30 May, 2015

Signal Like Its 1711: James Addison on Partisan Signaling, 18th Century Style

Portrait of Joseph Addison (1672-1719), by Godfrey Kneller, c. 1712

Image source: Wikimedia
I sometimes complain  that 21st century American political culture has been hijacked by hyper-partisan signaling. It is easy to forget that this is not a new complaint. You can find political signaling spirals rearing their ugly head many times in humanity's past--at the height of the antebellum republic's Second Party system, during the intense debates of the Four Colors of Joseon Korea, and of course, in Early Modern England:
My worthy Friend Sir Roger, when we are talking of the Malice of Parties, very frequently tells us an Accident that happened to him when he was a School-boy, which was at a time when the Feuds ran high between the Round-heads and Cavaliers. This worthy Knight being then but a Stripling, had Occasion to enquire which was the Way to St. Ann’s Lane, upon which the Person whom he spoke to, instead of answering his Question, called him a young Popish Cur, and asked him who had made Ann a Saint? The Boy being in some Confusion, enquired of the next he met, which was the way to Ann’s Lane, but was called a Prick-eared Curr for his Pains, and instead of being shown the Way was told, that she had been a Saint before he was born, and would be one after he was hang’d. Upon this, says Sir Roger, I did not think fit to repeat the former Question, but going into every Lane of the Neighbourhood, asked what they called the Name of that Lane. By which ingenious Artifice he found out the Place he enquired after, without giving Offence to any Party. [1]
 That is an excerpt from Joseph Addison's essay, Spectator 145, published first in a Whig daily named the Spectator on the 14th of July, 1711. Mr. Addison was one of the most talented essayists of the 18th century, praised by his contemporary Samuel Johnson with the words: "whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison." [2]

 But Addison was not just a gifted writer. He was also a bitter enemy to all displays of "Party Spirit" -- what today we would call 'partisanship.'  The noxious influence  hackery has on human life is a constant theme of his works. The "Malice of Parties," Addison rightly understood, is that in an age where the "Party Spirit" reigns all of life takes on a political cast. Everything we do--what we wear, who we spend our time with, the words we speak--inescapably becomes a political statement. The humorous story Addison relates above shows how tiring it can be navigate a world where every word is politically loaded. Anyone who has tried to draft a press release for today's politically correct public can relate.  Indeed, what is most striking about Addison's complaints is how modern they sound. Consider his thoughts on how political signaling deforms good taste:

If this Party Spirit has so ill an Effect on our Morals, it has likewise a very great one upon our Judgments. We often hear a poor insipid Paper or Pamphlet cryed up, and sometimes a noble Piece depretiated by those who are of a different Principle from the Author. One who is actuated by this Spirit is almost under an Incapacity of discerning either real Blemishes or Beauties. A Man of Merit in a different Principle, is like an Object seen in two different Mediums, that appears crooked or broken, however streight and entire it may be in it self. For this Reason there is scarce a Person of any Figure in England who does not go by two contrary Characters, as opposite to one another as Light and Darkness. Knowledge and Learning suffer in a particular manner from this strange Prejudice, which at present prevails amongst all Ranks and Degrees in the British Nation.
As Men formerly became eminent in learned Societies by their Parts and Acquisitions, they now distinguish themselves by the Warmth and Violence with which they espouse their respective Parties. Books are valued upon the like Considerations: An Abusive, Scurrilous Style passes for Satyr, and a dull Scheme of Party Notions is called fine Writing. [3]

An "abusive, scurrilous style passes for satire."  If that doesn't describe 21st century America, what does?

Joseph Addison's full essay can be read online here. It is only a few pages long, but every page has a passage or two whose parallels with modern life pop to your attention. Reading it is worth a few minutes of your time.


[1]  Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, ed. Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004), 123.

[2] Samuel Johnson, "Life of Addison, 1672-1719" in Harvard Classics, vol 27: English Essays, Sidney to Macaulay (New York: Bartlby.com, 2001), or. published in Johnson's Life of the Poets (1783).

[3] Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, 125

28 May, 2015

Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)

This post is the second in a series. I strongly recommended readers start with the first post, which introduces the purpose and methods of this essay. That post focused on what is published in English on Chinese strategic thought. This post focuses on what has been written about Chinese strategic practice--that is, the military, diplomatic, and political history of China's past.

A map depicting the most famous military campaign in East Asian history, decided at the Battle of Red Cliffs (208 AD) in modern-day Hubei.
Source: Wikimedia


In the West, the study of traditional China has been the domain of the Sinologists. For reasons that are entirely natural but also too complex and lengthy to explain here, this has meant that historians studying traditional China have focused their efforts on the history of Chinese philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and religion, as well as the closely related fields of archeology, linguistics, and philology. The much lamented decline of political, diplomatic, and military history across the American educational system had little perceivable effect here, for there was not much political, diplomatic, or military history to begin with. [1]

It should not be a surprise that many of the most important books on Chinese military and diplomatic relations have not been written by historians, but by political scientists. The interest political scientists might have in these topics is obvious, for theirs is a field devoted to the scientific and theoretical exploration of politics and international relations. The real mystery is why it took so long for political scientists to start writing about traditional East Asian international relations in the first place (most of the important books are less than a decade old). The answer to that question is not too hard to find if one looks at the books being written. The new crop of scholars writing these books hail from the international relations (IR) side of the science, and are part of a growing critique of the grand IR theories the discipline traditionally used to make sense of international affairs. [2] These theories were for the most part developed and tested in reference to traditional European great power politics.  One of the central barbs of these critiques is that we cannot know if the grand theories of generations past describe truly universal laws  or simply describe patterns unique to European history if these theories have not been tested on case studies outside of the last few hundred years of European politics. In response, scholars have searched for case studies outside of Europe with which they can test these theories or find the data needed to develop new ones entirely. East Asia, a region filled with bureaucratic states thousands of years before their development in the West, was a natural place to start.

The problem these researchers repeatedly ran into was that their fellow political scientists were not familiar enough with East Asian history to follow their arguments and there were no good primers on the topic to refer them to. So theses scholars ended up writing the historical narratives others would need to read before they could assess their theoretical arguments. Thus Victoria Tinbor Hui's chapter on the Warring States (453-221 BC) in War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe is one of the best narrative accounts of Warring States great power politics; Wang Yuan-kang's Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics contains one of the only accounts of Song Dynasty (old style: Sung, 960-1279 AD) foreign relations and one of the most fluid narratives of the Ming Dynasty's (1368-1644) adventures abroad; and David Kang's East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute has the most coherent discussion of the Chinese "tributary system" written in the last five decades. Historians have lauded these books for the amount of historical research that was poured into them [3], and I second their appraisal. As a field IR should take Asia more seriously and it should engage with historical sources more thoroughly than is common practice. However, I cannot help but lament the circumstances that pushed IR scholars to adopt these methods. Hopefully historians feel some shame over the sorry state of the field and how difficult it is for outsiders to approach their research.

One example will suffice to prove the point. I mentioned that Wang Yuan-kai's War and Harmony has one of the few complete accounts of the Song Dynasty's international relations. As far as scholarship goes, the amount of material devoted to this topic is middle-of-the-road: there are some periods where scholarship is more plentiful--say, the Late Ming, or the Qing (Ch'ing, 1644-1912), and there are some other periods where the scholarship is much more scarce--say, anything about the Tang (T'ang, 610-907 AD) or Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties. It is an interesting period to work with, for it is one of the few times in Chinese history when China was faced with external enemies whose military power was undeniably stronger than her own. It was the time of some of the most famous military figures and most horrible military disasters in Chinese history.  It also saw some of the most historically influential debates about how to manage civil-military relations and the relationship between economic prosperity and military power.

 The student who would like to know more about the military history of this era might start with Dieter Kuhn's  The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China, Frederick Mote's Imperial China, 900-1800, or other generalist studies that try to integrate war and foreign relations with the economic, art, intellectual, social, and environmental histories of the era. Most of these books (Mote's excepted) treat each of these subjects topically, and it is very difficult to grasp the flow of events--something necessary for those hoping to find connections between strategic theory and strategic practice--by reading them. To find a truly detailed and comprehensive narrative we must turn to the Cambridge History of China, the standard reference for Chinese political history from the ancient past to the modern age. The first thing one notices about this series is that each volume is incredibly expensive (+$170 a pop); the second is that the series is not finished yet. Volume V (published in two parts) concerns Song China. Part one is devoted to a detailed political narrative, the second to topical review essays. If the student has the money to buy the first part (or is lucky enough to have library access to it) and the fortitude to slog through its 1,100 pages, he will have acquired the background knowledge necessary to understand the political context behind Song military strategy. The second part has a fairly long essay devoted to the dynasty's military history, but as it was only published two months ago (and several years after Wang wrote War and Harmony), I have not had the chance to read it and must abstain from judgement.

Those who would like smaller (or cheaper) summaries of China's wars are in luck only if they can accept very small summaries. This is the type of thing you will find in Peter Lorge's War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795 , which by dint of the large time scale it covers can only offer a very condensed version of any one dynasty's struggles. Books like China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries or Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China seem like they might provide the solution but in truth they are but a collection of individual essays on much narrower topics (e.g. "Barbarians or Northerners: Southern Sung Relations With the Khitans," or "Sung Embassies: Some General Observations"). These essays are interesting and valuable, but most are so narrow in focus that those who do not already have a command of the literature have trouble knowing what this or that particular piece adds to the larger puzzle. The great majority of articles and book chapters on Song foreign policy or military history face one of these two problems: either they cover too much material in too condensed a form to provide proper case studies, or they cover topics so narrow that only those who specialize in the period can fully appreciate the importance of their arguments.

The only book I can think of that hits the sweet middle between these two extremes is David C. Wright's From War to Diplomatic Parity in Eleventh-Century China: Sung's Foreign Relations with Kitan Liao , a 290 page history of Song-Liao relations, including the many wars the two powers fought in the Liao dynasty's early days. Sadly, it also costs several hundred dollars, and lacking the prestige of the Cambridge History of China series, is far less likely to be in found in the average university library.  

The intrepid explorer of Song military history is thus relegated to sewing together bits and pieces of others works together until he has built up a coherent narrative in his head. The books he might use in this quest are quite varied:  obscure titles like John Chaffee's Branches of Heaven A History of the Imperial Clan of Sung China have a surprising amount of military narrative inside them; essay collections on Chinese military history (Warfare in Chinese History, Chinese Ways in Warfare, Debating War in Chinese History, Warfare in Inner Asian History, etc.) have many interesting descriptions and accounts of individual battles, campaigns, or foreign policy debates; a section of Patricia Ebray's biography of Song Huizong talks about military things, for being defeated by the Jurchen is one of the things Huizong did. The only study of Song military history as a whole that I have been able to find is an unpublished PhD dissertation from 1997.[4] Finding extra information past this means digging through journal articles, hunting down books no longer in print, and piecing together side details and foot-notes found in books on  Song economics, society or intellectual history, or on their traditional enemies and rivals, the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols.

It is possible I missed a title or two in this review--I freely admit that the Song dynasty is not my area of special expertise. But that is more or less the point. Finding and reading things about Chinese military strategy is what I do. We should not expect your average strategic studies or IR theorist with no background in Sinology to wade into this morass and pull out more than I have. If I have not been able to find it, odds of them finding it are even smaller.

It is worth it to stop and remember the type of questions strategic theorists might be trying to find answers to if they turned their eye to a period of Chinese history like the Song. Some might be quite China-specific: if the Seven Military Classics advocate a consistent set of strategic principles (as some scholars argue they do) [5], is there evidence these principles guided the actual decisions made by Song dynasty statesmen or generals? Does China's geography mean that all Chinese leaders inevitably share a specific set of strategic concerns and priorities (as other scholars have argued)? [6]  Some might be more general: are there universal patterns in the way states respond to or perceive rapid shifts in power (ala the Humiliation of Jingkang)? Is there a relationship between the autonomy  military commanders are allowed and a state's ability to strike upon a successful strategy? How do states move from indecisive war to sustainable peace?

I could name more but I think this is sufficient to prove the point.  Song China could be easily used as a data point or a case study in research programs across the fields of strategic theory, security studies, and international relations. But before this can happen researchers need histories of the Song dynasty's foreign policy and military campaigns that are easy to find and easy to understand without special training. Overviews are not enough, nor are descriptions of political institutions or structures sufficient. Strategic history is the study of decision-making. To understand how and why individual decisions were made, narrative histories are an absolute necessity.  Ideally the narratives would extend over entire wars or larger periods of peace, and would be detailed enough that scholars would not have to search through monographs and journal articles on unrelated topics in hopes of stumbling across the nuggets of information they need. [7]

A particular problem is a lack of what I call 'mid range' studies of Chinese military, diplomatic, and political history. There are a host of studies with a small and narrow focus, but as stated earlier, these episodes can be difficult to use in isolation. In contrast, there is also a large amount of research on fairly large topics and timescales--for example, the relationship between Chinese military strength and nomadic state formation on the Inner Asian steppe across Chinese history. This is another line of research that began with controversies outside of Sinology proper.  First debated by anthropologists and archeologists who studied nomadic pastoralists, the central question in dispute is how a society with resources as diffuse and social hierarchies as unstable as those seen in nomadic societies could ever create a power structure strong enough to create lasting empires and confederations (like the Mongol Empire). The controversy quickly spilled into Chinese history, as it was on the Chinese frontier the greatest of these empires were always born, and some have hypothesized that it was interference from the Chinese on the Inner Asian steppe that created them. Whether or not this hypothesis is true is a question hotly debated. To address it, entire books have since been written describing the patterns and logic of Sino-nomadic relations, many of which cover the entire scope of Chinese history. [8] This type of research leads to sweeping conclusions that are usually quite valuable, but also usually quite difficult to test, for many of the mid range studies describing how individual dynasties dealt with the nomads have yet to be written.

Prioritizing what to write first is a difficult task. China has had a long history. Over the course of this history Chinese generals, rebels, kings, and statesmen have waged innumerable wars. Some of these wars are more important than others, however, and the list of wars that play a prominent place in the Chinese historical imagination is manageable. Individual lists will differ, but I would say that the conflicts discussed most in China's strategic literature and portrayed most often in contemporary Chinese pop culture include:
  • The Imjin War (also called the "Japanese Invasions of Korea," 1592-98)
  • The Second Sino-Japanese War (also called the War of Resistance Against Japan, the China-Japan War, or simply World War II, 1937-1945)

Of all of these, only the Korean war has received a proper treatment in the West. [10] Some of these conflicts, such as the Taiping Rebellion, have been treated adequately in comparison to others on the list, but not in comparison to other global conflicts of a similar scale (20 million dead, war waged for ten years, and battles fought in fronts 1,000 km apart) or historical import (arguably the ultimate cause of the Qing Dynasty's collapse, a dynasty that ruled 600 million people). Others on that list--such as the Han-Chu contention or the An Lushan rebellion--do not have a single English book written about them, despite their prominent place in China's historical memory. [11]

 Undoubtedly the most egregious omission is the lack of published research on the wars of the Three Kingdoms. As I wrote in an earlier post:
No war has captured the imagination of the Eastern mind like that waged between the "Three Kingdoms" that rose from the ashes of the Han Dynasty's collapse. The travails and victories of Wei, Shu, and Wu have been told again and again throughout Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history. Their story has been told through many mediums. It first emerged in medieval shadow plays and Song dynasty operas, by the 15th century it was adapted into a historical novel that holds a similar place in the Chinese literary canon that plays like Julius Caesar and Richard III have in the West, while in the 21st century it has inspired a multi-billion dollar video game franchise, twenty different Japanese manga, two of the most ambitious Chinese television dramas to air on CCTV,and the most expensive Asian film (and the most lucrative) ever produced. The words, names, and strategies of these war's most famous figures have become household idioms. I have yet to meet a single Chinese person who cannot relate--at length!--stories about these legendary generals and statesmen.

Famous conflicts of Western antiquity (such as the Peloponnesian or Punic Wars) receive scholarly and popular treatment several times a decade. In contrast, there has never been a political, military, or narrative history of the entire Three Kingdoms Era written in English. Scholars like Rafe de Crispingy have published scholarly monographs and biographies that significantly improve our understanding of the times, but these are not enough [they are also very expensive--his superb biography of Cao Cao is selling on Amazon for $200]. This is the most celebrated conflict in all of human history! As far as the English speaking world is concerned, its history has never been told.
There is some reason for optimism in all of this, however. Kenneth Swope wrote a few years ago that we live in a "golden age of Chinese military history." [13] He overstates the point, but I can understand his enthusiasm. Unlike the situation a few decades ago, in the 21st century Chinese military history does get written. Over the last decade one or two monographs on Chinese military history have been published every year. The Chinese Military History Society was founded in 2008 and they have been operating a biannual journal (The Journal of Chinese Military History) since 2012. The growing historical sub-field of 'frontier and borderland studies' has given several smart researchers the space to write what are essentially military histories in an academically fashionable manner. The rise of frontier studies, combined with the renewed interest in Chinese institutional and economic history that came with the 'great divergence' debate, has also led to an upsurge in writing on China's pre-modern contacts with the outside world, making the scholarship on Chinese diplomatic history much more robust now than it was but two decades ago. [14]

But this is too little and it is being published too slowly. Horrid gaps in the literature remain. Advances in military history have not been met with equal advances in political history; I have yet to see a Society of Chinese Political History or a Journal of Politics in Chinese History organized to fill lacunae in this sub-field.  The dearth of narrative political histories and political biographies is notable and frustrating. As Wang Wensheng laconically observes in his own literature review of the scholarship late 18th century China: "most historians and social scientists tend to focus more on the explanatory power of structures while remaining less informed about the significance of events." [15] Studies of structure provide needed context, but without a narrative account of political events Chinese history will remain inaccessible to most outside of the field, and of little use to strategic history. I trust I do not need to start spitting off Clausewitz to convince readers of the importance of this topic. A range of very foolish  misconceptions about Chinese leadership and decision making will persist until this topic is taken more serious by established historians. 

This point is worth restating. Both the security studies scholars and the security studies hacks have arrived on the scene, and circumstance demands that they write for interested audiences whatever they can find about the Chinese strategic tradition. They will do this irregardless of the quality or quantity of the scholarship available to them. Historians and Sinologists bear a great deal of responsibility for the errors these writers present as fact.


This is where the state of the literature is now. What should be done to move the state of the field forward?

The first, and probably the most important thing is for Sinologists and scholars studying traditional East Asia to realize that there is a much larger audience for their expertise than they have previously considered. A common complaint in East Asian Area studies circles is that their part of the world is given a short shrift in textbooks and seemingly has no popular appeal. To a large extent is no longer true. The rise of comparative and global history and the prominence of the 'great divergence' debate has turned a great amount scholarly of attention to China's historical development. The trends in political science and strategic studies discussed in earlier sections of this post have put China at the center of those fields' research agenda, and contemporary world events mean that China is now a more popular topic among the educated 'general readers' of America than it has ever been. The interest is there. It is the job of the East Asianists to respond to it.

I am not convinced they have done a very good job of it. Sinology remains a discipline of letters and monographs written by specialists with years of expertise to be read by other specialists with years of expertise. Plenty of useful knowledge--say narrative accounts of political history--is assumed. Such assumption must end if the discipline is ever going to open up to those outside its narrow confines. This is not to say that every Sinologist must pull a John Delury, tracking down a prominent journalist and co-writing a mass market paperback with him (though his example is not a bad one to follow, for those so inspired). All I am asking is that scholars with substantial knowledge and experience be cognizant of the interest historians, social scientists, policy makers, and the general public have shown in the topics discussed above and shape their writing and research accordingly. If those writing about classical Greece or 19th century America can do it, so can specialists in East Asian history. And if they don't do it--well, the demand is there, so someone will. Chances are high that those someones will do a rather shoddy job.

My second recommendation is for the colleges and institutions where strategic studies is taken seriously. Professors and fellows at these place say that understanding China and East Asia is important. It is probably time for these institutions to put their money where their mouth is. A quick look at the most prominent departments betrays the problem: the University Reading Centre for Strategic Studies, International Security Studies at Yale, Temple University's Center for Force and Diplomacy, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, Ohio State University Military History program, the Marine Corps War CollegeJohn Hopkin's SAIS Strategic Studies Program, and Missouri State's Defense and Strategic Studies Department have no permanent faculty or fellows with background in Chinese military affairs; the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft, Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, National Defense University, and the King's College's War Studies Department have no permanent faculty or fellows whose expertise in Chinese strategy stretches back before the 1970s (the U.S. Naval War College  and the Air War College are two of the few to pass the test). [16]

I gave the Sinologists a hard time above, but in all honesty they face some heavy career incentives to write and research for an exclusive audience on topics far removed from war and power. One of the easiest ways to change this is to provide researchers interested in strategic topics a stimulating environment where students and colleagues are are also interested in this line of research, or even better, the security of an established career path pursuing it.

A related piece of advice applies equally to universities and grant providing institutions: create strong incentives to translate secondary materials related to the Chinese strategic tradition. Both Chinese and Japanese scholars have written libraries of material on Chinese strategic theory and military history. Lacuna that exist in English have long been filled in these languages, sometimes with hundreds of volumes. Translation of this material has been slow. This is partly because translations do not accrue quickly on CVs (you cannot publish individual chapters in journals or present them at conferences), and partly because translations of secondary literature often have less prestige associated with them than original contributions to the day's most pressing debates. I doubt this situation will change unless the incentive structure that has produced it changes first. Departments chairs should bestow special favor on those who have taken time to translate secondary works, and concerned institutions should create grants devoted solely to the translation of secondary material on Chinese (or perhaps East and Southeast Asian) strategic thought or military history.

As is the case with all sub-fields and academic disciplines, the growth of the scholarship on Chinese strategic thought will ultimately depend on the quality and audacity of the scholars who write it. Research feeds on controversy, but controversy will not come until scholars start filling in the gaps discussed earlier in this essay's first two parts.  I would suggest that the following areas are a particularly ripe and natural place for this work to begin:

  • Conduct in-depth studies of ancient Chinese texts from a strategic perspective. Michael Handel's study of the Sunzi showed that it was possible to incisively analyze ancient Chinese military works without fluency in classical Chinese, and there are dozens of other works from this era that cry out for analysis of equal excellence. Those who do read classical Chinese might focus their efforts on identifying common themes and concepts strung across the corpus, or detailing the major debates that divided it. 
  • Translate the works and memorials of the famous Chinese statesmen and strategists of mid and late imperial China. Unlike the ancient philosophers, these thinkers did not speculate on metaphysics or discourses on ethics, often priding themselves on their attachment to practical affairs. There is little need to convince scholars to prioritizes the strategic aspects of their thought--it just needs to be translated. I would start with Wei Yuan's 1826 anthology The Collected Essays on Statecraft of the Great Qing.
  • Determine which thinkers, episodes, and strategic concepts from China's past are most commonly cited today. This could be done through analyzing Xi Jinping's speeches, PLA manuals, book publisher sales records, or through other methods more innovative and fantastic than springs to my mind. Research here might prove useful for prioritizing research elsewhere (or bringing entirely new research questions to scholars' attention). 
  • Write narrative military and political histories. The wars listed above would be a good place to start. So would the biographies of figures such as Tang Taizong (626-649), the Yongle Emperor (1360-1424), Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), or other political and military leaders of their type.
There are logical next steps that would follow--for example, a book titled Makers of East Asian Strategy: From Sunzi to the Industrial Age, or something of that sort to match the famous essay collection Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age--but it is not necessary to look that far ahead when the ground-work has yet to be broken.  

Readers may notice a prominent topic missing from this list--indeed, a theme thusfar absent from my review. That is whether or nor not there is a "Chinese Way of War." A significant amount of research has been driven by this question. [17] This survey should make clear why I distrust almost all of it. Whether or not there is a Chinese Way of War is a question we simply cannot yet answer. Most who try to do so reference only a sliver of the vast and often conflicting corpus of Chinese strategic thought, and prove it with case studies from an equally small sliver of an even vaster history. Answering that question is truly an enormous undertaking. It would require evaluating thousands of battles, hundreds of texts, and incorporating research in fields--like cognition and cultural psychology--that have barely breached existing strategic theory. We simply do not have the scholarship we need to even begin this project.  (I can think of less than ten Anglophone scholars I would even trust to have an opinion on the matter--and most are too wise to write a book about it). My estimate is that if the current rate of scholarly activity holds steady in the coming years, we will not be able to find a conclusive answer to the question of whether or not there is a Chinese Way of War for another three decades. Attempts to do so before hand are at best misguided, at worst irresponsible. 

This is a rather dour note to end this essay on, but an honest one. It is an unfortunate fact that we are unprepared to answer many of the questions most relevant to contemporary affairs or most interesting to scholars from outside the realm of Sinology. The basic building blocks that will be used to construct convincing models of Chinese politics, strategy, and diplomacy have yet to be uncovered. Commentators and essayists will continue to misrepresent and misunderstand China's past, and Sinologists will keep complaining about it. But it is hard to judge these writers too harshly. They do the best that can be expected with the material they are given. If Sinologists wish to hold those who opine on the role diplomacy, war, and statecraft has played in Chinese history to a higher standard then they must be prepared to provide the scholarship that will make such a standard possible.


Posts at the Stage on Chinese History:

Geography and Chinese History - The Fractured Lands Hypothesis

A Short History of the Han-Xiongnu Wars Part I

A Short History of the Han-Xiongnu Wars Part II

Meditations on Maoism: Ye Fu's "Hard Road Home"

Posts at the Stage on Chinese Strategic Thought:

The Radical Sunzi

Not Everyone Likes Sunzi

Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?

Troubles With the Chinese Military Tradition

Posts at the Stage on Contemporary Chinese Politics and International Relations:

Bargaining With the Dragon: Some Straight Talk on Hong Kong

The Road to Beijing Runs Through Tokyo

Can China Liberalize in Time? Watch Shandong

A Few Comments on China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Crisis

The Next 40 Years in 1200 Words


[1] The upswing of this elitist inclination with intellectual history is that Sinology was in many ways shielded from the ravages of "post-modern" history, and the field was able to accommodate social and cultural history with minimal influence from critical theory and other deleterious methods or approaches of the "cultural turn."

[2] The European Journal of International Relations devoted its entire September 2013 issue to what one participant called "the poverty of grand theory." A review of its contents will provide readers with the full list of complaints about the role of grand theory paradigms in modern IR scholarship.

[3] Joanna Waley Cohen, "War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe by Victoria Tinbor Hui," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 37, no 3 (2007), 507-508; Alan T. Wood, "War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe by Victoria Tinbor Hui," American Historical Review 111, no. 4 (2005); David Graff, "War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe by Victoria Tinbor Hui," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 69, no. 3 (2006),  491-492.

  "Wang Yuan-kai’s Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics", H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable Reviews 4, no. 3 (2012), " roundtable discussion, participants: Victoria Hui-Tinbor, Kirk Larsen, Peter Perdue, Morris Rassabi, John Wills, Wang Yuan-kai.

Valerie Hansen, "International Relations Discovers the Chinese Tribute System – to All of Our Benefit," H-Net Reviews (September 2011); Robert Hellyer, "East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute by David Kang," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient  55, No. 1 (2012), 197-199.

Praise for these books has not been universal, however, and what criticism of Kang's book exists has been particularly fierce. For a recent example, see Peter Perdue, "The Tenacious Tributary System," Journal of Contemporary China (published online as a preprint, 2015).

[4] Tsang Shui-lung, "War and peace in northern Sung China: Violence and strategy in flux, 960-1104," PhD Dissertation, University of Arizona (1997).

I should note that there are other dissertations on the Song Military published, but they focus on the state-soldier relations, not military campaigning or strategy.

[5] Alastair Ian Johnson, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

[6] Michael Swaine and Ashley Tellis, Interpreting China's Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp, 2000).

[7] The objection might be raised that this is simply how historical research is done. To an extent this is correct. But with the military and political histories of other regions this is so much easier. I have not had to open a single journal article or get a hold of book that costed more than $50 in order to answer basic questions about Rome's military history and imperial policies, but it would be laughable to try and attempt the same feat with military and diplomatic history of the Warring States or Han Dynasty.

[8]  Some of the most important entries in this debate include Antoly Khazanov, Nomads and the Outside World (Cambridge University Press, 1984; 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1994);  Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC-1757 AD (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989);  Jagchid Sechen, and V. J. Symons, War and Peace along the Great Wall (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989);  Nicloa Di Cosmo,, "Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History," The Journal of Asian Studies, 53, no. 4 (Nov. 1994), 1092-1126, and "State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History," Journal of World History 10, no. 1 (Spring, 1999), 1-40; Philip Salzman, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, And The State (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 2004);  David Sneath, The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia (New York: Columbia University, 2008); Nikolay Kradin, "Heterarchy and Heirarchy Among Ancient Mongolian Nomads," Social Evolution and History 10, no. 17 (March 2011), 187-214; J. Daniel Rogers, "Inner Asian States and Empires: Theories and Synthesis," Journal of Archaeological Research 20, no. 3 (September 2012), 205-256; William Honeychurch, Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire: Archaeology, Mobility, and Culture Contact (Springer 2014), along with numerous essays and books on individual nomadic peoples and empires.

[9] Readers may wish to compare this list with the list of "40 important battles of Chinese history" composed by Endymion Wilkininson, Chinese History: A New Manual, 3rd ed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 315-317.

Many stories and battles from the Spring and Autumn (771-453 BC) and Warring States (453-211 BC) periods are also cited regularly, but these are not presented in the original sources or in their later representations as full campaigns with operations that can be parsed and analyzed, but as individual episodes teaching some strategic or moral principle.

[10]  Edward Smith vigorously disputes this sentiment in his study of Maoist strategy, noting, "Those authors that examine the role of China in the war, specifically the PRC, Beijing, and Mao Zedong, approach the topic from a diplomatic and political history and pay little attention to issues of the CPVF. These topics included the implementation of revolutionary guerrilla warfare in the conflict, or why the CPVF, and by extension the PRC, was able to successfully force the US-UN." Smith, "From Books on the Shelves to Boots on the Ground: Mao Zedong's Revolutionary Guerrilla Strategy in Context," MA Thesis, University of Central Oklahoma (2013), 6.

[11] On English sources concerning the Han-Chu war, see note 7 of the first post in this series. Luckily the primary source upon which our knowledge of this war is mostly based, Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian, has been translated into English and thus can be studied by anyone with the discipline to string Sima Qian's many biographies into one coherent account.

The An Lushan War is discussed in most general histories of the Tang Dynasty, as it is arguably the most important event of the era and one of the most destructive wars in human history. Chapter length summaries are found in David Graff's Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900 (New York: Routledge, 2001),  Edwin Pulleybank's Essays on Tang and Pre-Tang China (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2001), and of course The Cambridge History of China, Volume III: Sui and Tang China. Pulleybank wrote an interesting volume on the run-up to the war, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), but stops short of providing an actual history of the war, promising to cover it in a second volume which he sadly never got around to writing.

[12] T. Greer, "Troubles With the Chinese Military Tradition," The Scholar's Stage (23 March 2013).

[13] Kenneth Swope, "Review: Military Culture in Imperial China," De re Militari (April 2009).

[14] A review of monographs published in the last two years suggests the general trend: Wang Zhenping, Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia: A History of Diplomacy and War (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013); Jun-pang Lo, China As a Sea Power, 1127-1368 (NUS Press, 2013); Kenneth Swope, The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty, 1618-44 (New York: Routledge 2013); Wensheng Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Mid Qing (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014); Kal Filipak, Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History (New York: Routledge 2014).

I own Wensheng Wang's book, but have thusfar not been able to get a copy of the others.

[15] Wang, White Lotus Rebels, 10.

[16] I collected this data by manually clicking on the faculty biographies of every single professor and fellow listed on the department webpages linked to in the paragraph. If these pages are not updated then my assessment of each institute may be wrong. (Also, clicking through 300 faculty web pages is quite time consuming and I don't get paid to do this). If I accidentally missed a key professor or fellow at your department, leave a note below and I will edit what I've written. 

[17]  Howard L. Boorman and Scott A. Boorman, "Strategy and National Psychology in China," The Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Sciences (1967), 143-155; John K. Fairbank, "Introduction," in Frank A. Kierman, Jr., and John K. Fairbank, eds., Chinese Ways in Warfare (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974); Edward S. Boylan, "The Chinese Cultural Style of Warfare," Comparative Strategy 3, No. 4 (1982),  341-366; Jonathan R. Adelman and Chih-yu Shih, Symbolic War: The Chinese Use of Force, 1840-1980 (Taipei: Institute for International Relations, 1993); TJ Christensen, "Chinese Realpolitik: Reading the Chinese World View," Foreign Affairs 75, No. 4, (September/October 1997), 37-53; Alastair Ian Johnson, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Shu Guang Zhang, "China: Traditional and Revolutionary Heritage" in Ken Booth and Russell Trood, eds., Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific Region (Houndsmills, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1999); Andrew Scobell, “Soldiers, Statesmen, Strategic Culture and China’s 1950 Intervention in Korea,” Journal of Contemporary China 8, no 1 (1999), 477-497; China and Strategic Culture (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002); "Is There a Chinese Way of War?", Parameters 35, no. 1 (2005), 118-122; Mark Burles and Abraham N. Shulsky, Patterns in China's Use of Force: Evidence from History and Doctrinal Writings (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2000). Tiejun Zhang, “Chinese Strategic Culture: Traditional and Present Features", Comparative Strategy 21, no 2 (2002), 73-90; Kenneth Johnson, China's Strategic Culture: A Perspective For the United States  (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006); William Mott, Shih vs Li: The Philosophy of Chinese Military Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmallan, 2006); Thomas Mahnken, Secrecy and Stratagem: Understanding Chinese Strategic Culture (Syndney: Lowy Institute For International Policy, 2011); Harold M. Tanner, "Big Army Groups, Standardization, and Assaulting Fortified Positions: Chinese “Ways of War” and the Transition from Guerrilla to Conventional War in China’s Northeast, 1945-1948" Journal of Chinese Military History 1, iss 2 (2012), 105-138; Michael Pillsbury, "The Sixteen Fears: China's Strategic Psychology," Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 54, no. 5 (2012), 149-182;  Andrew Wilson, "The Chinese Way of War," in Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future (Stanford: Stanford Security Center, 2014), 108-130.

26 May, 2015

The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)

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

Note to Readers: This essay has been divided into two posts, both fairly long. The amount of work it took to put these two posts together accounts for the dearth of posts over the last few weeks. Anticipate a return to a more regular posting schedule once the second post has been published


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.


In previous posts I have described the Chinese strategic tradition as a "great conversation" between disparate voices and viewpoints often locked in bitter debates over basic fundamentals: the nature of power and control, the true sources of national strength, the utility of armed force, the respective merits of offense and defense, the proper aims of an armed campaign, the relative importance of prior planning or strategic thinking to military success, and so forth. While not the first voice to be heard in these debates, the Sunzi Bingfa (Sunzi's Art of War, old style: Sun-tzu Bingfa) was one of the most important and is today by far the best known in the West. Barely a new year goes by without a new translation--perhaps only the Analects, the Yijing (I Ching), and the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) have been translated into English more often. This small book has also seen intensive study in the West, where it is canonical in war studies syllabi and Marine Corp reading lists. It is regularly analyzed in general histories of strategic thought [2], has been rigorously compared to Western strategic thinkers [3], and more rarely (but most profitably) has been studied in the context of ancient Chinese thought [4]. Even if we eliminated all of the rather spurious books and articles that have attempted to apply the Sunzi's precepts to business, sports, or social climbing, we would be left with a small library of essays and books chapters applying concepts found in the Sunzi to various tactical, operational, and strategic challenges. 

It is important to remember through all of this that both in its own day and afterwards the Sunzi was not the only voice in the debate.The strategic principles included therein were hotly contested in ancient China, with many thinkers directly attacking the Sunzi and its precepts. [5] Traditionally, Chinese scholars looking back on the intellectual history of these times described this period of Chinese history as the "hundred schools of thought" (zhuzibaijia), for it was a day when many different philosophical schools flourished (and competed) side by side. However, we must not forget that these hundred schools flourished in an age of conflict and chaos--a period whose regular name is "Warring States." As the name might suggest, the Warring States period (475-221 BC) was an age of vicious and near eternal warfare. During this time any thinker who wanted the attention of those in power had to be able to explain to anxious monarchs how to secure their kingdoms from the threat posed by foreign invasion. This meant that every single Chinese philosophical school had to propose what today we might call a coherent theory of victory, and all thinkers who wanted royal patronage would have to at least touch on war and diplomacy.

The good news is that most of these works have been translated into English. Indeed, we live in a golden age of translation and archaeological discovery. Our understanding of pre-imperial China has increased more in the last twenty five years than in the hundred years that preceded them. In the last two decades alone we have seen new translations of the Mozi, Dao De Jing, Analects, Seven Military Classics, Huainanzi, Lushi Spring and Autumn, Sun Bin Art of War, Shizi, Guanzi, Mencius, Xunzi, Yi Zhou Shu and the so called "lost classics" of the Yellow Emperor and the Guodian tomb texts. When combined with the existing translations of the Stratagems of the Warring States, the Book of Lord Shang, Gui Gu Zi, Han Feizi and fragments or excerpts from the works of thinkers like Shen Buhai and Jia Yi (not to mention earlier translations of many of the works mentioned above), there is a considerable corpus of works that touch upon strategic questions available to anyone who speaks English.

The downside is that very little has been done to analyze or systematize what these works have to say. [6] The myopic obsession with the Sunzi has hindered those with a background in strategic theory from the rich potential of the rest of the corpus, while the majority of scholars who specialize in these texts focus their research on the ethical, metaphysical, or epistemic claims made inside them. Thus we find ourselves in an odd situation where figures like Xunzi (old style: Hsun-tzu, d. 238 BC)--the most sophisticated thinker of the pre-imperial era--has had dozens of books and essays written about his thought, but none (to my knowledge) devote significant attention to Xunzi's theory of victory, despite the fact he thought the topic of armed conflict enough important to devote an entire treatise to it.

That these thinkers have been lost in the shadow of the Sunzi is a tragedy. This is not only because they expanded the debates over war to topics the Sunzi only hints at (such as the relationship between economic and military power, for example, or whether the desires of the people should determine strategic priorities), but also because the strategic approach adopted by the rulers who ended the Warring States era and established China's first great empires closely mirrored (and in some cases were directly inspired by) the thinkers who explicitly criticized the Sunzi and the 'military methods' (bingfa) school of thought. To put matters crudely: the men who conquered and unified the world the Sunzi was written for did so by following methods that were directly opposed to its precepts. [7] Western ignorance of Chinese history and lack of interest in other schools of thought mean that most of us do not have an inkling of what these methods were or if they might be relevant today.

An important research question that arises quite naturally from this discussion is how much influence these various schools of thought have in modern China. This question remains unanswered. Edmund Ryen's translation of Yan Xuetong's Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power is a good start on our search, but there remains much to explore. Quantitative analysis provides a promising approach; I would be very interested in seeing the number of times various texts are cited or referred to in open-source PLA publications, or in the speeches of prominent figures like Xi Jinping.

Less promising has been the pace of translation of China's classic historical texts. The important texts are the Zuo Commentary, the "four histories" (Sima Qian's Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, Ban Gu's Han Shu, or Book of the Han, Fan Ye's Hou Han Shu, or Book of the Later Han, and Chen Shou's San Guo Zhi, or Records of Three Kingdoms) and perhaps Sima Guang's Zizhi Tongjian, or Comprehensive Mirror in the Aid of Government. These histories were not works of strategic theory per say, but they are essential for understanding the later development of the tradition. The role these histories have played in the development of the Chinese strategic tradition can be compared to the role Thucydides' Peloponnesian War played in the development of realist thought in the West--save that passing examinations on Thucydides has never been an official requirement for employment by Western governments, while exams on these books were a mandatory for all members of the Chinese civil service for several centuries.

 The historical figures and episodes described in the classical histories (especially the Zuo Commentary and Shiji) provided later Chinese thinkers with a common set of reference points through which to debate diplomacy and war. [8] The Chinese have ever been a precedent citing people, and you must work hard to find a memorial, recorded debate, or strategic treatise written in imperial times that does not reference these books profusely. They are simply necessary reference works for understanding Chinese political and military thought. All the sadder that an adequate translation has only been provided for one of them! Sima Qian's masterwork has actually been given two superb translations: the first, penned by Burton Watson in the 1960s, is a literary translation in 3 volumes that includes all of the chapters dealing with Qin (old style: Ch'in, 221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) history; the second, carefully put together by a team led by William Nienhauser, is a heavily annotated scholarly translation that is projected to be nine volumes in total once it has been completed.

The other histories have received less favorable treatment. The last complete translation of the Zuo Zhuan was published in 1872; the Han Shu, Hou Han Shu, and Zizhi Tongjian have received only partial translation, some quite old and usually limited to a chapter or two, while the San Guo Zhi has not been translated at all.

A new translation of any of these books would be a huge endeavor. The Tongjian clocks in at 20 volumes in modern Chinese, and an English set would be the size of a small library. However, if academia mustered the resources to publish 40 volumes of Al-tarabi's History or the Sanskrit Clay Library's 60 volumes of material, then there is no reason a translation of the classical Chinese histories cannot be organized.

China's literary heritage, especially the great classical novels, is a another source of strategic insight, to a degree which is perhaps unique to China. After the close of the Warring States era and the rise of the scholar-bureaucracy in the mid Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), the social distinction between civil (wen) and martial (wu) grew very sharp and it became less fashionable for the philosophically inclined to discourse on the principles of war. Popular interest in the topic remained, however, and the demand to meet this interest was eventually filled by story-tellers, playwrights, and novelists. The great classical novels are the cream of this crop, hailed with the literary acclaim Westerners give The Illiad, but with the pop-culture presence of The Lord of the Rings.  Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) famously cited examples from the classic Ming Dynasty (1368-1664) adventure novel, Shui Hu Zhuan (old style: Shui-hu Chuan, variously translated as Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh, or All Men Are Brothers) when describing his own ideas on strategy and warfare. [9] I am unaware of any attempt to find or list the strategic insights Mao claimed could be found in the novel, though I would not be surprised if a Chinese scholar has taken a stab at it. I have come across Chinese attempts to draw out and categorize the strategic principles found in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Guo Yanyi, old style: San Kuo Yen-i) and cannot help but laud the effort. [10] Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the source of many of the recurring idioms and concepts of the Chinese strategic tradition (e.g. kong cheng ji, "the empty fortress ruse") and of all texts associated with the tradition it is probably the one that can claim greatest popularity and widest exposure across all sections of Chinese society in contemporary times. These novels portray popular attitudes towards war and strategy with an openness more dignified genres never could, and for this reason alone they are worth serious study. Thus far this study has mostly been done by those with a background in Chinese literature; unsurprisingly they have analyzed the novels in literary, not strategic, terms. [11]

This brings us to the development of strategic thought in mid to late imperial China (defined here as 960-1912 AD). Though discourses on war were not as popular with the great Neo-confucian thinkers of late imperial times as they were with their ancient predecessors, history did not stop when Neo-confucianism rose ascendant. China still faced external security threats and the specter of internal rebellion. Literati involved in government--and at this time those who governed were almost all literati--still had to face the harsh questions of strategy. Their writings in response to these challenges could be quite voluminous. Strategic theory in late imperial times was most often expressed in what today we might call 'grand strategic' terms, with a focus on the social and economic basis of state power. These are the aspects of power with which mandarins living far from the frontier were most familiar with, and they were safely within the sphere of the 'civil.' There is a temptation to fault these men for their relative neglect of operational art and campaign strategy, but I do not think this should count too much against them. The treatises and memorials they wrote were quite sophisticated (and seem even more so when compared to what was being written by medieval European contemporaries), and had a lasting impact on the course of Chinese statecraft.

The state of English scholarship on these men and their doctrines is opposite of the scholarship on ancient Chinese strategic thought. Here many books and articles dissecting their theories of statecraft and describing their policy proposals have been written, but there is a dearth of translated material. [12] Thus every book on the Song Dynasty (old style: Sung, 960-1279 AD) has a lengthy section on Wang Anshi's (d. 1086) political program, but there is no complete translation of the celebrated series of memorials in which he laid this program out. The same pattern extends right up to studies on the cusp on the modern era. Wei Yuan (d. 1858), perhaps the most seminal strategic theorist of Qing (Ch'ing, 1644-1912) China, has had several books or articles written about him and is a regular feature of general surveys of the dynasty. [13] However, neither his most famous work on statecraft, nor the famous anthology of writings he collected and published, The Collected Essays on Statecraft of the Great Qing (Huang-Qing Jingshi Wenbian), has been translated into English. Short excerpts from Wang Anshi, Wei Yuan, and the many theorists who lived between them can be found in books like Sources of the Chinese Tradition and China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, but these are rarely more than a page or two long and are utterly insufficient for serious comparative study.

 Not all who wrote in late imperial times were establishment bureaucrats and scholars, and I hope the discussion above has not led you to think that the voices of true fighting men were silent during the last millennium of imperial history. Nothing could be further from the truth:  military works had never been written at a faster pace than during the final dynasties of imperial China. During the Song Dynasty wood-block printing went mainstream, making it possible to publish and distribute on a large scale without imperial patronage. As a result the number and type of sources that are available to us increased dramatically. [14] There were literally thousands of books on military science published during these centuries. Many of these were tactical manuals, describing how to repel besiegers, use gunpowder in battle, or drill men to move in formation. Others included first hand accounts of individual battles or campaigns, commentaries on existing military methods literature (especially the Seven Military Classics, which were canonized as such in the mid Song), and by the time of the late Ming, sprawling military encyclopedias.

 The greatest challenge facing researchers here is wading through the vast amount of available material to find the gems within it. From the cursory way these texts are treated in the secondary literature, one gets the impression that they were mostly records of tactical and technological advances. [15] Such material is the bread and butter of the military historian's work, and a rigorous examination of their contents will likely be enough to end the ubiquitous blather about the indirect, "Eastern" way of war. Whether or not there were developments in strategic thought to match the advances in tactics and technology is a question still unanswered. The encyclopedias and treatises of these centuries are largely unexplored in Western scholarship, so it is quite possible that the military writers of the late imperial era were just as perceptive as their ancient and modern counterparts. But--at least for Anglophone scholars and readers--that still waits to be seen. I can think of few other examples where there is such a clear  abundance of source material yet such a desert of scholarship. This is an enormous scholarly field, and a potentially career building set of projects for many scholars.

As we approach 20th century Chinese history the amount of research published in English increases dramatically. China's contact with modernity was a violent and desperate affair. The structures and ideas upon which Chinese society had been built for centuries were torn to pieces in a few decades. The focus of every Chinese thinker and strategist during the subsequent 'century of humiliation' (bainian guochi) was how to regain China's prestige on the international stage and expel the foreign brutes who leached off of their nation's wealth. Importantly, the humiliation forced upon the Chinese people was a humiliation decided by the force of arms in the midst of battle. China's sovereignty could not be restored without amassing and using the power necessary to drive out the imperialists and vanquish rebellious warlords. This meant that, as was the case in the Warring States Era, any thinker worth his or her salt would ultimately have to articulate how his or her vision for China's future lead to victory on the battlefield.

The difficulty scholars of strategic thought face trying to reconstruct the strategic theories of this era is that few writers or statesmen articulated matters in such harsh terms. Attempts to reconstruct the intellectual history of the era rarely take strategy as their focus, and are generally organized around topics like nationalism, democracy, modernization, and so forth. These topics were intimately related to strategy, and so a great deal about the strategic and grand strategic principles current in the era can be found inside these histories, but it is up to the enterprising reader to find these scattered details and piece them all together into one coherent picture. 

 Part of the problem is the way that military history in the closing days of the Qing and the Republican period has been treated. Endymion Wilikinson describes the general trend:
Writing on the war-lords, the civil wars, and the eight year anti-Japanese war tends to fall into one of two types. The first is campaign history, the second attempts to evaluate the military as a  political and social phenomenon and its effects on society and the economy. Much of the earlier work tended to fall into the first type, adopting a partisan framework, depending on whether the author was writing in a GMD or CCP context.

Given the passage of time and the wealth of new sources, it should now be possible to give warfare its rightful place at the forefront of modern Chinese history without feeling obliged immediately to take sides. As Diana Lary puts it in a slightly different way, "The Guomindang lost control of China because its armies lost, first to the Japanese, then to the Communists. The Communists came to power not because their ideology appealed to the people, but because their conventional (not guerrilla) armies triumphed in larger, set-piece battles. These are important correctives for a field in which the study of political systems and of ideology has loomed much larger than the study of military history and the history of warfare. [16]
Harold Tanner makes a similar observation in a recent article on Lin Biao's Manchuria campaigns (1945-48):
[What] noted scholars have written about the political, economic, and social weaknesses of the Nationalist regime is valuable and relevant to understanding of why Chiang Kai-shek was defeated. What is unfortunate is that until recently the scholarship in these areas has been accompanied by a marginalization of military history. Those few books that did focus on the military history of the civil war never made it into the mainstream of academic discourse. As a result the question of why the Chinese civil war ended as it did was generally answered with little or no reference to fighting. The clash of arms was seen as a superficial manifestation that was fought out on the social and political levels and decided in the hearts and minds of the Chinese, not on any battlefield. [17]
The tendency to downplay men killed on the battlefield in favor of words used in pamphlets or speeches has (ironically) led intellectual historians to ignore the very ideas that had the greatest impact on the course of the wars: the strategic principles and theories used by the major combatants in their search for victory.

 This neglect of war and strategy as a central theme leads to disappointing omissions in downstream scholarship. For example, Orville Schell and John Delury devote only a single paragraph to the Northern Expedition in their otherwise excellent discussion of the political program and grand strategic thought of Chiang Kai-shek in their Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century. [18] The Northern Expedition was Chiang Kai-shek's greatest accomplishment and the sole reason he was able to accomplish anything else. If there was a connection between Chiang's attitudes toward power or the strategic principles he cherished and his most successful military campaign the reader would never know it.

 The failure to address strategic thought is a weak thread in many historical narratives surrounding the period. Events like the  First Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, or the campaigns of the warlords are often treated as external events that catalyzed intellectual change. That individual military operations or even broader strategies can also be treated as the products of intellectual change--in other words, as the application of ideas on the battlefield--is foreign to most of the intellectual histories and many of the political histories written about the era. The few outliers--here I think of work done by folks like Arthur Waldron or Sarah C.M. Paine--tend to be from scholars with unusually strong backgrounds in strategic studies.

 The great exception to all of this is of course Mao Zedong. Mao considered himself a great thinker and theoretician, and the political importance of his works in later times would ensure that they received full translations into English. Partly because of this fact, and partly because the model of popular revolution he pioneered inspired communist revolutionaries across the world, Mao's military works have become classics in Western military academies and have been put under intensive scrutiny by scholars of strategic theory. There are studies tracing Mao's intellectual debt to Western strategic thought or contrasting him with major Western thinkers, studies applying his model to contemporary insurgencies, and studies dissecting his actual campaigns to better discern how theory translated into practice. The trend in the present scholarship is to expand the range of analysis past Mao to the other prominent leaders and generals of the CPC's early days. The predictable result of such investigation is that Mao took much of the credit not only for the actions, but also for ideas and strategies, first proposed by his comrades. [19] Inasmuch as it helps us understand the dynamics of popular insurgencies and the development of the Chinese strategic tradition, this is an extremely useful line of research and I am pleased to see its progress.

 The literature on the development of Chinese strategic thought and doctrine during the next several decades after the death of Mao is similarly thorough, though the study of contemporary Chinese strategy presents some interesting problems. The first I have already touched on above: the extent to which the different strands of the Chinese tradition are acknowledged and used today. Another important question is how the process of strategy creation is understood and implemented at various levels of the PLA, PAP, and CPC. A third topic is whether there have been developments in strategic theory made by Chinese theorists capable of improving our own understanding of strategy, its creation, or its implementation.

Answers to these questions can be formed without immense difficulty, but I am consistently surprised with how little has been done. After all, China is America's closest peer competitor! I find it astonishing that the newest edition of the Science of Military Strategy (Zhanluexue) has not yet been translated into English. (I have given up hope of less prominent works, like the Science of Campaigns (Zhanyi Xue) or the Campaign Theory Study Guide (Zhanyi Lilun Xuexi Zhinan) will ever be translated). Most analysis of these texts are in short reviews and summaries for publications like the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief or a can be seen in few scattered references in papers or books on much larger topics. [20] While I am happy to see that Joe McReynolds has a book on the new SMS scheduled for publication this fall, we really must do better at researching and translating contemporary Chinese strategic thought. Thusfar Chinese nuclear strategy is the only topic were where the amount of existing research is adequate for the needs of strategic theory as a discipline or the demands of American national security and diplomacy.  [21]

Part II of this series, which briefly reviews the state of Chinese military and political history and offers recommendations for the future of Chinese strategic theory as a  sub-discipline, can be found here.


[1] This was, incidentally, Luttwak's primary error; his attention was so arrested by the strategy Lou Jing proposed to defeat the Xiongnu that he did not check to see how it performed when actually implemented.

[2] A recent example is found in Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: oxford University Press, 2013), 42-54.

[3] There are many examples, but the best remains Michael Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[4] I would include among the best of these Derek Yuen, Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read The Art of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Victor Mair's recent translation and attached commentary, The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods (Translations from the Asian Classics) (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2009); Andrew Seth Meyer, "Introduction," in The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War, trans. Andrew Seth Meyer and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 4-20. I blogged about (and excerpted heavily from)  the last of these articles here.

[5] - For example, Xunzi 15.

[6] Notable exceptions include Thomas Kane, Ancient China on Postmodern War: Enduring Ideas from the Chinese Strategic Tradition (Cass Military Studies) (New York: Routledge, 2014); Hans-Greg Moeller, The Philosophy of the Dao De Jing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 54-87; and Derek Yuen's chapter on the Dao De Jing in Deciphering Sun Tzu, 65-99. Those willing to dig into dissertation territory may also benefit from reading Christopher Rand,"The Role of Military Thought in Early Chinese Intellectual History,"PhD diss, Harvard University, 1977.

[7] I wish I could say this was a controversial point in the literature, but it is not, for there is no literature to speak of. Of the small bit of attention the conquests of Qin has received by scholars, the general consensus follows the traditional explanation that their success can be attributed to 'legalist' economic and social regime that welded that empire together. While folks like Steven Sage would like to expand this narrative to include additional factors, no one argues that the Qin's success was primarily or even partially the result of strategic genius or superior operational art.

The success of Han Gaozu after the collapse of the short lived Qin empire has received even less attention. I have only found one article that even attempts to address why Han Gaozu was more successful than his enemy Xiang Yu (See Wang Aihe's "Creators of Emperor: The Political Group Behind the Founding of the Han Dynasty," Asia Major 14, no. 1 [2001], 19-51) and have looked in vain for a serious treatment of the Han-Chu contention anywhere. It was widely acknowledged during the war that Han Gaozu was neither as good a warrior nor as brilliant a strategist as his opponent, and Gaozu did not attribute his success to his military methods (bingfa). The most famous theory for his victory was proposed early in the the early first century in an essay by Jia Yi titled, "The Faults of Qin," which not only sought to explain why Gaozu triumphed over Xiang Yu, but why the Qin could conquer the world but not maintain their conquests for more than a decade. It is an excellent example of what I call the "Realist-Confucian" school of strategic thought.

What united this Realist Confucian 'school' with the Legalists who took credit for Qin's rise was their utter disdain for those relied on generalship, deception, and operational maneuver for victory. This could win battles but could never win wars--much less conquer the world. More important than strategic skill was the ruler's ability to mobilize and organize resources for war; victory went not to the swift, nor to the smart, nor to those with best shi (), but to the kingdoms who could outlast and exhaust their enemy or steal the support of their population and officials. Realist Confucians like Xunzi, Lu Jia, and Jia Yi had very different ideas about how to do this than Legalists like the authors of the Book of Lord Shang or Han Feizi did, but their critique of the bingfa literature was in this respect quite similar. 

[8]  Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 636-643, has a useful summary of these works and their subsequent influence on later Chinese thought and politics.

[9] For one example, see Mao Zedong, "Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War," ch. V, part 3 (December 1936), published in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-tung. On the influence Water Margin had on Mao's thought in general, see Stuart Scrahm, Mao Tse-tung (New York: Pelican Books, 1967), 21, 43-44, 128, 159. 

[10] 吴怡婷 (Wu Yiting), "浅析《三国演义》中的一类谋臣形象" [Brief Analysis of the Types of Stratagems in Three Kingdoms], Journal of Harbin University 23, no 4 (2002).

[11] One notable exception is Peter Moddy, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Popular Chinese Political ThoughtThe Review of Politics, 37, No. 2 (1975), 175-199. For what it is worth,  this essay is the best analysis of the novel I have read in English, and I have read many.

[12] I speculate that the difference in focus seen between the scholarship of ancient China and that of mid and late imperial China reflects the dominance of linguists and philologists in the field of early China studies; rarely does their interest in rhetoric or philology extend  any closer to the present than the language used by famed poets of the Tang Dynasty.

[13] Books and articles on Wei Yuan include: Jane Kate Leonard, Wei Yuan and China's Rediscovery of the Maritime World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Wang Chia-chien, A Chronological Biography of Wei Yuan (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1967); Peter M. Mitchell, "The Limits of Reformism: Wei Yuan's Reaction to Western Intrusion," Modern Asian Studies 6, no. 2 (1972), 175–204;  Philip Kuhn, "The Ideas Behind China's Modern State," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55, no 2 (1995), 295-337.

[14] Kenneth Swope captured the scope of this change when he noted in a recent interview that during the late Ming there were more books in China than could be found on the rest of the Earth.  Bob Wintermote, "Ken Swope: The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty, 1618-1644," interview with Kenneth Swope, New Books in Military History, podcast episode (11 February 2015). 

 [15] I base this impression on comments by Ralph Sawyer, "Military Writings," in  Military History of China, ed. David Graff and Robin Hingham (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2002) 97-115; Herbert Franke, "Siege and Defense of Towns in Medieval China," in Chinese Ways of Warfare, ed. Frank Keirman and John K. Fairbank (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), 151-201; Kai Filipiak, ""Saving Lives" - Lu Kun's Manual on City Defense," Journal of Chinese Military History 1, no. 2 (2012), 139-188, esp. 144-147; Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 314-336.

[16] Wilikinson, Chinese History: A New Manual, 883.

[17] Harold Tanner, "Learning Through Practice: Lin Biao and the Transition to Conventional Combined Operations in China's Northeast, 1946-1948," Journal of Chinese Military History 3, no 2. ( 2014), 4.

[18] They write: "When Chiang had taken over the Nationalist Party leadership in 1925, the country seemed to be reaching a new low point each year and no one seemed to know how to top its downward slide. But when in 1926 he launched his new Russian-trained army on the Northern Expedition and, through a combination of military victories, backroom accommodations, and good luck, managed to bring China's patchwork of feudal warlords back into a semblance of national unity, it was a stunning and unexpected triumph." Orville Shell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 2014), 177.

[19] Prominent examples include Tanner, "Learning Through Practice"; Christopher Lew, The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945-49: An Analysis of Communist Strategy and Leadership (New York: Routledge, 2009); Wilbur Hsu, "Survival through Adaptation: The Chinese Red Army and the Encirclement Campaigns, 1927-1936," MA Thesis, U.S. Army and General Staff College. 2012; Victor Shiu Chiang Cheng, "Imagining China's Madrid in Manchuria: The Communist Military Strategy at the Onset of the Chinese Civil War, 1945-1946," Modern China 31, 1 (2005), 72-114; and "Modern War on an Ancient Battlefield: The Diffusion of American Military Technology and Ideas in the Chinese Civil War," Modern China 35, 1 (2009), 38-64; William Wei, "Political Power Grows Out of a Barrel of the Gun: Mao and the Red Army," in Military History of China, ed. David Graff and Robin Hingham (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 229-249.

[20] Dennis Blasko, "Chinese Strategic Thinking: people's War in the 21st Century," Jamestown Brief 10, iss. 6 (10 March 2010); Joe McReynolds, "China's Evolving Perspectives on Network Warfare: lessons from the Science of Military Strategy," Jamestown Brief 15, iss. 8 (15 April 2015); Dennis Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[21] The best summary of this literature and its findings is probably Taylor Fravel, “China's Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security 35, no 2 (2011), 48-87; For a recent translation of documents related to Chinese nuclear strategy, see Gregory Kulacki, China's Nuclear Strategy (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015).