Letting the Troops Loose: Pillage, Massacres, and Enslavement in Early Tang Warfare

In: Journal of Chinese Military History
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  • 1 Denison University

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By analyzing examples ranging from the Sui-Tang transition to the An Lushan Rebellion, I argue that in a practice known as “letting the troops loose,” Tang generals frequently rewarded their officers and soldiers (and themselves) for a victory with the freedom to seize the wives, children, and property of the defeated with impunity, and to kill any who resisted. Attempts to censure or prosecute the generals responsible were rare and usually overruled, because military morale was seen as a higher priority than discipline or humaneness. Tang generals were also authorized to massacre surrendered enemy soldiers and conquered civilians for a range of strategic purposes. Moreover, taking slaves from a defeated population was a common prerogative among generals and officers even when an army was not “let loose.” When generals refrained from pillage, massacres, and enslavement, therefore, this was usually for reasons that were pragmatic and strategic, not moral or legal.

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  • 45

    Wechsler 1980, 1-40 (quotations from 14 and 21). I have converted Wechsler’s Wade-Giles romanization to Hanyu Pinyin. Wechsler’s classification was recently revived in modified form in Skaff 2012, 52-53.

  • 77

    Duan 1988, 494; Ng 2013.

  • 81

    Ng 2013.

  • 105

    Quoted in McNair 2007B, 160; Lei 2015, 181. Lei believes the number of eighty-one mound spectacles is an exaggeration, but it is possible that Yang Sixu preferred to display numerous smaller mounds, each containing hundreds of bodies, rather than a single massive mound with tens of thousands of bodies.

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    France 2008 and France 2012, 80-81 consider cases from the High Middle Ages, including the Crusades. The Mongols are best known for using city massacres in this way, but Reuven Amitai suggests that in 1259-1260 this strategy backfired, as the defenders of two Middle Eastern cities “may have been propelled by recent Mongol violence [in Baghdad, in 1258] to fight with additional vigor and resolution.” Amitai further argues that mercy toward those who had resisted “was also part of the Mongol ‘tool-box’ for conquest and siege, and could be judiciously employed at times.” Amitai 2011, 94-95.

  • 132

    Schafer 1963, 23.

  • 133

    Gernet 1996, 292.

  • 134

    Chamney 2012, 91-93.

  • 135

    McKintosh-Smith and Montgomery 2014, 69; cf. Park 2012, 69-70. Extant Chinese records do not mention a massacre in Guangzhou, only a pillage of the surrounding area: zztj 253.8217.

  • 142

    Li 2004, 366-80, 398-405.

  • 143

    Li 2004, 388-89, 398.

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