The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Syllabus

In the course of my internet wanderings I came across two very interesting syllabuses. The first was for a Harvard research seminar titled  “Chinese Strategic Thought.” The second was for a MIT class named “Chinese Foreign Policy: International Relations and Strategy.” In essence, both classes serve as introduction to the Chinese strategic tradition.

As I spend an exorbitant amount of time studying the Chinese strategic tradition and firmly believe the most effective ways to gauge your knowledge of a subject is to teach what you know to others, I figured I would take a whack at designing my own class on the matter.

The fruits of my labors can be found here.

Many of my readings closely follow those of the previously mentioned classes. The worst offender on this count is the “Mao Zedong Practice” session, which I lifted without revision from the MIT class. This period is a weak point of mine. Being unfamiliar with the literature associated with it, I can neither add nor take away from the readings already given to it.

More interesting, I think, are the places where my syllabus differs substantially from that of the others. A few of these divergences are worth highlighting:

Many of my sessions center around Dennis and Ching Ping Bloodsworth’s Chinese Machiavelli: 3,000 Years of Chinese Statecraft. This is probably the single best book of Chinese history no one has ever heard about. Its title is a bit deceiving – the Bloodsworths do not meant to claim that “Machiavellian” is a fitting description of the Chinese tradition. Rather, it describes their method of analysis.  One will remember that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince and Discourses on Livy only after many long years of studying statecraft as practiced by both ancients and moderns; the Bloodsworths try to take the same approach with the Chinese tradition, asking what Machiavelli would have written if he was born in China instead of Italy. They do this masterfully; Chinese Machiavelli  is the single best introduction to the Chinese strategic tradition to be found in the English language. 

Given its fictional nature, my decision not to use the abridged edition of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms in favor of the unabridged, two-volume version of the work is difficult to justify. I do so on two counts: the first is that it is impossible to maintain the integrity of any narrative while paring it down to less than half of its original size. Beyond robbing the novel of its historical complexity (a great sin in my eyes), the abridgment was designed to be used in literature classes, and several sections of interest to the student of strategy* cannot be found inside it. The second is that the book’s fictional passages do not obscure the study of the Chinese strategic thought. To the contrary, they provide a rare opportunity to see how historical events, stratagems, and characters have been transmitted and understood in the Chinese tradition.

The most surprising omission from the MIT and Harvard courses is any type of study of Chinese relations with the steppe hoards of Central Asia. While not as prominent in the Chinese strategic tradition as the wars of the Three Kingdoms or Warring States eras, the steppe was China’s greatest security concern for almost all of its imperial history. To ignore it is to ignore 2,000 years of the Chinese military experience. My session skips about that stretch of time quite a bit, the emphasis being on the different type of strategies Chinese statesmen have employed to secure the kingdom from hoards of the steppe. The center piece for this discussion is Arthur Waldron’s The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. As the book’s title may suggest, it is not only a superb history of the construction and use of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty, but also of the changing perceptions of the wall and the strategic approach it embodies.

*Such as Pang Tong and Liu Bei’s discussion of the proper place of means, ends, and moral principles when developing strategy. (pp. 460-61 in Moss Robert’s unabridged edition).

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Trivial anecdote: several years ago I found myself sitting next to Arthur Waldron on an Amtrak train. Although I hadn't (and still haven't) done more than glance at his book on the Great Wall, after he gave his name I knew who he was, and we had a pleasant conversation (albeit not one that went deeply into Chinese history). If I recall correctly (which I may not), he was working (w/ some others) on a group trans. of Mao's complete works.

Consider me jealous. I would love to have the opportunity to sot and talk with him for a bit. Do you recall how long ago this conversation was? A quick look at Mr. Waldon's published works shows no new translation of Mao's works.

Yes, the conversation was in December 2003. (I was on my way from DC/MD to NY to give a lecture [unpaid], arranged courtesy of a friend, something I have done exactly once — that was the once.)

As to the Mao project, it may be a very long-term thing or I may be misremembering what Waldron said.

Although I don't share Waldron's politics — something I infer from the fact that he has written in recent years for Commentary (shudder) — he seemed like a nice enough person, and you might well get a reply if you were to e-mail him at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, where I believe he still teaches. He might like to know that The Great Wall is being praised in the blogosphere. (Or you might not get a reply — but nothing ventured….)

Hoards or Hordes?

Barfield's The Perilous Frontier is quite good. And for an insight into the central Asian culture complex which had military superiority over China (and most of the rest of Asia) until the 18th century, try Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road.


If it is a translation of Mao's complete works then it may take quite a long time, even if it was a group effort. The man was a prolific writer.

Waldron is something of a China-hawk. A very unflattering (and not really fair) account of his various hawkish positions can be found here.

Regardless of his political positions, I respect his scholarship quite a bit. His essay on the Ming for Making Strategy: Rulers, States, and War was very good, and by all account his work on the Republican era is nothing to blink at either.


Good catch. Hordes it should be.

Perilous Frontiers is indisputably a landmark in the field. However, as its focus is not so much on the strategic thought behind Chinese-nomad encounters as it is the general dynamics of the two groups, it did not seem proper to make it a central reading for the syllabus.

I thank you for Silk Roads recommendation. You might enjoy Nicola di Cosmo's Ancient China and its Enemies: the Rise of Nomadic Power in the East. It is the perfect companion piece to Barnfield's Perilous Frontiers, offering an alternative explanation for the nomad attacks on Chinese civilization. Where Barnfield sees nomadic consolidation as the result of extended tribute and patronage networks, di Cosmo argues that tribal consolidation was the result of the military pressure put on nomadic groups by China's burgeoning influence on the steppes. Like Garfield it is a dense read, but a rewarding one.