The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)

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

This essay was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 26 May, 2015. Because of its length it has been divided into two posts, both lengthy in their own right. This–the first of these two posts–is republished here at Chicago Boyz with little alteration. The second half of the essay shall be posted here later this week.

INTRODUCTION


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.

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Is Israel winning the Global War on Terror for us ?

Hamas has attacked Israel, first with the kidnapping of three teenagers, now with rockets aimed, for example, at Tel Aviv and its airport.

GAZA: Islamist Hamas’ armed wing has warned airlines that it intends to target Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport with its rockets from Gaza and has told them not to fly there, a statement by the group said Friday.

So far, Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system has been successful in intercepting those that are a risk to populated places.

Israel’s astonishingly effective Iron Dome air defense has prevented Hamas from killing Israeli Jews and spreading terror in the civilian population. Ironically, though, the better Iron Dome works, the less sympathy the rest of the world has for a nation that remains under rocket attack.

That sentiment is to be expected as even the Presbyterian Church is anti-Israel.

David Goldman, who has been writing as “Spengler” for years, reports on the situation in Israel.

the thumbnail version is that Hamas is making a demonstration out of weakness. Money is tight, 44,000 Gaza civil servants haven’t been paid for weeks, and the IDF did significant damage to its infrastructure on the West Bank after the kidnapping-murder of the three yeshiva boys. Netanyahu will look indecisive and confused, because he has to deal with an openly hostile U.S. administration on one side and his nationalist camp on the other. Time, though, is on Israel’s side: economically, demographically, strategically. The proportion of Jewish births continues to soar. The fruits of a decade of venture capital investing are ripening into high-valuation companies. And the Arab world is disintegrating all around Israel’s borders.

Israel has been in mortal danger for 50 years. They have survived and thrived. The Arab countries are collapsing into chaos. Iran is still a threat but its demographic future is grim.

There will be no Intifada on the West Bank: the Palestinian Arabs are older, more resigned and less inclined to destroy their livelihoods than in 2000. Syria and Iraq continue to disintegrate, Lebanon is inundated with Syrian Sunni refugees (weakening Hezbollah’s relative position), and Jordan is looking to Israel to protect it against ISIS. Egypt is busy trying to survive economically.

Israel is becoming a huge economic success under Netanyahu. Just think of our future had we elected his friend, Mitt Romney.

Obama promised a “pivot to Asia” but Israel may in fact be the one doing the pivot, leaving us in the dreary Socialist past.

Richard Fernandez notes that in the view of the world press and elites being rich makes you “white.” Everybody knows that white people, even if they are Asian like John Derbyshire’s Eurasian children, are the root of all evil.

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Meditations on Maoism — Ye Fu’s “Hard Road Home”

This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage, 30 April 2013.


A great divide separates the worldviews of the average Chinese and American. The most profound description of this divide I have ever heard came from the mouth of a friend who has never been to America and who was neither a historian nor accustomed to deep political reflection or debate. She concluded that Americans lived in a different world than the one she and her countrymen knew on the strength of a single observation: “In America all of your most exciting movies are about the future. In China, our blockbusters are all about the past.

Her mundane observation points neatly to a paradox of modern Chinese culture. The people of China are steeped in history. Places, figures, and sayings from most ancient times fill their cinemas and televisions, inspire their literature and music, and find their way into both their daily conversation and clever turns of phrase. One cannot study the Chinese language or befriend the people who speak it without realizing how proudly the Chinese people trace their identity some three thousand years into the past. It defines who they are and what they want their country to be. When China’s heavy laden allow themselves a hopeful glimpse into the future they see first the glories of the past.

Thus the dreadful irony: despite the high esteem which they hold for history and the strong affinity they feel with the triumphs and humiliations of their civilization, few Chinese feel any connection to–and in many cases, have no real knowledge of–their country’s more immediate past. As a society they honor the stories and glories of tradition, but have abandoned headlong the social order from which these stories sprang. This was not all intentional. Seven decades of war, famine, and revolution ripped Chinese civilization apart at its seams. The old order of family and clan, official and elite, emperor and loyal subject, is gone. The patterns which held Chinese civilization together for a millennium are acknowledged, but honored mostly as the creation of some mythical past whose connection to the present is more a matter of style than of substance. In between this golden past and frantic present lies a gaping hole. A swirl of confused details, loathsome slogans, and obscured calamities lies in this abyss, little talked about and, in the minds of many, best forgotten. The grim episodes of those days are but a dim image in a mirror, only tethered to the present with fading memories of tumult and terror.

I did not fully appreciate how deep a gash and great a gulf this separation from the past has torn in the Chinese mental landscape until I read a newly translated set of essays and meditations published under the name Hard Road Home.

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Another Look at ‘The Rise of the West’ – But With Better Numbers


Originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 20 November 2013.

Why the West? I do not think there is any other historical controversy that has so enthralled the public intellectuals of our age.  The popularity of the question can probably be traced to Western unease with a rising China and the ease with which the issue can be used as proxy war for the much larger contest between Western liberals who embrace multiculturalism and conservatives who champion the West’s ‘unique’ heritage.

A few months ago I suggested that many of these debates that surround the “Great Divergence” are  based on a flawed premise–or rather, a flawed question. As I wrote: 

Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000.” [1]

I made this judgement based off of data from Angus Maddison‘s Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD and the subsequent updates to Mr. Maddison’s data set by the scholars who contribute to the Maddison Project.

As far as 1,000 year economic projections go this data was pretty good. But it was not perfect. In many cases–especially with the Chinese data–it was simply based on estimates and extrapolations from other eras. A more accurate view of the past would require further research.

That research has now been done. The economic historian Stephen Broadberry explains:

As it turns out, medieval and early modern European and Asian nations were much more literate and numerate than is often thought. They left behind a wealth of data in documents such as government accounts, customs accounts, poll tax returns, Parish registers, city records, trading company records, hospital and educational establishment records, manorial accounts, probate inventories, farm accounts, tithe files. With a national accounting framework and careful cross-checking, it is possible to reconstruct population and GDP back to the medieval period. The picture that emerges is of reversals of fortune within both Europe and Asia, as well as between the two continents. [2]

Drawing on a multiple specialized studies, Mr. Broadberry is able to create a table that is more accurate than the one I used earlier:

Taken from Stephen Broadberry. “Accounting for the Great Divergence.” voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.

There are a few things here worth commenting on.

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China may be entering a new era

There is a huge story going on in China right now. A very high official in the Politburo, named Bo Xilai has been purged, and his wife has been arrested. The story as reported is not the real one.

Here is John Burns’ opinions of What is going on.

First the official version.

CBS News) BEIJING – We are getting a rare look at the inner workings of China’s Communist power structure thanks to a scandal that erupted there this spring. CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen tells us about the man at the center of it.

The Chinese nicknamed Bo Xilai a “princeling,” which means one of the most powerful men in China.

Now he’s called criminal in a case that is part soap opera, part murder mystery.

In a stunning announcement this week, Bo was dumped from China’s Politburo, the powerful committee that runs the country.

His glamorous wife Gu Kailai has been arrested for the murder of Nick Heywood, a British man found dead in a hotel room last November. At the time, Chinese police said he died of alcohol poisoning — although his family said he didn’t drink.

The background story is:

Well, of course what we see here is something that none of us really wanted to see at all, and I’m not talking about the murder. That, of course, we would all regret. What we’re seeing is a new upheaval in the Chinese political leadership, the most important political purge in Bo Xilai, the former Chongquing party chief, candidate for the inner sanctum of power in the politburo. And this is very disturbing to those who had hoped, believed, perhaps, that China, this is a new China, the post-Mao China, which was heading toward a period of political stability, the rule of law, in other words, had really put the Mao era, the Cultural Revolution, the chaos, the great leap forward, and all the rest of it, behind it. What we’re seeing now in this very sordid tale is something much more like what we saw of Chinese leadership in what we, and indeed, I think most Chinese would describe as the bad old days of Mao Tse Tung, a politics that is much more personal, that is much more brutal. Let’s not forget that in the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao, millions, I think the Chinese officially concluded ten million people, died. Now it’s not to suggest that China’s heading for that. The present Chinese leadership who purged Bo are saying, in fact, that it’s to prevent that kind of…return to that kind of politics, that they’ve purged him. But then you have the question of the alleged murder. the story begins in mid to late November when, and at that time, the world knew nothing about it. Neil Heywood, a 41 year old private school educated Englishman of some personal charm, went to Chongqing, the capitol city of Sichuan Province in Southwest China, source of the wonderful hot food that we all like in Chinese restaurants, and on some sort of a business trip. He had for some years, we now know, had a very unusual personal relationship with the family of Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief in Chongqing, and that relationship seemed to be centered very much on Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, a 53 year old rather handsome woman from her photographs, daughter of a retired, probably now dead, revolutionary general under Mao Tse Tung. This was Communist royalty. Long story short, Neil Heywood ends up dead in his hotel room in Chongqing. The Chinese report to his family that he died of over consumption of alcohol. They report that they’ve cremated him without autopsy. The family, the Heywood family, appears to have accepted this, and that includes Mr. Neil Heywood’s Chinese wife and two children living in Beijing. The next stage was that the police chief of Sichuan Province, the closest personal aide, if you will, to Mr. Bo, the party chief, having reported so it is now said, to Bo Xilai, that Heywood didn’t die of over consumption of alcohol. He died of poisoning, and that the poisoner, or at least the one who organized the poisoning, was none other than Bo’s own wife, Gu Kailai.

So what we have is a tremendous turn in the politics of China, and it seems to center, this scandal’s center on the death of this Englishman. And it’s left to people like myself to now go in pursuit of what the real story behind all of this was.

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