Continuity in the Chinese Mind for War
“Let China sleep, for when she awakens the whole world will tremble.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
After a decade of large land-power campaigns in southwest Asia and the U.S. Central Command’s area of operations , the national defense guidance Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century (2012) has directed that the U.S. security focus “…will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region…” and the U.S. Pacific Command area of operations.1 “Shock and awe” and large-scale counterinsurgency will diminish in favor of Asian partner engagement and theater shaping backed up by air-sea battle. This pivot reflects not only the diminishing preoccupation with 9/11-inspired counterterrorism, but a renewed emphasis on the growing importance of East Asia in an increasingly globalized world. The most vibrant expanding power and most worrisome potential adversary in any military conflict in this region is clearly the People’s Republic of China. It is therefore appropriate to revisit the extremely deep well of Chinese history to consider the continuity of special-warfare stratagem and will alive in the eternal Chinese military mind.
The Chinese military tradition is especially characterized by an emphasis on indirectness, multiple paths to an objective, centrality of deception and secrecy and a regard for outright treachery which is probably counterintuitive to most western readers. This article can’t possibly do justice to the depth, breadth, richness and implications of this topic. However, a tiny selection of passages from the Chinese tradition will help to illustrate and inform the above assertions.
There is voluminous comment of the effect of the Confucian tradition throughout all of Chinese (and east Asian) culture. Such discussions are basically centered on considerations of benevolent and wise rule achieved by ordered society that is attentive to “correct” understanding, relationships, definitions and rituals. Confucianism provides a paternalistic world dependent on adherence to surface definitions which order “shallow,” obvious reality. The Chinese Communist Party has always explained Confucianism as a relic; the justification for China’s feudal past. Although some later Confucian tradition does include discussion of military affairs — particularly organization — Confucianism generally eschews a focus on warfare.
More pertinent are other contemporary ancient Chinese classics; Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Taoism was a metaphysical school of Chinese philosophy generally contemporary with Confucianism. Unlike Confucianism, Taoism rejects hard definitions, certainty and shallow understanding and has thus always been a philosophical counterpoise to the surface-ordered Confucian world. Take just three passages from the Tao Te Ching (circa 6th century B.C.) as an example:
“One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable; One who excels at fighting is never roused in anger; One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue; One who excels in employing others humbles himself before them.
This is known as the virtue of non-contention; This is known as making use of the efforts of others; This is known as matching the sublimity of heaven.”
“The strategists have a saying, I dare not play the host but play the guest, I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead.
This is known as marching forward when there is no road, Rolling up one’s sleeves when there is no arm, Dragging one’s adversary by force when there is no adversary, And taking up arms when there are no arms.
There is no disaster greater than taking on an enemy too easily. So doing nearly cost me my treasure. Thus of two sides raising arms against each other, it is the one that is sorrow stricken that wins.”
“In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it. This is because there is nothing that can take its place.
That the weak overcomes the strong, and the submissive overcomes the hard, everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.
Therefore the sage says, one who takes on himself the humiliation of the state is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millet; One who takes on himself the calamity of the state is called a king worthy of domination over the entire empire.
Straightforward words seem paradoxical.”2
Most philosophers of war rightly consider Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to be one of the timeless classics of war philosophy. However, the passages above demonstrate that the essential underlying qualities of indirectness, paradox, deception and quintessence are all present in Sun Tzu’s contemporary Lao Tzu. Nor is this an irrelevant academic quibble over who influenced whom. Notice that it is western thinkers who ascribe “war mind wisdom” to Sun rather than to Lao. To a Chinese Taoist mind — and as the passages above suggest — the question “Where exactly does the “strictly” philosophical end and the strictly military begin (?)” is both nonsensical and irrelevant.
Keeping in mind the philosophical drift of the above, compare the following passages from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (circa 6th century B.C.).
“All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him. Anger his general and confuse him. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance. Keep him under strain and wear him down. When he is united, divide him. Attack where he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you. These are the strategist’s keys to victory”
“Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this. To capture the enemy’s army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a battalion, a company or a five-man squad is better than to destroy them. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy; next best is to disrupt his alliances:
The next best is to attack his army.
The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative….
Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.
Your aim must be to take All-under-Heaven intact. Thus your troops are not worn out and your gains will be complete. This is the art of offensive strategy.”
“Anciently the skillful warriors first made themselves invincible and awaited the enemy’s moment of vulnerability. Invincibility depends on oneself; the enemy’s vulnerability on him….
One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant….
To foresee a victory which the ordinary man can foresee is not the acme of skill; to triumph in a battle and be universally acclaimed ‘Expert’ is not the acme of skill, for if to lift an autumn down requires no great strength; to distinguish between sun and moon is not test of vision; to hear the thunderclap is no indication of acute hearing.
Anciently those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered. And therefore the victories won by a master of war gain him neither reputation for wisdom nor merit for valour. For he wins his victories without erring. ‘Without erring’ means that whatever he does insures victory; he conquers an enemy already defeated.
Therefore the skillful commander takes up a position in which he cannot be defeated and misses no opportunity to master his enemy. Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.
Those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies.”
“Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.
What is called ‘foreknowledge’ cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation….
Native agents are those of the enemy’s country people whom we employ.
Inside agents are enemy officials whom we employ.
Doubled agents are enemy spies whom we employ.
Expendable agents are those of our own spies who are deliberately given fabricated information.
Living agents are those who return with information.
Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent; of all rewards given none more liberal than those given to secret agents; of all matters none is more confidential than those relating to secret operations.
He who is not sage and wise, humane and just, cannot use secret agents. And he who is not delicate and subtle cannot get the truth out of them.
Delicate indeed! Truly delicate! There is no place where espionage is not used …
And therefore only the enlightened sovereign and the worthy general who are able to use the most intelligent people as agents are certain to achieve great things. Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move”3
Like the Tao Te Ching, much of the underlying principles of the Art of War emphasize indirectness, subtlety, secrecy, deviousness and a holistic approach to strategy. Many of these same treacherous qualities can be found in the “civil offensives” section of another of the Song Dynasty’s (10th-12th century) so-called “Seven Military Classics,” the Six Secret Teachings (circa 5th century B.C.) of Tai Kong. Ralph Sawyer explains “civil offensives” thusly: “The civil, as distinguished from the ‘martial,’ consisted of diplomatic measures as well as political programs that clearly encompassed psychological warfare, disinformation, spying, and the creation of dissention.”4
“There are twelve measures for civil offensives.
First, accord with what he likes in order to accommodate his wishes. He will eventually grow arrogant and invariably mount some perverse affair. If you can appear to follow along, you will certainly be able to eliminate him.
Second, become familiar with those he loves in order to fragment his awesomeness. When men have two different inclinations, their loyalty invariably declines. When his court no longer has any loyal ministers, the state will inevitably be endangered.
Third, covertly bribe his assistants, fostering a deep relationship them. While they will bodily stand in his court, their emotions will be directed outside it. The state will certainly suffer harm.
Fourth, assist him in his licentiousness and indulgence in music in order to dissipate his will. Make him generous gifts of pearls and jade, and ply him with beautiful women. Speak deferentially, listen respectfully, follow his commands, and accord with him in everything. He will never imagine you might be in conflict with him. Our treacherous measures will then be settled.
Fifth, treat his loyal officials very generously, but reduce the gifts you provide to the ruler. Delay his emissaries; do not listen to their missions. When he eventually dispatches other men, treat them with sincerity, embrace and trust them. The ruler will then again feel you are in harmony with him. If you manage to treat his formerly loyal officials very generously, his state can then be plotted against.
Sixth, make secret alliances with his favored ministers, but visibly keep his less-favored outside officials at a distance. His talented people will then be under external influence, while enemy states encroach upon his territory. Few states in such a situation have survived.
Seventh, if you want to bind his heart to you, you must offer generous presents. To gather in his assistants, loyal associates, and loved ones, you must secretly show them the gains they can realize by colluding with you. Have them slight their work, and then their preparations will be futile.
Eight, gift him with great treasures, and make plans with him. When the plans are successful and profit him, he will have faith in you because of the profits. This is what is termed as ‘being closely embraced.’ The result … is that he will inevitably be used by us. When someone rules a state but is externally controlled, his territory will inevitably be defeated.
Ninth, honor him with praise. Do nothing that will cause him personal discomfort. Display the proper respect accruing to a great power, and your obedience will certainly be trusted. Magnify his honor; be the first to gloriously praise him, humbly embellishing him as a sage. Then his state will suffer great loss!
Tenth, be submissive so that he will trust you, and thereby learn about his true situation. Accept his ideas and respond to his affairs as if you were twins. Once you have learned everything, subtly gather in his power. Thus when the ultimate day arrives, it will seem as if Heaven itself destroyed him.
Eleventh, block up his access by means of the Tao. Among subordinates there is no one who does not value rank and wealth nor hate danger and misfortune. Secretly express great respect toward them, and gradually bestow valuable gifts in order to gather in the more outstanding talents. Accumulate your own resources until they become very substantial, but manifest an external appearance of shortage. Covertly bring in wise knights, and entrust them with planning great strategy. Attract courageous knights, and augment their spirit. Even when they are more than sufficiently rich and honored, constantly add to their riches. When your faction has been fully established you will have obtained the objective referred to as ‘blocking his access.’ If someone has a state but his access is blocked, how can he be considered as having a state?
Twelfth, support his dissolute officials in order to confuse him. Introduce beautiful women and licentious sounds in order to befuddle him. Send him outstanding dogs and horses in order to tire him. From time to time allow him great power in order to entice him to greater arrogance. Then investigate Heaven’s signs, and plot with the world against him.
When these 12 measures are fully employed, they will become a military weapon. Thus when…the proper signs are … visible, attack him.”5
The Six Secret Teachings clearly show that there is no meaningful conceptual dividing line between what is considered war; only that some efforts are done with the traditional use of arms and others are done with appeal to human moral weaknesses. Moreover, as the Seven Military Classics were compiled as a canon of statecraft in the 11th century, it demonstrates cultural continuity of regard for treachery, deviousness, secrecy and the indirect and subtle application of lethal coercion.
Yet another example of such continuity in Chinese grand strategic and philosophical thought on war is the Secret Art of War: The 36 Stratagems. As is common in works informed by such ancient events, it is difficult to be certain of authorship, and the assertions of authorship stretch all the way back to the same classical period as Sun Tzu. However, the prevailing view is that many of these stratagems are a part of oral history handed down over millennia by various tellers. There were also more than 36 such gambits; the 36 being a contrived number in the compilation accorded to the late Ming or early Qing Dynasties (circa 17th century A.D.). The current text was found and reprinted in 1941 but remained obscure until promoted by the CCP in 1961.6 Such a timeline is clear confirmation of the central persuasiveness of these ideas in Chinese culture as it reaches all the way from the classic period of the ancient masters up to China’s present ruling regime. A very brief selection of the stratagems is offered as example below.
“Besiege Wei to rescue Zhou” (Use an indirect approach): “When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something which he holds dear. Know that he cannot be superior in all things. Somewhere there is a gap in his armor, a weakness that can be attacked instead.”
“Kill with a borrowed knife” (Use the strength of another): “Attack using the strength of another. Trick and ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him.
“Leisurely await for the labored” (Wait for your enemy to wear himself out) “Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.”
“Create something from nothing” (Lie) “A plain lie. Make somebody believe there was something when there is in fact nothing.”
“Hide a knife behind a smile” (Be treacherous)
“Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, move against him in secret.”
“Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair” (Lure out of a dominant position) “Never directly attack an opponent whose advantage is derived from its position. Instead lure him away from his position thus separating him from his source of strength.”
“Remove the firewood from under the pot” (Destroy the source of strength) “If something must be destroyed, destroy the source.”
“Replace the beams with rotten timbers” (Subvert the enemy)
“Make the host and guest exchange roles” (Infiltrate and take over) Usurp leadership in a situation where you are normally subordinate. Infiltrate your target. Initially, pretend to be a guest to be accepted, but develop from inside and become the owner later.”7
There are many more. The continuing themes of indirectness, treachery, subversion, infiltration and manipulating one’s opponent into ambushes set for him are obvious. That the CCP rescued this collection from obscurity and published it is indicative of the party’s regard for its profundity and utility. Why then should the reader not believe that the party sees profundity and utility in (1999), the work of two PLA Colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. It is not credible that this work would have been allowed to be published without some level of official sanction. Given the length of Chinese history and tradition, this work is essentially the current state of Chinese philosophy. A tiny sample follows.
“The first rule of unrestricted warfare is there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”
“Strong countries make the rules while rising ones break them and exploit loopholes.”
“Faced with political, economic, cultural, diplomatic, ethnic and religious issues etc, that are more complex than they are in the minds of most of the military men in the world, the limitations of the military means, which had heretofore always been successful, suddenly become apparent.”
“When people begin to lean toward and rejoice in the reduced use of military force to resolve conflicts, war will be reborn in another form and in another arena, becoming an instrument of enormous power in the hands of all those who harbor intentions of controlling other countries or regions. In this sense, there is reason for us to maintain that the financial attack by George Soros on East Asia, the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy by Osama bin Laden, the gas attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum ShinriKy, and the havoc wreaked by the likes of Morris Jr. on the Internet, in which the degree of destruction is by no means second to that of a war, represent semi-warfare, quasi-warfare and sub-warfare, that is, the embryonic kind of another warfare.”
“Even in the so-called post-modern, post-industrial age, warfare will not be totally dismantled. It has only re-invaded human society in a more complex, more extensive, more concealed and more subtle manner.”
“While we are seeing a relative reduction in military violence, at the same time we definitely are seeing an increase in political, economic and technological violence.”
“The new principles of war are no longer ‘using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,’ but rather are ‘using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.’”
“This kind of war means that all means will be in readiness, that information will be omnipresent and the battlefield will be everywhere. It means that all weapons and technology can be superimposed at will, it means that all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed, and it also means that many of the current principles of combat will be modified, and even that the rules of war may need to be rewritten.”
“The new concept of weapons is a view of weapons in the broad sense, which views as weapons all means which transcend the military realm but which can still be used in combat operations. In its eyes, everything that can benefit mankind can also harm him. That is to say that there is nothing in the world today that cannot become a weapon, and this requires that our understanding of weapons must have an awareness that breaks through all boundaries.”8
There is much more than these few quotes. To the extent that U.S. policy is “pivoting” to East Asia, every western policy maker, war fighting leader and special-operations Soldier should study the full work. Not only is Unrestricted Warfare completely consistent with the Chinese tradition of holistic, indirect, imaginative and deviousness in war philosophy, it is essentially a bold pronouncement that this unrestricted, “lawless” view of war is available to the PRC right now.
“Our war is sacred and just, it is progressive and its aim is peace. The aim is peace not just in one country but throughout the world, not just temporary peace but perpetual peace. To achieve this aim we must wage a life-and-death struggle, be prepared for any sacrifice, persevere to the end and never stop short of the goal. However great the sacrifice and however long the time needed to attain it, a new world of perpetual peace and brightness already lies clearly before us. Our faith in waging this war is based upon the new China….”9 — Mao Zedong
The Chinese have a long tradition of very intelligent, focused and patient indirectness, deviousness, imagination, ruthlessness, treachery, guile and deceit in their “mind for warfare.” Every special operations Soldier is obliged to focus on the challenge the PRC presents to American interests and has a duty to study and understand these Chinese traditions. Naysayers, defenders and apologists with vested interests in the PRC will challenge or downplay the significance of this tradition. Armed with these examples you may judge for yourself. As he smiles and charms you to your face with his many heads, don’t forget the poisoned spikes of the dragon’s long tail.
Mr. Jeffrey Hasler is a retired Special Forces warrant officer and lifelong student of China. Educated at Indiana and the Naval Postgraduate School, he graduated with “honors” in Chinese Mandarin from the Defense Language Institute, and has studied and travelled widely in the PRC. He is currently a doctrine writer and analyst in USAJFKSWCS.
1. Department of Defense. (JAN 2012). “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership; Priorities for the 21st Century.” Washington D.C. p. 2.
2. Lao Tzu. (1963). Tao Te Ching.Tr. D.C. Lau.Penguin Classics, N.Y. pp. 130-1, 140.
3. Sun Tzu. (1976). The Art of War. Tr. Samuel B. Griffith.Forward by B. H. Liddell Hart. Oxford University Press, London. pp. 66-70, 77-79, 85-88, 144-149.
4. Sawyer, Ralph. (1993). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. Westview Press, Boulder. p. 404.
5. Sawyer, pp. 56-57.
6. Liu Yi, Tr. (1992). 36 Stratagems: Secret Art of War. Asiapac Press, Singapore. Foreward p.1; and “Chinese Military texts/Thirty-Six Stratagems” downloaded 15FEB12 from Wikipedia
7. “Chinese Military texts/Thirty-Six Stratagems,”Wikipedia
8. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. (1999). Unrestricted Warfare. PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, Beijing. pp. 1,3,4,8,15. Excerpts taken from Foreign Broadcast Information Service selection downloaded 8FEB12 from http://www.terrorism.com/documents/unrestricted.pdf
9. Mao Tse Tung. (1938) “On Protracted War,” in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse Tung. Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1968. p. 224.