Not Everyone Likes Sunzi

The Great Kangxi.

Source: Wikimedia.

Born Aixin-Jueluo Xuanye and styled Kangxi, his reign was the longest of any emperor. To this day no Chinese scholar has followed in the foot steps of Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and gathered China’s best historians together to rank all of China’s emperors, but if the task ever is completed, we can be assured that the Kangxi Emperor would receive a choice spot on the list. He ruled the Celestial Empire in a day when this title was well deserved.

Xuanye was a man of two natures. Famed for his calligraphy and poetry, the Kangxi Emperor presented himself to the world as a Confucian scholar but rode and shot as good as any true Manchu. He managed to strengthen the Chinese bureaucracy without weakening Manchu power. Under his rule the Qing economy began its ‘efflorescence’ despite a major rebellion in Southern China and near continuous warfare in Taiwan, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Because of Xuanye’s tireless efforts the Qing line was accepted by the Chinese people and it is because of his determination China’s modern borders have their current shape.

The Kangxi emperor was one of the great men of human history. He was also not impressed with Sunzi. 

Said he:

For in war it’s experience of action that matters. The so-called Seven Military Classics are full of nonsense about water and fire, lucky omens and advice on the weather, all at random and contradicting each other. I told my officials once that if you followed these books, you’d never win a battle. Li Guangdi said that in that case, at least, you should study classical texts like the Zuo Zhuan, but I told him no, that too is highflown but empty. All one needs is an inflexible will and careful planning.” [1]

To attain victory all one needs is an inflexible will. “Inflexible will” is one way to describe the Kangxi’s schedule:

Admittedly there has to be a limit to the work that any one person can do, and when the Ping-yang prefect, Chin, boasted that he could handle seven or eight hundred items of business in one day, I demoted him, saying: “I’ve been ruling for forty years, and only during the Wu Sangui rebellion did I handle five hundred items of business in one day. Nor did I myself hold the brush and write the documents, and even so I could not get to bed until midnight. You may fool other people but you can’t fool me.” In other military campaigns there were sometimes up to four hundred memorials, but usually there are about fifty a day and it’s not too hard to read them, and even to correct the mistakes in them.[2]

More interesting is what the emperor studied while actually on the campaign trail:

“Before we moved against Galdan in 1696 I told the senior officers—Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese —to meet together by Banner and discuss how we might anticipate Galdan’s movements and how we should deploy our own troops. Even the most casual suggestions were to be collected and reported to me. After the basic strategy of a western strike from Ningxia and a central strike from Beijing across the Gobi was agreed upon, the Council of Princes and High Officials worked out the details of rations for soldiers and servants, fodder for camels, the number of carts, and so on, basing their figures on an estimated 10,790 troops in the western army, and 8,130 in the center—with four horses, one servant, eighty days’ basic rations, and an extra two pecks of rice per month for each active combatant soldier (with the exception of the gunners, two of whom could share one servant).

For my part, I reviewed the campaign instructions of my ancestors’ victories and combined them with the demands of this new campaign.” [3]

In his campaigns against the Zunghars Xuanye valued his Manchu ancestor’s campaign instructions far more than the words of the ancient Chinese strategists. He was not the first to belittle the Chinese strategic canon. In China snubbing Sunzi is itself a veritable military tradition.

Wrote the Grand Historian two millennia before the Kangxi’s day:

Huo Qubing was little given to idle talk. But he possessed great daring and initiative. The emperor once tried to teach him the principles of warfare as expounded by the ancient philosophers Sun Zi and Wu Zi, but he replied. “The only thing that matters is how one’s own strategies are going to work. There is no need to study the old-fashioned rules of warfare!” [4]

Many of China’s greatest commanders would dispute this. For every Huo Qubing of Chinese history there is a Cao Cao, who treasured the Sunzi so much that he wrote his own commentary for it.

But there is an important difference between men like Cao Cao and Huo Qubing. Cao Cao’s greatest enemies were Chinese. He spent his days fighting other Chinese warlords and the kingdoms they created. They were the kind of enemies the strategies of the Seven Military Classics–written for the most part in a vicious world of  Warring States–were designed to defeat.

The authors of the Sunzi never saw a steppe horde. Such a thing was beyond their imaginations. Yet this was exactly the kind of enemy many Chinese generals spent their lives trying to defeat. Huo Qubing and his flying cavalry columns fought their way to fame in the wars against the Xiongnu confederacy of the Northern steppes; the Kangxi told his generals to ignore China’s strategic canon while campaigning against the Mongols of the Zunghar Khanate.

The authors of the Sunzi and the other military classics operated under the assumption that those who would read their words would be warring against a bureaucratic state that fielded large armies of free-holding farmers led by professional generals. Their stratagems reflected these assumptions; these strategies could prove disastrous when these assumptions did not match the enemy Chinese soldiers faced. The advice to not totally surround enemy soldiers and force them to fight to the death  makes a great deal of sense in the conditions Sunzi and company envisioned. [5] This same advice is ruinous when fighting steppe hordes who have no land or homes to protect and are masters of the strategic retreat. As long as an avenue of escape is possible, the nomads could not be defeated. To defeat a nomadic army is to surround it, surprise it, and slaughter all of it without offering hope of quarter or escape. [6]

This is an irony of Chinese military history. In many ways the Chinese strategic tradition better equips Chinese statesmen to deal with the challenges of the modern, ‘multi-polar’ world of today than it ever did equip the statesman of the traditional Chinese world order.


[1] Jonathan D. Spence. trans and ed. Emperor: A Self Portrait of Kang-hsi. (New York: Alfred A Knopf). 1974. p. 22

[2] Ibid. p. 6.

[3] Ibid. p. 18.

  [4] Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II. Translated by Burton Watson. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1993. p. 177.

[5] This is a formula that appears in all of the Seven Military Classics, but perhaps most explicitly in section five of the Sima Fa. Sawyer, Ralph. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books.) 2007. p.149.

[6] A point made by David Graff in Strategy and contingency in the Tang defeat of the Eastern Turks, 629- 630,” in Nicola Di Cosmo, ed. Warfare in Inner Asian history (500-1800). (Leiden: Brill). 2001.

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I admit I have the Boydian bias towards him, but
is the reason why later Chinese commanders didn't like Sunzi possibly because he actually advocated strategies of their enemies?

"When an army has penetrated into the heart of a hostile country, leaving a number of fortified cities in its rear, it is serious ground."

"On serious ground, gather in plunder."

"In raiding and plundering be like fire"

"Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest."

"Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy. Thus the army will have food enough for its needs."

Sounds like Mongols doesn't it?


I think it is safe to say that for the most part, the nomads understood the weaknesses and motivations of their enemies far better than the Chinese understood he weaknesses of the Nomadic empires they engaged with. If the nomads fought like Sunzi it because Sunzi and co. identified some of the best ways to overwhelm and disorient agrarian states.

This could account for some of the Confucian hostility towards the classics, though there are passages in the Xunzi, Mengzi and even Legalist texts that disparage the strategist school. These pre-date nomadic empires by several centuries.

However, I do not think it is a sufficient explanation for why many military figures disliked the Seven Military Classics.

The Seven Military Classics were designed to help a general destroy, conquer, defeat, or manipulate a bureaucratic state with defined territorial limits. It gives very good advice on how to do this. The nomads did not know this advice, but the smarter ones were able to figure out many of the same principles on their own accord.

What the Seven Military Classics do not do is tell you how to destroy, conquer, defeat, or manipulate a nomadic tribal confederacy that has no bureaucracy, professional soldiers, urban centers, territorial borders, or landed property. You cannot fight these folks the same way you would fight a state because they did not have one.

So a lot of the advice given by Sunzi et al. is next to useless in these situations. Consider the passage you have quoted(Sunzi ch. 9 – Lionel Giles translation).

"When an army has penetrated into the heart of a hostile country, leaving a number of fortified cities in its rear, it is serious ground."

The nomads rarely had cities or fortifications, and when they did they had no qualms abandoning them. There was no "serious ground" North of the Ordos.

"On serious ground, gather in plunder… Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy. Thus the army will have food enough for its needs."

Nomadic pastoralists are limited in their possessions. The have flocks and herds and that is about it. You cannot plunder for gain, and the flocks and herds will probably not be enough to sustain your troops – assuming you can catch them. Unlike agrarian surpluses, the Nomads can retreat and take all of their goods with them.

The chapter goes on:

"The following are the principles to be observed by an invading force: The further you penetrate into a country, the greater will be the solidarity of your troops, and thus the defenders will not prevail against you… Make forays in fertile country in order to supply your army with food."

This make sense when fighting a warring state. When fighting a nomadic steppe empire it is suicidal. There is no “fertile country” to supply your army on the steppe, so you will be reliant on long supply trains to sustain your troops. The further the invading force goes into the steppe, the longer and less protected its supply train becomes and the less mobile the army is. The nomads can just continue retreating until your supply lines can go no further. If the invading force turns back then they have wasted their entire treasury and gained nothing from it. If they stay then it is easy enough for the Nomads to circle round, cut the supply lines themselves and leave the invading force to starve. If you follow Sunzi’s advice here, you will die.

This is the kind of problems guys like the Kangxi and Huo Qubing have with Chinese strategic canon. You cannot beat the nomads the same way you beat another state. The only way to destroy a nomadic empire is play the steppe game better than they do – i.e. create skilled cavalry forces that are just as mobile as the nomads and then use them to kill or capture (and forcibly resettle/incorporate into their military) every nomadic enemy they come across.*

So the problem, I think, was not that Sunzi was "too Mongol" in the general's eyes, but that he was not Mongol enough. The only way to beat the Mongols was to mirror them, and the Chinese strategic canon gives no advice on how to do this.

The contrast with other peoples who faced off against steppe hordes is telling. The Byzantine Strategeikon devotes a large amount of page space to nomadic tactics, strategy, and counters to them. The Chinese historical accounts are full of frontier generals who advocate and memorialize on similar themes, but they never could make it into the canon. I suppose that vanquishing barbarians just did not have the prestige to merit its own book.

*This is the tactical response to the nomads. There are other responses at the strategic level – for example, trying to undermine loyalties o the ruling line and split the confederacy apart on tribal lines – that could neutralize enemies before they became a problem. (As for why Chinese dynasties failed to follow this course or others like it- well that is a whole post on its

When he mentions an "Iron Will" does the "will" he refers to have the same meaning that we attach to the word?

I'm curious as I'm studying Greek thought at the moment, many concepts they use, such as mind, ethics, music etc had a different meaning in there time than they do now, sometimes narrower, sometimes broader. Does the "will" mean will in the modern sense, or is it "will" in a broader sense, does include ethics? or moral? as we understand them.
For example, for Hitler an Iron Will signified something different than if Churchill used the phrase.

@Anon – A good question!I am afraid I cannot answer it. The translation was done by Jonathan Spence, and I am not sure which character (it was written in Chinese, not Manchu) he has translated here.

The source he gives for this quotation is The Veritable Records of Kangxi Emperor, p. 3249. Those with a better command of Chinese than I are welcome to search it for our word.

Spence, who probably understands the Kangxi better than any other American of our age, links this this quote to another of Kangxi's recollections:

"And so it was on the far Northwest on the bend of the Yellow River… I heard the news that Galdan [was dead]…. As I wrote to my eunuch Gu Wenxing:

"Now Galdan is dead and his followers have come back to their allegiance. My great task is done. In two years I made three journeys, across deserts combed with wind and bathed with rain, eating every other day, in the barren and uninhabitable desert– one could have called it a hardship but I never called it that; people all shun things but I did not shun them. The constant journeying and hardship led to great achievement. I would have never said such a thing were it not for Galdan.

Heaven, earth, and ancestors have protected me and taught me this achievement. As for my own life, one can say it is happy. One can say it is fulfilled. One can say I have got what I wanted."

Kangxi's reaction reminds me of the anecdote about Hannibal who, upon leaving a lecture of a Greek philosopher on the duties of a general, remarked dryly: "I have seen many a fool in my life, but this one beats them all." It is clear that the ancients already were quite aware of armchair generalship.

Incidentally, there is a Greek writer on the art of war contemporanous with Sun-Tse, Aeneas Tacticus. I have read only tidbits, but he seems to be more practical-minded. Aunt Wiki says he may be identical to a fourth century BC general, so there you go. With Sun-Tse, by contrast, it is not even clear if he was an individual person, and not the sum of many authors and later interpolations.

I am quite late to the party on this, but given that Spence's translation is also heavily edited, it might be worth reproducing the whole quote, which I found in Nicola de Cosmo (ed.), Military Culture in Imperial China (2009):

I have read the seven military classics in their entirety and find them a real mishmash, to the point that they cannot possibly be brought into accord with righteousness. This talk of “attacking with fire” and “water wars” is all nonsense. If one were to follow these directions there would be absolutely no method for gaining victory. And then there is the talk of secret allies, power over the elements, prognostication and so on. This serves only to pervert the minds of small men. Since over the years the three feudatories have been pacified, Taiwan has been taken, and Mongolia has been pacified and ordered, I have dealt with a very large number of military matters. I have personally led punitive military campaigns and I deeply understand the way of generalship. How can we wholly depend on what is said in the seven books? Mengzi said, “the benevolent man can not be defeated,” and, “Heaven’s timeliness is not as important as advantages of terrain; advantages of terrain are not as important as unity among men.” Even if we wanted to have another book compiled these days, this is no time to go about revising military texts… Mengzi has said, “They can be made to confront the tough armour and sharp weapons of Qin and Chu with wooden sticks.” If you consider this idea while directing the troops, all is well. Anyway, the idea that “The benevolent man can not be defeated” is the way of the king. Using schemes, deceit and baseless talk is not as good as the way of the king, which means refusing to do battle only to see the enemy’s troops defeat themselves. The two words “way” and “king” represent the most ingenious military techniques. Since ancient times bellicosity has been a hideous thing. Those who excel in warfare all put off the use of war until, compelled by circumstances, they lose all choice in the matter. In the past when Wu Sangui rebelled, Jiangnan and Huizhou lost one xian to rebellion. A general named Echy led a punitive force there. One man offered advice to the rebels, saying, “Manchu soldiers can’t fight on foot. If you order people to lure them into the rice fields, you’ll definitely defeat them.” Ignorant that Manchu soldiers are tough, brave, and aggressive, those who wished to lure in the Manchus had not even reached the rice fields before they had all been slaughtered. He who had offered the advice was killed by my troops. Those who employ the seven military classics are all like that man. What is the point of discriminating among the seven military classics nowadays to make up essay questions? Combine them with Lun Yu and Mengzi and make up questions from the result.

My own reading of this agrees to a great extent with yours – Kangxi saw little to learn from ancient Han Chinese theorists, whose practitioners his predecessors had so easily overrun. Additionally, it is clear that he – in quite a presciently Clausewitzian manner – saw the significance of politics in warfare, hence his addition of the more 'civilian' classics to the military exams.