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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.


Sunday surprise: De Niro’s recommended reading

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — preferring Jarmusch’s Hagakure in Ghost Dog to Grovic’s Hesse and Sunzi in Bag Man ]

In a film that the critics panned, Netflix offered, and I watched without much comprehension, Robert De Niro, playing the part of Dragna — “a dude who wears plaid jackets, thick glasses, and his grey hair in a swoopy high pompadour” who has assembled a motley team of killers in a seedy Bayou motel — educates John Cusack as his fav killer, Jack, by recommending he read certain books — notably Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game aka Magister Ludi:

De Niro goes Magister Ludi

De Niro goes Magister Ludi 2

Magister Ludi means Master of the Game.

Dragna apparently believes Hesse’s Game is best played by pitting assassins, here including cops, a “whore” and a dwarf as well as Jack, against one another in that seedy motel.. and is not altogether satisfied with the result, which shoots him shortly after he announces his own mastery of the game.

De Niro goes Magister Ludi 3


Zenpundit regulars who lack my enthusiasm for Hesse’s Game — quite different in style and tone from the one writer-director David Grovic proposes in his film — may at least be gratified to see his other recommendation:

De Niro goes Sunzi


I would have done better to re-watch Jim Jarmusch‘s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker, with its extensive quotations from the Hagakure:

That’s what I’ll watch tonight.

T. Greer on Sun Tzu the Radical

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on Sun Tzu and his classic The Art of War the other day in which I learned a number of things that were new to me, which is the best kind of blog post!

The Radical Sunzi

When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi’s Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames’ translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group’s translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair’s translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer’s translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came–the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzifrom the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi‘s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical. [….]

Here comes the important part, one that demonstrates a curious symmetry with the cultural shift  between the post-Dark Age heroic-aristocratic Archaic Greece to the Classical Greece of the Golden Age that laid the foundations of Western civilization:

….The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical–at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China’s old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi‘s assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:

The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]

To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:

The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]

Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:

[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing???, does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]

The Sunzi‘s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical–it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King’s return to his clan’s ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:

Read the rest here

I just finished reading a book by the Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice; here’s an enormous difference between a culture that “sacrifices to” and one that is worth or requires “sacrificing for“. It is not only a cultural difference, it is cognitive. Strategy is possible in a “sacrificing to” society only to the extent that it does not conflict with (often maximalist) religious dictates, which will often mean a rational strategy to achieve victory is impossible. The Jews at Masada or the Greeks of the Trojan War would have understood the precepts of warfare of the ancient Chinese of the Zhou era very well.

In war, the bronze age peoples sacrificed to. We sacrifice for – and to spend our lives to best effect we need strategy.


Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

[approached by Lynn C. Rees]

Scott’s comment gets me thinking:

Truly two main paths present: passive (deter and encourage) and active (conquer, convert, capture, or contain) [via Jeremy and Hans Delbruck]…

The strategist needs cognitive elasticity (Boyd would call “adaptability” and Eccles/Rosinski would call “strategic flexibility”), as the world/circumstances are ever-changing.

By reflex, modernity sees mind as a tug of war. To software extremists, mind is fluid, its course shifted constantly by the unfolding environment. To hardware extremists, mind is solid, its granite face reinforced by inheritance at a glacial pace. Risking fallacy, it seems reality is found somewhere in the mud puddle between tugs: firmware. Confounding software extremists, mind is not fluid. It’s not even rubbery: much of mind is solidified by inheritance. Confounding hardware extremists, mind is not solid. It’s not even doomed by age to irrevocable rigidity: mind can be bent, given time and constancy. Mind is plastic: it knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold’em.

A connected view argues that mind’s right conjures ad hoc responses to new things while its left turns the ad hoc into routine responses. Predictably, this means that, as mind ages, its center of gravity leans left. To the infant, everything is new, to the elder, many things are eerily familiar. Focus follows time.

Swun Dz thought describes strategy as shr shifted between jeng and chi. Ralph Sawyer translates shr as “strategic configuration of power”, jeng as “orthodox”, and chi as “unorthodox”. The shr path of PMI thought agrees:

What is a project?

In A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Third Edition, the Project Management Institute defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. As simple as this definition may seem, there are a few key points that define a project as distinct from ongoing operations. Again, from the PMBOK® Guide:

Operations and projects differ primarily in that operations are ongoing and repetitive while projects are temporary and unique. A project can thus be defined in terms of its distinctive characteristics. Temporary means that every project has a definite beginning and a definite end. Unique means that the product or service is different in some distinguishing way from all similar products or services.

Poor Swun Dz. Born too early for his PMP®.

Fear not. The news is good. While the far future can look forward with gladness to finding bamboo fragments of the fabled PMBOK® Guide – Fourth Edition clutched tightly in skeletal fists when the tombs of the heroic project managers of old are opened, we get a few blessed scraps of future ancient PMI wisdom for today:

  • jeng == hardware ==  routine == left brain
  • chi == software == project == right brain

America swoons for Swun Dz  and the Swun Dz America swoons for is chi to the bone. For today’s America, jeng is a great sin while chi is a great virtue. The root fear of the age is being overtaken by the dread trope of the age: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” In a jungle subject to the law of the instrument, the last thing you want to be accused of is jeng gray in nail and hammer. The sneer of “same old, same old” will not kill you, but it may serve as your hipness epitaph.

Now, as with all tropes too far, chi has fought the good fight for so long that it’s become what it professes to abominate: a hammer gone abroad in search of routines to pound. America is mired in routine appeals to chi. Yet Master Swun taught differently:

What enable[s] an army to withstand the enemy’s attack and not be defeated are uncommon [chi] and common [jeng] maneuvers.

The army will be like throwing a stone against an egg;

it is a matter of weakness and strength.

Generally, in battle, use the common [jeng] to engage the enemy and the uncommon [chi] to gain victory.

Those skilled at uncommon [chi] maneuvers are as endless as the heavens and earth, and as inexhaustible as the rivers and seas.

Like the sun and the moon, they set and rise again.

Like the four seasons, they pass and return again.

There are no more than five musical notes, yet the variations in the five notes cannot all be heard.

There are no more than five basic colors, yet the variations in the five colors cannot all be seen.

There are no more than five basic flavors, yet the variations in the five flavors cannot all be tasted.

In battle, there are no more than two types of attacks:

Uncommon [chi] and common [jeng], yet the variations of the uncommon [chi] and common [jeng] cannot all be comprehended.

The uncommon [chi] and the common [jeng] produce each other, like an endless circle.

Who can comprehend them?

I’d amend a few items in Scott’s excellent formulation. By my reckoning, strength is one unbroken spectrum. The more active and more passive, which it is not unreasonable to identify with chi and jeng, are not two distinct paths. They are two spectrum bookends. All flavors of strength, spoken, physical, wealth, and so forth, fall some place between them. Chi and jeng are swallowed up in the spectrum of strength, reduced to reference points scattered across its face.

Intensity of strength varies, and is measured, by shr, its strategic configuration of strength. And what aspects of strength are configurable?

  • reach: certainty of means
  • drive: certainty of motive
  • grip: certainty of opportunity

From where chi sits, this configurability looks like:

  • reach: flexibility of means
  • drive: flexibility of motive
  • grip: flexibility of opportunity

From where jeng sits, configurability looks more like:

  • reach: solidity of means
  • drive: solidity of motive
  • grip: solidity of opportunity

A more balanced approach looks like:

  • reach: plasticity of means
  • drive: plasticity of motive
  • grip: plasticity of opportunity

These three will vary in their plasticity. Reach will be fluid and then rigid. Drive will be rigid now and later more fluid. Grip will be more solid before and more flexible after.

Politics is the division (and dividing) of strength. Strategy is its continuation and instrument. Strategy is the configuration (and configuring) of strength, the balance (and balancing), the plasticity (and plasticizing) of strength’s reach, drive, and grip. It will solidify and liquidate its strategic configuration of strength as the wider political configuration of the division of power is anticipated and reacted to by those balanced within.

Three variations, drive, reach, and grip, yet the variations of the three cannot all be comprehended.

They produce each other, like an endless plastic circle.

Who can comprehend them?

Thought provoking Tim Weiner quote

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — mission statement? perhaps not — but definitely mission critical ]

In five words:

Know your enemy: that’s intelligence.

Weiner may not have the whole picture, but he sure puts an interesting spin on things.

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