|Scrolls containing the Seven Military Classics of the Chinese strategic canon.
Last month I wrote a post on the difficulties Westerners face learning about China’s military history and expansive strategic canon. Reflecting on this military tradition, Martin Hewson (who blogs at Breviosity) posed a few interesting questions:
- Why does China have such a sophisticated tradition of military theory?
- Are [the Chinese and Western strategic canons] the two principal traditions of military theory in world history? If so, why? 
Sunzi’s Art of War opens with the famous declaration “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”  The Art of War makes a compelling point. One cannot seriously study history without gaining an appreciation for the way in which warfare has changed its course. From the earliest days of prehistory warfare has been an enduring element of the human experience, scarring almost every society crafted by human hands. It is ubiquitous. Yet here is the paradox: war is universal, but thorough analysis of how to best wage it is not. Strategic theory has been the province of only a few cultures and societies. The following post offers several explanations for why some societies and cultural traditions possess a large corpus of strategic theory, whilst others never made the attempt. (And yes, it is long.)
Literacy is the most important requirement for the creation of a long standing “strategic tradition.” Indeed, a strategic corpus is never more than a small part of a much larger civilization-spanning literary tradition. The origins of all literary canons can be found in oral histories, folk tales, myths, religious rites and poetry, but unless these stories are written down they will not endure. Writing ensures that wisdom can be passed on, whether to the next generation or to entirely different societies centuries later. The reliance on writing precludes the great majority of human societies from the contest. The long standing “cultural traditions” of human history are a poor reflection of humanity’s true cultural diversity.
Narrowing the playing field in this way limits us to less than a dozen civilizations who might claim an independent literary tradition.  Some, such as the writings of pre-Islamic Persia, have been lost to history entirely and can help us little here. Others, embodied in the Old Norse Sagas, Aztec Codices, or Egyptian Pyramid Texts, have been forgotten by everybody but specialist scholars, their civilizations long ago swallowed by the sands of time. Yet their existence, however ignored they may be today, provides us with something to compare the Chinese and Western literary traditions to.
When compared with other civilization’s cultural traditions, what is most striking about the East Asian and Western literary canons is not that each has an extensive strategic tradition, but that each has an extensive historic tradition. Narrative histories were a foundational part of both the Western and Chinese literary canons. In a comparative perspective this is not just unusual. It is unique. No other civilization has given birth to the grand historical narratives Westerners and East Asians take for granted. 
The novelty of the East Asian and Western traditions is seen clearly when placed next to the other great civilizational tradition to survive into modern times: the Hindu or Indic tradition. The Rig Veda is the first voice heard in the “great conversation” of the Indic literary canon. In the 3,500 years that followed the Indic cultural tradition did more than survive: it thrived. From its humble beginnings on the Indo-Gangetic plain it spread across the entire subcontinent. By the first century BC it had spread to Southeast Asia; it provides the cultural foundation of Cambodian, Lao, Thai, Malay, and Burmese society to this day.  Across dozens of languages, an even larger number of empires, hundreds of miles, and thousands of years this tradition persevered. Yet in all of those languages, miles, countries, and years it never produced a single historian!
|Kautilya, the author of the the Arthashastra,
the Indic tradition’s sole strategic treatise,
gives advise to the Maurya King. Image Source.
The Indic tradition can claim sacred hymns, epic poetry, treatise on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, and science, handbooks on art, dharma, politics, and sex, love poems and tragedies, religious devotionals and children parables – but no histories. Because of this, the most important historical sources for these societies are usually outsiders from the West or from China! Despite the wealth of literary and epigraphical material these societies produced, Megasthenes remains one of the most important primary sources for historians studying the Maurya Empire and Zhou Daguan is one of the most important sources we have for the Angkor Empire. It was not until Muslim marcher lords fought their way into India that the discipline of history took root on the subcontinent. Southeast Asia waited even longer, seeing its first indigenous historians well after their conquest by imperial European powers.
I do not know why Chinese and Greek thinkers – unique among all thinkers the world over – stumbled upon the idea of history. Clearer is the relationship between these histories and the strategic canons of Western and East Asian civilization. What separates these historians from the imperial annalists or inscribers of different cultures is their belief that the deeds, words, and events of days past can help guide those of the future. The ancient historian, as captured in Thucydides famous turn of phrase, “[wrote his] work not… to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.“
The idea that lessons can be drawn from the past and applied in the present is central to the creation of any strategic theory. Theory is empty absent empirical data to confirm its truth and history provides strategists with the data they needed to make universal theories. But for the earliest thinkers (particularly in the Western tradition) there was little distinction between data and theory. One of the central projects of the classical historian was to highlight the episodes from the past that could serve as a template for the future. Identifying universal strategic principles was an essential part of the historian’s craft.
Consider the example provided by Polybius’ Histories. Polybius is famous (or perhaps infamous) for the amount of space he devotes to attacking historians that preceded him. He faults historians for being inaccurate, partial, and inexperienced. Political and military experience was necessary for the writing of a proper history because:
“Nothing written by authors who rely on mere book learning has the clarity that comes from personal experience, and so nothing is gained by reading their work. For without its educational element, history is altogether uninspiring and useless.” 
For Polybius a history was only as good as the lessons statesmen and generals could learn from it. He believes that “there is no more authentic way to to prepare and train for political life than by studying history“ and he assumes that his most important readers will be in a position to apply the lessons his history has to share. Polybius often makes asides to ensure that his readers catch the strategic principles present in his account. Compare some of these statements with those found in China’s most famous strategic treatise, Sunzi’s Art of War:
“[No] Aspect of generalship is more important than knowing the character and temperament of the enemy commander.” – Histories 3.81
“Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy… will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.” – Sunzi Bingfa ch. 3
“Whenever people chose or were compelled to give up hope they always succeeded in defeating their opponents; and when the enemy could realistically entertain the hope that most could survive through flight … the fearlessness of those who had given up hope would plainly be irresistible.” – Histories 3.63
“Cast them into positions from which there is nowhere to go and they will die without retreating. If there is no escape from death, the officers and soldiers will fully exhaust their strength.” – Sunzi Bingfa ch. 11
“This, it must be said, is the mark of a good general — that decisive battles should never be fought on the spur of the moment, without forward planning.” – Histories 3.69
“For this reason the victorious army first realizes the conditions for victory, then engages in battle. The vanquished army fights first, then seeks victory.” – Sunzi Bingfa ch. 4 
The Chinese made the jump from historical commentary interlaced with strategic principles to treatises solely devoted to strategic theory a thousand years before Westerners did, but their beginnings were similar. One of the oldest (if not the oldest) works of Chinese literature is the Classic of Documents, a compilation of speeches, edicts, and other source materials compiled with the intent that they could guide the actions of future statesmen. By the 4th century BC the Chinese intelligentsia had extended narrative commentaries on the Spring and Summer Annals to read along with strategic treatises like the Sunzi Bingfa. The great majority of these treatises – along with the writings of the era’s many political philosophers, who were as concerned with war as the generals who authored these battle manuals – made constant reference to to historical events to bolster their ideas.  In both the West and East, an enduring and varied strategic canon was the fruits of a well known historical tradition.
The Chinese military tradition encompasses 3,000 years of history. The key works of the Chinese strategic canon are not so evenly distributed. The most influential strategic treatises were the product of one period, known as the Warring States Era (475-221 BC). The Seven Military Classics hold a similar place in the Chinese strategic corpus that the Four Books and Five Classics do in the Confucian canon. All but one of these treatises (including the Sunzi Bingfa) originated in the Warring States Era. The same time period saw Chinese political philosophy flourish as never before (or since). In an age when “a hundred schools [did] contend“dozens of philosophers contributed to their own theories of war and peace. The most prominent of these schools would shape East Asian strategic discourse for centuries.
What accounts for the intellectual explosion of the Warring States Era? The answer may be found in the nature of Warring States society itself. Philosophers of the hundred schools were not the only men of their day embroiled in contention. Their entire world was the site of vicious rivalry and strife entirely new to the Chinese experience.
|The famed minister and ruthless strategist of Qin, Shang Yang.
Warring States philosophers took their cues from the Five Classics, hoping to learn lessons for the present by studying the past. That world (best recorded in the Spring and Autumn annals and the commentaries attached to it) was very different from the world in which they now dwelt. In many ways Spring and Autumn society was unique; its society, institutions, and culture bear closer resemblance to the splintered realms of Medieval Europe than they do any subsequent era of Chinese history. During this time China did not exist in an institutional sense – there was a common culture, but no central political authority. The land was dotted with scattered cities and estates that served as the home of China’s warrior aristocracy. This aristocracy was fragmented, united only through extravagant oaths and extended ties of kinship. Their glory was the hunt, the sacrificial altar, and the battlefield; living for little else, such “sanctioned violence” was endemic. There was no monopoly on violence, and as happened in Medieval Europe, kings often found that their vassals had more men at their command than they did. 
During the Warring States Era this all began to change. The transformation of Chinese society was extraordinary and unprecedented:
- Wars of the Spring and Autumn Period were an affair of honor and personal vendetta, restricted to the nobility and the men they could muster through feudal levy. Their armies were small (less than 10,000 men) and centered on the chariot corps. Battle was often preceded by heroic taunts and challenges to personal combat. During the Warring States Era the size of armies increased to ten times that of the Spring and Autumn Period. Chariots were discarded for massed infantry, conscripted en masse from the peasantry. Protracted sieges, once rare, became common. The individualistic warrior ethos was ruthlessly stamped out, rhetoric of honor was eclipsed by cold real politick, and nobleman were replaced with professional generals.
- Political organization changed drastically. The old hierarchy held together by oaths was completely replaced with absolutist monarchs whose power extended across the countryside. Noble families were no more; the work of the state was done by ministers and bureaucrats required to demonstrate merit before attaining office. The entire population was organized in groups of five families (which translated easily into a five man military unit on the field), while some states divided the entire countryside into a rectangular grid to allot equal-sized plots of land as a reward for military service.
- The costs of these changes were enormous. The Zuo Zhuan commentary of the Spring and Autumn Annals records 148 states (at that time more properly thought of as lineages) at the beginning of the period; by the end of the Warring States only the state of Qin remained. War was explicitly zero sum – Sima Qian relates stories of victorious armies exterminating hostile populations and executing hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Even states spared such vile treatment could expect their ruling lineage’s complete extinction. States were desperate to survive and quick to adapt any innovation (be it technical, like the newly invented crossbow or iron weapons, tactical, like the dress and fighting techniques of Steppe horsemen, or institutional, like the reforms of Shang Yang that drastically increased the man power a state could put in the field) that might help them do so. 
Scholars of the western military tradition often speak of the early modern “Military Revolution.” Azar Gat provides a succinct summary in his impressive War in Human Civilization:
“Armies greatly expanded and became more permanent; they were increasingly paid for, administered, and commanded by central state authorities that grew progressively more powerful; similar processes affected navies, with which the Europeans gained mastery over the Seas.” 
A four point summary of these developments is provided by Michael Roberts, a historian of Early Modern Europe:
“1) A revolution in tactics, where the old lance and pikes along with their armored cavalry were rendered useless by en masse muskets
2) Tactic changes resulted in larger militaries
3) The adoption of complex and intricate strategies to effectively implement large armies during a war
4) These changes impacted society due to the higher burden for conscripts and resources for war” 
These historians describe a transition from a world held together by feudal ties to one dominated by institutionalized, absolutist monarchies whose powers expand with the scope of war. Small armies organized around noblemen on horseback are replaced by gigantic armies of massed infantry led by professional generals. Reasons of state supplant chivalry in determining the course of battle; court ministers work closely with kings to establish the bureaucratic machinery needed to wage such wars and determine the national interest. Complex strategies and protracted siege warfare become the new norm. All of this describes what was happening in Early Modern Europe – but also what happened in pre-modern China! 
|The Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu
by Phillipe de Champagne.
The parallels between the Chinese Warring States Era and its pre-modern European equivalent do not end here. The Chinese Warring States Era gave birth to the Chinese strategic corpus. Many historians of Western strategic thought begin with the strategic theorists – such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Cardinal Richelieu – of the “European Warring States” Era.  Unlike the strategic thinkers of Western antiquity, these men did not plant their theories in broader historical narratives, but devoted entire treatise to strategic themes. They drew on the histories of the classical era, but their approach was more similar to that of the ancient Chinese thinkers than the Greek philosophers and historians which they esteemed so highly.
What accounts for these similarities? What follows is not a comprehensive review, but a few tentative explanations that I personally find convincing:
* A Scattered System of Warring States: War has been a constant in Chinese history; in many ways China has always been a warring state. Less common is its division into warring states.  Both premodern Europe and ancient China were host to vicious polities divided in a desperate bid for survival. There was no world spanning empire; all roads did not lead to Rome. (Or Luoyang, for that matter). There was no universal center of learning or prestige that all intellectuals passed through before their voices could be heard, nor was there a single governing authority with power to clamp down on thinking it disapproved of. The decentralized political system of both eras allowed intellectual movements to flower without serious interruption. The competitive nature of this system piled fuel on the fire, for dueling states that refused innovation – be it scientific or strategic – faced annihilation.
*The Rise of the State: Modern political scientists often date the creation of the modern-nation state to premodern Europe. However, almost all of these developments (the exception being institutionalized banking and finance) are closely paralleled in the Warring States transition.  These institutions did more than increase the number of men that could be thrown into battle; they changed why wars were fought and what wars were fought for. The strategic logic of war between states was fundamentally different than that between feudal lords. Ideas like “national interest” or “reasons of state” made no sense in a society where there was no real distinction between international relations and interpersonal relationships.  Treatises explaining how to use military power to attain national goals have no purpose when there is no nation. 
*Absolute Monarchy: The rise of absolute monarchs had various effects on European and Chinese societies, many germane to the creation of strategic theory. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that “French kings have shown themselves to be the most energetic and consistent of levelers. When they have been ambitious and strong they have striven to raise the people to the same level as the nobles.”  A similar statement could be made about the kings of the Chinese warring states. As kings in both eras extended their control over their realms, they systematically replaced warrior nobles with professional soldiers and ministers. In both eras these men produced treatises on statecraft and soldiery and in both eras men of their rank were the primary consumers of such. The rise of the monarch affected strategic discourse in another subtle way. In the classical city-states of Greece and Italy, matters of state were discussed in the forum or the agora before public audience; feudal systems and tribal confederacies, in contrast, placed emphasis on formal oaths and war-meetings. In both of these cases decisions were made publicly. Those who wished to influence policy (or as was often the case, justify it) did so by way of oratory. Not so in the world of the absolute monarch. Decisions made by kings and emperors were usually made in private. There was little need to justify these decisions in a grand public setting. Those who wished to influence policy did so through personal conversation, correspondence, or official petition. The strategists of both systems were not orators or debaters. They were writers. This partly explains why we have their writings today.
Other parallels between the two times can be drawn, but absent a familiarity with the Western strategic tradition equal to my knowledge of the Eastern, I will refrain from writing anymore ideas. I encourage readers more knowledgable than myself to sound off in the comments. It is a fascinating topic – after all, warfare is the greatest affair of the state.
 Martin Hewson. “The Chinese Way of War.” Breviosity. 24 March 2013.
 Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books). 2007. p. 157
 Although I divide the world into different civilizations than Samuel Huntington does, I use his definition for the word “civilization” here: “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” See his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. (New York: Simon and Schuster). 1997. p. 43
In a literary sense, Moritmer Alter’s idea of a “great conversation” is what holds this cultural identity together. Said he, “What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1
 Islamic and Japanese cultures are here seen as what they truly are – branches of the Western and Sinic civilizations – instead of as the fully independent civilizations they are sometimes depicted to be.
 Cambodian society provides a typical example: 95% of the population is Buddhist (an Indic tradition religion), the most acclaimed work of classical Khmer literature is the epic poem Reamker, a Khmer language reworking of the Ramayana (a foundational work of the Indic tradition), and the Khmer script itself is derived from the Grantha script used by Tamil speakers in ancient South India and Sri Lanka.
 Thucydides 1.22. Trans. Richard Crawley. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. ed. Robert Strassler. (New York: Simon and Schuster). 1996. p. 16.
 Polybius. 12.25g. The Histories. trans. Robin Waterfield. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2010. p. 439.
 Polybius 1.1 Ibid. p. 3
 Ibid p. 192, 179, 184; The Sunzi Bingfa quotations come from Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books). 2007. p. 162, 179, 164.
 The terse Sunzi Bingfa is anomalous on this regard. However, the name chosen for the treatise can be seen as an attempt to give its content historical grounding by associating it with a famous general.
 See Mark Edward Lewis. Sanctioned Violence in Ancient China. (Albany: SUNY Press). 1990. ch. 1 “The Warrior Aristocracy.” p. 15-50 for a comprehensive treatment of warfare during this period.
 Mark Edward Lewis. Sanctioned Violence in Ancient China. (Albany: SUNY Press). 1990. p. 53-97; Cho-yun Hsu. Ancient China in Transition: An Analysis of Social Mobility, 722-22 BC. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 1965; Victoria Hui Tinbor. War and State Formation in Ancient China and Premodern Europe. (New York: Cambridge University Press). 2005 p. 50-107, 178-190.
 Azar Gat. War in Human Civilization. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2006. p. 456. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in world history, comparative history, or security studies in general. Everybody interested in those fields needs to read this book.
 Daniel Sok. “An Assessment of the Military Revolution.” Emory Endeavors in World History. vol. 3. p. 32.
 Many of these observations are not original. Victoria Hui Tinbor, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Premodern Europe, makes many of the same claims, paying particular attention to the institutional similarities between the two eras. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hui-Tinbor’s work is a standard tome of political science, written in prose turgid and uninviting to outsiders. I suspect this has limited its impact in the historical community.
Stephen Morillo suggests that something similar happened in the Japan during the Sengoku (lit. ‘warring states’) period of its history. I am not familiar enough with Japanese history to profitably examine this claim. See his “Of Guns and Governments: A Comparative Study of Europe and Japan.” Journal of World History. vol 6, no. 1. Spring 1995.
 For example, Makers of Modern Strategy From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. ed. Peter Paret and Azar Gat, Origins of Military Thought: From The Enlightenment to Clausewitz.
 It is telling that almost all popular Chinese military heroes and famous strategic theorists – from Jiang Ziya to Mao Zedong – fought their most important campaigns against other Chinese. Seen from the view point of Chinese history as a whole, the days of disunion and rebellion have an influence on the popular Chinese historical memory and the Chinese strategic canon altogether disproportionate to their actual impact or duration. Few generals are famous for fighting Turks or Viets; even fewer strategic manuals are attributed to such men.
 See Victoria Hui Tinbor, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Premodern Europe. While institutionalized banking was never part of the Warring States world, the power of merchants and financiers grew incredibly over the period. Lu Buwei is the most infamous of these figures, vilified as a rich merchant who used his wealth to become the Prime Minister of Qin as the state was completing its conquest.
 Consider the following description of Richard I’s century military campaigns in 12th century France:
“Sieges were seldom protracted, for in a long drawn-out affairs, where a castellan stubbornly refused to surrender after a suitable period of time had elapsed in which to save face, there was danger of wholesale sack and massacre…. [but] in the twelfth-century kaleidoscope of shifting alliances, not to mention fratricidal warfare, where today’s enemy was tomorrow’s ally, it made no sense to shed blood needlessly.”
from Frank Lynn. Richard and John: Kings at War. (New York: De Capo Press). 2008. p. 57.
The idea that wholesale massacres should be avoided because doing so would cause an irreparable breach in a personal relationship with a rival political power would seem ludicrous to those fighting wars in 16th and 17th century France.
Conversely, a strategic canon based on the logic of a competitive warring state system was less useful when confronting a powerful non-state enemy. Thomas Barfield argues that the Han Empire pursued a self-defeating grand strategy in their wars with the Xiongnu because they insisted on fighting them like another state instead of the tribal confederacy that they were. There were very few Chinese scholars, soldiers, or statesmen who really understood the tribal dynamics the Xiongnu Confederacy was built upon. See Thomas Barfield, “The Hsiung-nu Imperial Confederacy: Organization and Foreign Policy.” The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 41, No. 1 (Nov. 1981), pp. 45-61
 I suppose some will object to this argument on the grounds that neither the states of premodern Europe or ancient China were “nations” in the sense used today. This is correct. However, they can be profitably described as proto nation-states; the idea that nationalism is new is deeply flawed. For nationalism in premodern societies in general, please see Azar Gat. War in Human Civilization. p. 48-50, 403 427-426; for the European case, see p. 496-503.
Close analysis of ancient Chinese states suggests that they considered themselves ethnically distinct from each other and that the ‘cultural unity’ of warring states China was more a product of later imperial historians than a description of the period as it actually was. See Shelach, Gideon and Yuri Pines. “Secondary State Formation and the Development of Local Identity: Change and Continuity in the State of Qin (770–221 B.C.)” in Archeology of Asia. ed. Miriam T. Stark. (Oxofrd: Blackwell Publishing). 2006. p. 202-231; Mark Edward Lewis. Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. (Harvard: Belknap Press). 2007. p 39-47. Also revealing are the passages by the philosopher Xunzi and strategist Wu Qi that list the different national characteristics and varied military organizations of each state. See “Debating Military Affairs” in The Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. trans. Burton Watson. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1964 p. 61-63; Wuzi Bingfa ch. 2 in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China trans. Ralph Sawyer. p. 210-211 the
 Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. trans. Gerald Bevan.(New York: Penguin Books). 2003. p. 2