According to what I've read, during the Warring States period and also later during the Three Kingdoms period there were armies of the magnitude of (a few) hundred thousands.

How could they coordinate such an immense mass of people? How could they provide the logistics? These armies had to be separated into smaller armies I suppose. Then how could the different battalions work together despite the distance?

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    What is special about "Chinese" here? Armies of similar size operated in the West as well, according to most historians, for example, Persian army invading Greece.
    – Alex
    Jul 6, 2015 at 17:33
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    Chinese are "special" here mostly because I thought of the question while reading about Chinese history. Another reason is that I haven't read much about military strategies used by the Greeks and Persians so I have an image in my head (right or not) that those armies operated in one big bulk which is easier to coordinate and need less complex logistics. Jul 6, 2015 at 18:26
  • Also, the warring states period and the 3 kingdom era had a long period of more or less constant warfare with multiple armies operating at the same time, some battles prolonged for a long time (like sieges or extended face-offs) which makes coordination and logistics even more essential. Jul 6, 2015 at 18:27
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    One also has to take into account that the sizes of the armies were usually very much exaggerated in the ancient sources. I am not familiar with Chinese ones, but is there any way to verify that the numbers told by Chinese historians are true? This is certainly not the case with Greek and Roman historians.
    – Alex
    Jul 6, 2015 at 19:42
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    @Greg I'm not sure how this compares to the Persian armies, but in the Warring States era, Chinese states routinely operated mass conscript armies of 100,000 or more. Towards the end of the period, several battles involved over 400,000 soldiers on one side, principally when Qin mobilised to conquer the rest of China in essentially one large stroke. At least, that's what existing records says...
    – Semaphore
    Jul 8, 2015 at 4:13

2 Answers 2


In Ancient China, the primary method of coordinating units were to use flags, drums and gongs. Beating drums was a signal to advance, whereas ringing gongs was an order to retreat. The use of flags instructed units on the battlefield to move in specific directions.

《吳子‧應變》 凡戰之法,晝以旌旗旛麾為節,夜以金鼓笳笛為節。麾左而左,麾右而右。鼓之則進,金之則止。
(Wuzi, chapter "Reaction") The method of war is always to command with flags during day, and with gongs and drums at night. Move left when the flag points left, and right when the flag points right. Advance at the sound of drums, and stop at the sound of gongs.

Such commands could be issued and carried out because these armies were not masses of random strangers thrown together. In fact, Chinese armies possessed a full hierarchy of units during the Warring States period. Generally speaking, an army had a fighting strength of 12,500, evenly divided into five divisions of 2,500 each. Each division in turn consisted of five 500-strong brigades. Below the brigade level, there were smaller units of 100, 50, 25 and 5 men.

In a battle, therefore, more specific orders or intel could passed down through the ranks via the chain of command, usually by dedicated messengers. This complements the use of flags, drums and gongs for broad coordination to realise effective command in a battle.

Logistics were primarily reliant on having stockpiles of supplies. Ancient Chinese states were agrarian societies, and governments taxed their peasants in kind. Surplus rice would thus be stockpiled for military use. Consequently, these states generally did their best to improve agricultural productivity, and reforms were major factors in improving a state's military performance.

When war breaks out, although an army would march into the field with whatever supplies it could carry, this would have been only good for a few days.

《荀子‧議兵》 魏氏之武卒,以度取之,衣三屬之甲,操十二石之弩,負服矢五十個,置戈其上,冠冑帶劍,贏三日之糧,日中而趨百里
(Xunzi or Hsun-tzu, chapter "On War") The elite soldiers of Wei wear three layers; wield crossbows of 12 stones with 50 arrows; are equipped with halberds and swords; and they can carry three days supply of food.

Thus, the primary means of keeping an army fed were supply trains. Every war involved numerous wagons responsible for replenishing an army in the field with supplies from the state's central stockpiles.

《孫子兵法‧作戰》 凡用兵之法,馳車千駟,革車千乘,帶甲十萬,千里饋糧
(The Art of War, chapter "Waging War") Wars are fought with a thousand chariots, a thousand supply wagons, a hundred thousand soldiers, and food is delivered across a thousand miles.

Occasionally armies would harvest the farmlands of their enemies as well as forage, but for the larger armies of the late Warring States era, supply wagons were a necessity.

There were no armies several hundred thousand strong during the Three Kingdoms period. However, the largest engagement of the era, the Battle of Red Cliff, did involve over 200,000 troops under Cao Cao (Tsao Tsao). In that example, his forces were divided into two main prongs as well as six smaller groups, which were either held in reserve or advancing towards other targets. Within each army, individual generals commanded smaller units of perhaps 5,000 soldiers each.

Therefore, not all 200,000+ soldiers were physically present at Wulin, where the famous burning of the ships took place. Note that some have argued that Cao Cao's forces totaled ~220,000 overall, i.e. some were left in the north to guard his homeland. In this interpretation, perhaps no more than 100,000 actually took part in the battle.

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    When the army was divided into smaller groups and they were moving around, how did the supply trains find them? If there is too much distance between the troops and the place where the supplies come from then you can't really use messengers to tell them where you are as the delay in communication would be too big. The only possibility I can think of is that they made depots in strategic locations as they advanced which were known for all groups. The separate groups would then find the closest depot and request supplies from there. Is that correct? Jul 9, 2015 at 11:46
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    @DavidHerskovics Yes, that is correct; for example at the Battle of Guandu, the Yuan forces made their depot at Wuchao. Tsao Tsao (Cao Cao) won a decisive victory by torching the place in a daring raid.
    – Semaphore
    Jul 9, 2015 at 12:42

Those are a lot of questions! Referenced quotes at the bottom.

How could they coordinate such an immense mass of people?

Divide up the command.

How could they provide the logistics?

They brought everything with them and hoped either to resupply from the enemy or not at all (win quickly).

These armies had to be separated into smaller armies I suppose.

Could not find any such evidence for supply reasons (tactics is another but very risky one).

Then how could the different battalions work together despite the distance?

Distance was the battlefield only, and signals and signs were used.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu states: (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/132/132.txt)

1 Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

That is, cutting up the army into regiments, companies, etc., with subordinate officers in command of each. Tu Mu reminds us of Han Hsin's famous reply to the first Han Emperor, who once said to him: "How large an army do you think I could lead?" "Not more than 100,000 men, your Majesty." "And you?" asked the Emperor. "Oh!" he answered, "the more the better."]

2 Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.

23 The Book of Army Management says: On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

26 In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.

1 Sun Tzu said: In the operations of war, where there are in the field a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry them a thousand LI,the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armor, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day. Such is the cost of raising an army of 100,000 men.

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    Re:supplies, large Warring States armies absolutely did not bring all their supplies with them or lived off the ground, and cutting off supply routes were a major strategy during the Three Kingdoms period.
    – Semaphore
    Jul 7, 2015 at 15:24
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    I also don't think that for a prolonged campaign an army could bring enough supply with them. That would slow them down too much and make their size compared to their fighting force too big and so make them much more vulnerable and much less effective. Also, you can not really depend on foraging in a prolonged operation. Jul 9, 2015 at 11:50
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    As for why I suppose that the armies might have been separated into smaller armies for logistic purposes: roads have a max capacity of how many troops can go through it in an hour. So if you are attacking a place with no big and good roads, then you might be forced to divide your troops and send them on separate routes lest your advance is struck at a bottleneck for a long time - which besides slowing you down is also a very dangerous situation. Possible camp places also have max capacity so if your army size is too big then you are forced to make separate camps to accommodate everybody . Jul 9, 2015 at 12:00

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