When it comes to the Chinese military, most westerners are familiar with the most recent Chinese leaders. A country with thousands of years of history, of course, is going to have many, many more beyond Mao Zedong and Chiang Ki-Shek.
For centuries, Chinese generals not only led armies against outsiders like Mongols and other tribes, they led massive armies against other Chinese generals. The long history of warring states (one period of Chinese history is even known as the “Warring States Period”) gives historians numerous examples of famous and successful Chinese leaders.
1. Qin Shi Huang
The first emperor of a unified China, Qin conquered all the other warring states after a ten-year campaign that ushered in the Qin Dynasty. After winning a decade of brutal pitched battles, Qin reformed Chinese society to focus on centralized government and defense.
Instead of arming peasantry to fight its wars, Qin established military institutions to train professional career soldiers that would push the boundaries of military strategy. Qin also began the construction of the Great Wall.
2. Wu Qi
Wu is not only a celebrated military leader in Chinese history, he was also the architect of some of China’s most successful states during the Warring States Period, having worked as a civil leader for Wei, Lu, and Chu. Under his leadership, the Chu came to conquer the Yue and Wei states.
During his lifetime, he wrote the Wuzi, a treatise on the art of military strategy and one of the Seven Military Classics of ancient China (which includes the more widely-known “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu). Wu Qi argued that a general should not carry a sword, for he is the brain of an army, who must direct the soldiers’ blades.
3. Bai Qi
Qi was a general of the Qin state during the Warring States Period, and is best known for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people, earning him the nickname “Human Butcher.” He never suffered a defeat in battle leading Qin armies and captured some 73 cities from enemy states.
In the 200-year history of the Warring States Period before Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified China, an estimated 2 million people were killed in major battles. Half of those were killed by Bai Qi’s command.
4. Li Mu
For the Qin to unify China, they first had to conquer the Zhao. To conquer the Zhao, they knew they had to get rid of Li Mu. The problem was that no one seemed to be able to defeat an army led by Li Mu in combat.
Before Li’s rise to command, the Qin had already weakened Zhao, along with Wei, Han, and Yan. None of them were able to help Zhao fend off the Qin. Other states like Qi and Chu were content to watch the QIn defeat the Zhao for good. Qin attacked Zhao while its army was virtually wiped out, but under Li’s leadership, pushed massive forces of Qin back, defeating the successively at Yi’an and Fanwu. The only way the Qin were able to defeat Zhao was by convincing the King of Zhao to demand Li Mu’s suicide.
5. Cao Cao
Cao Cao rose to prominence after helping put down a widespread peasant rebellion that ended in 205 CE. The rebellion left China divided into three separate states, essentially ruled by military juntas. These states immediately began to jockey for the power needed to reunify the country.
Cao captured the Xian Emperor and formed an army hundreds of thousands strong. Soon he was the most powerful man in China. He first tried to coerce the other states to unify with him but when they refused, Cao took action. He didn’t unify China in his lifetime, but his sheer force of will dominated an emperor and awed those in his sphere.