A Chinese Way of War

A Chinese Way of War

The primary goal of a commander educated in the style of the ancient Chinese military classics was a rapid, easy victory, one obtained via a variety of tactics which have a long lineage within Chinese military historiography. The tactics advanced by various Chinese authors in the ancient textsdisplay a uniquely Chinese way of war. The reason such an identification of the differences in Chinese and Western ways of war is possible can be found in the information available through the ancient Chinese military texts. These texts allow the reader to examine the Chinese strategic and tactical advice which played an essential role in the creation of a unified China.

Beginning with an examination of Chinese strategy as put forward by the various authors an agreement can be found regarding the need to have the populace’s support for war before engaging in large scale military operations. The Chinese authors understood that without the support of the people, a campaign was doomed to fail. This failure would occur not only due to logistical issues, upon which the army relied on the people, but as a morale issue as well. With the large majority of Chinese soldiers having been peasants, the concern of the populace would directly affect the soldiers. An unpopular war with the people would thus become an unpopular war with the army’s rank and file. This concern with popular support was also a result of China’s social structure, influenced by the various beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, which held the educated bureaucrat in higher esteem than a soldier, trusting a bureaucrat’s decision to wage war over that of a general’s.

Fighting the War

Once the backing of the populace had been obtained, via the blessing of the bureaucrats, the Chinese commander would be able to begin strategic planning. This planning centered upon achieving an easy and rapid victory. In order to achieve this goal commanders were expected, and encouraged, to think out all possibilities of the war before engaging in actual combat with the enemy. The main efforts of the Chinese commander were directed at defeating the enemy without having to engage in combat. Should such an event prove to be unavailable to the particular struggle, Chinese commanders were to seek a way to manipulate the enemy commander to the primary strategic goal of achieving a rapid, and easy, victory. Manipulation could be achieved through such tactics as false movements, disinformation, a variety of heavy and light troops, cavalry, archers, and the use of spies.

The ancient Chinese military texts stressed the proper and intelligent use of the terrain available to the commander. Sunzi in his The Art of War speaks on six specific terrains and their significance to the waging of war. For the Chinese commander terrain was an essential component in the equation for the primary strategy of a victory concluded quickly and with minimal difficulties. The significance of terrain, in addition to the variety of troops available, was a large factor in the basic strategy of manipulating the enemy forces.

This wide array of operation guidelines, as set forth by the ancient Chinese authors of military texts, served as the path to an easy and rapid victory for Chinese commanders. Whether or not a commander achieved victory upon the battlefield was dependent not only upon his ability to heed the advice of his military ancestors, but upon his own intellectual abilities as well. The victory or defeat of an army rested solely in the hands of commanding officer. The ancient military texts of China continuously stress the need for the commander to think, to contemplate all possible scenarios before him, and to discover that path which would allow him to not only manipulate his enemy, but would also allow him to deliver a powerful blow at the opportune moment, thus ensuring the achievement of the primary strategic goal of a rapid victory for the Chinese commander.


Sunzi. Clavell, James, ed. The Art of War. New York : Dell Publishing,

Swope, Ken. Seminar 4. Lecture 3. Ball State University

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