24 June, 2015

There Is No "Right Side" of History

I read with interest Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent historical essay for The Atlantic, "What This Cruel War Was Over." The article is worth reading. It consists mostly of quotations pulled from Southerner declarations, debates, and editorials from the Civil War and late antebellum eras, all on the theme of slavery and the desperate need to preserve it. One example Coates gives is the words spoken by James H. Hammond (then a South Carolina senator) on the senate floor in 1858:
The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not care for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. [1]
What is most astonishing about this quotation (and the others like it that Coates cites) is how completely alien this kind of talk would have sounded to a Southerner living two or three generations before Hammond's time.

One of the best books of American political or social history that I have yet read is William Freehling's The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. The book is a true pleasure to read. This cannot be said honestly about most historical tomes published over the last few decades, but it is true here. Freehling also manages to fill his book with insights about the nature of power and politics that are applicable to places and periods far removed from the antebellum South--long term readers might remember how I've used his observations to make sense of patterns in contemporary Salafist-jihadist terrorism. One of the major themes of Freehling's work is the diversity of interests and opinions found in antebellum Dixie. The rough division between "north" and "south" we used today was much harder to draw in the American republic's earliest days. As Freehling takes great pains to prove, there were many souths within the South, each with a different interest and attitude towards slavery. Slavery's greatest defenders saw this with horror and dismay. They knew their peculiar institution would not be preserved into perpetuity until the many souths learned to act in concert as The South, united by a shared commitment to slavery. Creating this sense of unity and mission was a political project that took almost a century to complete. Surprisingly, their greatest challenge in radicalizing Southern society was the slave holding class itself. In the colonial and early antebellum eras the majority of southern aristocrats did not see slavery as something worth defending. 

For example, here is what Thomas Jefferson had to say about slavery near the turn of the 19th century:
"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.... And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." [2] (emphasis added).
As in so much else, Jefferson's words were those of a hypocrite. Jefferson's life curse was to  pen rhetoric that was powerful enough to inspire idealists across the ages while creating a standard he could never personally live up to. Not that this mattered much in the eyes of his contemporaries; a plantation master was never judged on what he physically accomplished. It was a man's ideas and manners that mattered on the Tidewater, and Jefferson's ideas were shared by many. Most intellectual southerners living at the turn of the century would willingly admit that chattel slavery was a wretched institution. They defended it on grounds of precedent and social stability: their society had not chosen slavery, the argument went, but inherited it from their British fore-bearers, and now that it was around it could not be done away with in a stroke without much suffering and misery. But there was a common expectation that slavery would end sooner than later, as economic and social forces slowly made the practice obsolete. This is exactly what happened in the state of New York. Southern gentry of Jefferson's day expected that this would happen everywhere else--and that America would be better off for it. 

Open celebrations of slavery like the sort Hammond offered would not become common until the 1840s. By the eve of the Civil War they were the only "politically correct" things a politician from the Deep South could say about slavery. I refer those interested in the story of how slavery's most radical defenders were able to manipulate and mold southern society and culture until political elites across the region championed slavery as a positive good worth dying for to Freehling's book. The point I would like to make here is a bit more basic. The American south of 1860 was more racist, more despotic, and less tolerant of traditional Americans liberties like freedom of speech than was the American south 1790. If you had pulled Jefferson's grandchildren to the side in 1855 and asked them what the "right side" of history was, they would probably reply that it was the abolitionists, not the slavers, who were on the wrong side of it. 

There is an obvious lesson here for all politicians and activists inclined to talk about "the right side of history" today. History has no direction discernible to mankind. Surveying current cultural trends is a foolish way to predict the future and the judgments of posterity are far too fickle to guide our actions in the present. 


[1] James Henry Hammond, in Congressional Globe, 35th congress, 1st session, appendix, p. 71 (4 March 1858). Hammond's speech is one of the more famous defenses of slavery as a positive good, but it is not the most sophisticated. For that see E.N. Elliot, ed., Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments, comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright on this important subject, (Augusta GA: Pritchard, Abbott and Loomis, 1860).

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, ed.  Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 288-291.

19 June, 2015

Fiction and the Strategist

"The King's library at Buckingham House" from The History of Royal Residences
by William Henry Pines (1819), plate No. 48

Image Source: Wikimedia
When the moment of decision arrives the time for study and reflection has ended. Decisions made under pressure often rely on heuristics, assumptions, and interpretive frames formed long before crisis arrives. Some of these are created through personal experience; others are gifts of genetic inheritance. But a large part of our inner model of the world and its workings comes from what we have read. This is why the strategist should read. Books allow strategists to learn the painful lessons of defeat without the sort of destruction that usually attends it, provide the conceptual tools needed to make sense of a complex world, and helps strategists spot patterns and trends that they might be able to leverage to their own benefit. But--and this is an important but--this is only true if the lessons, ideas, and narratives incorporated into their model of the world are themselves accurate depictions of reality. The fruits of false assumptions about human motivation, war, or politics incorporated in the worldview of the strategist are disaster.

The implication of all this is that one should choose carefully what one reads. This is especially true with works of fiction, whose events and characters are decided by the demands of narrative art, not the connections between cause and effect operative in the real world. The strategist must act in the world of the living, and there is no guarantee that interpretive frames built upon fictions will do him or her any good in it. In many contexts fiction is wonderful--but in the realm of strategy, fiction is far less wonderful than it is dangerous.

My thoughts on this topic were inspired by a short post written by Lt. Col Aaron Bazin, who currently works for the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command. First published at the Strategy Bridge, Bazin's post is a book list titled "What Successful Strategist Read." The 'successful strategists' there referenced are the other officers and civilians who work for the Command and are bookish enough to gather together regularly as a reading group. The list is their creation, and together with the input gathered from a broader circle of professionals in the field, they were able to create a list of 100 or so titles. You can find the full list submitted for the project on this Google Doc page, but Bazin also aggregated the submissions to produce a "top ten" list of the works most commonly suggested:

"Books Critical to Read For Success as a Strategist,"

Source: Aaron Bazin,  "What Successful Strategists Read," Strategy Bridge (12 June 2015)
This list created a large buzz on the social networks I'm a part of, most of which centered on the choices of the fiction side of the list. The high ranking of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game was particularly controversial--controversy I helped stoke by linking to and referencing the essay I wrote a few years back on why Ender's Game did not deserve its place on the official Marine Corps Commandant reading list. I encourage curious readers to read my entire critique, but to summarize the main points in a paragraph: Ender's Game is not a realistic depiction of politics and war. It was never designed to be. This is because its subject is not strategy, but ethics. Orson Scott Card believes that morality is not found in consequences of our actions, but in the intentions that lead us to act in the first place. [And SPOILER NOTE] Ender's Game is a well written thought experiment designed from its first page to prove this point--in essence, it is an especially elaborate and compelling example from extreme cases that moral philosophers use when they write about ethics and morality. Card takes the most heinous and horrible crime of the 20th century--genocide--and imagines a situation where this crime could be committed innocently. To accomplish this Card needs to write a series implausible and improbable events into the plot of Ender's Game that push the boundaries of credulity. As the narrative's main purpose is to set up Card's grand thought experiment, this isn't a real problem. It simply means looking to Ender's Game for meaningful lessons about how conflict, diplomacy, or politicking work in the real world is a fool's errand. If anything, the novel's central lesson is something a strategist should never internalize. Card's ethics could be right in a philosophical sense, but they have little application on the battlefield. In warfare intentions mean nothing and consequence means everything. In our world there is no Commander Graff to whisk the strategist away when the consequences of his or her decisions lead to death or disaster. [/END SPOILERS]

That is my case against Ender's Game in a nut-shell, though I can understand why some of its other themes might make it popular with professional strategists. This is particularly true for the folks who first read the book shortly after it was first published. In a culture enamored with "disruptive innovation" and obsessed with "thinking outside of the box" it is easy to forget that these concepts are relatively new ideas. Ender's "the enemy gate is down" preceded both by two decades. A strategist should have something of a maverick mentality, and Ender's Game seems like a perfect case study in the art.

The problem is that it is nothing of the sort.

I was not aware of this until a few days ago, when a friend participating in this discussion forwarded an essay by Elizier Yudowsky on how to write good fiction that uses Ender's Game as a central case study. Yudoswky poses the following question: how does an author create a believable character who is smarter than himself? After all, if a writer was actually smart enough to create a fool-proof plan for his character to use to conquer the world or rob Fort Knox, why hasn't he used it already? He doesn't because he can't. The author is not actually a genius, and the stratagems of his novels only appear brilliant because authors uses a series of literary devices designed to fool the audience into thinking the characters they read about are true master strategists.  As Yudowsky explains:
Consider the dilemma faced by Orson Scott Card in writing Ender’s Game (the book, not the movie). Card can tell us that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a military genius and great at commanding ships, but this is merely telling. We cannot actually be shown how Ender Wiggin has arranged a set of ships into a 3D pattern, and see for ourselves that this is a more powerfully attacking 3D pattern than we’d have invented. (Especially in the book, as opposed to the movie!)  In order to show Ender being smart, Card had to put Ender in a situation that we as readers could understand was threateningly difficult, and then show Ender’s solution, which would be something we could understand, and see for ourselves was good or clever.
So Card establishes early in the book that when the enemy’s army is all frozen, the winning commander has four un-frozen soldiers open the enemy’s gate to ceremonialize the victory, after which the lights come on and the game is over. Card shows you this happening several times, so that it is there in your memory as a well-established fact. Then Card puts Ender up against two armies at once, odds that not even Ender can beat, gives the dilemma some time to establish plot tension… whereupon Ender gives up on playing by the rules, and just bulls through with five soldiers and opens the enemy’s gate immediately. It doesn’t have to be explained to you how this works. There’s no slowdown for exposition at the moment of climax. All the mechanical rules operating to declare Ender’s victory are already known to you; the story has already shown the ceremony several times so that it’ll be there in your literary memory at the critical moment when you’re shown Ender’s good idea and Card wants you to understand it immediately, without pausing in the story.
When you, as an author, have written similar scenes a few times yourself, it will occur to you that the only reason why this rule exists in the Enderverse - the real reason that a battle in Battle School ends with four soldiers pressing their helmets to the enemy’s gate - is because Card wanted to put Ender in an impossible fight, decided that Ender would fight two armies, asked himself “Now how the heck can Ender win?”, invented the victory condition, asked himself why commanders wouldn’t just vigorously defend their gates, and then decided to write (into the earlier parts of the story) that this was considered a ceremonial final move.

Is this cheating? Yes, but cut Orson Scott Card some slack! He can’t actually show us Ender being a great tactical genius the way a real-life version of Ender would be, because we’re not tactical geniuses. [1] (emphasis added)
It is important to remember here the reason Card needs Ender to be a tactical genius is not because he wants to teach us enduring lessons about zero gravity combat tactics, but because the premise of his novel calls for an innocent but unparalleled genius to be its protagonist. The Battle School does not exist to teach readers universal principles of strategy, politics, or leadership, but to demonstrate the in-universe brilliance of Ender Wiggin. This point can be generalized to all of the ideas, events, and characters of the novel--indeed, to all novels. Storylines are created by the author to manipulate the emotions and perceptions of the audience. This is true for even simple plot points like Ender's maverick tag-line, "the enemy's gate is down":
For a more organic example of cleverness, think of Ender’s slogan, “The enemy’s gate is down!” In zero gravity, Ender tells his troops, you should think of the enemy as being below you, so that you orient yourself with your legs toward them. This presents a more narrow profile, and means that the enemy’s laser guns (which Card has previously shown you!) will freeze your legs (according to rules we’re now already familiar with!) rather than your arms. This doesn’t have the literary artifice of the way Ender wins his battle against two armies; it’s a natural idea for fighting in zero gravity with laser-tag guns. In this case I expect that Orson Scott Card spent a day thinking about how to fight in zero gravity—-or maybe just a few seconds, depending on how smart he was—-and then came up with something that seemed to him like an actual good idea. And then, perhaps, he discarded it, and generated another good idea, continuing until he had the best idea he could give to Ender....
Orson Scott Card does get to specify as a story outcome that Ender’s idea actually works and Ender’s soldiers win their battles. This too is ‘cheating’ in the sense that it makes the story-Ender more intelligent than the actual cognitive work that Orson Scott Card expended to invent the “orient downward” idea. As a reader, you were probably thinking of “The enemy’s gate is down” as that awesome idea Ender had which worked great (because that’s what you’ve been shown), rather than one of twenty possible suggestions for how to fight in zero gravity, none of which have ever been tested.
But at least it’s not a pretentious or an obvious idea that the story shows us as working great. It’s not like Ender said “Try pulling the trigger twice in a row!” and nobody in-story had ever thought of that before. It’s not like Ender tried some ridiculously complicated plot (that is, any plot relying on more than three separate events happening without superintelligent or precognitive guidance) which worked by sheer authorial fiat, a la Death Note. Again, have some sympathy for Orson Scott Card: he can’t actually build a Battle School and test his ideas. It’s at least plausible that if you actually built a Battle School in zero gravity and had the kids fight, they’d do better by thinking of the enemy’s gate as being downward.
Remember the purpose of Ender’s Game is not to prove that Card is smart, any more than Card was trying to prove, by writing Ender, that he himself was a seven-year-old killer.  Ender exists as a tactical genius in-universe; the literary challenge faced by Card is how he can put that fact into text....
Closely related is the second sneaky artifice of only presenting the character with problems that they can solve. Orson Scott Card didn’t put Ender Wiggin in a battle chamber stark naked and alone, because Ender Wiggin couldn’t have won that challenge, so Card elected not to have that be what happened. Maybe Card considered several different challenges for Ender, besides the final battle against two armies, and only picked one that Card could figure out how to have Ender solve. Again, this is a way of creating an in-universe character who is apparently smarter, in-universe, than the outer cognitive work you put in; the author is solving one of many possible challenges, but the in-universe character is demonstrating their ability to handle whatever reality throws at them. [2] (emphasis added)
The problem with using Ender's Battle Room scenes to teach or inspire the "think outside of the box" attitude real strategists might need is that Ender's Game does not provide a realistic model for how maverick solutions are actually created or implemented. Card's model is designed to convince readers that Ender is a strategic prodigy, not demonstrate how prodigious strategy is actually created and used. The events and characters of the novel are literary devices and expedients whose purpose is compelling narrative. It is dangerous to try and pull out of such obvious artifice patterns or lessons that explain the workings of the real world. 

I have been picking on Ender's Game, but it should be obvious that this critique extends to fictional stories generally. Part of what makes the current obsession with Game of Thrones so nauseating, for example, is the insistence of many fans that it is a "realistic" depiction of intrigue or power politics.  An honest look at its storyline reveals that this is simply not true. Most of what happens in the show occurs because the writers wish to elicit a specific set of emotions from the audience, and the plot follows a predictable literary strategy that successfully does just that. The problem comes when viewers internalize plot lines designed for their emotional effect and use them as the frame through which they understand politics and power in the world outside of the show

 John Boyd's OODA Loop, diagram originally drawn by John Boyd, recreated by Patrick Moran (2008).

Image Source: Wikimedia

Readers familiar with the work of strategic theorist John Boyd (which should include the "successful strategists" who inspired this post, for he made it into their top-ten nonfiction list) will understand why this is a matter of such concern. Strategic theory is in essence a theory of decision making. What Boyd understood is that decisions are made in reference to the knowledge we have about the world and the narratives we use to make this knowledge cohere. A strategic actor oriented around incorrect narratives or ideas (or a strategic actor which cannot update these ideas to match changing conditions) faces a severe disadvantage in competitive environments like international relations or war. My concern is that too many of the models and ideas we use to orient ourselves are complete fictions.

Some genres are worse in this regard than others. Fantasy and science fiction ("speculative fiction") seem to be the worse offenders here, for they are the genres least tethered to reality. In these genres the presentation of politics and historical change have no restraints outside of the whims of the authors and tastes of the audience. In such novels the flow of politics and war are slaves to narrative art, and their role in the story is to manipulate the perceptions and emotions of the audience so that the author can make his or her selected themes resonate as powerfully as possible. These books are usually entertaining, often thought provoking, and occasionally are even edifying, but they are suspect sources for understanding how and why strategic actors interact as they do.

Similar criticism could be levied against military and historical novelists, or indeed, actual historians. When historians write their books they use many of the methods well known to authors of more fanciful tales, emphasizing certain facts or events over others to create powerful and emotional narratives. But there are limits to how far one can stretch the historical record. If you are familiar with the period of history in question the author's decisions to deviate from what is known or emphasize certain themes or events over others will be transparent and thus less deceptive. If understanding the cause-and-effect, post-and-counter riposte dynamics of strategy is our aim, then it is to these genres, which tell the stories of actual men and women who responded to actual strategic challenges, that we must turn. 

This is not to say fiction (or speculative fiction specifically) are of no use in the study of war. As Ender's Game evidences, discussions of justice, ethics, and values are natural and useful by-products of such books. These are things men and women who have responsibility for others lives must think about. Fiction also has extraordinary power to capture slices of the human experience that would be otherwise inaccessible. If you want to know why the Great War happened, then I turn you to a historian. If you want to know what the Great War felt like, then it is All Quiet On The Western Front or Farewell to Arms I recommend. 

The final use of fiction is its most common: entertainment. If it is only that, there is no great error in reading political thrillers or fantasy adventures--spending an evening reading such a book is no worse  than idling a few hours playing golf or watching a game of football. But the number of people who orient their internal model of international relations on the rules of golf or football is small. One can only hope that the number of strategists who have internalized the plot lines of Dune or Starship Troopers for their inner model of how politics and warfare is no larger. 

EDIT (22 June 2015): Diane Maye has written a rebuttal to this post that is worth reading:

Diane Maye, "Fiction For the Strategist," Strategy Bride (22 June 2015).
I'll likely post a longer response to her thoughts sometime later this week.


[1] Elizier Yudowsky, "Level 2 Intelligent Characters," Optimize Literally Everything (undated; accessed 18 June 2015)

[2] Ibid.

16 June, 2015

"Its Not The Economy, Stupid!" What Wealth Can't Explain About Chinese Politics

"Shanghai Celebrates the New Republic," from Dongfang Magazine, vol 8, no. 12 (1911)

Image Source: Wikimedia 

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder has an interesting piece up at Dart Throwing Chimp that questions the  importance of 'legitimacy,' a concept social scientists have long used to explain the rise and fall of governments and political regimes. This is not new territory for Ulfelder, but a new Brookings report on wealth, health, and happiness in China prompted him to return to it. To quote Mr. Ulfelder's post:
Well, here is a fresh piece of empirical evidence against the utility of this concept: according to a new Global Working Paper from Brookings, the citizens of China who have benefited the most from that country’s remarkable economic growth in recent decades are, on average, its least happy. As one of the paper’s authors describes in a blog post about their research:
  • We find that the standard determinants of well-being are the same for China as they are for most countries around the world. At the same time, China stands out in that unhappiness and reported mental health problems are highest among the cohorts who either have or are positioned to benefit from the transition and related growth—a clear progress paradox. These are urban residents, the more educated, those who work in the private sector, and those who report to have insufficient leisure time and rest
These survey results contradict the “performance legitimacy” story that many observers use to explain how the Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid significant revolutionary threats since 1989 (see here, for example). In that story, Chinese citizens choose not to demand political liberalization because they are satisfied with the government’s economic performance. In effect, they accept material gains in lieu of political voice. [1]
 I first wrote about the relationship between Chinese economic growth and popular support for the  Communist Party of China (CPC) back in 2013 shortly after I returned from a stint in Beijing. I stated then that the idea the CPC's legitimacy rests on high growth rates "makes intuitive sense. But - and this is a big but - I have never seen anyone present evidence that this assertion is true.... Until then we should recognize this idea for what it is: a part of the received wisdom that is uncritically repeated because so many others seem to think it sounds right." [2]

 I stick by this passage. Two years have passed and I have yet to find any convincing evidence that a large percentage of the Chinese populace supports the regime because it has made them personally richer or happier. I still have not seen any survey data that could support such a claim, nor have I personally met a single Chinese man or woman who cites increasing personal wealth or happiness when asked to explain why they support or like their government. As far as I can tell, this is a just-so-story pulled from a weird mix of 17th century social contract theory and popular Cold War rhetoric that has been applied to a country and a people unmoved by either.  

 Ulfelder is right to see the Brookings report as another nail in this story's coffin. It is convincing evidence that the "wealth per capita brings political legitimacy to the Party" narrative is flawed. I am less convinced that 'legitimacy' itself is a flawed concept. Xavier Marquez describes one of the more compelling theories of legitimacy in the following terms:
Beetham (1992, 2013) attempts to improve on Weber’s narrow model of legitimacy by explicitly abandoning the idea of beliefs in legitimacy and instead speaking primarily about the congruence between shared beliefs and public justifications. On Beetham’s model, to ask whether a political system (for example) is legitimate is to ask not about whether people take the public reasons for action offered by a discourse of justification as their own private reasons for action, but (in the first instance) about observable features of the system that show congruence between shared beliefs and public justifications, such as whether the publicly recognized rules authorizing action are followed (and hence whether action is in accordance with valid authority norms), whether the justifications of the norms regulating authority appeal to widely shared beliefs (and hence whether action is in accord with valid evaluative norms), and whether those subject to authority publicly express their recognition of the relevant authority norms (thus providing evidence of their validity).

The key point in Beetham’s account is that legitimate relationships of domination tend to generate the evidence for their own justification. In his view, the justifications for the norms that govern a relationship of domination are not merely the manipulative rhetoric of the powerful – indeed, Beetham thinks explicit manipulation results not in persuasion but in cynicism, as happened in the communist states of Eastern Europe in the 1980s – but rather claims that are justified by the social facts generated by the system itself. For example, if the powerful claim that their position is justified because of their superior education or political intelligence, then to the extent that the relationship is legitimate, the system in which it is embedded will tend to differentially provide the powerful with greater education and opportunities to develop political intelligence than the subordinate; if the powerful claim that it is only by following the rules that the subordinate will get ahead, the operation of the relationship will make that claim credible. Legitimacy is institutionalized persuasion because legitimate systems manufacture credible claims. (Emphasis added) [3]
 Marquez has serious reservations about whether this conception of legitimacy has convincing "explanatory value," but I'll save these concerns for a later discussion so that we can focus on Ulfelder's more basic critique. One might restate this critique in reference to Beetham's theory of legitimacy as follows:

1. There is no 'congruence' between the claims the Party makes to legitimize its rule to the Chinese people and the social goods the Party actually provides.

2. Despite this fact, the Party's grip on Chinese society is as strong as ever.

3. "Legitimacy" therefore fails to explain China's political stability.

The problem with this critique is that it equates the "wealth per capita brings political legitimacy to the Party" narrative with the concept of legitimacy itself. The narrative is complete crock, of course, and any attempt to explain the Party's success with it is crock as well. This is because this is not the narrative the Chinese government or people use to legitimize the Party. When asked to explain why they support the Party or what they like about the Party's national leaders, the Chinese people do not speak about their personal wealth or happiness, but about the Party's efforts to fight local corruption and injustice, or its role in helping China, as a country and a nation, become wealthy, powerful, and respected on the international stage. Both criticism and credit are given to the Party for what it has done for Chinese society as a whole, not for what it does for individual Chinese. These same themes are also at the center of the Party's own propaganda campaigns and official literature.

This assessment is based off of my personal experiences in China, inferences from studies on Chinese political attitudes like Yang and Marquis's 2013 Weibo study or Pan and Xu's 2015 study on China's political spectrum, and work on Chinese censorship and media control, like that done by Daniela Stockman. I would like to see it rigorously tested by proper opinion surveys specifically designed for this purpose. [4] Any investigation of the "legitimacy" of the Party should begin with what actual Chinese people have to say about the legitimacy of their government. We cannot assess whether popular narratives and attitudes play a meaningful role in Chinese politics until we have a more accurate picture of what these attitudes are. The most popular Western narrative about the legitimacy of the Party is certainly wrong. But we can't nix discussions of legitimacy and the CPC until we discover whether or not Chinese narratives are any better.

[1] Jay Ufelder, "From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy," Dart Throwing Chimp (14 June 2015).

[2] T. Greer, "Notes From Beijing: About that Chinese Social Contract...", The Scholar's Stage (24 August 2013).

[3] Xavier Marquez, "The Irrelevance of Legitimacy,"Political Studies (pub. online April 2015). An earlier version not hiding behind a pay-wall can be found here.

[4] Recents attempt to equate legitimacy with various political beliefs do not go into these specifics, and never discuss China's international standing or sovereignty. See, for example, Niel Munro, Jane Duckett, Kate Hunt, and Matt Sutton, "Does China’s Regime Enjoy “Performance Legitimacy”? An Empirical Analysis Based on Three Surveys from the Past Decade," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (Chicago, 2013).

I find this particular mysterious, for historians usually cite popular frustration over the governing regime's inability to protect and preserve Chinese sovereignty as one of (if not the) central reasons behind every major social protest or revolutionary movement (with the June 4th movement and perhaps the Cultural Revolution excepted) of the last 150 years of Chinese history. It makes sense for this to work in reverse, and patterns in Chinese censorship suggest that it might. The relationship between China's international standing and popular support for the regime is such a rich and obvious target for research that I can barely believe how little has been done with it.

13 June, 2015

Which is Worse: Game of Thrones or the Culture that Watches It?

Image Credit: Wikimedia
It is rare for me to comment at length on contemporary American pop-culture here at the Stage, where I usually reserve myself to discussions of cultural trends found deep in the past or far from American shores. But occasionally I will read a piece exciting or infuriating enough to drag me out of my usual silence. Yesterday Adam Elkus (blogger at Rethinking Security and Zero Derp Thirty, columnist at Slate and War on the Rocks) published one of these essays. It was given the link-baity title, "Why Game of Thrones is Making Us Stupid." An excerpt will give you sense of its main arguments:
Game of Thrones makes people stupid. It is not a guilty pleasure akin to Jackass or The Bachelor, where viewers understand that the show has no substantive content and merely consists of dick jokes or gawking at the sham of 20-30 women claiming to have a “connection” with a single, douchey playboy. It is a form of power pornography in which viewers watch human beings degrade, hurt, betray, abuse, and destroy each other and then compulsively compete to see how can the most clever gif or IMGUR image out of such depravity. They derive entertainment and satisfaction out of the show’s spectacle of power, domination, and cruelty and then turn such depraved fictional acts in a kind of cultural language and cultural shorthand that they communicate to each other with and even use to describe real-world horrors and cruelties such as the current wars in the Middle East. [1]
Readers who interact with me on other forums, comment threads, or e-mail groups where discussion of American pop culture are par for course are aware of how much I despise Game of Thrones, the books that inspired it, and the adulatory sub-culture that has sprouted up around it. It should not be surprising to find that I agree wholeheartedly with the tenor of all of Mr. Elkus's arguments, and the substance of most of them. Elkus's piece is long and far-ranging, and I recommend you read all of it. His thoughts on Game of Throne's invasion of American political rhetoric and culture--especially our inability to discuss atrocities that are occurring in the real world without dumbing them down to a series of Game of Thrones memes--is particularly on point.

There is one place where I disagree with Elkus. He describes the appeal of Game of Thrones in the following terms:
Game of Thrones is part of a genre of television that I roughly dub “Machiavellian porn.” We watch it not because we really find the acts so disturbing and despicable but because we want to see powerful men and a few select women outsmart, humiliate, hurt, and impose their will on others. Hence the rape scenes of Game of Thrones are a feature, not a bug. We watch men spend hours cruelly imposing their will and humiliating other men, and then they do so to women in another setting. And this is not exclusive to Game of Thrones by any means. Frank Underwood, for example, humiliates, hurts, and mistreats both his mistress and many of his political allies. Like competence porn, Game of Thrones no doubt fills some deep, sublimated need. Why everyone from the Reddit bro set to Oberlin Critical Studies majors delight in such a spectacle is beyond me, but I don’t imagine it is too different from how our supposedly uncivilized ancestors enjoyed bear-baiting, public executions, gladiator fights, and other similar spectacles. [2]
I am afraid this is altogether too charitable. There probably is some appeal in watching the clever and strong dominate other schemers who thought they were the clever and strong. Displays of mastery impress us. But there is much more to it than this--in writing the Song of Ice and Fire series upon which Game of Thrones was based, George R.R. Martin relies on a regular narrative pattern designed to produce a specific emotional reaction from his readers. It works like this: do everything possible to get readers emotionally invested in a character, and then abuse this character as graphically as possible. [3]

It is hard to describe viewers' attraction to this pattern as anything but voyeuristic. I use the word a bit loosely here--Game of Throne's promiscuity is one of its hooks, of course, but that is only part of the 'voyeuristic' impulse that drives the show. The allure of Game of Thrones is the allure of seeing the worst of humanity, viscerally depicted, without leaving the comfort of your living room. The extreme levels of violence, torture, and sex, or the constant betrayals and ‘plot twist’ deaths present in the story-line do not have any other motive than astonishment and emotional shock. Much like the Saw films, Game of Thrones allows the viewer to revel in depravity from afar. Game of Thrones is not as gratuitous as Saw and the other Gorno flicks, but its perversion cuts deeper because the viewer has a stronger emotional connection with the characters. This emotional manipulation is (from Martin's perspective) a brilliant device to keep readers turning pages and one of the undeniable draws of his series. Once it is established that any character is fair game for an unexpected rape, torture session, or grotesque death, the reader is compelled to keep reading to see if  his or her favorite character is not next on the chopping block.

The TV series follows the same narrative strategy as Martin's Ice and Fire novels, save that  atrocities are depicted more graphically and plot elements are regularly changed to become even more shocking or depraved than what is found in the original source material. (One imagines the writing team's conversations: “Lets see, Martin wrote about incestuous sex next to a dead body after a funeral in a church, huh? We need to make that more edgy. Hmmm…. I know, lets make it incestuous rape next to a dead body after a funeral in a church!)

Fans of the show do not react well when offered this explanation of Game of Throne's popularity. No one likes being called a voyeur, especially a voyeur of human depravity. Apologists are quick to arise, and their defense almost always revolves around one of two claims. The first is that Game of Thrones simply presents world as it "really" is, and it is this "realism" that both justifies the show's content and explains its popular appeal. Those who contrast the series with the tamer fantasy fiction of yore (especially Lord of the Rings) take this approach explicitly; the endless stream of "how Game of Thrones explains real world event X" articles are an implicit defense of the same point. The second defense apologists offer is that the viewers enjoy the series because its characters are complex, multi-layered, and compelling, and it is these elements of the story that keep viewership numbers high. Both lines of argument are really quite disturbing--far more disturbing than the claim that people enjoy Game of Thrones simply because it appeals to the baser demons of their nature--and offers a sad window into the worldview of America's chattering class.

The simplest response to claims that Game of Thrones presents an accurate picture of human society is to point out that this is false. As Sady Doyle noted a few years back, Game of Thrones presents a highly selective view of the Medieval past:
Yes, it’s true; in Ye Olde Medieval Europe, female tweens were oft wed to the grown-ups. A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia. [4]
Doyle understates the point. Conspicuously missing from Game of Thrones's many royal deaths are the kind that littered the true middle ages. Few nobles of Westeros are killed by influenza, alcohol poisoning, or being thrown from their horse. Every one of Martin's unmarried female characters is raped (or barely escapes it), but if killing and pain must be portrayed, it would be just as realistic to have one of these heroines married off in peaceful circumstances, only to die nine months later as they gave birth. But death by something as mundane as fever or childbirth has no place in the world of Game of Thrones. Both the novels and the TV series are committed to a distorted depiction of a very small sliver of pre-modern life.

This is not to downplay the role of violence or the scale of atrocity of human history. Apologists are quick to point out that the Iliad or Biblical books like Numbers and Joshua depict events just as barbarous, and no one (outside of a few crazies at places like Columbia) objects to those.  But the comparison really works to Game of Throne's discredit. Barbarous and retrograde as they may be, the Iliad and the Pentateuch present a wider array of emotions and human motivations than can be found in all of the Song of Ice and Fire books combined. This is why they are still read all of these millenia later. They capture a enough of the human condition to resonate across centuries. This is an achievement Martin's shallow world of vice-driven characters could never hope to attain.

This is an important point worth emphasizing. This is a blog about history, politics, and strategy. My field of expertise is East Asian history--but more specifically, the role that war and empire has played in its history. Examining the atrocities and tragedies of the past is what I do. In this line of research it is easy to forget the real cost of wars and turmoil, to reduce suffering to statistics, battle diagrams, and theoretical abstractions. I fight this temptation by reading memoirs. My rule is that I read one at least once every other month. I find a personal account of someone who lived through the worst of what human beings have done to each other so that I do not forget what abstractions in the mind of strategists become in the world of flesh and smoke. I've read dozens of them. They are accounts of soldiers, diplomats, refugees, and survivors. They do not read anything like Game of Thrones. There are powerful--even beautiful--novels like Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan that depict events far more horrifying than anything that has happened in Westeros, yet somehow muster an emotional range that exceeds what Game of Thrones can offer. There is a realness to these books that Game of Thrones cannot hold a candle to--and when you meet those who write these kind of books you realize how insulting such a comparison is.

Image Credit: Good Reads

 Some of these books are bleak. Others are much less so. Many are edifying. A few are funny. But none were meant to be entertaining. One cannot write honestly--that is, realistically--about these things with the aim of entertainment. Any depiction of torture, death, and rape designed to entertain is one far removed from reality.

This is not a problem unique to Game of Thrones. It is a flaw that pervades fantasy as a genre, and most of the other big authors writing today are guilty of it. [5] But the problem is worse for Game of Thrones because of the intensity with which its chosen horrors are depicted. This is what sets Game of Thrones apart from the Iliad or the Bible. Game of Thrones is gratuitous in a way Homer never could be. It is gratuitous in a way accounts of real world horrors never are. And yet we acclaim its authenticity and realism! A comparison with Tolkien here is actually quite instructive. Tolkien did experience barbarity and inhumanity personally. He knew humanity at its worst and most wretched, and he wrote Lord of the Rings in the midst of an even more ruthless conflict. He and his generation knew what words like ‘cruelty’ meant in a way that George R.R. Martin and his audience never could.

This is the most disturbing part of the 'realism' refrain. The viewers of Game of Thrones are mostly white, educated, and upper class. Of all of the demographics in America, those who watch Game of Thrones lead the lives which are furthest removed from the barbarity depicted in the show. Game of Thrones does not correspond to any ‘reality’ upper-class Americans have ever experienced. There is nothing in their experience which should lead them to believe that this is how human beings actually deal with each other. Violence is at global lows, prosperity at a  global high. Yet somehow modern Americans, living at the height of the richest, most productive civilization in history, have succumbed to the idea that “real” can only be found in the gruesome, the lewd, and the heinous. 

This dark inclination extends far past Game of Thrones, infecting most pop-culture items pedaled to the "mass intelligent." It applies with equal force to almost everything HBO and the other  high-end drama channels produce. AMC's award winning Breaking Bad is a perfect example. More so than the Game of Thrones leads, Walter White is a character educated, upper-class Americans can relate to. Like them, he is smart, white, and comes from a rather tame background. But unlike them he is thrust down into a world of violence and perversity that is utterly unlike anything they have experienced--or indeed, would ever want to. But the desire to see that world up close remains, and Breaking Bad, just like Game of Thrones, allows its viewers to experience the intrigues and evils of the underworld without having to bear any of its consequences. It is depravity voyeurism wrapped up in a neat, high end package. 

This is what separates Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and their sad lot from the less intelligent gorno flicks like Saw, which are designed to elicit a very similar set of emotions from its viewers. The complexity of the plots, cleverness of the machinations and power ploys of the leads, and superb characterization by the actors allow viewers to claim that the real allure of the show are its compelling characters and the story-lines, not its gratuity or darkness.  This is silly. If the story and characters were strong enough to stand up on their own, then why is the rankness (or the nudity) necessary in the first place? The answer is that these things are necessary. The depravity of Game of Thrones is a large part of its appeal. It is what shocks viewers, keeps them returning in suspense, and fools them into thinking they have a realistic depiction of the world before them.

Why they think it is realistic is the great mystery. It is an answer I have not found. We’ve reached a point where a story will not be hailed as authentic, deep, and “real” if it is not also dark, gritty, and violent. Why is a world of grisly barbarity the only setting for moral drama modern audiences find acceptable? Apologists who defend the books on the strength of its compelling characters and gripping storyline need to answer this question before their claims of Martin's literary brilliance can be taken seriously. The same question should be put to the loyal defenders of the more graphic and (frankly speaking) more perverted television version. It could be put to America's clever chattering class as a whole:

 Why this thirst for a ‘reality’ that is alien to the values and experiences of the audience? In 21st America, why do so many seek their escape in the dark ages?  


[1] Adam Elkus, "Game of Thrones is Making Us Stupid," Zero Derp Thirty (11 June 2015). 

[2] ibid.

[3] Much of what follows is taken from past comments I have written about the show in various forums, especially the comment thread of Razib Khan's post, "Game of Thrones Gets Too Real?", Unz Review (5 May 2014). This particular phrase is a slight reworking of something Peter Lee said in a twitter conversation on the same topic.

[4] Sady Doyle, "Enter Ye Myne Mystic World of Gayng-Raype: What the “R” Stands for in “George R.R. Martin,” Tiger Beatdown (26 August 2011).

[5] I remember reading Brian Sanderson's uber-novel Way of Kings shortly after finishing a series of memoirs from the Vietnam War and scoffing at the way the protagonist Kaladin reacts to the torrent of death that surrounds him. Anyone who has read anything by a former soldier will instantly recognize how ridiculous the character's response was to the events of the novel's opening chapters.

06 June, 2015

The Extraordinary Thing About WWII Is What Happened After

This video is a bit less than 20 minutes long. It has been making the rounds on Facebook and other social network sites, so it is possible you have seen it already. If you have not, you should. It is incredible.

Numbers surrounding the Second World War are always ripe for debate, of course, and if you view the comment thread on Vimeo you will see that the debates have already  started. The only revision I would make to the video does not concern the Second World War at all, but the An-Lushan Rebellion (755-753) fought a thousand years before it. This rebellion is often included in lists of the world's deadliest wars and it shows up when Mr. Halloran compares the Second World War's death toll to that of earlier conflicts of equal consequence.  

While it was surely a destructive event, I do not think there is proper evidence to prove that it was that destructive. The 36 million casualties number comes from Tang Dynasty censuses that showed the population of China just before and just after the rebellion, with 36 million being the difference. Many of those 36 million people surely died in the rebellion, but many more fled and moved to safer, more remote locales. The number should be properly understood not as the number of civilians killed, but as a measure for how badly the Tang government's ability to monitor and control the Chinese population it governed had been damaged. It was a war from which the Tang would never recover. 

In this sense, it was a very different kind of conflict than the Second World War, a war whose legacy is now seen mostly in the realm of memory. The An-Lushan Rebellion was (from a Chinese perspective) a war that ravaged the known world and involved almost all of the important military powers of its day. While bright emperors like Xianzong (r. 805-820) would try to pull the Tang back together in the decades after the rebellion, the dynasty's decline was terminal. The forces unleashed by the war eventually led to the complete disintegration of Tang power. This kind of collapse was not seen after the Second World War. The power that suffered the most was to emerge from the conflict as the world's second strongest. But it was not just the Soviet Union that showed remarkable resilience--humanity as a whole weathered the destruction of two continents and the death of 70 million people barely worse for wear. This is a truly remarkable feat--perhaps one only possible in today's Exponential Age. The Tang never recovered from the An-Lushan rebellion; Central Asia never blossomed like it did before the Mongol conquests; no new Roman empire rose from the ashes of the old. But the Second World War was not a precursor to a new dark age. Under the old rules of static civilization--where wealth was not created, but taken--catastrophes of this scale required centuries of recovery before old heights could be reclaimed. The history of the post-war world dramatically illustrates that this is no longer the case.

05 June, 2015

Newsflash: The Chinese Play Chess Too

Japanese geisha playing weiqi (go) c. 1800.

Image Source: Wikimedia
This post should be considered an extended footnote of my series on what has been written in English about the history of Chinese strategic thought. [1] As I sifted through the materials I needed for that review,  I came across one trope about Chinese culture that appears again and again when Westerners try to unearth the secrets of Chinese strategy. It is the idea that the essence of Chinese strategic culture can can be found in the game of weiqi.

The most distinguished voice to expound this view is that of Henry Kissinger. Here is what Mr. Kissinger had to say about Chinese strategic culture in his well received book On China:
The Chinese have been shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik and students of a strategic doctrine distinctly different from the strategy and diplomacy that found favor in the West. A turbulent history has taught Chinese leaders that not every problem has a solution and that too great an emphasis on total mastery over specific events could upset the harmony of the universe. There were too many potential enemies for the empire ever to live in total security. If China's fate was relative security, it also implied relative insecurity-the need to learn the grammar of over a dozen neighboring states with significantly different histories and aspirations. Rarely did Chinese statesmen risk the outcome of a conflict on a single all-or-nothing clash; elaborate multiyear maneuvers were closer to their style. Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage. [2]

Chinese strategy stresses "subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage." How does Kissinger know this? Because the Chinese really like to play weiqi. As he says: 
This contrast is reflected in the respective intellectual games favored by each civilization. China's most enduring game is wei qi (pronounced roughly “way chee.’ and often known in the West by a variation of its Japanese name, go). Wei qi translates as 'a game of surrounding pieces"; it implies a concept of strategic encirclement. The board, a grid of nineteen-by-nineteen lines, begins empty. Each player has 180 pieces, or stones, at his disposal, each of equal value with the others. The players take turns placing stones at any point on the board, building up positions of strength while working to encircle and capture the opponent's stones. Multiple contests take place simultaneously in different regions of the board. The balance of forces shifts incrementally with each move as the players implement strategic plans and react to each other’s initiatives. At the end of a well-played game, the board is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength. The margin of advantage is often slim, and to the untrained eye, the identity of the winner is not always immediately obvious.
Chess, on the other hand, is about total victory. The purpose of the game is checkmate: to put the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed. The vast majority of games end in total victory achieved by attrition or, more rarely, a dramatic, skillful maneuver. The only other possible outcome is a draw, meaning the abandonment of the hope for victory by both parties. [3]

This sort of reductionism is not unique to Kissinger. In the past few years the readers of the National Interest, the Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, and the Indian Defense Review have all been told that weiqi is the secret to understanding Chinese foreign policy. [4] The claim has been repeated in mass market paperbacks and in serious academics journals alike. [5] Each of these outlets describes the relationship between Chinese strategic culture and weiqi more or less in the same terms that Kissinger does, complete with the contrast between Chinese weiqi masters and their Chess playing Western counterparts. 

There is only one problem with all of this: the Chinese play chess too.

I don't mean that in the "given that they all learn English in high school, China has the largest English speaking population in the world" sense. I mean in it in the "this has been an integral part of Chinese culture for a millennium" sense. The Chinese have been playing chess since the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years ago. This means chess has been a cultural touchstone in Chinese society for just as long--if not longer--than it has been a played and analyzed by Europeans. 

This is a picture of a Chinese chess (xiangqi) board given to me by a friend who lives in Beijing. As you can see, the game has some cosmetic differences from Western chess; the pieces are not carved figurines as is the case in Western and Indian chess variants, but are chips of stone or wood with the character for each figure engraved upon it. In Chinese chess pieces are placed on the intersections of lines, not the squares between them. Some of the pieces have strange names to the Western ear. There is no tower in this game, for the Chinese kept to the original meaning of the Persian word rook (ruhk) by calling the horizontal moving pieces in the corners chariots. Likewise, the diagonal moving pieces flanking the king are not called bishops, as in English, or jesters, as in French, but elephants. Some rule changes are more substantial. A river bisects the Chinese chess board, and only some pieces have the ability to traverse it. The king must remain within a nine point square (his 'fortress') and is protected not by an all-powerful queen, but two body-guards. Chinese pawns can movie sideways but not diagonally, and they receive no promotion for reaching the back rank. Most entertainingly, the Chinese have added a wonderful piece not found in Western chess: the cannon, capable of jumping over other pieces, leaping across the board in one move.

Despite these differences, the dynamic of the two games are quite similar. In both pieces are differentiated and ranked. The goal of each game is checkmate, the total victory achieved when the opposing king cannot escape capture. Both have a clear "opening," "middle game", and "end game" stage and the types of moves and priorities associated with each stage of the game are similar. In both Chinese and Western chess the players seek to establish a superior position early in the game, often focused around controlling the center, have a middle game that centers on sacrifices and other forced sequences of moves ("combinations") to create a more favorable balance of power, and an end-game where "zugzwang" impasses are both common and fatal. Both variants are ultimately a contest of elimination, and because destroying high value pieces is so critical to both Chinese and Western chess, in both games great advantage goes to those who hold the initiative. In both, tactical moves like 'forks' and 'skewers' (which force the enemy to choose between the loss of two valuable pieces) are the hallmark of skillful play.

Given the descriptions of Western and Chinese approaches to strategy usually bandied about in these discussions, the few meaningful differences between the playing style demanded by Western and Chinese chess games might be surprising. There are less pawns in the Chinese version than in the Western one, and they come already deployed near the center of the board. This means elaborate pawn structures have no place in Chinese chess, and by extension, the "patient accumulation of relative advantage" pawn skeletons represent have no place in it either. It is striking how much faster the game of Chinese chess develops. Unlike in Western chess, where powerful pieces like the rooks and the queen are held in reserve until the middle or (more rarely) the end game, Chinese chess is a race to place the most powerful pieces (the chariots and cannons) in forward positions as quickly as possible. Many talented players judge the strength of their position less on the location of their pieces than on the number of turns it took to get them there. There is a decidedly offensive bias to such a game. Decision is sought early and often. The end game also is shorter and more often decisive: what Westerners call "stalemate" is in Chinese chess a declared a victory for the side that delivers it.

In comparison to weiqi, Chinese chess has a less distinguished place in traditional Chinese culture. Weiqi was lauded in the early days of the Warring States by the Confucian scholar Mencius.[6] By the 4th century AD the game was being called a "conversation of the hand" (手談) by Chinese intelligentsia. In late imperial times it would be known as a one of the "four cultivated arts" of a Confucian gentleman, a sure marker of gentility and good breeding. It was the kind of thing Confucian scholars and dilettante intellectuals would play between poetry contests and drinking games. Today it is still associated with intelligence, inner cultivation, and upper class refinement.

Chinese chess has always had more of a plebian flavor. If the local gentry played weiqi during their social visits, you can be sure old Uncle Zhou down the street was playing chess. The populist trappings of Chinese chess might account for its popularity; if gambling games like mahjong are put to the side, chess is easily the most played board game in China (though if the uber-popular Killers of the Three Kingdom maintains its current market share for another two decades it might be able to displace it). Walk down any public Chinese park and you will pass dozens of chess games being played, each surrounded by a crowd of old men cheering, jeering, and interjecting their preferred move. I've only met a few men in China who don't know how to play Chinese chess; I have had a much more difficult time finding anybody (man or woman) willing to play weiqi. As a friend told me earlier this week when I discussed this with him: "In China all boys play chess. Only the really smart ones care about weiqi."

If the defense analyst trying to discern the contours of Chinese strategic culture applied the same essentialist logic to Chinese chess that Kissinger has applied to weiqi, he would conclude that the Chinese think about war and strategy much like Westerners do, except with greater emphasis on bringing over-whelming offensive power to the fore, less focus on elaborate multi-step stratagems or complex formations, and a strong preference for complete and unambiguous victories. He would, in other words, draw a picture of the Chinese strategic tradition exactly opposite to the image presented by those who claim that weiqi holds the secret to Chinese strategy.

This is an inherent weakness of all attempts to boil down Chinese strategic thought to its essence through the intensive analysis of one event, person, doctrine, or cultural tradition. Alas, this is exactly how most of these essentialist readings of Chinese strategic culture work! The author finds one or two wars or military operations from China's past, couples them with quotes from a famous thinker in the tradition, and declares that he has found The True Chinese Way of War (TM). Kissinger keeps to form in On China , moving his discussion from weiqi to an analysis of the Sunzi  to justify his description of Chinese strategic culture. [7]

It is too easy to cherry-pick in opposition. The observer wishing to argue that Chinese strategic thought is obsessed with finding decision in battle, offensive power, and total victory (let's call this hypothesis the Chinese Chess Way of War) need look no further than the most famous military narrative in Chinese history, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The enormous popularity of this Ming Dynasty epic novel and the stories associated with it are not unlike that of Chinese chess--you must work very hard to find any man or woman, be they poor or rich, who can't relate in detail the stories and exploits of the Three Kingdoms heroes, despite the low status fiction has held for most of Chinese history. Contrary to Kissinger's claim that the Chinese tradition places "subtlety" above "feats of heroism," this is a novel that celebrates little else. Its pages are full of physical feats and clashes of individual heroes and villains of the sort we Westerners associate with Greek epics like the Iliad. Its center-point is the Battle of Red Cliffs, a clash of arms that terms like "decisive battle" were invented to describe. It concludes with the destruction or submission of every warring kingdom to the new Jin Dynasty--what we moderns might call "regime change."  The vision of victory idealized in the book is a total and absolute one.

I would not underestimate the impact of this book on Chinese--indeed, all of East Asian--popular culture. Despite the number of "Sunzi for businessmen" books out on the market, I have never personally met anyone from Asia who claims that the strategies of the Sunzi have helped them succeed in business or life pursuits. I have, however, listened to a friend discourse on how all of the principles he uses in management were modeled on the leadership of Liu Bei, protagonist of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Three Kingdoms is influential, and I am ready to argue that it has had as large an impact on Chinese attitudes towards war as any book written in Chinese. What I am not ready to claim is that it contains the essence of Chinese strategic and political thought. Whether or not there is an enduring Chinese Way of War is an empirical question. We can only know the answer to that question by analyzing dozens--perhaps hundreds--of wars and operations from across Chinese history to see if patterns arise. Until such a study has been completed, I think it is wisest to table attempts to find any True Chinese Way of War. China is a civilization. What is more, it is a civilization with 3,000 years of recorded history. Over that time thousands of Chinese generals have warred, hundreds of emperors have ruled, and dozens of thinkers have written about strategy and war. Drawing from this heritage to justify one's opinions about modern China is a lot like citing verses from the Bible: if you look hard enough you can find anything in there. It is better to recognize that the Chinese strategic tradition has within it many different voices and lessons, some in sharp contradiction with each other. It is up to  individual Chinese leaders to decide what in this tradition is useful to them.

This does not mean attempts to understand Chinese strategic thinking in terms of weiqi are useless. They can be quite useful. David Lai's essay on weiqi and Chinese strategy argues that a weiqi game is a good way for Westerners to understand the rather difficult Chinese concept of "strategic efficacy," (shi 勢), and with this I agree. [8] Garet Olberding recently suggested that the terms used in medieval weiqi manuals can help us understand what these same terms meant when they were used in rather terse campaign narratives found in the histories of the Tang and Five Dynasty periods. [9] I think this is brilliant. Attempts like these to use weiqi to help Westerners understand Chinese concepts and language are excellent. It is when analysts move past this, contending that weiqi contains the essence of Chinese strategic thought or is the secret to Chinese foreign policy, that these arguments go awry. This isn't how the real world works. History and politics will never be as simple as a game of chess--or weiqi.


[1] T. Greer, "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)," The Scholar's Stage (23 May 2015), and  "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)," The Scholar's Stage (26 May 2015).

[2] Henry Kissinger, On China (New York, Penguin Books, 2012), 22.

[3] Ibid. 23-24. Incidentally, Kissinger is incorrect. There is a third option, known as stalemate, where the losing side is able to maneuver themselves into a position where there are no legal moves available to them, forcing a draw. Discerning the connections between this ability to stave off certain defeat with legal technicalities and Western strategic culture is an exercise I will reserve to the reader.

[4] Alexander Vuving, "China's Grand Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea," National Interest (8 December 2014); "Points of Control: China's Weiqi Strategy in the South China Sea," Indo-Pacific Review (15 November 2015); David Gosset, "Weiqi vs Chess," Huffington Post (3 April 2015); Keith Johnson, "China's Oil Rig Gambit," Foreign Policy (9 May 2014); Henry Sanderson and Indira Lakshmanan, "China Adopts Board game Strategy to Blunt U.S. Pivot to Asia," Bloomberg (9 December 2013); Ranjit Ral, "China's String of Pearls--Is Male Next?" Indian Defense Review (24 July 2013).

[5] Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Hegemon (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015); Anna Samson, "The Grand Weiqi Board: Reconsidering China's Role in Africa," Security Challenges 7, No. 1 (Autumn 2011), 61—78.

[6] Mengzi 11:9. For a fascinating overview of the literati's relationship towards weiqi over the millenia, including the full translation of several amusing anti-weiqi tracts, see Paolo Zannon, "The Opposition of the Literati to Weiqi in Ancient China," Asian and African Studies 5, (1996), 70-82

[7] Kissinger, On China, 24-31. 

[8] David Lai, Learning From the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China's Strategic Concept, Shi (Carslise Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004).

[9] Garet Olberding, "Dynamic Divisions: The Tactics of Weiqi 圍棋 and Strategic Space in Imperial China,” Journal of Chinese Military History , no 2 (Dec. 2014), 91-139. See pp. 92-95 for a fair critique of the forced style of weiqi reductionism discussed here, which among other targets, calls out Kissinger by name.