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The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

[By T. Greer]

We’re honored and delighted to announce that blog-friend and commenter T Greer has accepted Zen’s invitation to join us as a member of the Zenpundit team, and trust the following post in two parts will stir fruitful conversation not only here at ZP but across several related blogs.. — Charles Cameron, ZP managing editor


Mao Zedong writing On Protracted Warfare (Yan’an, 1938)
Source: Wikimedia.

This essay was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 26 May, 2015. Because of its length it has been divided into two posts, both lengthy in their own right. This–the first of these two posts–is republished here at Zenpundit with little alteration. The second half of the essay shall be posted here later this week.


Last fall I wrote a popular series of posts outlining the history of the eight decade war waged between the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu (old style: Hsiung-nu) nomadic empire. My posts were a response to a prominent American strategic theorist who misunderstood the history of the Han-Xiongnu relations in his search for enduring patterns in China’s military and diplomatic history relevant to China’s foreign relations today. Unfortunately, this experience was not a singular event. It seems that every month some new book or article is published pushing a misleading version of Chinese history or a strained interpretation of classical Chinese political thought to shore up a new theory of what makes China tick. I could devote this blog solely to refuting these poorly sourced theories and never run out of things to write about.

Despite these errors, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who pen them. They face a nearly insurmountable problem: many of the thinkers, strategists, and conflicts most important to the Chinese strategic tradition have next to nothing in English written about them. Critical works have yet to be translated, translated works have yet to be analyzed, histories of important wars and figures have yet to be written, and what has been written is often scattered in obscure books and journals accessible only to experienced Sinologists. English speakers simply do not have access to the information they need to study the Chinese strategic tradition.

This needs to change. It needs to change both for the sake of strategic theory as a discipline, which has essentially ignored the insights and observations gleaned from 3,000 years of study and experience, and for understanding the intentions of our rivals and allies in East Asia, who draw upon this tradition to decide their own political and strategic priorities. But in order to make these necessary changes we need a clear picture of where we are now. This essay attempts to provide this picture. It is not a bibliographic essay per say, for I will freely admit that I have not read all of the books and research articles I will mention below. Some titles I have only read in part; others I have not read at all. However, the goal of this post is not to review the results and conclusions of all these works, but to outline where research has been done and where more research is needed. For this purpose awareness suffices when more intimate knowledge is lacking.

Mastering 3,000 years of intellectual and military history is a gargantuan task. But in order to find the answers to some of the questions inherent in the study the Chinese strategic tradition, it must be done. I make no such claim of mastery. My expertise is uneven; I am most familiar with both the strategic thought and the actual events of the China’s classical period (Warring States through the Three Kingdoms era, c. 475 BC-280 AD), and am probably weakest when discussing the first two decades of the 20th century, a time critical to the development of the tradition but difficult to master because of the number of political actors involved, the complexity of their relations, and the great intellectual variety of the era. Despite these weaknesses I know enough to chart out the broad outlines of current scholarship, a charge most specialists in strategic theory cannot attempt and most Sinologists would not desire. These biases and proclivities have kept the two disciplines far apart; there is an urgent need for these two scholarly bodies to draw together. If this essay–which is addressed primarily to the first group but should be accessible to second–helps in some small way to bring this to pass I shall consider it a grand success.

This essay shall have three parts divided over two posts. The final section is a list of recommendations on how to establish and develop the study of the Chinese strategic tradition as an academic sub-field, as well as some thoughts on where individual Anglophone scholars might focus their research. The two earlier sections will review what has been published in English about the Chinese strategic tradition already. The term “the Chinese strategic tradition” is usually used in reference to the thinkers and the theorists of Chinese history, not the commanders and ministers who actually implemented policy. In the West this is almost always how the topic is discussed. Texts like Sun-tzu’s Art of War (hereafter, the Sunzi) are dissected with little reference to the way its thought was consciously implemented by those who studied it most carefully. This is a mistake. Most of the pressing questions in this field can only be answered by looking at how Chinese soldiers and statesmen actually behaved, and most of the errors common to Western punditry can be sourced to this tendency to ignore actual events in favor of theory. [1] In the case of ancient histories–whose account of events were highly stylized and moralizing–this distinction blurs. However, for the sake of organization I shall maintain the distinction between strategic thought (a subset of intellectual history) and strategic practice (a subset of diplomatic, political, and military history), covering each in turn.



Monday, December 9th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — I got caught in a cascade of images, swept away — and then, Mao ]

This gesture seems to me to have the quality of a caress…

in which case a caress in Kyiv is not so different from piano music in that same city…

or, as it might be, cello music in Sarajevo…

or for that matter, simply standing motionless in Tienanmen Square…

or planting flowers in Washington, DC…

Caresses, music, stillness, flowers… there’s a kinship there.


But then again, maybe these gestures are too idealistic for the realist’s “real world” — and to quote Chairman Mao in refutation of that last image:

Every Communist must grasp the truth, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”


I keep coming back to that first image — stunning!

The thing about it — to my eye — the humanity is clearly visible on both sides…

“The Galula Doctrine”

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Small Wars Journal has published another edition of the excellent COIN interview series conducted by Octavian Manea. Here he interviews A.A. Cohen, author of Galula: The Life and Writings of the French Officer who Defined the Art of Counterinsurgency 

The Galula Doctrine: An Interview with Galula’s Biographer A.A. Cohen

OM: Which were the role of Mao and the exposure to Chinese civil war in Galula’s story? It seems to be his decisive formative lab experience like Russia was for George Kennan.

AAC: Unquestionably, of all the influences exerted on Galula’s treatise, Mao and the Chinese Civil were the greatest. Galula had a strong intellectual admiration for Maoist revolutionaries, despite being very opposed to what they stood for. Before the Chinese Civil War, Galula had no interest in insurgency or counterinsurgency. He had not fought as a Partisan during WW2; he had no experience or interest in these fields until he was exposed to China as of late 1945, in the thick of its civil war. There, his analytical penchant led him to see himself as the decipherer of Mao, intent on getting to the bottom of what the revolutionaries were fundamentally about. Galula cut through the egalitarian propaganda and all that surrounding the People’s revolution. Above all, he wanted to understand why these guys were gaining momentum as they were despite the unfavorable odds. When he figured it out, he reverse-engineered their methods to arrive at a counter-process to revolution and insurgency. His embrace of Chinese dialectics, and with these, the notion of unity of opposites or yin and yang, was helpful in achieving this.

Is counterinsurgency to Galula more of a strategy or  more of a technique and a methodology?

What Galula offers, first and foremost, is a doctrine – not a strategy. His doctrine is underpinned by an important theory about people and what motivates them to take up arms, or to side with those who do. The theory goes that in times of danger (war), the majority of people will be motivated primarily by a fundamental need for security. Galula is adamant about this. But he also recognizes that there will be a minority of people – the instigators at the core of a movement – that will be ideologically, or even fanatically motivated. These are the true believers. He makes no qualms about prescribing that this is the group that the counterinsurgent or counterterrorist will need to find and neutralize, while protecting the rest of the population that aspires to a normal, if not better life. If you buy into this theory, Galula’s doctrine offers a multi-step framework for operations; in other words, a method to counterinsurgency. His famous eight steps are there to provide some logical linearity to what is otherwise a very nonlinear form of warfare. Within that framework, you have the flexibility to formulate your strategy and to conduct your operations to achieve your objectives.

Read the rest here.

I agree that Galula was not offering a strategy. Even more strongly, I think Cohen is correct about the historical importance of China’s long period of disorder, from the overthrow of the Q’ing dynasty to Mao ZeDong’s declaration of the People’s Republic, for Galula. However, not just for him but for anyone interested in questions of war and statecraft where insurgency, warlordism, state failure, state-building, foreign intervention, balance-of-power politics, ideological mass-movements, 4GW, revolution and total war coexisted and co-evolved.

The best comparison in our lifetime to China in this period would have been Lebanon  in the 1980’s, except that China’s polycentric conflict was even more complex and on an epic scale.

Iconic: compare and contrast

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — iconic images, riot police, compare and contrast, repetition with variation ]

First, let’s be clear that both these images have been widely considered iconic.

Thus NPR reported of the first photo:

There have been countless accounts of violence recorded during the uprisings in Egypt but the image that perhaps has captured the most attention is the most recent. The image has been widely referred to as the “girl in the blue bra.”

While Real Clear Politics quotes Michael Moore on the second:

“The images have resonated around the world in the same way that the lone man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square resonated. It is an iconic movement in Occupy Wall Street history,” Michael Moore declared on MSNBC’s “Last Word” program.

Moore was referring to police pepper spraying students at an “Occupy” protest at UC Davis.

So we have two similarities between the two images: they both show police in riot gear taking action against demonstrators, and they have both caught the public eye as somehow being representations that can “stand in” for the events they seek to portray.

Beyond that, it’s all compare and contrast territory — or variations on a theme, perhaps — and different people will find different reasons to attack or defend the demonstrators or the police in one, the other, or both cases.


These are, for many of us, “home” and “away” incidents, to borrow from sports terminology, and some of our reactions may reflect our opinions in general of what’s going on in Egypt, or in the United States.

We may or may not know the rules of engagement in effect in either case, on either side.

In a way, then, what the photos tell us about those two events, in Tahrir Square and on the UC Davis campus, may tell us much about ourselves and our inclinations, too.


As I’ve indicated before, I am very interested in the process of comparison and contrast that the juxtaposition of two images — or two quotes — seems to generate. And I’ve quoted my friend Cath Styles, too:

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

I’d like to examine these two particular photographs, then, not as images of behaviors we approve or disapprove of, but as examples of juxtaposition, of similarity and difference — and see what we might learn from reading them in a “neutral” light.


What I am really trying to see is whether we can use analogy — a very powerful mental tool — with something of the same rigor we customarily apply to questions of causality and proof, and thus turn it into a method of insight that draws on our aha! pattern recognition and analogy-finding intuitions, rather than the application of inductive and deductive reason.

And that requires that we should know more about how the mind perceives likenesses — a topic that is often obscured by our strong emotional responses — you’re making a false moral equivalence there! or look, one’s as bad as the oither, and it’s sheer hypocrisy to suggest otherwise!

So among other things, we’re up against the phenomenon I call “sibling pea rivalry” — where two things, places, institutions, whatever, that are about as similar as two peas in a pod, have intense antagonism between them, real or playful — Oxford and Cambridge, say, and I’m thinking here of the Boat Race, or West Point and Annapolis in the US, and the Army-Navy game.

Oxford is far more “like” Cambridge than it is “like” a mechanic’s wrench, more like Cambridge than it is a Volkswagen or even a high school, more like it even than Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford — more like it than any of the so-called “redbrick universities” in the UK — so like it, in fact, that the term “Oxbridge” has been coined to refer to the two of them together, in contrast to any other schools or colleges.

And yet on the day of the Boat Race, feelings run high — and the two places couldn’t seem more different. Or let me put that another way — an individual might be ill-advised to walk into a pub overflowing with partisans of the “dark blue” of Oxford wearing the “light blue” of Cambridge, or vice versa.  Not quite at the level of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, perhaps, but getting there…


So one of the things I’ve thought a bunch about is the kind of analogy that says a : A :: b : B.

As in: Egyptian cop is to Egyptian protester as UC Davis cop is to UC Davis protester.

Which you may think is absolutely right — or cause for impeachment — or just plain old kufr!

And I’ve figured out that the reason people often have different “takes” on that kind of analogy — takes so different that they can get extremely steamed about it, and whistle like kettles and bubble over like pots — has to do with the perceptual phenomenon of parallax, whereby some distances get foreshortened in a way that others don’t.


So my thought experiment sets up a sunken garden — always a pleasure, with two video cameras observing it, as in this diagram:

And from the two cameras, the respective views look like this:

In this scheme of things, Aa (Oxford) seems very close to Bb (Cambridge) seen from the viewpoint of camera 1 — but from camera 2’s standpoint, Aa (Oxford) and Bb (Cambridge) are at opposite ends of the garden, and simply couldn’t be father apart.


Now, my thinking here is either so obvious and simple as to be a platitude verging on tautology — or one of those subtle places where the closer examination of what looks tautological and obvious leads to the emergence of a new insight, a new “difference that makes a difference” in Bateson’s classic phrase.

And clearly, I hope that the latter will prove to be the case here.


What can we learn from juxtapositions? What can we learn from our agreements about specific juxtapositions — and what can we learn from our specific disagreements?

Because it’s my sense that samenesses and differences both jump out at us, as Cath Styles suggested — and that both have a part to play in understanding a given juxtaposition or proposed likeness.

Each juxtaposition will, in my view, suggest both a “sameness” and a “difference” — in much the same way that an arithmetic division of integers, a = qd + r, gives both quotient and dividend.

And then we have two or more observers of the juxtaposition, who may bring their own parallax to the situation, and have their own differences.


Tahrir is to Tienanmen as Qutb is to Mao?

Or is pepper spray just a food additive?

And how do icons become iconic anyway? Are they always juxtapositions, cops against college kids, girl vs napalm, man against line of tanks?  Even in the iconic photo of Kennedy from the Zapruder film, the sudden eruption of violence into the stateliness of a presidential parade is there — a morality play in miniature.

Any thoughts?

North Korea, Juche and “sacred war”

Monday, December 27th, 2010

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Okay, I am now clear that the correct translation of the Korean phrase that has sometimes been rendered “holy war” in recent news reports is in fact “sacred war”.

I’d been wondering just what an atheist state was doing threatening “holy” or “sacred” war…


Juche is the state philosophy of North Korea, and is considered to be the 10th largest religion in the world by the Adherents.com portal, ranking above Judaism, Baha’i, Jainism and Shinto. It developed out of Marxist-Leninism and has more recently incorporated Confucian elements.

Sunny Lee, writing in a 2007 article in Asia Times titled God forbid, religion in North Korea?, quotes Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, as saying “There is a deification and a religious emotional element [in juche] in the North. The twinned photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Every speech says Kim Il-sung is still alive. I think if I stayed another two weeks, I might even see Kim Il-sung. The country worships someone who is deceased, as if he were alive.”

One Christian site goes so far as to call Juche a “counterfeit Christianity:

Recognizing the power of Christianity, Kim wanted it to be directed at himself. So he took Christianity, removed God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, set up himself, his wife and son as the new trinity, and called it Juche. At its core, Juche is a counterfeit Christianity that is deathly afraid of true version, and rightfully so.

I suppose a close comparison here would be with the cult which Robert Jay Lifton described in Revolutionary immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese cultural revolution.


In On Junche in Our Revolution, vol II (published in English, 1977), Kim Il Sung writes:

No military threat of the US imperialists, however, can frighten the Korean people. If, in the end, the US Imperialists and their stooges unleash a new war against the DPRK, in defiance of our people’s patient efforts to prevent a war and maintain peace and the unanimous condemnation of the peace-loving people of the world, the Korean people will rise as one in a sacred war to safeguard their beloved country and the revolutionary gains. They will completely annihilate the aggressors.

So the “sacred war” phrasing has been around for a while.

I hope to learn more — these in the meantime are some clues to be going on with…

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