History of the PLA’s Ground Force Organizational Structure and Military Regions


Overview

Since the early days of the Red Army in the 1930s and the name change to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the mid-1940s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to systematically organize its military forces into regional areas and functional groupings that would allow centralized control. As Chart 1 shows, the Red Army/PLA has had three larger groupings for area control – front armies (fangmianjun), field armies (yezhanjun), and military regions (junqu).1  The names of the organizations that formed the second and third tiers for each organization changed over time, but they served the same basic function of controlling large groups of ground force units. The Chinese terms for these organizational entities include juntuan during the 1930s, bingtuan and zongdui during the 1940s, jun during the 1950s to 1980s, and group armies since the mid- 1980s. Each larger organization has several subordinate operational units (zuozhan budui) at the division level and below.

 

While the Chinese clearly understand the terms juntuan, bingtuan, jituanjun, jun, zongdui, and zhidui, they are not easily translated into English. Although chart 1 shows the juntuan, bingtuan, and jituanjun as organizations at the same level, they are, in fact, not equal. It is better to look at them in terms of levels of headquarters. If the PLA had first, second, and third-level armies, then there would be a fairly accurate delineation. At the top would be the juntuan, which more closely translates as a US army group. A juntuan is a formation that, if used in the US Army, would command more than one bingtuan, which is essentially a group of armies.

 

Chart 1

Red Army and PLA Organization Levels: 1930s-Present

 

1930s            1940s                       1950s                           1980s

Front Armies   Field Armies               Military Regions               Military Regions

Juntuan         Bingtuan                                                                                Jituanjun       Jun                           Zongdui and jun              Jun

Divisions        Divisions                    Divisions and brigades      Divisions and brigades

Brigades        Brigades                    

Regiments      Regiments                 Regiments                      Regiments

 

In the Chinese case, a jun equates to a US Army corps-level organization (i.e., composed of more than one maneuver division). If bingtuan was an operational concept today for manoeuvre units, then a bingtuan would be composed of two or more jituanjun or corps-level units, which would in turn have subordinate division level manoeuvre units and assorted lower level units based on specialty. In other words, the jituanjun would be the operational units that are subordinate to the bingtuan or the juntuan. Although the PLA no longer has juntuan and bingtuan as organizational entities, these terms are oftentimes used to depict certain organizational levels within the overall PLA structure – specifically, the PLA Navy’s fleet-level organization, the PLA Air Force’s military region air force-level organization, and the ground forces’ group army (jituanjun)-level organization. For example, PLA writings refer to campaign juntuan (zhanyi juntuan) and tactical bingtuan (zhanshu bingtuan).

 

The Red Army

Agrarian Revolutionary War Period (1927–1937)

When the Red Army was created in 1927, it was called the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (gongnong hongjun), but it was still a mix of many different groups under a common name. At that time, the Red Army began organizing its forces into the 4th and 5th jun, each of which had subordinate divisions, regiments, and battalions.2 This was a logical structure, since the jun had been the basic operational unit within China for 2,000 years. Although the Red Army was based on jun, the organizational structure and designation for the jun have differed over time.

 

Below the jun level, the division and brigade are often considered the first real operational level. Over the years, the brigade structure has changed several times. During the 1930s, brigades were placed between the division and regimental level. In the 1940s, however, brigades were established that were directly subordinate to the zongdui or jun. As these brigades grew in size, most of them were redesignated as divisions in the late 1940s. However, the PLA still has brigades for specific types of units throughout its services. The structure below the division and brigade level has remained constant since the1920s, consisting of regiments, battalions, companies, platoons, and squads.

 

As the Red Army grew, it added five more jun in 1930. By the mid-1930s, it had as many as sixty jun composed of infantry troops. Each jun had a total of 1,000 to 3,000 troops. During the early 1930s, the Red Army reorganized to include larger organizations called juntuan. In 1930, the Red Army established the 1st juntuan, which had three subordinate jun and a total of 20,000 troops. By the mid-1930s, there were nine juntuan plus several newly-created jun that were not part of any juntuan. As part of its reorganization effort, the Red Army also began consolidating some of its juntuan and jun into three front armies (1st, 2nd, and 4th) in the early 1930s. These front armies were composed of two or more juntuan plus directly subordinate jun. This structure defined the Red Army’s larger organizational structure during the period they were surrounded by Nationalist forces in Jiangxi Province prior to setting out on the Long March in 1934. In 1936, most of the juntuan were redesignated as jun or divisions.

 

War of Resistance Period (1937–1945)

Following Japan’s 1937 invasion of China proper, the Nationalists and Communists established their Second United Front, whereby the Red Army was reorganized into two primary units.3 The Eighth Route Army (balujun) had three subordinate divisions (115th, 120th, and 129th). Each division had two subordinate brigades, and each brigade had two subordinate regiments. The table of organization and equipment (TO&E) for the division was 15,000 troops. When the Eighth Route Army was established, the Red Army’s front army and juntuan disappeared as organizational entities.

 

The second Red Army organization formed during the Second United Front was the New Fourth Army (xinsijun), which had four subordinate zhidui with a total of 10,000 troops. These detachments were created from the Red Army Guerilla Force (hongjun youjidui) that remained in the south during the Long March. In 1941, the New Fourth Army reorganized its zhidui into seven divisions and one independent brigade.

 

The PLA Emerges

War of Liberation Period (1945–1949)

Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, the Nationalists and Communists began redeploying their forces to fight each other in their continuing civil war. Over the next four years, several major events took place – the Red Army was renamed the People’s Liberation Army, the Eighth Route Army and New Fourth Army were reorganized into five field armies with subordinate bingtuan and jun, and China was organized into several military regions.4

 

The CCP Central Committee’s Military Commission (zhongyang junshi weiyuanhui), or CMC, began using the terms Liberation Army (jiefangjun) and People’s Liberation Army (renmin jiefangjun) as early as 1945 to identify the concept of a single armed forces. These terms, however, were not formally used with unit designations (i.e., the PLA 32nd division) until the CMC issued a general order to this effect on 1 November 1948.

 

PLA Field Armies Created

Between June 1945 and June 1946, the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army combined their forces into 27 field zongdui (yezhan zongdui), which were equal to divisions, plus six field brigades (yezhan lü). In February 1947, the CMC began consolidating the field zongdui and brigades into five regional field armies (yezhanjun). In November 1948, all of the field zongdui were redesignated as jun and subordinated under the five field armies’ seventeen bingtuan, which were equivalent in status to a jituanjun at the time.5 By the end of 1949, there were a total of fifty-eight jun, consisting of subordinate divisions, regiments, battalions, companies, platoons, and squads. The PLA also upgraded and changed the name of most of its brigades to divisions, and subordinated them to the various jun. By 1950, each bingtuan had two to four jun.

 

The bingtuan had actually existed since the early days of the Red Army, but it did not become prominent until 1948. Under the Eighth Route Army in 1937, the Yanan Garrison bingtuan had one subordinate brigade and 9 regiments. During the late 1940s, the Huabei yezhan bingtuan had two subordinate zongdui and two brigades. In 1948, the Huadong Field Army, the Dongbei Field Army, and the Huabei Military Region had a total of 8 bingtuan composed of several zongdui, divisions, and brigades. In February 1949, the PLA, already numbering more than 2.5 million men, underwent another major reorganization whereby four of the field armies were given numerical designators as shown below. The Huabei Field Army did not change its name. At that time, each of the field armies consisted of two to four bingtuan, plus one or more directly subordinate jun. Initially, the Huabei Field Army consisted primarily of zongdui and their subordinate brigades, until the zongdui were upgraded to jun and the brigades were upgraded to divisions and placed under three newly-created bingtuan.

 

  • The Xibei Field Army, which was established in 1947 under the command of Peng Dehuai, was renamed the First Field Army [Xibei = Northwest]
  • The Zhongyuan Field Army, which was established in 1947 with Liu Bocheng as the commander and Deng Xiaoping as political commissar, was renamed the Second Field Army [Zhongyuan = Central Plains]
  • The Huadong Field Army, established in 1947 under the command of Chen Yi, was renamed the Third Field Army [Huadong = East China]
  • The Dongbei Field Army, established in 1947 under the command of Lin Biao, was renamed the Fourth Field Army [Dongbei = Northeast]
  • The Huabei Field Army was formed in May 1948. In February 1949, all of the existing units were upgraded and renamed: The three existing bingtuan were renamed and subordinated to the CMC; almost all of the zongdui were renamed as jun and subordinated to the bingtuan; and all of the brigades were renamed as divisions and subordinated to the jun. [Huabei = North China] As the PLA consolidated its territorial gains, units within the field armies were often resubordinated to one of the other field armies. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949, the bingtuan organizational structure was gradually abolished, leaving the jun as the largest unit below a military region. Although the term bingtuan was discontinued, it is still used to depict a particular organizational level within the PLA.

 1948 Military Region Reorganization

As part of the November 1948 reorganization, the CMC also established four levels of military regions (MR): first level MRs (yiji or da junqu); second-level MRs (erji junqu) which are sometimes referred to as military districts (MD/sheng junqu); third-level MRs (sanji junqu); and subdistricts (junfenqu).

 

At that time, there were literally tens of military regions, each of which was associated with a specific field army and its subordinate bingtuan and jun. While some of the existing MRs covered several provinces, some provinces were divided into two or more MRs. For example, the Second Field Army had three subordinate bingtuan and as many as seven military regions.

 

Today, the PLA has four levels, including the military regions, military districts at the jun level, subdistricts at the division level, and the county armed police units (xian wuzhuang budui) at the regiment level. The five first-level MRs and their commanders in 1948 were as follows:

 

  • Zhongyuan MR was under the command of Liu Bocheng. This MR was later renamed the Zhongnan MR and covered Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, and Guangxi [Zhongnan = Central South]
  • Huadong MR was under the command of Chen Yi and covered Shandong, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian
  • Dongbei MR was under the command of Gao Gang and covered Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning
  • Huabei (North China) MR was under the command of Nie Rongzhen and covered Hebei and Shanxi
  • Xibei


Explore our related content