Tzu Yü’s personal command, also moved forward to exploit Chin’s retreat and engage any remaining center forces; otherwise, the Tso Chuan account would not have noted that Tzu Yü “gathered his personal forces and desisted.”

In the swirl of battle all the actions were obviously performed by chariot forces exploiting their mobility, any infantry forces that were present having been left behind, perhaps as ensconced forces defending fallback positions. Therefore chariot clashes of the type envisioned by many traditional historians, reputedly common in the second millennium BCE in the West, not only could, but did, occur. The Art of War, which presumably reflects late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States warfare, specifically speaks of “chariot encounters,” implying that these were separate actions that didn’t entail infantry participation: “In chariot encounters, when ten or more chariots are captured, reward the first to get one. Change their flags and pennants to ours, intermix and employ them with our own chariots.”44

Somewhat later, while admonishing his 50,000 troops and 500 chariot commanders prior to engaging Ch’in in a major clash, Wu Ch’i proclaimed:45 “All the officers must confront, follow, and capture the enemy’s chariots, cavalry, and infantry. If the chariots do not make prisoners of the enemy’s chariots, the cavalry not make prisoners of the enemy’s cavalry, and the infantry not take the enemy’s infantry, even if we forge an overwhelming victory no one will be credited with any achievements.” His pronouncement would seem to imply that the three component forces targeted their counterparts rather than engaging in a general melee or that the infantry was tied to the chariots.

As their numbers increased in later eras, rather than just being employed as a single mass, chariots were segmented into operational units ranging from a basic three—center, left, and right—to more tactically specific contingents46 controlled by drums.47 However, the low number of just 100 per army in the Shang probably precluded any subdividing, though some analysts have suggested groups of 30 may have been employed. The Shang and early Chou probably mark the transitional period when the chariot’s role had not yet been defined and individual chariots had not yet been integrated with accompanying infantry, a stage that would require rethinking, apportionment, and the development of training and operating procedures to avoid the battlefield chaos that would inevitably result if the chariots were merely added to the mix of combatants.

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