Troubles With the Chinese Military Tradition

Terra Cotta Soldiers — Image Source
Via Zenpundit comes an interesting article written by Tonio Andrade for The Diplomat. This online magazine has some of the world’s best coverage of Asian-Pacific affairs and I always read its contents with interest. Mr. Andrade’s piece introduces his readers to the Sino-Dutch war of 1661, China’s “first” war with the West. In the conclusion to his piece Mr. Andrade explains why this war is worth studying:

The most important Chinese advantage was in strategic and tactical culture. Chinese military commanders were able to draw on two millennia of careful thinking on warfare. Most Westerners know about Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which is read by CEO’s from Germany to California, but most westerners have no idea how many brilliant strategists, tacticians, and logistics experts succeeded Sun Tzu, building the world’s richest corpus of military thought….

Today, China is modernizing at an incredible clip, and the U.S. appears to be in decline. The technological balance is still in the West’s favor, but the situation is changing fast. 

Maybe it’s an awareness of this rapidly-changing status quo that’s motivating Western experts to urge Washington to contain China, and it seems that President Barack Obama is moving in this direction, even as his Republican rivals urge even more ambitious military buildups.

Yet one rarely hears them making a much cheaper and ultimately more effective suggestion: to learn more about traditional Chinese warcraft and military affairs. No nation is so deeply imbued with its own history as China. Commanders in China’s armed forces are as deeply aware of China’s deep legacy of military thought as Zheng Chenggong and his generals were. They know their Sun Tzu, their Zhuge Liang, their Qi Jiguang. But they can also quote Clausewitz and Mahan and Petraeus. They know their own tradition, and they know the Western tradition. They’re following Sun Tzu’s advice: “Know your enemy and know yourself.”

If Westerners don’t study the Chinese military tradition, then the West will be at a significant disadvantage. [1]

I agree whole heartedly with this conclusion: there is a sore need for Western scholars, statesmen, and soldiers who are familiar with the Chinese strategic tradition.

This is much easier said than done.

I speak from personal experience. With the 24 months of service as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints excepted, throughout the last four years the most pressing of my varied intellectual pursuits has been an attempt to master the “Chinese military tradition” that Mr. Adrade speaks of. While this effort may bear fruit sometime in my professional future, the vast majority of my readings were unrelated to course work or vocational concerns. For no other reason than an irrational passion for the subject, I manage to read at least one book of Chinese philosophy, history, or strategy every month. Alas, this has not been enough. The central problem is that there is a great gap between the state of Western scholarship on the Chinese and Western military traditions. 

Only a few examples are needed to illustrate this point.

1. Western historians are quick to recognize that their civilization is indebted to the men of classical Greece, Rome, and late antiquity. The foundations of Chinese civilization were laid in its own classical era, commonly divided by historians into three parts: The Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), the Era of the Warring States (475-221 BC), and the first true Chinese dynasties, the short lived Qin and the glorious Han (221 BC-220AD).

The importance of the Western classical period is readily seen in modern historiography. The definitive (and expensive) history of the times are found in the great collaborative project the Cambridge Ancient History (19 vol). Twelve of these volumes are devoted to the 1,000 years of classical history wedged between 600 BC and 600 AD. Cambridge University has also sponsored a collaborative history of China, the Cambridge History of China, which covers 4,000 years of Chinese history (up to the present day) in 16 volumes. There has been enough research on the classical world of the West for scholars to write twelve century-by-century treatments of the period. In contrast, classical China’s 800 years are given less than two full two volumes (the first half of the Cambridge Ancient History of China is devoted to the 1,000 years that preceded Spring and Autumn Period – this amounts to attaching an overview of the Minoan, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires to a history of 6th-4th century Greek city states!)

2. The Zuo Zhuan is one of the most important works of Chinese civilization. Sometimes translated as The Commentary of Zuo, the book is a narrative commentary upon the Spring and Autumn Annals, the official chronicle of the state of Lu during the period that shares its name. The Zuo Zhuan is the oldest narrative history in Chinese civilization and the main source for the period it covers – the period that produced both Confucius and Sunzi. More importantly, it was one of the “Five Classics” that formed the backbone of the Confucian curriculum that every learned man was supposed to master. Because the book provided a universal reference point for most of China’s imperial history, there has hardly been a single debate over a dynasty’s foreign policy that did not cite some precedent found in the Zuo Zhuan. For 2,000 years it’s contents were an integral part of every single major strategic discussion.

The last complete translation of the Zuo Zhuan into English was by James Legge. He published it in 1872.

3.  No war has captured the imagination of the Eastern mind like that waged between the “Three Kingdoms” that rose from the ashes of the Han Dynasty’s collapse. The travails and victories of Wei, Shu, and Wu have been told again and again throughout Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history. Their story has been told through many mediums. It first emerged in medieval shadow plays and Song dynasty operas, by the 15th century it was adapted into a historical novel that holds a similar place in the Chinese literary canon that plays like Julius Caesar and Richard III have in the West, while in the 21st century it has inspired a multi-billion dollar video game franchise, twenty different Japanese manga, two of the most ambitious Chinese television dramas to air on CCTV, and the most expensive Asian film (and the most lucrative) ever produced. Their words , names, and strategies have become household idioms. I have not met a single Chinese person who cannot relate stories about these legendary generals and statesmen.

Famous conflicts of Western antiquity (such as the Peloponnesian or Punic Wars) receive scholarly and popular treatment several times a decade. In contrast, there has never been a political, military, or narrative history of the Three Kingdoms written in English. Scholars like Rafe de Crispingy have published scholarly monographs and biographies that significantly improve our understanding of the times, but these are not enough. This is the most celebrated conflict in all of human history! As far as the English speaking world is concerned, its history has never been told.

Many more examples could be given, but I think the reader will agree that they are not necessary.

The relative neglect of Chinese military and political history is made the worse by the nature of the scholarship that is published. For the uninitiated Chinese history proves a complex and confusing tangle of obscure places, names, and dynasties. This is not a problem unique to Chinese history; Robert Strassler created the Landmark Ancient Histories because he recognized that modern readers, not versed in the language or geography of the classics, had trouble making heads or tails of the complex conflicts of ancient Greece. But no matter how confusing modern Western readers may find the ancient Mediterranean world, they will at least have some frame of reference. Sparta, Syracuse, Carthage, and Gaul are recognizable to most readers; Qi, Chu, Luoyang, and Chang’an are not.  

There is no Landmark Ancient History series or Atlas of the Classical World for Chinese history and many of the maps found in translations or monographs are of a very poor quality.  Chinese discourse, philosophical thought, and strategic treatises are filled to the brim with allusions to past ages, so it can be difficult to understand what is being said or argued without extensive knowledge of what went on before. Books written by sinologists often reference events, movements, philosophies, or schools of thought unknown to most Westerners without bothering to introduce or explain them to new readers. Figures in Chinese history often have more than one name or title, and historians are not always consistent in which ones they use. All of this is further complicated by the wide range of Romanization systems that have fallen in and out of favor during the last 100 years.

Much of this is the fault of the sinologists themselves. Their work is expensive. It is not accessible to new comers. But the inward-looking nature of modern academia cannot account for all of this. If sinologists write books on Chinese history that only other sinologists can understand it is because experience has taught them that nobody but other sinologists are interested in the subject.

My hope is that as public interest in China continues to grow and the disciplines of global history and comparative history progress this will change. [2] Until then, becoming familiar with the Chinese military tradition is a lot like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool. Once you decide you want to make the jump, you are guaranteed to be in over your head.

I hope none of that discourages my readers. The way may be difficult, but it is worth it. I have learned just as much – if not more – from Sima Qian, Xunzi or the Seven Military Classics as I have from Thucydides or Plutarch. The Chinese military tradition is about more the People’s Liberation Army – it is a window to 3,000 years of humanity history. 


Mr. Andandre suggests that his own book would be a good place to studying “the Chinese military tradition.”  With no insult intended to the professor, there are a few other works I recommend that the intrepid explorer of Chinese thought read first:

 The Chinese Machiavelli: 3,000 Years of Chinese Statecraft by Dennis and Ching Ping Bloodsworth

Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu translated by Burton Watson.

The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China translated by Ralph Sawyer.

Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I by Sima Qian and translated by Burton Watson.

Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel by Luo Guanzhong and translated by Robert Moss.

The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth by Arthur Waldron. 


[1] Tonio Andrade. “The West’s First War With China.” The Diplomat. 8 February 2013. 

[2] I believe that this process has already begun.  Within this decade David Graff, Ralph Sawyer, Nicola di Cosmo, Peter Purdue, Timothy May,  Kenneth Swope and Tony Andadre himself have all written books on various pre-modern Chinese wars.  This decade has also seen a resurgence in the translation of Warring States political treatises. However, with the exception of William Nienhauser’s (12 vol) translation of Sima Qian, few Chinese historical works have been translated. Political histories are also few and far between. 

Leave a Comment


Any thoughts on why China had such a sophisticated tradition of military theory and how it compared to Western military theory?

The Western Art of War is equally sophisticated. Napoleon once encouraged students of war to study Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Adolphus Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene of Savoy and Frederick the Great. A thorough survey of primary and secondary sources of these great captains reveal a level of subtlety and sophistication that matches Chinese warfare. We should really discuss and debate this. Regards, Thomas Chen.

@Thomas Chen-

I do not think the Western military tradition any less sophisticated or brilliant than the Chinese. Both have valuable lessons to teach and both should be studied. But for an American living today, it is much easier to study Hannibal and Napolean than it is to study Han Xin or Zhuge Liang.