Military history



Ancient Chinese Warfare beyond Sun Tzu

ROMAN LEGIONS OFTEN fought guerrillas but did not practice guerrilla tactics themselves. What about their counterparts in Asia? There is a widespread belief that a distinctly “Oriental” or “Eastern Way of War” placed particular emphasis, in John Keegan’s words, on “evasion, delay and indirectness”58—the skills of the guerrilla. This is usually contrasted with the kind of toe-to-toe fight to the death that has supposedly characterized the “Western Way of War” since the days of classical Greece.59 This interpretation became especially popular after the success of Chinese and Vietnamese communists in guerrilla struggles in the twentieth century. Many concluded that Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh were the direct heirs of Sun Tzu and other ancient Confucian strategists who had supposedly placed a greater emphasis than their Western counterparts on strategies designed to circumvent the main forces of the enemy. Thus Keegan writes that “ ‘the Chinese Way of Warfare’ would, in the twentieth century, inflict on Western armies and their commanders, schooled in [Clausewitz’s] teachings, a painful and long-drawn-out humiliation.”60

This interpretation is given superficial support by the fact that China’s foremost military philosopher, Sun Tzu, famously counseled that “attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” Another widely cited passage of his masterpiece, The Art of War, holds, “Warfare is the Way (Tao) of deception. Thus although [you are] capable display incapability to them. When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When [your objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby.”61 Mao would later echo this advice almost verbatim.

But The Art of War was only one of the “Seven Military Classics” of ancient China. Other tomes, which are less quoted today, suggested a more direct approach. For instance, there was the Wei Liao-tzu, written by an official named Wei Liao during the same Warring States period (403–221 BC) that produced The Art of War. Wei Liao was as concerned with drill, discipline, and formation as any Roman drillmaster. He laid out an elaborate procedure utilizing “gongs, drums, bells, and flags” to control and maneuver formations in battle down to the level of a five-man squad: “When the drums sound, the army should advance; when the drums are beat again, they should attack. When the gongs sound, they should stop; when the gongs are struck again, they should withdraw. Bells are used to transmit orders. When the flags point to the left, [the army should] go left; when the flags point to the right, then to the right.”

Those who failed to heed these elaborate instructions could expect a fate that makes the Roman practice of decimation seem lenient by comparison. If the soldiers in a squad “lose members without capturing [or killing] equal numbers of the enemy, they will be killed and their families will be exterminated.” So too “anyone who loses his emblem will be executed.” Even the poor drummers were in peril: “If a drummer misses a beat he is executed.”

All of these injunctions presumably were designed to produce an army that in good Clausewitzian fashion was capable of defeating the main forces of the enemy. Rather than preaching indirectness, the Wei Liao-tzu holds, “If the enemy is in the mountains, climb up after him. If the enemy is in the depths, plunge in after him. Seek the enemy as if searching for a lost child, follow him without any doubt. In this way you will be able to defeat the enemy and control his fate.”62

Although definitive evidence is lacking, ancient Chinese and Indian warfare seemed to conform more closely to Wei Lao’s conventional injunctions than to Sun Tzu’s indirect approach. Certainly both cultures produced vast armies that would have been of little use for evasive maneuvers. In the third century BC, at a time when China was divided like Greece into numerous warring polities, the weaker states were said to field armies of a hundred thousand men. The largest states supposedly had armies of nearly a million men. Even allowing for inevitable exaggeration by contemporary chroniclers, that is indisputably a lot of soldiers. Most were conscripted peasants who fought on foot, wore armor, and were equipped with swords, spears, halberds, and crossbows. As in the Roman army, these infantrymen were supplemented by experts in such fields as mechanical artillery and siege works. Note that the army of more than six thousand life-size terracotta soldiers and horses discovered in 1974 at the burial place of China’s first emperor, Shi Huangdi (r. 221–210 BC), was arranged in elaborate formations and grouped by type of weapon. The odds are that China saw many clashes between such armies.63

In sum, any attempt to suggest that Europeans have an inherent predilection toward infantry battle in the open field, whereas Asians prefer to fight in guerrilla-like ways, does not stand up to scrutiny. As two scholars of Chinese military history write, “The difference between premodern warfare in China and the West was probably not as great as prescriptive texts such as the Chinese military classics might lead us to believe. Despite the literary emphasis on caution and avoidance of the risks of battle, battle was no less common an occurrence in imperial China than it was in the ancient Mediterranean world or in medieval Europe.”64

Guerrilla warfare, then, is not the product of an “Eastern (or Oriental) culture”—itself a misnomer, since Asia has more than one culture. It is the last resort of all those over time, of whatever culture, forced to fight a stronger foe. Generally, whenever any group was strong enough to field a conventional army, it did so. But this required the creation of a strong, centralized state, and this was usually beyond the capabilities of tribal societies.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!