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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 hordeswho usually proved the most brutal of allall 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 advocatedno doubt for reasons of potential gain, although it may well be a vestige of the earlier, avowed humanistic approachand 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 treatisesespecially 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

Initially, China’s companies were chariot centered, but by the middle Warring States period three component forces had evolvedchariots, 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-reliancethe carrying of essential rations by the soldiers themselveswas 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 battlewith the rule being the more massive the forces, the less flexibility and imagination employedChina 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 aspectthe 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 successfulsuccess of course being seductive in itself, especially when riches and easy gains might be achievedwhile 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!

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Minxin Pei asks, Is China Unstable?
“China... will face rising instability if the regime fails to undertake significant political reform in the next decade.”

Carl Fritz on China in 1945: One Man’s Experience:
“My unit was an air service group, and when the war ended members of the unit were widely scattered all over China.”

Thomas D. Grant in Taiwan Trouble:
“Taiwan had almost all the traits of a separate state, except that it never claimed to be a separate state.”

Joseph J. Borich in US-China Relations: Springtime Ice Beginning to Melt:
“Since mid-June, there have been several signs that bilateral relations may be gradually improving.”

Recent commentary in American Diplomacy:

Walter A. McDougall, in Religion in Diplomatic History: "Americans have been prone to justify their behavior abroad in Protestant Christian terms, however much they may disagree about what constitutes right and wrong." [Summer 1999]

Amb. Ronald Palmer, assessing the South-east Asian case in Globalism vs. Economic Nationalism: "The 1997 financial crisis revealed problems that the surging growth of the go-go years had obscured, problems rooted in inward-looking development strategies designed for yesterday’s world." [Summer 1999]

Elvio Baldinelli on Latin American integration in Exitos y Retrocesos: "La principal explicación del poco éxito de esquemas como ALALC-ALADI y del Grupo Andino se encuentra en ... la fuerte oposición de intereses amparados por altísimas protecciones arancelarias." [Summer 1999]

 Elsewhere in this issue:

Traditional sword manual illustrating fatal mid-section thrust.


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


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

 Elsewhere in this issue:

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