sun tzu's art of war -- 12/01/17

Today's selection -- from A History of East Asia by Charles Holcombe. Sun Tzu's (Sunzi's) The Art of War comes from the Warring States era in ancient Chinese history, which occurred at the end of the Zhou dynasty and lasted from roughly 475 BCE to 221 BCE, and saw the Qin dynasty prevail over six other states to create China's first unified empire. The Art of War is still read and revered by business experts, politicians, military personnel and others across the globe:

"Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism were the three major schools of thought in late Zhou China, but there were also many other strains of thought. One important early group were the followers of Mozi (fifth century BCE), who advocated univer­sal love, and trained a band of followers in the techniques of defensive warfare to help protect small countries from foreign aggression. No fewer than nine chapters of the book called Mozi deal with issues of military defense, including such items as scaling ladders and techniques of siege warfare. Not surprisingly, the aptly named Warring States era produced a number of specialists in military affairs. The first military text, said to be the oldest military treatise in the world, was Sunzi's Art of War (Sunzi bingfa). This book is still studied today at military academies around the world and has also inspired certain modern politicians and businesspersons. ...

"As is true of many early Chinese texts, the date and authorship of the Sunzi are hotly debated. Suggested dates range from the late sixth century (when the alleged author, Master Sun, or Sunzi, is supposed to have lived) to the late fourth century BCE. In general, the date of composition of these early texts is a matter of interest only for specialist scholars, but in the case of Sunzi, it may make a considerable difference because of the rapidly changing nature of warfare in the late Zhou period.

"In early Zhou, armies had typically been small, campaigns brief, and combat focused on chariot-riding aristocrats adhering to chivalric ritual ideals. If the early histories can be believed, fighting with honor was regarded as more important even than winning. As China entered the Warring States era, however, large countries increasingly organized for total war. The right to bear arms, which had once been an aristocratic monopoly and privilege, was now a universal male obligation. Military conscription -- a draft army, based on compulsory household registration lists - made possible huge new armies of peasant infantrymen, numbering up to hundreds of thousands of men, armed now with deadly crossbows and sometimes mobilized for quite lengthy wars. No fewer than 590 separate wars, moreover, were recorded during the two and a half centuries of the Warring States period -- an average of more than two wars every year. War had become a grim familiarity.

"One consequence of the changing nature of war was a much greater ruthlessness. Winning, not fighting with honor, was now everything. Sunzi, notoriously, declared the military 'a way (dao) of deception,' which would seem to reflect this new Warring States ruthlessness. Surprise is essential: 'Attack where he is unpre­pared. Emerge where he does not expect.' At the same time, mask your own dispositions so that to the enemy it appears that your forces are without form or pattern. At the point of attack, then, apply overwhelming force. The objective is not glory or heroics; it is victory.

"An easy victory is better than a bloody one, and a decisive triumph is best achieved by making sure of preconditions before ever striking the first blow. 'Therefore, the victorious military is first victorious and after that does battle.' Intelligence is critical. For Sunzi, a key word was shi. Although the standard dictionary definition of shi is simply 'power' or 'force,' for Sunzi, it meant, more precisely, the latent disposition of potential force, like an avalanche poised to fall or a crossbow cocked and ready to be fired with a slight pull on the trigger. 'Thus the shi of one skilled at setting people to battle is like rolling round rocks from a mountain,' explained Sunzi.

Copy of The Art of War

"The idea is to win with as little fighting and destruction as possible, based on intelligence rather than brute force. If you know yourself and know your enemy, Sunzi advises, there will be no danger 'in one hundred battles.' Such an emphasis on intelligence (if not always on avoiding bloodshed) was also in keeping with the new Warring States approach. The huge new peasant conscript armies required massive and sophisticated logistical support, including the large-scale manufacture of arms and armor and supplies of food and clothing. Training and organization became critical, and the military treatises of the era typically emphasized the importance of discipline and planning. The commander was no longer a chariot­-riding aristocrat or a warrior who heroically personally leads the charge into battle but rather a grand strategist operating behind the lines. Sunzi, famously, put attacking the enemy's strategies ahead of striking at his cities. Cerebral warfare took precedence over physical combat.

"Sunzi suggested the intriguing ideal of possibly even winning a war without the need for any actual fighting. This is sometimes said to represent a uniquely Chinese approach to warfare, and Chinese civilization is also sometimes described as particularly unmilitaristic. It is in fact true that under the later empire, a military career was not nearly as honored as a literary one, and that even in military affairs, brains were typically valued over brawn. One of the more notable contrasts that can be drawn between the Chinese Confucian ethos and the familiar Western (and Japanese) traditions may indeed be a consistent tendency to prefer the civilian and literary (wen) over the martial (wu). According to the Analects, when asked about tactics, 'Confucius replied, "I have heard about sacrificial vessels but have learned nothing about the deployment of troops." The next day he made his departure.' But Confucianism was never the only strand of thought in China. One modern scholar who has carefully studied the Seven Military Classics and their application in late imperial warfare concludes that the central paradigm of Chinese strategic culture was actually not so very different from the Western realist's epigram: 'If you want peace, prepare for war.' Certainly there have been many wars through­out China's long history. The first imperial unification of China, in particular, was forged in bloody war."



Charles Holcombe


A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Cenuty


Cambridge University Press


Copyright 2017 by Charles Holcombe


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