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Returning to an earlier issuethe artificial dichotomy of the martial and civil in China from the Sung on wrought by the literati through disparaging the martialistsat 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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Illustration of bow technique

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Mr. Sawyer earned degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He has studied and taught in Taiwan and was an instructor at Boston University and the University of Maryland. His most recent book is The Tao of Spycraft: Intelligence Theory and Practice in Traditional China (Westview, 1998).

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