A History of Traditional Chinese Military Science

by Huang Pumin (Author) Wei Hong (Author) Xiong Jianping (Author)
©2023 Monographs XII, 400 Pages


A History of Traditional Chinese Military Science provides a clear and informative survey of traditional Chinese military theory and examines its distinct character in different eras, starting from the primitive time to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Special emphasis is laid on the exploration of dynamics that goes into shaping military theory and culture in ancient China. Apart from representative military works, figures and battle cases, the book draws on military system, technology, tactics, army formations, military topography as well as cultural and archaeological insights. This not only enriches the scope of study and enlivens the narrative, but also makes it an ideal companion for military scholars and anyone interested in Chinese history and military culture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface to the English Translation
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Emergence of Warfare and Military Thought in the Xia and Shang Dynasties
  • From Blood Vengeance to Tribal Rivalry
  • Primitive Weapons and Defense Systems
  • The Appearance of Military Direction in the Late Primitive Society
  • Early Forms of Military Theory in Oracle Bone Inscriptions
  • Chapter 2. The Military Theory and Culture in the West Zhou Dynasty
  • The Rise of Chariot Battles
  • Early Achievements of Military Theory in The Ancient Methods of the Sima
  • Military Theory in the Currently-Preserved Methods of the Sima
  • Chapter 3. The Development of Military Tactics and Theory in the Spring and Autumn Period
  • The Evolution of Combat Tactics in Chariot Wars
  • The Formation of the Concept of “Deception is the Foundation of War”
  • The Development of Battle Array
  • Military Theory in Zuo Zhuan
  • Military Theory in Lao Zi
  • Features and Evaluations
  • Fan Li’s Military Thought
  • Chapter 4. The Theoretical System in The Art of War
  • Concept of War
  • Art of Victory
  • Theory of Military Management
  • Chapter 5. The Prosperity of Military Theory in the Warring States Period
  • The Development of Military Technology and the Improvement of Weapons and Equipment
  • The Regional Cultural Features of Military Theory in the Warring States Period
  • The Military Theory in the Representative Military Works in the Warring States Period
  • Chapter 6. The Military Theory of Pre-Qin Scholars
  • The Main Content of the Confucian Military Theory
  • The Character and Significance of the Mohist Military Theory
  • A Summary of the Huang-Lao School’s Military Theory
  • The Military Theory of Legalism
  • Chapter 7. The Achievements of Military Science in the Qin and Han Dynasties
  • The Widespread Use of Steel Weapons
  • The Arrival of the Cavalry Era
  • The Achievements of Military Theory in Qin and Han
  • The Strategic Decision in “The Hanzhong Plan”
  • Deng Yu’s Strategic Thought on National Conquest
  • Military Theory in San Lve
  • Chapter 8. Military Science in the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties
  • The Shift in the Strategic Axis of Combat
  • The Development in Battle Arrays
  • Military Theory and Its Features
  • The Combat Theory Concerning “the Southern Ship and the Northern Horse”
  • The Strategic Decision in “The Longzhong Plan”
  • The Strategic Decision in “Ping Wu Shu”
  • Chapter 9. Military Theory in the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties
  • A Survey of Military Science in the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties
  • Strategic Principles in the Unification Wars
  • The Strategic Plans in “Qu Chen Ce” and “Yu Shou Ping Chen Qi Ce”
  • The Contribution of Questions and Replies between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong
  • The Strategic Theory in “Ping Pan Ce”
  • The Strategic Theory in “Ping Bian Ce”
  • Chapter 10. Military Science in the Song Dynasty
  • Wuju, Wuxue and the Selection and Education of Generals
  • The Officialization of Military Science and the Prosperity of Military Works
  • The Deeper Clash and Integration between Military Science and Confucianism
  • The Elucidation of Military Concepts, Categories and Combat Principles
  • Chapter 11. The Communication and Integration of Military Science Among Multiple Ethnic Groups
  • The Military Ideas of the Liao
  • The Military Ideas of the Western Xia
  • The Military Ideas of the Jin
  • The Military Theory of the Yuan Dynasty
  • Chapter 12. Military Science in the Ming Dynasty: From Prosperity to Decline
  • Important Military Works and Theory in the Ming Dynasty
  • Wu Bei Zhi and Its Summation of Ancient Military Science
  • Chapter 13. The Coastal Defence Strategy and Qi Jiguang’s Contribution to Military Science
  • The Coastal Defence Strategy
  • Naval Warfare Tactics
  • The Theoretical Innovations of Qi Jiguang
  • Chapter 14. The Use of Firearms and the New Look of Military Theory
  • The Development and Theoretical Research of Firearms
  • The Concept of War
  • Tactical Research in the Era of Firearms
  • Chapter 15. The End of Traditional Chinese Military Science
  • The Stagnation of Military Theory in the Early Qing
  • The Military Ideas of Kangxi and Qianlong
  • The Stagnation of Traditional Military Science
  • The Development of Military Geography
  • Chapter 16. Coastal Defence and Naval Construction in the Qing Dynasty
  • The Coastal Defence Strategy in the early Qing
  • The Outbreak of Coastal Defence Crisis and the Strengthening of the Coast
  • The Building of a Modern Navy
  • Review of Coastal Defense and Maritime Power Strategies
  • Chapter 17. The Transition of Modern Chinese Military Science and Its Significance
  • Learning Modern Military Theory from the West
  • The All-around Influence of Western Military Theory
  • The Transformation of Traditional Military Science
  • The Formation of Modern National Defense Strategy
  • Conservatism and Reformation: A Battle between Chinese and Western Trends in the Westernization Movement
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index of People
  • Index of Important Terms

←viii | ix→

Preface to the English Translation

Too often in cultural communications and dialogues, we have clung to our own cultural stands and highlighted the distinct features of other cultures. As a result, we get a parade of the differences and divergences of cultures and undermine, consciously or unconsciously, the intrinsic commonality, if not universality, among them.

Thus, contention and competition has become the norm in cultural or value exchange, in which the dominant culture uses hegemonic discourse to promote its values and ideology, and the minority culture, reluctant to be marginalized or erased, responds with spirited resistance. Under the circumstances, the deeper the exchange, the more intense the conflict; the more frequent the interaction, the more aggressive the rejection. Peaceful coexistence is out of the question; misunderstanding, misjudgment, and confrontation rules the day. Sad as it sounds, this is the grim reality.

The root of the problem, I think, lies in people’s enthusiasm in seeking differences rather than common ground, when confronted with other cultures and civilizations. The truth is, the dialogue between civilizations is largely defined by the choice to focus on divergence or commonality, to point fingers at others or learn to appreciate them, which also has great implications for cultural inclusivity. In other words, if we cannot overcome the predilection to seek differences, then we will probably never attain equality, tolerance, harmony and peace.

←ix | x→Take the comparative study of Chinese and Western military cultures, one of the popular topics in academia, as an example. It obviously has positive significance, yet at the same time, cannot seem to escape the usual misplacement and anachronism in cultural comparison, since it often ignores or conceals the commonality of things and emphasizing their particularity.

A case in point is the apparently tricky comparison between Sunzi’s The Art of War and Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War, which were created in different eras, different contexts, and generated by different social realities. The former is an ancient military work, whereas the latter a product of the modern Industrial Revolution, and it would be difficult to conduct a comparative study in this way, since one might highlight one point and neglect all the others. For example, we often say that the Western culture focuses on the individual while the Chinese stresses the collective, the West cherishes originality while China reveres coordination, or the Chinese culture is more abstract whereas the Western more specific. Yet this hardly applies to music. Traditional Chinese music played by ensembles is usually lower in quality, and it is the solo pieces that represents the caliber of Chinese music, such as the classical works “The Guangling Verse” or “Moonlit Night on a Spring River.” Even the epic Chu-Han War could be successfully portrayed by a single pipa tune “Ambush on All sides.” However, the highest form of Western music is symphony, performed by the ensemble of brass, wind, string, and percussion instruments, which was typical collective work. Therefore, drawing a random conclusion from a one-dimensional comparison is often specious, misleading and cannot stand close scrutiny.

In addition to misplaced time and space, another problem is the inappropriate selection of research subjects. In the comparison between Chinese and Western military thinking, the object of reference is often confined to a few representative works, but the vehicles of military thought are highly diverse and distinct, no matter in China or the West. As far as ancient China is concerned, apart from the dominant School of Strategy, there were three other prominent divisions, i.e., Circumstance, Divination, and Technique, which diverged drastically in mission, theory, value, logic, method of expression as well as language style. Therefore, even The Art of War cannot encompass the entire ancient Chinese military science, and the many features of the book do not amount to commonality. Defining its cultural characters as the general character of ancient Chinese military science is a sweeping generalization.

To be sure, this does not mean that the Chinese and Western military thinking do not have differences. On a whole, their developments followed two different paths. Military science in China, which emerged in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties (approximately between 21-century BC to 256 BC), became an ←x | xi→independent theoretical system in the Spring and Autumn to the Warring States Periods and made great progress in the Qin and Han Dynasties. The Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties witnessed its further progress until it gave way to modern Western military science in the late 19th century. Military studies in the West also has its trajectory. Although there emerged some outstanding ancient strategists like Xenophon and Julius Caesar, the military theoretical system developed and matured chiefly in the modern era. After WWII, following the appearance of new weapons (missiles, nuclear bombs, and aero-weapons) and new operation modes (information war, internet war, and space war), Western military theory witnessed a revolution and the research focus shifted from experience summation to war prediction. In addition, as the products of two military cultures, the Chinese and Western military works have huge differences in language style, logical concept, and image description. Generally speaking, traditional military theory in the West, represented by works like On War, is built on the induction, definition, and interpretation of concepts and categories, whereas many expressions in ancient Chinese military science is characterized by considerable vagueness. Sunzi describes the connotations xing 形 (shape) and shi 势 (momentum), for example, in vivid, metaphorical language, but it obviously cannot be considered specific, much less accurate or scientific: “When a victorious commander directs his army, it is like pent-up waters, bursting and rolling down a chasm of a thousand miles, and this is the so-called xing”;1 “the momentum created by a strong army is like pushing a round boulder off a mountain one thousand miles in height, and this is the so-called shi.”2 What it embodies is the ambiguity of Eastern thought.

However, the core issues of Chinese and Western military science, i.e., the whys and hows of war, have been fundamentally consistent in the last few millennia. For example, in terms of the guiding principle of military direction, strategists from both cultures consider the concentration of superior forces as the dominant element of victory; both attach importance to rapid mobility and define flexibility as the highest principle in the art of war. In terms of the strategic concept, both believe military strength to be the foundation; both agree commanders and generals are the soul of an army, and both stress the pivotal function of spiritual factors, especially morale, in combat. More importantly, strategists from both cultures are highly cautious about war. Ancient Chinese military thinkers prioritize prudence and oppose unrestrained military action. Laozi reminds people “war is ominous” and “should only be used as a last resort,” and The Methods of the Sima warns that “a warlike state is bound to perish, however powerful it might be.” The Western thinkers also stress restraint in war. For example, the British strategist John Fuller believes only limited warfare could benefit the winner,3 and the true goal of war is peace, not victory, which is merely a means to the end.4 His idea of ←xi | xii→not pressing desperate enemies is entirely in keeping with Sunzi and the general law of political ecology: allowing the adversary to survive is exactly the prerequisite for one’s own survival, or, as Mencius puts it, “a state with no enemy or external trouble is doomed.” These commonalities and affinities more than make up for the differences and contradictions. It is advisable, then, to see the connection between the military wisdom of China and the West, so that we can better understand the common values that transcend time and space and obtain useful insights from them.


The Status and Value of Military Science

Military affairs have always played an important role in social life and penetrated all the fields and levels of history in China. For example, the most advanced productivity often originated from the military field and transferred to science and technology later. This was the case as early as the pre-Qin era. The record of “using the good metal to make knives and swords…and bad metal to make hoes, axes, and ploughs”1 shows how military technology represented the top productivity in society. Since the Qin and Han Dynasties, this has remained the yardstick in social production. The improvement of warship building, the progress of construction technology, the use of gunpowder and firearms, and the foundry of advanced steel weapons all epitomized sophisticated productivity in the corresponding periods and facilitated the technological improvement in other production fields.

The central position of military affairs in history is also manifested in the political sphere. In ancient China, the disintegration and unification of states, the transitions between dynasties, the struggle and strife among political forces, the uprisings of common people, and the integration of ethnic groups within the Chinese nation were mostly achieved through war. From the strengthening of centralized power, the improvement of institutions and systems to the implementation of major reform measures, the military often served as the main theme. The so-called centralized power was, above all, the concentration of military power, which could be clearly seen from the system change and administrative transformation through dynasties: the Qin and Han monarchs controlled the dispatchment of troops with tiger-shaped tallies, and the emperor of the Northern Song famously discharged the military power of commanders at a private banquet; Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, replaced the Five Military Commissions with the single Chief Military Commission, and the Qing Dynasty established the Grand Council (literarily “the Office of Military Plans”), the top decision-making body which allowed the emperor to control the government more efficiently. National legal systems and regulations often originated in the army and were applied to the whole society later. For example, the popular shi wu lianzuofa 十五连坐法 in the Warring States Period, i.e., a law that held the family accountable for an individual’s crime, and the system of 20 military ranks of honor in the state of Qin, both started as pure military practices and evolved into general systems of penalty that sought to regulate the entire society. In this sense, the military can be seen as a forerunner in the construction of the national system and holds the pioneering role in state politics. As for the major reforms in Chinese history, they were unanimously dominated by military contents. The system of shang shou gong 尚首功 in the Shang Yang reform, the system of baojia 保甲 and jiangbing 将兵 in Wang Anshi’s reform, and the measures to rectify the border in Zhang Juzheng’s reform are all typical examples.

The crucial importance of military affairs in world history is equally undeniable. Early Western history works, such as Herodotus’ The Histories, Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, Julius Caesar’s The War in Gaul, and Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition were mostly military histories. This tradition prevails to this day and research on military history remains popular. Studies on war, strategy, army establishment, combat technology, armament, military geography, and military figures are productive and sophisticated, one of the representatives being The Cambridge History of Warfare edited by Geoffrey Parker. Correspondingly, military history is an important and influential division in historiography and enjoys a high academic status.

In the studies of military history, research on the evolution of military thought, i.e., military science, is the central focus, which is not surprising, since the history of thought is the most profound level of history, and only by understanding people’s motivations and reflections can one really understand the essence of human activity. As Professor Lin Dehong suggests: the sequence of history study starts from cultural relics, moves on to historical activities and finally enters the realm of thought. In other words, without reaching the level of human thought, one cannot possibly acquire a complete and essential understanding of human history.2

Military thought is the core and soul of the long-standing and well-established Chinese military tradition. As the spiritual epitome and philosophical sublimation of various military phenomena and the high-level abstraction of specific military issues, it regulates the entire military system and reveals the general law of military development. Therefore, it deserves to become the focus of military historiography and an important part in the general intellectual history.

Military thought, to use a more standardized academic term, is military science. Military science in ancient China refers to the school of thought in Chinese history that discussed basic military issues, the guiding principles and general methods of war, and the universal laws and major measures in military and national defense constructions. It emerged in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties, became an independent theoretical system in the Spring and Autumn to the Warring States Periods, and made great progress in the Qin and Han Dynasties. The Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties witnessed its further progress until modern Western military science took over in the late Qing.

The research topics of ancient Chinese military science mainly include the concept of war, principles in military management, strategy, and combat direction derived from diversified military activities in history, conveyed mostly by the many profound, diverse, and philosophical works represented by The Art of War. Military discussions in other classics was another important source: military contents in the canonical works of Shang Shu, Zhou Yi, Shi Jing, and Zhou Li; the pre-Qin and Han masters and philosophers’ military discussions recorded in Mencius, Laozi, Guanzi, Lv Shi Chun Qiu and Huainanzi; numerous military essays in histories, references, political treatises, and serial books; relevant discourse from scholars or essayists’ private works; the military strategies and practices of statesmen and strategists recorded in history books, such as “The Hanzhong Plan” and “the Longzhong Plan.”

Han Shu Yiwenzhi 汉书·艺文志, the oldest extant bibliography of ancient China, divides the pre-Qin and Han military science into four categories: Military Strategy 兵权谋家, Military Circumstance 兵形势家, Military Divination 兵阴阳家, and Military Technique 兵技巧家. Among them, the School of Military Strategy was the dominant group and it focused on strategic issues. Most representative military works in ancient China, such as The Art of War, Wuzi, Liu Tao, and Sun Bin’s Art of War belong to this category. The School of Military Circumstance was also important and it mainly involved the mobility of military operations and the flexibility of tactics. The School of Military Divination paid attention to the relationship between weather, geography, and the outcome of war. As for the School of Military Technique, it stressed weapons and equipment, methods of combat, and military training. Since the Qin and Han Dynasties, military science kept moving forward, but the basic content and feature did not exceed the scope of the above-mentioned categories.

Roughly speaking, the basic content of ancient Chinese military science is as follows. In terms of the concept of war, it advocated equal attention to civil and military affairs and endorsed the balance between the prudent policy on war and full preparedness in war. It had faith in the ultimate victory of just wars and insisted on stopping and eliminating unjust wars with just ones. At the same time, it sought peace and opposed militaristic policies. Accordingly, in national defense construction, ancient military strategists generally advocated building military strength and strengthening the country by rewarding military agriculture. They believed it necessary to maintain vigilance even in peacetime and proposed combining the civil and military measures. In terms of military management, the military schools recommended disciplining soldiers with laws and regulations and educating them with etiquette and codes of honor. Therefore, strategists in the past usually embraced the following principles: achieving victory through a strict discipline of the army; the prioritization of military laws and regulations; the concentration of military power; training an army before using it; fair rewards and penalties; alternating kindness and severity; selecting virtuous, brave, and resourceful commanders; locating a common goal for the upper and lower levels and achieving solidarity between officers and soldiers. In logistic support, they were in favor of gradually accumulating materials and wealth, transporting supplies from the home country, and acquiring food from the enemy; in military service, they insisted on uniting the soldiers and civilians and introducing reforms according to circumstances.

As for the strategic thinking and theory on military direction, they constituted the mainstay and essence of ancient Chinese military science. The core spirit was to make elaborate plans before war to achieve consummate victory, deploy the army with flexibility and keep adapting to the situation of the enemy. Some relevant issues or connotations revolved around the fundamental goal of seizing the initiative in war, or, to borrow Sunzi’s maxim, “controlling the enemy instead of being controlled by the enemy,” such as “knowing the enemy and yourself,” “conquering the enemy with intrigue or diplomacy,” “achieving victory by catching the enemy unaware,” “avoid the strong point and strike the weak,” “isolating the enemy and crushing it separately,” and “forestall the enemy operation.”

The Current Research Situation in Military Science

Compared to the research of other ancient schools of thought, such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, military science studies apparently lag behind. The quantity of research is modest to start with, and within the limited scholarship, high-quality, systematic, and perceptive achievements are rare. Most studies are the expansion and integration of entries from military dictionaries, yet not as scientific and accurate as them. In fact, they can almost be described as nondescript so that it is hard to trace the trajectory of military science development or distinguish the cultural spirit implied in the military thinkers or classics. Not surprisingly, it has become a marginalized subject in intellectual research.

However, one should not blame the unsatisfactory condition of military studies simply on scholars, since the real problem lies in the very nature of military science itself. After all, it is hard to make much out of little. In Han Shu Yiwenzhi, military schools are not included in the category of “philosophers and masters,” nor are works on warfare defined as theoretical or ideological discourse. To be sure, military science has its own division: bingshu (military treatise), which is close to the categories of “mathematics and astronomy” and “magic.” In other words, among the six categories of Yiwenzhi, the first three, i.e., “Confucian classics,” “philosophers and masters,” and “poems,” could be classified as the study of Dao, or the Way, whereas the next three, i.e., “military treatise,” “mathematics and astronomy,” and “magic” could be considered as the discussion of shu, or skills. The categories on Dao are philosophical, but the categories on shu are practical, which means they stress functionality and efficiency, denouncing the abstract and the metaphysical. As a result, their ideas are not sophisticated and scholarship thin. In fact, except a couple of books like The Art of War, the great majority of military works have negligible theoretical and intellectual content and provide little excitement for academic reflection.

This is not just the case in ancient times. Popular philosophic or intellectual histories of today seldom make room for military thought, and even if there are a few lucky exceptions, they are, more often than not, honorary mentions. Clearly, the very nature of military science obstructs research, and it would prove more or less disappointing if one hopes to derive metaphysical or abstract ideas or theory from a technical division.

Also, contrary to Confucianism, which kept updating its mechanism in response to the challenge of Daoism and Buddhism, military science was basically presented with the same set of mode. The technological means of war had not taken any dramatic leap and wars were pretty much dominated by the combat methods of the cold weapon era. Later, with the emergence of firearms after the Song and Yuan, especially in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the combat style gradually shifted to the combination of cold and hot weapons. However, even in this period, cold weapons still had central importance. Such physical conditions and background greatly restricted the renewal and development of military science, and the few changes or developments occurred in the technical fields. For example, the firearms in the Ming rekindled the attention to chariots and gave rise to works like A Hundred Questions and Answers on the Battalion of Chariots; similarly, thanks to the appearance of firearms, which brought about the combination of cold and hot weapons in war, works like The Essence of Fire Attack were compiled and relevant guiding principles in keeping with the new circumstances surfaced in military direction. Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that these partial, individual, and minor achievements did not lead to fundamental and revolutionary transformations in theory. In this sense, the Ming scholar Mao Yuanyi’s classic comment in A Record of Defense Preparations, i.e., “The Art of War encompasses everything that precedes it and surpasses everything that succeeds it,” on one hand reveals the unparalleled status of the military bible, yet on the other hand, implies the stagnant, conservative, and inward-looking characters of military theory as a whole.

Under these circumstances, it would be very hard to investigate the evolution of military theory from the perspective of disciplinary development and harder still to summarize and reveal the basic laws and main features of this evolution. In this regard, even the most authoritative Military Encyclopedia of China could do little but reiterate, under different dynastic entries, the same cliché of how just wars is distinguished from unjust wars and emphasize “avoiding the strong point and attack the weak” or “adapting to the enemy” in military direction time and again, so that the pre-Qin entry reads exactly the same as the Qin-Han and Ming-Qing entries. It is, in short, highly unoriginal and excessively dull. However, this is not an accident, but the logical concomitant of the stagnation and self-enclosure of the research object.


XII, 400
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (August)
rituals of war weapons military technology transition through dynasties military strategist intellectual history Art of War concept of war military tactics ancient China development of military thought Wei Hong Xiong Jianping
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XII, 400 pp.

Biographical notes

Huang Pumin (Author) Wei Hong (Author) Xiong Jianping (Author)

The chief author, Huang Pumin, is a professor from Renmin University of China and one of the leading scholars in classical Chinese military theory, particularly Sunzi’s Art of War. His books, including A Military History: The Spring and Autumn Period (1998) and A Critical Biography of He Xiu (2002), have received several national book awards and nominations. Wei Hong once worked as Research Fellow at the Chinese Academy of Military Science. She published A Study of Sunzi’s Military Theory in the Song Dynasty (2011) and the volume on Song, Liao, Xia, Jin and Yuan military theories in A Comprehensive History of Chinese Military Science (2022). Xiong Jianping is a professor from National University of Defense Technology in China. His major publications include A New Study of Sunzi’s Art of War (2021) and The Intelligence Thought in Sunzi’s Art of War (co-authored with Gao Jinhu, 2019). The translator, Fan Hao, teaches at Nanjing University, China. Her translations include The Sun between Their Feet (2008), How to Read Literature (2015) and Shakespeare’s Restless World (2016).


Title: A History of Traditional Chinese Military Science