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by Ralph D. Sawyer

Given the recent developments in relations between the United States and China, we at American Diplomacy thought it would be interesting to publish again, especially for those who might have missed it, Ralph Sawyer’s insightful study of a little-considered subject: China’s military tradition. His four-part article first appeared in these “pages” in the Autumn 1999 issue, accompanied by several other commentaries on China.
All are readily accessible in our archives.— Ed.


In this paper I will address, from the perspective of twenty-five years of pondering China’s military history and writings, three questions suggested by Quincy Wright’s monumental work, A Study of War, first published by the University of Chicago Press in two volumes in 1942 (an abridged edition appeared in 1964 and a revision in 1965). The questions suggested relate to the causes, nature, and consequences of warfare.

However, I must begin by observing that the study of military subjects has for centuries been even more politically incorrect in the area of Chinese Studies than Western history, irrespective of the monumental effects that warfare wrought over the millennia. Apart from a new generation of Chinese scholars in the PRC—who have rediscovered it not so much as a field than as a source of national pride—only scattered individuals have studied it sufficiently to comprehend the fundamental issues. In fact, only one monograph—Chinese Ways in Warfare edited by Fairbank and Kierman1 —appeared in the West between the Korean War and the much-delayed publication of Needham’s volume V, part 6, in the Science and Civilization in China Series late in1995 that focuses on technological questions within the purview of some initial orientations.2 Therefore, the comments that follow largely reflect an internal perspective—the thoughts and conceptions of Chinese thinkers and military theorists through the ages—supplemented by my analysis of the tactical writings and impressions of significant historical trends and events.


From any reasonable perspective China’s continuity has been cultural rather than political, its heritage throughout one of incessant conflict as different peoples, states, and popular movements fought to control its populace and resources. These inescapable battlefield experiences eventually spawned a contemplative literature that sought to fathom the chaos of warfare and master the principles of its employment, whether offensive or defensive. Just as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, the three great belief systems of China, the martial culture produced its own body of writings and evolved a systematized, ever-augmented tradition. Professional commanders and political leaders compelled to wrestle with perplexing military decisions studied and contemplated its books, but also—even if reluctantly—so did the intelligentsia because they encompassed tactics and strategic concepts suitable for the civilian realm as well as the battlefield.

Largely defined by the initial conceptions and principles formulated by the legendary Sun-tzu around 500 BC through his reflections on the ever-escalating warfare of the Spring and Autumn period, the extant corpus of some 400 Chinese military writings may be characterized as both cumulative and consistent. Moreover, despite the pronounced tendency of the literati to disparage the military profession, the Seven Military Classics—six Warring States works supplemented with a T’ang dynasty treatise made canonical in the Sung dynasty that thereafter furnished the official foundation for government examinations in military affairs, and thus provided a common ground for tactical and strategic conceptualization—garnered greater respect and were more widely studied than late dynastic writers have implied. Ironically, their impact not only continues undiminished, but has surged phenomenally in China, Japan, Korea, and even much of Southeast Asia. In fact, the various texts not only shaped the views of many Asian political and military leaders over the past century, but are now more widely read and appreciated for tactical knowledge and essential wisdom that can be applied in many contexts than at any time in history, including in the military academies and think-tanks of the PRC. Moreover, Sun-tzu’s Art of War, first translated some two centuries ago, has furnished numerous fundamental concepts and tactical principles for modern war fighting throughout the world, including the United States where recent army doctrine has heavily stressed maneuver warfare. Many contemporary manuals, such as the Marine Corps war fighting series, often read like quotations of the Chinese military writings themselves.

Fully cognizant of the tragic consequences of any conflict, the writings consistently emphasize that war should be avoided whenever possible and consequently stress that victory should be secured with minimal bloodshed, at the lowest possible cost for both combatants. Yet the authors equally condemn any failure to decisively extirpate evil and perversity, to vanquish tyrannical demagogues as heinous and inimical to any professed concern for humanity. However, the highest ideal in any conflict—whether actual or abstract—remains conquering without actually engaging the enemy or inflicting any bloodshed at all. This outcome can be realized by creatively shaping the total circumstances to bring overwhelming strategic power to bear—as in the 1991 Gulf War—and thereby subjugate an awestruck enemy with little or no fighting.

The Civil and Martial Traditions in China

First page from traditional wood block print of Sun-tzu Art of War (China’s most famous milirary manual).

Virtually from the earliest dynasties, and certainly from the Chou, China’s intellectual tradition consciously distinguished wen and wu, respectively the “civil” (or “cultural” ) and the “martial.” Apart from the entrenched, often hypocritical literati serving in the highest levels of bureaucracy, more realistic thinkers esteemed them equally, seeing in them, just as in the dynamically complementary yin and yang, the necessary counterparts for the development and preservation of the state, the means to civilization and a civilized life for the entire populace under the ruler’s benevolent and sagacious leadership. The military thinkers naturally focused upon the martial, perhaps in response to the deteriorating circumstances about them, but rarely over-emphasized it. Confucianism eventually became the recognized embodiment of the wen Tao, the Tao of culture, whereas the various martial arts, including the science of military tactics, organization, and command, were synonymous with wu Tao, the Tao of the martial, also known in Japanese as budo. King Wen, the first king of the Chou dynasty, is traditionally portrayed as the cultural king who fathered Chou civilization and nurtured its power, but it was his successor, King Wu, the martial king, who conquered the perverse and oppressive Shang state and thus established the Chou dynasty. Thereafter, the martial frequently engendered a renewal of the civil, while the civil, becoming extreme, fostered a return of the martial.

The Tao (or Way) of the martial delimited its own inner realm and made equal, if not more rigorous, demands upon its students because they had to perfect themselves not only in the theories of their art, but also in physical training and combat skills. Even the early Confucians adopted a realistic attitude while loudly espousing the new virtues of righteousness and benevolence. Confucius himself, generally considered the first private teacher, viewed the civil and martial as equally essential to the state, and would have all men practice the six arts—propriety, music, composition, mathematics, and the two essential skills of the warrior nobility, archery and charioteering—and stated that when the perfected man was compelled to extirpate evil and restore order, once having donned his armor, his visage would be terrible and his stature awesome. Moreover, he repeatedly emphasized the courage and demeanor of the perfected man, the highest ideal of Confucianism, in selflessly pursuing the true path, sustaining others, and disciplining himself to the Good. However, as with many initial visions, his original “warrior spirit” was enervated and obscured by subsequent interpreters, including Mencius.

Despite incessant barbarian incursions and major military threats throughout their history, except during the ill-fated expansionistic policies of the Former Han, the Sui, and even the Ming—all of whom sought to impose Chinese suzerainty on external regions, including Korea—or under dynamic young rulers such as T’ang T’ai-tsung during a dynasty’s founding reign, Imperial China—especially the Sung—sometimes became disinclined to pursue military solutions to external aggression. Ethnocentric rulers fell under the sway of ministers who preferred to believe in the myth of cultural attraction largely fostered by Mencius whereby their vastly superior Chinese civilization, founded upon virtue and reinforced by opulent material achievements, would simply overwhelm the hostile tendencies of the uncultured. Frequent gifts of the embellishments of civilized life, coupled with music and women, would distract and enervate even the most warlike peoples. If they were unable either to overawe them into submission or bribe them into compliance, other mounted nomadic tribes could be employed against the troublemakers, following the time honored-tradition of “using barbarian against barbarian.”

This climate of disdain derived mainly from Mencius, a prolific but unworldly figure who flourished in the middle of the Warring States period more than a century after Confucius. By default he became the chief interpreter and expositor of the Confucian viewpoint when Confucianism ascended to the status of the “orthodox state philosophy” two centuries later during the Han, with his writings becoming increasingly influential after the T’ang. His disproportionate importance in virtually defining the views of generations of literati as they struggled to learn classical Chinese through brute memorization of his text demands that we spend a few minutes examining his viewpoints on war. Simply put, Mencius vociferously opposed warfare, and therefore became much quoted whenever anyone desired to disparage professional warriors or oppose military activities.

Mencius’ basic premise was that human nature tends to goodness, while evil is a development brought about by external stimuli. Although he believed that perversity and surpassing brutality must be actively purged in the interests of humanity, and therefore sanctioned punitive expeditions undertaken by righteous authorities, in general he condemned combat and its practitioners. For example, he said: “Some men claim to be skillful at deploying troops, to excel at conducting battles. They are great criminals.”3 Moreover, in a famous passage where he claimed that Confucius himself would reject those “fervent to fight,” he concluded:

People engaging in combat over territory, slaughtering each other until they fill the fields, or fighting over a city until the city itself is filled with the dead, this is what is meant by leading the earth to devour human flesh. Death is an inadequate punishment for such crimes. Thus those who excel in warfare should suffer the most extreme punishment; those who entangle states in combative alliances the next greatest.4

Mencius zealously embraced the idealistic view that by practicing benevolence and righteousness—the Tao or Way of Virtuous government—even with only a minuscule territory any ruler not only could, but certainly and invariably would ascend to political dominance over the realm. Summarily phrased, the benevolent have no enemies5—a dictum frequently cited by later pacifists—although it should be remembered that one mark of benevolence is the continued nurturing of the people’s welfare, even at the expense of the ruler’s interests, thereby gaining their allegiance and willing support.6

Mencius’ view of history also exerted a strong influence upon later conceptualizing. He blatantly denied that the records of antiquity, supposedly edited by Confucius himself, contained any examples of “righteous” wars.7 A pivotal historical battle illustrates his distorted interpretation of major conflicts:

The benevolent man has no enemy under Heaven. When the most benevolent—King Wu of the Chou—was engaged against him who was the most the opposite—King Chou of the Shang—how could the blood have flowed till it floated mortar pestles?8

This is a truly remarkable interpretation of a battle commonly depicted as having been brief but intense, many of the Shang’s soldiers quickly abandoning the field after the initial onslaught, but others fighting valiantly and dying in great numbers. Moreover, because the Chou’s forces were vastly overmatched—perhaps some thirty thousand arrayed against 170,000 for the allied Shang armies—and had traveled from the far west in the dead of winter, it is unlikely the Shang forces would have easily collapsed.9

The Myth of Chinese Pacifism

While numerous general works—and even monographs in the field of Chinese studies devoted to other subjects—have frequently insisted that China’s viewpoint on warfare was essentially pacifist, the paradigm expression is probably Needham’s recent volume. Insofar as it may define the frame of reference for non-specialists for a considerable time, it merits a few brief, reluctantly critical, words. Essentially his lengthy introduction to Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges continues the tradition of Fairbank & Kierman, for while they all note that China has the most extensive battle records of any nation, they stress its longstanding reputation for pacifism; the absence of great heroes to emulate, such as Alexander; and the submission of the military to the civil for the past two thousand or more years. However, while perhaps characterizing certain periods in the last millennium— especially the Sung and much of the Ch’ing—in my opinion it hardly applies from the founding of the Chou through the T’ang when the civil and martial coexisted in an essentially complimentary partnership, but the military frequently predominated, particularly in the Warring States and Wei-Chin periods. Moreover, Needham’s assertion that Chinese strategic practices were more defensively oriented, attuned to victory without fighting and to implementing non-combat options because they fought “for something” rather than simply against their enemies10 is rather puzzling in the face of actual historical battles where massive armies clashed head-on in lengthy struggles of attrition.

Furthermore, the idea that China only had to contend with internal military problems after the rise of the Ch’in runs counter to all available records and evidence. While internal woes were numerous—including religiously inspired movements, popularly supported insurrections, and marauding campaigns mounted by dissident generals—apart from the ongoing steppe-sedentary conflict that began in the spring and autumn and persisted through the Ch’ing conquest, the Han fought several external enemies; the Three Kingdoms and subsequent Five Dynasties period saw the north and south bifurcated, with the northern dynasties largely being founded by barbarian or external conquerors, often in league with internal factions; the Sui and T’ang both sought to subdue Korea, sending forth expeditions of a million men on several occasions; the early Ming mounted five significant campaigns; and there were frequent efforts directed toward the southwest and southeast to subdue indigenous peoples and annex territory.

It would appear that Needham’s view, and frequently the ruminations of non-sinologists, stem from focusing on the extant theoretical treatises—in particular, the Art of War—without pondering the question as to what degree they were implemented in actual combat situations. A cursory examination of the Sung dynasty text known as the 100 Unorthodox Strategies—which reprises more than ninety-five battles to illustrate the selective application of various principles, including temporizing, to forcefully and completely vanquish the enemy—immediately dispels such notions. Furthermore, Chinese history is strewn with the political corpses of generals recalled because they temporized rather than fought, because they adopted defensive strategies that proved intolerable to the ruler or his chief ministers. Without question, during the Warring States period rulers dispatched armies of several hundred thousand for solely one purpose—overwhelming conquest by force of arms—resulting, for example, in at least a 100,000 deaths at Ma-ling; 240,000 at I-Chüeh; and 450,000 at Ch’ang-p’ing in 260 BC. (Even Herbert Franke, in Fairbank’s volume, previously pointed out that the Chinese generally found it useless to take prisoners in various periods, giving the lie to Needham’s acceptance of the abstract tactical principle not to press a foe nor exterminate him.)

Traditional depiction of the famous general Kuan Yü, later apotheosized as the God of War

I believe the assertion that neither deeds nor heroic individuals were glorified in any sort of epic Chinese literature also needs to be reconsidered. Several famous novels, such as The Three Kingdoms and Travels to the West, portray the focal figures in action, sweeping large across the pages of history, indulging in every sort of combat, virtually always emerging victorious. The great histories, beginning with the Shih Chi, all contain chapters devoted to outstanding deeds and dramatic figures, including heroes like Hsiang Yü, Liu Pang, the T’ai Kung, Chu-ko Liang, and Kuan Yü in the earliest periods. Their lives and deeds not only became the basis of spoken stories, but also operas, dramas, and poetry across the many centuries that followed, and the inspiration for peasant rebellions, such as the Boxers at the turn of the century. Furthermore Kuan Yü, the powerful general and irascible commander just mentioned, was eventually apotheosized as the god of war and, as Needham himself notes, eventually became the most popular local deity. (Temple scenes and carved reliefs on lintels also depict great battles, especially Kuan Ti’s—whether real or imaginary—with men and demons everywhere.) During the T’ang dynasty the T’ai Kung was also honored with an official state temple, apotheosizing him as the Martial Patron, much as the Duke of Chou was revered as the Civil Patron. However, his status was eventually denigrated through the machination of the Sung literati who condemned him as an unworthy figure.

At the same time there was a vibrant tradition of self-cultivation in the martial arts that developed from the Han onward, frequently being amalgamated with other intellectual and emotional edifices, such as Taoism and Buddhism, and often integrated into peasant revolutionary movements, being assiduously practiced as part of a prescribed self-discipline. Moreover, bravos and stalwarts often swaggered across the historical stage, being much admired by the people at large, although officially condemned as sources of discordant values and unruly examples of personal courage that frequently resulted in brigandage at the expense of state order and security. As James Liu remarkably documented in The Chinese Knight-errant nearly three decades ago,11 they—and the assassins so dramatically portrayed by Ssu-ma Ch’ien in the Shih Chi—righteously disdained social convention and the lure of office—and thus remained images much to be admired, if not emulated, throughout most of Chinese history until being suppressed in the late Ming and Ch’ing. (This tradition, long romanticized in popular literature, has in recent decades been graphically exploited by the innumerable martial arts films produced in China, Taiwan, and Japan that portray both heroes and villains vigorously, even painfully, pursuing the highest combat skills as an end in itself, as well as to extirpate brutal oppressors on behalf of the weak and downtrodden just as they did two thousand years ago.)

If we ponder China’s martial heritage, especially noting the dominance of military values in the Warring States and Wei-Chin periods—eras when individuals maintained personal forces of retainers, great families carved up states, private armies were much in evidence, strength was esteemed, and armies proliferated, prompting men to seek escape in the mountains, religion, poetry, and wine—the sudden de-emphasis of the martial from the Sung on is truly astounding and not explainable by simply attributing it to the effects of a self-serving, insecure, often quaking civil bureaucracy groveling before effete, pleasure besotted rulers. While we cannot explore this topic in the present paper, it might be observed that this general impression of China as a pacifist (or weak) state of course derives from the writings and attitudes of these later literati, the men who controlled power and to whom the Westerners were mainly exposed. These same literati, nominally Confucian—if hypocritically so—of course produced the official histories and offered most of the memorials preserved in them, filtering all events through their own interpretative parameters.12 (We might well imagine the consternation experienced by any true believers in the theory of the benevolent being unopposed who served in the Ch’ing—an alien, barbarian dynasty—as they wrestled with the fact that a Han emperor had been subjugated by uncultured nomadic peoples. (Being an alien dynasty, the Ch’ing of course actively repressed indigenous Chinese martial values as dangerous and seditious.) Moreover, from the Sung on, due to the effects of the examination system in dictating a family’s wealth and prospects, the civil came to dominate aspirations for office, resulting in family schools that stressed classical learning—the foundation of generalists rather than generals— and correspondingly disparaged as rough and uncouth any manifestations of strength and valor. The common people were not so inclined, but the dichotomization of culture along class lines results in records of pacifism rather than stirring visions of courage.

My discussion so far has not indicated what I mean by warfare. Although I perused numerous books in contemplating the subject,13 I have no precise definition, but simply take it as subsuming a wide range of conflicts, from skirmishes between companies to massive encounters. As a working definition I consider warfare to be any armed clash, but especially sustained conflict, generally involving significant numbers of troops, and normally requiring the mobilization of armed forces for ostensibly political, as well as simply military purposes. Thus phrased, it equally subsumes a single firefight, a sequence of battles, the internecine strife of the Warring States, the interminable steppe sedentary conflict, millenarian revolts, and prolonged civil uprisings. Obviously I’m not concerned with a legal definition, especially as the Chinese certainly weren’t, although they did have formal, if internal, oath-taking ceremonies. However, the initiation of campaigns, often consisting of a single battle to achieve an immediate military or political objective, was rarely marked by declarations of war before actually attacking the enemy since it was considered extremely stupid to sacrifice the advantage of surprise.14 Baldly put, although “punitive expeditions” might announce the cause and measures to be taken, and so-called “righteous wars” might profit from similar declarations, the military ideal was essentially “strike first, justify afterward”—a lesson much emulated by students of Chinese methods.15

The height of deception – horse and rider are wooden or papier maché dummies with explosive cores, designed to propel 100 or more small arrows in all directions. (Used to disrupt an enemy formation.)

From antiquity through the Ch’ing the frequency of warfare in China was overwhelming—at least one armed clash large enough to be recorded every eighteen months; a major battle every few years; and a large-scale campaign or prolonged war every decade. Just discussing the major trends and recording the most important battles recently required nineteen volumes of Chinese text,16 one ten-page account of which became a sixty-page reconstruction and analysis in our translation of the Art of War.

Warfare is the Greatest Affair

All the military writers of course contemplated warfare’s impact and importance, but remarkably few others except for the Legalists, who often viewed conquest as a means to enlarge and profit the state, and the many arrayed in opposition who disparagingly condemned its practice. Sun-tzu’s incredibly famous Art of War opens with the following statement whose position emphasizes its fundamental importance: “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Tao to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” The early Ssu-ma Fa equally emphasized that warfare cannot be neglected: “Even though calm may prevail under Heaven, those who forget warfare will certainly be endangered.”

Accordingly Sun-tzu stated:

If it is not advantageous, do not move. If objectives cannot be attained, do not employ the army. Unless endangered do not engage in warfare. The ruler cannot mobilize the army out of personal anger. The general cannot engage in battle because of personal frustration. When it is advantageous, move; when not advantageous, stop. Anger can revert to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy, but a vanquished state cannot be revived, the dead cannot be brought back to life.17


Even a cursory examination of the apparent “causes” of China’s innumerable battles and frequent wars yields a very extensive list, including revenge, shame, lack of recognition, greed, hatred, religious visions, oppression, inequities, political entanglements, anger,18 fear, temptation, jealousy, and weakness. In addition, the ongoing conflicts arising between a sedentary, agrarian-based China and its nomadic steppe neighbors were engendered by nomadic needs for grain and some industrial products as much as a reputed desire to exploit easily obtainable profits. Naturally class or interest distinctions might be perceived, particularly in the pursuit of power, with heroes such as Liu Pang and Hsiang Yü fighting on rather than divide the empire; conniving subordinates instigating conflicts when slighted or inadequately rewarded; and the common people being swept along, often entangled in regionalized hatreds, sustaining the effort to overthrow perverse, oppressive regimes, or willingly participating in millenarian quests to realize religious visions. While potential hegemons and kings also proclaimed righteous, benevolent motives in seeking to eliminate evil and unite the people under the banner of humanity—and many were no doubt so motivated—in general such quests were similarly expressions of a desire for absolute, uncontested power. However, simply to survive in the Warring States period, rulers were often compelled to wrest control over ever-larger areas through a series of “preemptive conquests” and thereby secure their borders against rapidly escalating threats.

As frequently conceptualized by the earliest military writers, warfare originated out of moral impulses, the justification for killing other men having been to protect lives and establish order. For example, the Ssu-ma Fa asserts that:

In antiquity, making benevolence the foundation and governing with righteousness constituted uprightness. However, when uprightness failed to attain the desired objectives, they resorted to authority. Authority comes from warfare, not from harmony among men.

For this reason—if one must kill people to give peace to the people, then killing is permissible. If one must attack a state out of love for their people, then attacking it is permissible. If one must stop war with war, although it is war it is permissible. Within, the government gains the love of the people, the means by which it can be preserved. Outside, it acquires awesomeness, the means by which it can wage war.

The Kuan-tzu surveyed ancient efforts to “profit the realm” and bring order to the people—the central vision—by repressing “barbarian” forces and seeking honor for the central states,19 concluding “their objectives were not territorial aggrandizement, but world order.” 20 Later centuries thus conceptualized historical military activities in terms of Virtue having brought order to the world; therefore they asserted, in accord with Mencius, that the emperor merely needs to cultivate his virtue and righteousness, and all others will submit. Although many truly believed in this vision, particularly when bolstered with opulent material prods to stimulate decadence among one’s enemies (and perhaps covert actions to ensure objectives), it would eventually prove largely to be a luxurious delusion.

A Ssu-ma Fa chapter on the formal charges to be issued before conducting a punitive expedition against miscreants apparently preserves a list of nine major offenses—all violations of their ideals of order and morality—that would elicit a sanctioned response.21 However, as the Confucians, Taoists, and ordinary men all agreed, civilization had been characterized by moral deterioration ever since the golden age of antiquity; therefore, the tendency was an increasing reliance on force of arms, less the implementation of Virtue.22

Not only were perversity and brutality justifications for embarking on punitive military campaigns, but they were also viewed as moral imperatives:

When action should be taken one who hesitates and is quiet, without advancing, seriously injures all living beings. Weapons are inauspicious instruments, and the Tao of Heaven abhors them. However when their employment is unavoidable it accords with the Tao of Heaven.23

Beyond this vision of warfare as a corrective arising out of benevolent and righteous impulses was the frightening deduction that conflict is innate to both men and animals. Sun Pin’s view on the origins of weapons and warfare may be clearly seen in this fragmented passage:

Now being endowed with teeth and mounting horns, having claws in front and spurs in back, coming together when happy, fighting when angry, this is the Tao of Heaven, it cannot be stopped. Thus those who lack Heavenly weapons provide them themselves. This was an affair of extraordinary men.

Warfare was also thought to be inherent to civilization due to the existence and effect of human desires, including the irrepressible desire for power. A text from the early Han dynasty known as the Huai-nan Tzu preserves an eclectic, though subsequently popular, view:

Now whatever beast has blood and ch’i, has teeth and bears horns, has claws in front and spurs in back—those with horns butt, those with teeth bite, those with poison sting, and those with hooves kick. When happy they play with each other; when angry they harm each other. This then is Heavenly nature.

Men have a desire for food and clothes, but things are insufficient to supply them. Thus they group together in diverse places. When the division of things is not equitable, they fervently seek them and then conflict arises. When there is conflict the strong will coerce the weak, while the courageous will encroach upon the fearful. Since men do not have the strength of sinews and bone, the sharpness of claws and teeth, they cut leather to make armor, and smelt iron to make blades.

In antiquity men who were greedy, obtuse, and avaricious destroyed and pillaged all under Heaven. The myriad people were disturbed and moved, none could be at peace in his place. Sages suddenly arose to punish the strong and brutal and pacify a chaotic age. They eliminated danger and got rid of the corrupt, turning the muddy into the clear, danger into peace.

While this was a prevalent interpretation, China was actually characterized by a multiplicity of views. Although Confucius himself never discussed human nature beyond noting that men are alike at birth but differ in practice, a passage from the Hsün-tzu, explicates the “realist” or conservative Confucian position on the innate nature and source of conflict:

Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity. The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear. He is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear.

Man is born with the desires of the eyes and ears, and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If he indulges these, they will lead him into licentiousness and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct forms will be lost.

Hence, any man who follow his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.24

War thus being inescapable, Hsün-tzu therefore subscribed to the view of the Ssu-ma Fa that righteous activity inevitably becomes necessary to eliminate human suffering and constitutes one of the unavoidable burdens of humanity and righteousness:

The benevolent man does indeed love others, and because he loves others, he hates to see men do them harm. The righteousness man acts in accordance with what is right, and for that reason he hates to see men do wrong. He takes up arms in order to put an end to violence and do away with harm, not in order to contend with others for spoil.25

The Taoists, mentioned previously, observed that desire makes men go mad, and therefore associated it with warfare, concluding that “there is no crime greater than having too many desires.”26 It hardly need be mentioned that a fundamental Buddhist tenet asserts that suffering stems from the root cause of desire.27 However, the Taoists advanced a second belief critical to understanding the causes of warfare with their analysis of conceptualization and valuing, of defining boundaries and possessing things and places and thereafter being compelled to defend them.28

Another view that was widely discussed and remarkably influential in the Warring States period—but subsequently vanished from the historical stage— was that of the militant pacifist Mo-tzu. Succinctly put, Mo-tzu believed that human suffering arose not from desires or evil behavior per se, but from the creation of distinctions and partiality. The solution he advanced, known as “universal love” although much reviled by the Confucians as inimical to human relations and proper order, was less naive than might be apparent. While he lacked a method to induce universal love, he argued persuasively for following the behavioral dictates consequent to its existence, if only out of enlightened self-interest. In his most infamous chapter Mo Tzu said:

It is the business of the benevolent man to try to promote what is beneficial to the world and to eliminate what is harmful. Now at the present time, what brings the greatest harm to the world ? Great states attacking small ones, great families overthrowing small ones, the strong oppressing the weak, the many harrying the few, the cunning deceiving the stupid, the eminent lording it over the humble—these are harmful to the world. So too are rulers who are not generous, ministers who are not loyal, fathers who are without kindness, and sons who are unfilial, as well as those mean men who, with weapons, knives, poison, fire, and water, seek to injure and undo each other.

When we inquire into the cause of these various harms, what do we find has produced them? Do they come about from loving others and trying to benefit them? Surely not ! They come rather from hating others and trying to injure them. And when we set out to classify and describe those men who hate and injure others, shall we say that their actions are motivated by universality or partiality? Surely we must answer, by partiality, and it is this partiality in their dealings with one another that gives rise to all the great harms in the world. Therefore we know that partiality is wrong.29

Mo-tzu also attempted to shatter the conceptual blindness that prevented men from recognizing the evilness of warfare:

If someone kills one man, he is condemned as unrighteous and must pay for his crime with his own life. According to this reasoning, if someone kills ten men, then he is ten times as unrighteous and should pay for his crime with ten lives, or if he kills a hundred men he is a hundred times as unrighteous and should pay for his crime with a hundred lives. Now all the gentlemen in the world know enough to condemn such crimes and brand them as unrighteous. And yet when it comes to the even greater unrighteousness of offensive warfare against other states, they do not know enough to condemn it. On the contrary, they praise it and call it righteous. Truly they do not know what unrighteousness is.30

Nature of Warfare in China

While my expertise is greatest in the area of tactics and actual military history, these topics have been thoroughly discussed in our earlier books and will be extensively explored in our two immediately forthcoming works. Therefore, in order to discuss the wider questions initiated above, I have chosen to de-emphasize this aspect of our inquiry, but would still like to provide some minimal orientations.

Until the advent of hot weapons and their gradual, often blundering adoption by the world’s armies, China’s military science was, as in many other areas, whether for better or worse, virtually light years ahead of western practices. When the Greeks were struggling to escape the confining nature of the phalanx and its single tactic of the mass collision, China had already perfected numerous formations and methods of deployment, as well as an underlying hierarchical organization based upon the squad of five that, when coupled with precise training methods, allowed articulation, segmentation, and the execution of both orthodox and unorthodox tactics. Only centuries of Confucian domination as the orthodox state philosophy perhaps prevented the development and acceptance of the advanced firepower that characterized the west subsequent to the longbow. However, China’s comparative stagnation or decline in the military sphere after astounding technical developments, including the discovery and application of gunpowder, during the last thousand years remains a question much debated, certainly one deeply related to its approach to science and technology in general and the prevailing doctrine of cultural superiority.

As already mentioned, China’s history was one of almost unremitting conflict, waged by every sort of force imaginable ranging from village peasant squads suddenly confronting armed raiders to massive campaign armies and highly organized reserves of hundreds of thousands. In antiquity, combat was largely confined to conflicts between a few thousand noble warriors, but commencing with the Spring and Autumn period, professional officers, universal conscription, barbarian mercenaries, provincial militia, personal retainers, private family and estate armies, steppe peoples, and eventually vast religiously motivated hordes—who usually proved the most brutal of all—all fought vigorously in the service of governments, revolutionaries, religious visions, and inspired zealots.


War being the greatest affair of state, the Chinese military thinkers emphasized a thoroughly analytic approach to mounting campaigns and initiating battles, one that stressed calculation, intelligence gathering, training, planning, and preparation.31 Sun-tzu’s Art of War canonically defined the approach, particularly in the first chapter entitled “Initial Estimations,” where another critical concept is found— gaining victory at the least cost possible. Minimizing the destruction to the enemy is equally advocated—no doubt for reasons of potential gain, although it may well be a vestige of the earlier, avowed humanistic approach—and coercing the enemy to submit without even fighting by bringing overwhelming strategic power to bear, as in the Gulf War, was regarded as the apex of strategic skill. The following lengthy passage, which delineates the fundamentals, bears citing:

In general, the method for employing the military is this: Preserving the enemys state capital is best, destroying their state capital second-best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second-best. Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions second-best. Preserving their companies is best, destroying their companies second-best. Preserving their squads is best, destroying their squads second-best.

For this reason attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.

Thus the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemys plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities.

Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures other people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys others people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of preservation. Thus his weapons will not become dull, and the gains can be preserved. This is the strategy for planning offensives.

Naturally this was an ideal rarely realized in practice, despite Needham’s over-emphasis on its importance, but those interested in observing the current situation in Asia may see a similarly framed attempt to retake Taiwan “while preserving it intact.”


In the area of organization, theory and practice essentially cohered. Chinese forces were strictly hierarchical, generally based on the squad and organized in multiples of five up through the level of armies, producing a fundamental infantry strength of 12,500 men per army. Discipline was extremely strict, with the troops bound by mutual responsibility and intimidated by severe corporeal penalties for disobedience or any failure in battlefield performance. Training being thorough and extensive, by the Warring States even massive campaign forces were capable of segmentation, small unit action, and various deployments on command, including the famous “eight formations” much discussed in the tactical treatises—especially the circle, square, horizontal, and awl formations. The art of command and control was highly developed, buttressed by a detailed psychology of motivation and spirit, known as manipulating ch’i, while an extensive, functionally defined general staff, with well articulated responsibilities, early appeared.32


“Fire-oxen” used to break out of an encirclement at night during the Warring States (firebrands set alight on the tails).

Initially, China’s companies were chariot centered, but by the middle Warring States period three component forces had evolved—chariots, rapidly being phased out; cavalry, just developing but already displacing the chariots for certain mission requirements; and massive infantry units. All three generally being present in the era’s campaign armies, the component forces could be flexibly selected to execute situationally appropriate, terrain-based tactics. Weapons were numerous in type, but ran the full gamut of long and short, missile and shock, also being mixed in deployment. Bows, and later crossbows, were especially emphasized for their long-range capabilities and withering firepower.Logistics, which always lagged behind the army’s warfighting potential, also developed, although self-reliance—the carrying of essential rations by the soldiers themselves—was emphasized, while foraging supplemented the reserve supplies brought up by ox-drawn wagons. The forces were expected to move rapidly beyond the constraints of accompanying baggage trains when necessary, covering thirty miles a day for sustained periods. Specialized equipment for river crossings, mounting sieges, and other purposes were increasingly included as urban assaults became more important, and are extensively discussed in Needham’s recent volume.33

Pragmatic Tactics

While there is, as already suggested, a significant discrepancy between the tactics advocated in the theoretical treatises and the more limited number actually realized in battle—with the rule being the more massive the forces, the less flexibility and imagination employed—China generally stressed what might be termed the theory of maneuver warfare, the key elements of which are indirection; manipulating the enemy into disadvantageous circumstances; surprise; the recognition and exploitation of topography, also known as configurations of terrain; and the unorthodox. Every resource should be employed to create and exploit opportunities, particularly by deceiving and befuddling the enemy so that an attack may be mounted when unexpected and where undefended. An extensive science of tactical principles thus evolved, largely but not exclusively upon Sun-tzu’s and Wu Ch’i’s initial formulations and defining thrusts, which may be seen in the hundred principles explicated and illustrated by historical battles in a remarkable text entitled the Hundred Unorthodox Strategies. (This work, available in our translation in 1996, has enjoyed enormous popularity in the past decade in China.) Methods for coping with various levels of relative strength and power were also developed, providing alternatives to simply launching massive attacks or hopelessly assaulting a vastly superior foe. Important concepts, such as the dominant strategic configuration of power, the tactical imbalance in power, and the inter-relatedness of the orthodox and unorthodox, early defined by Sun-tzu and subsequently elaborated to underpin their approach and conceptualization, were all striking developments, whether taken as military science or simply philosophical concepts.

In sum, the Chinese approach to battle tended to avoid head-butting and wasteful direct attacks in favor of manipulating and destabilizing the enemy to create temporary, exploitable local advantages. (To take a single example analyzed in the introduction to our translation of Sun-tzu’s Art of War , the Battle of Li-che River: The armies of Wu and Yüeh deployed along opposite banks of the Li-che River in preparation for battle on the following day. However, Yüeh opted to undertake a rarely attempted night assault, one made more difficult by the need to ford the river and ascend an unfamiliar bank. They initially dispatched two regiments from each flank to cross as noisily as possible, immediately alerting Wu’s perimeter guards to their approach and stimulating a massive, though confused, response as Wu’s troops rushed to defend the corresponding flanking positions. Yüeh then launched a focal attack against the rapidly emptying center by silently crossing four regiments over to suddenly spring a surprise attack. This naturally terrified Wu’s commander into recalling the units already rushing to the perimeter, forcing them to literally turn in their tracks and abandon the outer defenses against what they now perceived might only be a ruse. At this point the flanking forces struck fervently, with a great clamor, and simply rolled up Wu’s flanks, crushing the befuddled troops into the middle where they were too disorganized and compacted to fight effectively. Naturally these tactics, designed to destabilize the enemy, compel them into motion, create gaps, exploit voids, and use surprise, resulted in a great victory.)


Turning, at least briefly, to the last aspect—the consequences of warfare, the most immediate and obvious being death, destruction, and ruin, widely recognized but often too terrible to either document or contemplate. The great battles of the Warring States period, which saw as many as 450,000 men from one side being slaughtered following a defeat, drastically reduced the adult male population at single strokes. Moreover, lengthy campaigns guaranteed immense and widespread suffering among the troops from illness and accidents, while wounds incurred on the battlefield were often debilitating if not fatal despite the most advanced medical treatments available anywhere in the world. During the conflicts that raged whenever dynasties collapsed, such as the Ch’in and Han, untold millions perished and populations dropped drastically, both from combat and the economic and agricultural desolation that followed, particularly when vital earth and water works were destroyed. The several centuries following the collapse of the Han saw various nomadic peoples drawn into China’s conflict to frequently establish alien dynasties in the north, splitting the country in half, a phenomena that recurred after the T’ang. Millenarian revolts or peasant movements, depending upon one’s perspective, such as the Red Eyebrows, the Yellow Turbans, the “Five Pecks of Rice,” the Red Turbans, the White Lotus, and the Eight Trigrams all caused immeasurable destruction and loss of life, but were still readily embraced by the common people. That anyone, that Chinese civilization survived, is remarkable.

Early in this heritage of sorrow, perhaps in the fifth century BC, the Ssu-ma Fa detailed a number of prohibitions that righteous campaign armies should observe. While they no doubt reflect self-interest, they were clearly designed to minimize the brutality and destruction:

When you enter the offender’s territory do not do violence to his gods; do not hunt his wild animals; do not destroy earthworks; do not set fire to buildings; do not cut down forests; do not take the six domesticated animals, grains, or implements.

When you see their elderly or very young return them without harming them. Even if you encounter adults, unless they engage you in combat, do not treat them as enemies. If an enemy has been wounded, provide medical attention and return him.

However, shortly thereafter Mo-tzu was compelled to decry the current state of affairs thusly:

The rulers and feudal lords of today are not like this. They all set about to examine the relative merits of their soldiers, who are their teeth and claws, arrange their boat and chariot forces, and then, clad in strong armor and bearing sharp weapons, they set off to attack some innocent state. As soon as they enter the borders of the state, they begin cutting down the grain crops, felling trees, razing walls and fortifications, filling up moats and ponds, slaughtering the sacrificial animals, firing the ancestral temples of the state, massacring its subjects, trampling down its aged and weak, and carrying off its vessels and treasures. The soldiers are urged forward into battle by being told, To die in the cause of duty is the highest honor, to kill a large number of the enemy is the next highest, and to be wounded is next. But as for breaking ranks and fleeing in defeat— the penalty for that is death without hope of pardon! So the soldiers are filled with fear.34

Apart from combat related losses, undertaking extensive military campaigns was thought, at least by the military theorists, to economically ravage one’s own state. In a passage that could equally well have been a comment on the Vietnam debacle or the horrors of World War I, Sun-tzu described the enervating effects of prolonged warfare:35

When employing a campaign army of a hundred thousand in battle, a victory that is long in coming will blunt their weapons and dampen their ardor. If you attack cities, their strength will be exhausted. If you expose the army to a prolonged campaign, the state’s resources will be inadequate.

When the weapons have grown dull and spirits depressed, when our strength has been expended and resources consumed, then the feudal lords will take advantage of our exhaustion to arise. Even though you have wise generals, they will not be able to achieve a good result.

Thus in military campaigns I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country has ever profited from protracted warfare.

Hsün-tzu, the conservative Confucian philosopher previously encountered, analyzed the tragedy of combat from both perspectives, one’s own and the enemy’s people, discerning certain troublesome factors, concluding the larger and more sustained the battle effort, the more enmity and determination are fostered among the enemy, while one’s own populace grows weary, disaffected, and hateful.36 Even Lao-tzu, whose work actually embraces a number of interesting military concepts within a quietest perspective, decried the effects of warfare and advocated swiftness,37 and in a much quoted chapter, unequivocally asserted warfare is evil and inauspicious:

It is because arms are instruments of ill omen and there are Things that detest them that one who has the way does not abide by their use. When one is compelled to use them, it is best to do so without relish. There is no glory in victory; and to glorify it despite this is to exult in the killing of men. One who exults in the killing of men will never have his way in the empire. When great numbers of people are killed, one should weep over them with sorrow. When victorious in war, one should observe the rites of mourning.38

Military campaigns, even when successful, result in severe economic impact, including rampant inflation, the exhaustion of resources, the imposition of heavy burdens on the remaining populace (just as upon American farmers in World War II, which resulted in using German POWs as agricultural labor), and the destruction of products and materials, thereby both stimulating and lessening productivity. Sun-tzu himself estimated that a 100,000-man campaign army would consume seventy percent of the people’s wealth, and sixty percent of the ruler’s.39

Embarking on warfare is also perilous because it may render the state vulnerable to external attack should it be defeated.40 Apart from this likelihood of extinction, it was early observed that numerous battles will equally exhaust a state, similarly making it easy prey for its enemies. Wu Ch’i and Sun Pin both admonished against engaging in multiple battles, even if generally successful—success of course being seductive in itself, especially when riches and easy gains might be achieved—while Kuan Chung asserted that:

Numerous battles will exhaust the warriors, many victories will make a ruler arrogant. An arrogant ruler employing an exhausted populace will endanger the state. The apex of warfare is not to engage in combat; next best is to conquer with but a single battle.41

Apart from the recurrent theme of “apex of warfare is not to engage in combat,” the passage reflects the Ssu-ma Fa’s general principle that warfare must not be over-emphasized: “Even though a state may be vast, those who love warfare will inevitably perish.”

Han Fei-tzu pointed out the social disorder that arises from warfare unless the state has assimilated the proper military values:

The people, in planning for their welfare, are most concerned in finding security and profit and avoiding danger and poverty. But if they must go off to fight foreign wars for the state, they face death at the hands of the enemy should they advance and death from official punishment should they retreathence they are in danger. If they must abandon their domestic affairs and go off to endure the sweat and hardship of battle, their families will grow poor and the ruler is likely never to reward them for their serviceshence they face poverty. If such poverty and danger lie before them, how can you expect the people not to try to escape them?42

Against the Legalist position and the tendency of rulers to be enthralled with easily wrested gains of people, riches, and territory, military theorists such as Sun Pin stressed that warfare is a necessary measure for self-preservation rather than a means to profit. Thus Sun Pin stated:

Victory in warfare is the means by which to preserve vanquished states and continue severed generations. Not being victorious in warfare is the means by which to diminish territory and endanger the altars of state. For this reason military affairs must be investigated. Yet one who takes pleasure in the military will perish, and one who finds profit in victory will be insulted. The military is not something to take pleasure in, victory not something through which to profit.43

The example of Ch’in’s rapacious rise and meteoric demise might well be viewed as proof of the correctness of Sun Pin’s observation!


Returning to an earlier issue—the artificial dichotomy of the martial and civil in China from the Sung on wrought by the literati through disparaging the martialists—at the end of the Warring States period theWei Liao-tzu summarized the ideal relationship between the two:

The military takes the martial as its trunk, and takes the civil as its seed. It makes the martial its exterior, and the civil the interior. One who can investigate and fathom the two will know victory and defeat. The civil is the means to discern benefit and harm, discriminate security and danger. The martial is the means to contravene a strong enemy, to forcefully attack and defend.

The Ssu-ma Fa clearly delineated the two discontinuous realms of the civil and martial:

In antiquity the form and spirit governing civilian affairs would not be found in the military realm; those appropriate to the military realm would not be found in the civilian sphere. Thus virtue and righteousness did not transgress inappropriate realms.

If the form and spirit appropriate to the military realm enter the civilian sphere, the Virtue of the people will decline. When the form and spirit appropriate to the civilian sphere enter the military realm, then the Virtue of the people will weaken.

In the civilian sphere words are cultivated and speech languid. In court one is respectful and courteous, and cultivates himself to serve others. Unsummoned he does not step forth; unquestioned, he does not speak. It is difficult to advance but easy to withdraw.

In the military realm one speaks directly and stands firm. When deployed in formation one focuses on duty and acts decisively. Those wearing battle armor do not bow; those in war chariots need not observe the forms of propriety; those manning fortifications do not scurry. In times of danger one does not pay attention to seniority. Thus the civilian forms of behavior and military standards are like inside and outside; the civil and martial are like left and right.

Therefore, while both are necessary, subsequent to campaigns and major wars it is imperative to disarm the forces and reintegrate men into the civil value scheme in order to defuse potential threats and recivilize the individual soldiers whose skills and mindset would otherwise incline them to direct action and inappropriate violence. TheThree Strategies, probably composed after the rise of the Ch’in or perhaps just after its destructive fall, advised:

Now once the masses have been brought together they cannot be hastily separated. Once the awesomeness of authority has been granted it cannot be suddenly shifted. Returning the forces and disbanding the armies after the war are critical stages in preservation and loss. Thus weakening the commanding general through appointment to new positions, taking his authority by granting him a state, is referred to as a hegemon’s strategy.

The disjunctive nature of the military and civil spheres of course has dramatic implications for the effective prosecution of warfare. The Chinese military writers early on realized the importance of anger and essentially blind courage in the warrior’s psychology, believing, as Sun-tzu pointed out, that they are necessary if men are to fight fervently and effectively. In fact, an elaborate, distinctive psychology of spirit was developed, characterizing the emotional readiness of men at different stages prior to battle; the means to stimulate and regulate their spirit and determination when entering battle; to manipulate the enemy’s spirit; and to defuse the troops’ anger afterward. This suggests that, on the whole, men were disinclined to join the army or engage in battle unless motivated or otherwise compelled to do so, for reasons already cited by Han Fei-tzu.44

Potential Lessons

Certain lessons apparently derive from the Chinese experience and their reflections upon the nature of warfare—whether they accord with our own views and desires or not—including one early articulated but never learned, that warfare is the greatest affair of state and so can neither be neglected nor over-emphasized. Many of them stem as much from the famous philosophers Kuan-tzu, Hsün-tzu, and the much-despised Han Fei-tzu as the military writers, and are perhaps concordant with recent Western thought in many areas.

Briefly summarized, within the purview of what might be termed grand strategy, virtually all the military theorists believed that for states to survive and conquer their enemies, they must develop a substantial material base, undermine the enemy’s strength, create administrative organizations that can function effectively in both peace and war and impose order on the populace.45 Accordingly, most of them strongly advocated the need for benevolent rulers and emphasized the people’s welfare because a well-ordered, prosperous, and satisfied people might both physically and emotionally support their government. Moreover, as theWei Liao-tzu and Kuan-tzu pointedly discuss, only materially sufficient societies can generate the resources required to train and instruct the people; the capability to stimulate a positive, committed spirit among the populace; raise the supplies essential to military campaigns; and nurture the values that would truly motivate its soldiers. Naturally, benevolent governments immediately become attractive beacons to the dispirited and oppressed and also create some degree of confidence among enemy populaces that should military intercession establish a new regime in their states, they would benefit accordingly.

Reasonable esteem for the military career and martial values, including courage on the battlefield (but not in personal conflicts) must be fostered. If the profession of arms is disparaged and thus eschewed, when the state is called upon to defend itself against barbarian invaders—just as when China was confronted by the Mongols, Manchus, British, and Japanese—it will of course lack motivated men and willing warriors, and easily be conquered. Moreover, a strong, well-trained, committed force must be developed. The state and its commanders must be willing to sustain casualties in any military encounter, as the Wei Liao-tzu observed:

I have heard that in antiquity those who excelled in employing the army could bear to kill half their officers and soldiers. The next could kill thirty percent, and the lowest ten percent. The awesomeness of one who could sacrifice half of his troops affected all within the Four Seas. The strength of one who could sacrifice thirty percent could be applied to the feudal lords. The orders of one who could sacrifice ten percent would be implemented among his officers and troops.46

Mencius, perhaps naively, stressed righteousness and benevolence, but even Mo-tzu noted that benevolence becomes a significant handicap in warfare, as the following passage, which perhaps reverberates with echoes from the Gulf War and earlier Western historical conflicts, indicates:

Let us suppose that a sage, in order to rid the world of harm, raises his troops and sets out to punish an evil and tyrannical state. But, having gained victory, he employs the methods of the Confucians and orders his soldiers, saying: “Do not pursue the fleeing enemy! Protect yourself with your armor but do not shoot your arrows, and if your opponents turn and run, help them push their heavy carts.” Then the evil and disorderly men will get away alive, and the world will not be rid of harm. This is to inflict cruelty upon the parents of the world and do the age a great injury. Nothing could be more unrighteous.47

Strength and strong defense are also required to deter enemy attacks.48 Mo-tzu observed: “Only one thing will deter a large state from attacking a small one, and that is for the small state to have a plentiful supply of provisions, walls and fortifications in good repair, and superiors and subordinates who work in harmony.”49

Finally, in the view of many of the earlier military thinkers and the more humanitarian-oriented philosophers, including Mencius, the mere possession of power is useless. One must have the willingness and resolve to intervene in unrighteous situations, though always being cognizant of the dangers that warfare in any form may pose. While the military should also be under civil control, once the army ventures into the field, the commander must have full autonomy to realize their objectives unhindered, as Sun-tzu’s insisted.50

To conclude, I would like to cite a somewhat lengthy passage from Hsün-tzu that summarizes many of these points and stresses the need for surpassing strength in a troubled world:

If one heads a state of ten thousand war chariots, then his might and authority will naturally command respect, his fame will be widespread, and his enemies will submit. It will be within the power of the ruler himself, not men of other states, to regulate his safety and goodness. It will be within the power of the ruler himself, not other men, to decide whether he will become a king or a dictator, whether he will choose preservation or destruction.

But if his might and authority are not sufficient to intimidate his neighbors and his fame is not the kind to spread throughout the world, then he does not yet have the power to stand alone, so how can he hope to escape difficulties? Threatened by the power of some evil neighbor state, he and the rulers of other states may have to ally themselves with it and be forced to do things they do not wish to do.

He who is in a flourishing condition may stand upon what is right, showing no favoritism to any side but conducting all his affairs as he wishes; he may keep his armies at home and sit back and watch while the evil and violent nations of the world fall upon each other.

When it comes to weapons and military supplies, his war-loving enemies will day by day be smashing and destroying theirs and leaving them strewn over the plains of battle, while he polishes and mends his and stacks them away in his arsenals.51

Unfortunately, in its later centuries China often failed to heed Hsün-tzu’s words, neglected the essentials of government and the martial, disparaged the military, and frequently but ineffectually kept all but the central forces weak to prevent rebellion. Coupled with an expensive policy of appeasing the steppe peoples rather than expending their funds on frontier defenses and military training, China became easy prey for its enemies in the Sung and Ch’ing. For this, Mencius deserves the condemnation of millions who died consequent to the myth of the benevolent having no enemies under the Heaven. 

© Ralph D. Sawyer
Woodcut illustrations courtesy of the author.



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