American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

April 2001

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About the Author
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.

Continue reading Sawyer
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