The Social Transformation of the New Army
An essential goal of late Qing military reform, as noted in the previous chapter, was the creation of a professional officer corps educated in Western military science and technology. Military schools were established to train these officers, eventually forming a nationwide system of military education. The success of this program, however, required the enrollment of a type of man different from those who had previously sought careers as army officers. Traditionally, Chinese officers had been selected through a military examination system that stressed feats of strength and martial skills while only requiring minimal literacy. In a society where literary skills were highly prized, intellectually promising men from elite families generally sought advancement through the more prestigious civil service examination system. The military examinations in turn usually drew men from more lowly social backgrounds, often from the army's rank and file. In the new military schools the traditional priorities were reversed. Beyond general physical requirements, the main emphasis was now placed on literacy and intelligence, not on physical skills. In practice this meant that
military students, and thus China's future army officers, would largely be drawn from among the better-educated scions of elite families.
Recognizing that the best-qualified students would come from the educated classes, proponents of modern military education made elite recruitment for military schools a deliberate social policy. For example, for the military academy he established in Wuhan in 1896, Zhang Zhidong specified that entrance examination applicants be civilian or military degree-holders, expectant officials, or members of established official or gentry families. Deliberate upper-class recruitment can also be seen in the reservation of a quota of seats in military primary schools for the children or relatives of officials. The educational requirements set for entry into most military schools also served effectively to narrow the class base of potential students. For example, national regulations issued in 1905 required that applicants for military primary school entrance examinations either be graduates of civil upper primary schools or have equivalent educational backgrounds. As Hatano Yoshihiro has noted, the result of this requirement was that "even at the lowest level, officers would be drawn from landlords, rich farmers, and prosperous merchants because only these could afford to send their sons through senior elementary schools."
Considerable efforts were also made to improve the quality of common soldiers in the New Armies, with similar social effects. Whereas landless peasants, vagrants, or even petty criminals were often recruited to fill the vacancies in old-style forces, recruitment standards for the New Armies were generally higher and more strictly adhered to. New regulations tightened physical requirements and established procedures to ensure the recruitment of law-abiding men of good character (such as requiring proof of family backgrounds and guarantees from local officials). In contrast to previous forces, which were often recruited in provinces other than those in which they were stationed, New Army recruits were primarily drawn from within the province where their units were organized. This was a deliberate policy to facilitate background checks on new recruits by local officials. The most significant change in recruiting standards, though, involved efforts to ensure that at least some recruits were literate. For example, national regulations in 1905 set a goal that one-fifth of the recruits in every unit meet basic literacy requirements. Zhang Zhidong went further in setting a target of 50 percent literacy for the Hubei New Army. Under Zhang's influence, basic literacy became in practice almost a mandatory requirement for Hubei army recruits.
The attempt to increase literacy within the ranks of the New Army
served a practical purpose. The creation of an effective modern army required soldiers who could read simple regulations and written orders and follow maps on maneuvers. Zhang Zhidong pointed out that the establishment of a literate army would simply bring China's armed forces up to Western standards. At the same time, the recruitment of literate soldiers also served a special purpose in the initial formation of the New Armies. Since some time would pass before the new military schools could produce sufficient officers for the expanding New Armies, literate soldiers could be trained within the ranks to fill lower, noncommissioned positions.
Although the advantages of educated officers and literate soldiers were understood, one obstacle to this goal was the low esteem in which the military profession was held by China's traditional literati. Here care must be taken not to overexaggerate the anti-military bias of Chinese culture. Martial heroes were common in the popular tradition, and in certain periods of Chinese history the sword was a more important determinant of social and political power than the pen. Chinese officials were expected to be competent in both civil and military affairs, and in times of need civil gentry often provided leadership for local military forces. Thus, civilian officials and gentry took the lead in organizing yongying during the Taiping Rebellion, and gained high government positions as rewards for their military accomplishments. Nonetheless, in normal times, the civil service, not the army, was still seen as providing the main path for social and political advancement. Thus, at the end of the Taiping Rebellion, many yongying officers from gentry backgrounds gave up their military posts for positions in the civil bureaucracy. There was little question that for most of these men the prestige of the civil service far outshone that of a military career. Deliberate efforts were thus needed to enhance the prestige of the military profession in order to attract educated men into military service.
With the formation of the New Armies, both material and status incentives were employed to make military careers more attractive. To begin with, New Army officers were paid better than comparable officers in the traditional forces. The status of military officers was also increased by assigning them comparatively high official rank in relation to civilian officials. Considerable effort was also made to raise the prestige of graduation from the new military schools. For example, graduates returning from overseas military academies were awarded high-status jinshi or juren degrees. To show how military careers were valued, the court established a special military school for impe-
rial nobles, and important men such as Zhang Zhidong sent their own relatives to military academies. In the end, though, the educational criteria required for entrance into military schools, and the Western course of studies they provided, had the greatest impact on the prestige of the officers these schools produced. Unlike old-style military officers, military-school graduates had educational credentials that placed them on a level closer to the traditionally admired civilian literati.
Changing the status of army officers would be difficult, however, as long as the army as a whole was held in low esteem. Thus, efforts were also made to raise the status of ordinary soldiers in the New Armies. As a first step, higher pay levels were again maintained. Better treatment in terms of food, clothing, and shelter was also recognized as a way to improve the appeal of military service. Besides this, status inducements were offered to families whose sons enlisted in the New Armies. For example, they were given partial land tax remissions and other privileges, such as representation in lawsuits, usually reserved for the lower gentry. Zhang Zhidong also proposed special honors for retired soldiers, including homecoming welcomes by local officials, exemption from corvée duties, and immunity from torture by courts. Zhang argued that as a result of such measures, "people would take being a soldier as an honor, and members of established families [shizu shijia ] and prosperous households would willingly come forward to fill the ranks." As seen here, the attempt to improve the status and quality of common soldiers was strongly wedded to a policy of elite recruitment.
The extent to which educated young men from higher social backgrounds were drawn into military careers as either officers or soldiers was not, however, solely owing to these official efforts. If one turns to the motivations of the men themselves, one sees other factors that also served to make military careers more honorable and attractive, the most important of which was rising nationalism. The humiliation of China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, and subsequent Chinese weakness in the face of Western and Japanese military intrusions during the Boxer Uprising and the Russo-Japanese War, did more than convince the Qing government of the need for military reform. These events also aroused widespread concern, at least among the educated elite, that China's national existence was endangered by encroaching imperialism. Although political disagreements existed over the exact remedy for this national weakness, there was a consensus that a strong military was an urgent requirement. Influential publicists bemoaned
the pacifism of China's civil tradition and encouraged the development of a more martial national spirit. Such discussion heralded a significant change in traditional attitudes toward the military profession.
In this patriotic atmosphere, a considerable number of educated young men decided to "exchange their pens for swords." Such was the case of Shi Taojun, a Hunan student who went to Japan in 1904 intending to pursue an advanced civilian education. Shi was soon caught up in the nationalist fervor of the time and, after months of agonizing, finally decided to switch to military studies, eventually graduating from Japan's Army Officers' Academy (Rikugun Shikan Gakko[*] ). Shi recalled that with youthful naiveté he had felt "as if my own pursuit of military studies would directly influence whether or not the nation would survive." The memoirs of other men who were military students in this period, many of whom became important military figures under the Republic, often cite equally intense nationalist feelings as a key factor in their decisions to abandon civilian for military education.
Nationalist idealism aside, more practical considerations also influenced many educated young men to pursue military educations. Unquestionably, one important concern arose from the 1905 abolition of the traditional civil service examination system. An entire generation whose lives had been spent studying the Confucian classics in preparation for these examinations, including many who had already achieved lower degrees, were suddenly forced to consider new alternatives for social advancement. Although enrollment in the new civilian school system was the most obvious substitute for the traditional examinations, this route was fraught with new difficulties and uncertainties. Competition for entry into these schools was intense. Many older students found themselves thwarted by age regulations for entry into lower-level schools. Others found the time required to advance through the new system daunting (six years each for primary and secondary schools). In this regard, financial constraints were often a major concern. Under the traditional examination system it had theoretically been possible for poorer students to study at home with the help of tutors, but even the minimal expenses for tuition, food, and lodging required to attend the new schools were beyond the means of many families. Under these circumstances many young men began to see military service as an attractive alternative.
A young man considering a military career generally had two routes open to him. Entry into military schools was, of course, the preferred path into military service. Given the need for officers in the New
Armies, graduation from the lowest-level military schools, or even shorter military training programs, could be enough to obtain an officer's post in one of the provincial New Armies. Thus, in contrast to the civilian school system, a military education offered a secure position after a shorter, and thus less expensive, term of education. For educated young men who found even this course of study too expensive, or who failed competitive entrance examinations, direct entry into the ranks as a common soldier might still have advantages. Indeed, national New Army regulations promoting the recruitment of literate soldiers specifically called for the training of such recruits and their promotion to the rank of sergeant within eight months of their enlistment. Promising young soldiers could also be recommended from the ranks to attend special training programs or to fill positions in military schools reserved for them. Thus, for an ambitious young man, even a stint as a common soldier could be a route to military advancement. One young scholar who joined the Hubei New Army in 1906 summarized the opportunities and constraints leading to enlistment in the army in this way: "At this time, the examination system had already stopped and most intellectuals were obliged to find another road to take. Those whose family situations were good went to study abroad (mainly in Japan), those at the next level down took tests for local schools, and those without money entered the New Armies as soldiers."
A combination of idealistic and practical considerations therefore led educated young men to apply to military schools or even to enlist in the ranks of the provincial New Armies. The case of Li Pinxian, a Guangxi native who later became a military commander in the Republican Hunan army, provides a good example of the complex motives that led many men into military careers. After failing to pass the last of the traditional civil examinations held in his county, Li successfully tested into a military primary school. In choosing this course, Li said, he had been influenced both by the nationalist fervor stirred up by the foreign invasion during the Boxer Uprising and by a feeling that the end of the examination system had made other routes of advancement more difficult. Defending his decision to his skeptical family, Li had argued that "the time of the traditional examinations was past. Rather than sitting at home like a rotting log, it was better to seek a new way out by discarding literary studies for the military. Moreover, the nation was weak and surrounded by waiting foreign powers, and its salvation depended on the military. Most important, it would not do to let the rare opportunity presented by the establishment of the New
Army slip by." Thus, practical career considerations, including both the negative pressure of the abolition of the civil service examinations and the positive incentive of opportunities in the New Armies, combined with nationalism to help the younger generation of educated men overcome the traditional bias against the military profession.
Whatever the particular mix of motivations for each individual, the entry of educated young men into the Chinese military became a notable trend in the last years of the Qing dynasty. As early as 1896, in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War, over 4,000 applicants from all over the nation applied for 120 available positions in the military academy established by Zhang Zhidong in Wuhan. Later military schools likewise attracted many more applicants than could be accepted. To give one example, over 500 young men, 80 to 90 percent of whom were upper primary-school graduates, took part in preliminary examinations in Hunan's Wugang County to fill the one position allocated the county in the 1909 class of the Hunan Military Primary School. Although this class was only supposed to accept 120 students, over 200 were eventually admitted to accommodate a large number of children from official-gentry families who sought entry beyond the quota reserved for them. Although by 1911 the graduates of these military schools were only beginning to work their way up through the officer corps of the New Armies, their presence signified an important change in the social composition of the Chinese military. Indeed, the elite nature of the New Army officer corps has led some scholars to characterize it as an "appendage" or "extension" of the gentry class.
The degree to which educated young men were recruited as common soldiers varied somewhat from one province to the next. Such efforts were particularly successful, though, in the Hubei New Army, where literate recruits even included large numbers of degree-holders. One Hubei New Army soldier reported that 36 of the 96 men who joined the army with him during a recruiting drive in his county were lower-level degree-holders. The same pattern was also apparent in Hunan. Despite its later development and relatively smaller size, the Hunan New Army contained over 300 lower-level degree-holders. Thus the rank and file of the New Army contained a large component of educated men whose presence in the military would have been unthinkable only a few decades before.
The social transformation of the New Armies was a self-sustaining process. On the one hand, official policies and changing political conditions increased the status of the military and thus encouraged educated men to consider military careers. On the other hand, the increasing
presence of educated men in the New Armies further enhanced the prestige of the military profession and encouraged others to follow in their paths. One effect of this process may have been an improvement in the quality of the Chinese military, but another, less anticipated result was to create the conditions for the military's immersion in the new nationalist-inspired political ferment of the late Qing period.