Sun Tzu in Practice
Except for Sun Tzu’s famous, oft-translated, oft-metaphorized treatise on The Art of War, Chinese military history and theory before the 19th Century has scarcely been explored by professional or amateur Western scholarship. Any student without literacy in Chinese has difficulty ascertaining the most elementary facts, which explains why the wargame army lists that purport to cover the era are largely founded on guesswork and almost no pertinent boardgames have been published. (The only one that I know of is Simulations Canada’s Warring States, an interesting treatment of the rise of the Ch’in Dynasty that is even harder to find than the typical SimCan title.)
Happily, the situation is improving for monoglot Anglophones. Ralph Sawyer’s translations of The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China and Sun Pin’s recently rediscovered Military Methods offer a broader insight into the theory of war than can be garnered from Sun Tzu alone. The historical and practical side is less well covered. Mr. Sawyer’s promised history of Chinese warfare from the beginnings through the end of the Empire is apparently a few years from completion. In the meantime, David Graff’s new study is a valuable start toward filling the gap. While not as comprehensive as one would like - owing presumably to the length limitations imposed by the series in which it appears - it is lucid and informative, furnishing a high-level overview of how the Chinese way of war evolved between the barbarian invasions of the 4th Century, which led to three centuries of disunity, and the decline of the T’ang Dynasty in the late 9th Century. From a military point of view, many major developments during that period were strangely similar to those in the West, particularly in the Later Roman Empire. They included conflicts with steppe peoples, the attainment of high rank and overweening influence by men of barbarian origin, the ascendancy of cavalry and the establishment of armies based on peasant soldiery (the Byzantine themes and the Chinese fu-ping system). One cannot press the resemblance too far, however. Europe had few or no parallels to China’s large scale riverine operations or to its replacement of peasant soldiers by full-time professionals during the T’ang era. Contrariwise, China developed no real feudal system and never accorded soldiers the prestige that they enjoyed in the West.
For the historian, the most striking difference between the Chinese and the European Middle Ages lies in the nature and extent of the surviving documentation. Chinese sources are abundant and replete with detail that is scarcely ever found in European chronicles before the time of the Crusades. Unfortunately, this boon is coupled with the serious drawback that the dynastic histories and biographical collections were compiled by literati who generally filtered the original records (almost none of which are extant) through a sieve of prejudice, preconception and ignorance. Accounts of battles, for instance, tend to center on clever deceptions employed (supposedly) by the victorious commanders. In one famous case (the Battle of Fei River, 383), the recorded course of events is so patently fictitious that the the very existence of the action is a matter of doubt. (Professor Graff thinks that the battle, or one like it, really took place but does not vouch for the historicity of any statement about it other than which side won.) The historians, Confucian rationalists to a man, also exaggerated the intellectual side of generals’ praxis, playing down both material factors and the extent to which omens, divination and other superstitions dominated the thinking of both rank-and-file troops and their officers.
Because of this weakness in the evidence, it is hard to get a sense of the realities of the medieval Chinese battlefield. A work like John Keegan’s The Face of Battle would be impossible to write. Certainly Professor Graff does not attempt that feat. His focus is at at much higher level: on grand strategy, military administration, sources of manpower and the overall composition of armies. Thus he summarizes a number of significant wars in moderate detail but is much more sparing in his descriptions of battles and has almost nothing to say about tactics and equipment.
Very usefully, given that few of his readers will possess any general knowledge of the period, he weaves the campaign narratives into political history, paying as much attention to the causes and consequences of wars as to the movements of armies. He also emphasizes the wars’ indirect effects. To take two examples, the defeat of Emperor Yang’s invasions of Korea (612-614) undermined imperial finances and prestige, precipitating the fall of the Sui Dynasty, and the great rebellion of the provincial governor An Lushan (755-762) forced the T’ang Dynasty to create vast new armies that in later years shrugged off the central government’s control and reduced it to virtual impotence.
Many more rooms remain to be opened in the huge mansion of Chinese military history. Professor Graff’s work is only a preliminary guide, but, for the area that it covers, it is an excellent one.