The Chinese Way of War

The siege of Fort Zeelandia, 351 years ago, may be one of the more significant campaigns in history. In 1662, a Chinese army defeated a Dutch garrison on Taiwan and brought the island under Chinese rule for the first time in history.

What does this tell us? These come to mind:

  1. China was expansionist too, in its own way. Just as with European expansion, the presence of a rival acted as an incitement to extend the empire.
  2. Europeans had the advantage at sea but not on land in early modern Asia.
  3. China was not, as sometimes thought, intrinsically pacific and un-militaristic.
  4. China, not just Europe, had an early modern “military revolution.”

Tonio Andrade has a piece in The Diplomat (h/t Scholar’s Stage) describing what lay behind China’s victory over the Dutch:

  • effective guns;
  • well-trained troops

China was undergoing a military revolution [in the 1500s and 1600s] … Chinese commanders experimented with training regimens that sound strikingly modern – the simulation of combat stress, the assumption of prone positions for firefights (Westerners were trained to stand up, exposing their bodies to more bullets), advanced strength and endurance training regimens.

  • a long tradition of military thought

Chinese military commanders were able to draw on two millennia of careful thinking on warfare. … This store of knowledge helped the Chinese to outwit the Dutch at nearly every turn, luring them into traps, making careful use of terrain, combining naval and land power in unexpected and effective ways.

I agree with T. Greer (here) that Westerners should appreciate, and try to understand, Chinese military thought. (From Sun Tzu to Mao and beyond, one might say.)

A couple of questions come to mind:

  • Why did China have such a sophisticated tradition of military theory (Sun Tzu being just one of many thinkers)? They seem to have been particularly prone to apply rationality to war, to make war more intelligence-intensive, more knowledge-intensive.
  • How do Western and Chinese military thought compare? One major divergence comes to mind. In the twentieth-century West, military thought took an increasingly liberal, war-averse, direction with an emphasis on limited war, containment, deterrence, and the like. To me, this looks unique.
  • Are these the two principal traditions of military theory in world history? If so, why?


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3 responses to “The Chinese Way of War

  1. Great questions! Just a few quick thoughts on your last three points:

    1) “One major divergence comes to mind. In the twentieth-century West, military thought took an increasingly liberal, war-averse, direction with an emphasis on limited war, containment, deterrence, and the like. ”

    One can find similar themes in several strains of Chinese thought. Officially Daoism deplored war as bringing more harm to the kingdom than good. In the early Han the only war the Daoist emperors fought were against rebellious kings/warlords from home.

    Confucians have traditionally been divided on the question of whether or not man was intrinsically good or evil, Mencius taking the position that he was good, Xunzi the position that they were bad. (Both groups believed that a king act in a moral way, however; the followers of Mencius b/c they believed it was the right thing to do and that heaven rewarded such acts, the Xunzi ‘realists’ b/c they saw it as the most effective way to gain the support of the people). The Mencius branch was famously war-averse. After the Neo-confucian revolution during the Song dynasty Mencius became the man all Confucians studied. Interestingly, the approach of the two ‘Chinese’ dynasties after this point (the Song and Ming) to the steppe (particularly as the dynasty became well entrenched) was limited war and containment. The Ming were so obsessed with containing the steppe that they built a Great Wall to do it.

    2. “Are these the two principle traditions”? One could argue that the Indian tradition had a ‘strategic tradition’ of its own, perhaps best manifested in Kautalya’s Arthashastra. But the Indian strategic corpus is vastly smaller than anything present in the West or in China.

    3. As for your other question – which you also left at my blog:why China has such a sophisticated strategic tradition, and why do Chinese & Western civilizations have such a firmly entrenched strategic traditions? I have a few ideas… but I think I need a bit more time to reflect on them. It is a great question.

    • Interesting. Thanks.
      Here’s a hypothesis: China was generally interested in applied knowledge more than pure theory, eg technology rather than mathematical theory. Military-strategic thought is a practical or applied science. Is that why it has a rich tradition in that area?

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