Chinese Strategy: The Invisible war - Part I
This is the first of a series of articles that introduce a new dimension in the study of Early China military-strategic texts. Combined, they represent a proposal I wrote for the research and study of a certain mental aspect that I identified in the aforementioned texts. I hope to be able to conduct this research when and if opportunity arises. Meanwhile, in the spirit of sharing my views with fellow sinologists, I decided to start these articles here. If you would like to download a PDF copy with endnotes, please click here. Suggestions, commentaries and criticism are welcome.
The Invisible war:
Hidden elements in the implementation of war and strategy in ancient China.
This is a proposal for the study of one aspect of the military-strategic texts of the Chinese Pre-Qin period, more specifically, a series of instructions that present a definite mental nature, meaning that they focus around the identification, the training and implementation of certain processes that happen only in the mind of those directly engaged in the acts of war and strategy, notably the commander-strategist and the soldiers below him. The nature of these instructions is one of the upmost importance, for the level of understanding the commander-strategist has of them (the mental component) will determine how well he implements the other principles, tactics and techniques contained in such texts (the other components). The instructions are mainly divided in those that advise the commander-strategist on the importance of certain mental attributes such as fortitude, preparedness and mental focus, and those that present a method of creating the mental processes that will result in the acquisition of the mental attributes themselves.
During the Warring States Period, military-strategic affairs were of the upmost importance to the state. In a social scenario where, at the end of the Spring and Autumn period (770 AC-476 AC), more than a hundred state-countries have been conquered by the stronger states, the conduction of military-strategic affairs would determine the survival or destruction of a nation. We know that during that period, the implementation of war and strategy was the domain of the commander-strategist, and although his figure existed before, the idea of creating the office of commander-strategist (将帅) was gradually formed after the Spring and Autumn period, when new social dynamics and military advancements demanded that military-strategic affairs were overseen by a person specially trained for the task. Before the Spring and Autumn period, ministers accumulated the function of overseeing military affairs, thus following the idea of “when out of the court function as a commander, when in the court function as a minister” 出则为将，入则为相”. At the time, the concept of war (兵) represented much more than pure military action. The Sunzi Bingfa directly tell us how the superior method of war resided in first implementing strategy, second diplomacy and only then military power:
Moreover, although the commander-strategist was not in total control of politics and diplomacy, for there were other official posts responsible for these matters, in times of war his power and authority could considerably increase to the point where, when war was inevitable and sanctioned by the ruler, all decisions related to the waging of war, in all its different forms, were taken by him. The Sunzi Bingfa goes even further and advocates that in matters of war the commander strategist should have more power than the ruler himself, having authority to initiate a military campaign against the will of the ruler:
We can then safely affirm that the figure of the commander-strategist had central significance, for he was not only given authority to deliberate over military actions – but also to oversee the implementation of both strategic and diplomatic affairs in their relation to war. Considering this, we can argue that in several key moments the fate of nations during the Warring States Period rested solely in the hands of the commander-strategist. The following passage confirms his importance:
When we analyze the figure of the commander-strategist as a military-strategic leader who held the power to act in ways that could determine the fate of a nation, then his significance within the Warring States Period is revealed. Therefore, if we want to form a more complete picture of the military-strategic dynamics that were in place at the time, it is clearly necessary to understand in more detail how this figure related to the implementation of war and strategy.
According to Early China military-strategic texts, advantage in war and strategy take many forms. It can be technological, geographical, economic, natural (which deals with nature’s changing cycles) and human (the particulars of people). Such texts acknowledge all different forms of advantage, yet when the subject is discussed in more detail it becomes clear that the human advantage is by far the most important one, as stated in the following passage of the Weiliao Zi:
It is clear that the understanding of the particulars of war and strategy in Early China is closely related to the appreciation of the human element in military-strategic texts from that period. This realization was crucial in determining the direction of my research, for while I understood that such texts presented many different elements, and that the researcher must have knowledge of all of them, it allowed me to focus on just one element. Therefore, by focusing on the human aspects of such texts, while at the same time maintaining focus on the objective of understanding the principles they introduce, I was able to identify a pattern. It concerns the optimal implementation of war and strategy through the developing and utilization of specific skills related to the figure and the duties of the commander-strategist. Furthermore, this pattern represents a logic which claims that one of the key elements that determines the outcome of the implementation of strategic-military affairs by the commander-strategist is the attainment of a series of mental abilities. These abilities represent the dynamic implementation of several states of mind, for instance calmness, preparedness, fierceness, mental focus, braveness, disregard for one’s own life. Since all these abilities are of a mental nature I have found appropriate to refer to them as the “mental component”.
The mental component is dual in nature, having both invisible and visible aspects, the invisible being the most important for it powered and defined the qualities of the visible one. The invisible aspect is the very understanding of its meaning, the training and the attainment of the mental states with, once attained, remained potentially active, awaiting for the moment of their implementation; the visible aspect is precisely their implementation, the physical expression of those abilities and states of mind that form the mental component. Therefore, the mental component exist both is a subjective and immaterial form — in the mind of the commander-strategist — and objectively expressed though his attitude, actions, orders, strategies and plans. Allow me to explain how these abilities relate to the commander-strategist and concomitantly introduce some of them.
Because of the nature of his job, the commander-strategist needed to be mentally prepared to deal with the horrific nature of war in a cold, objective way. Accordingly, the mental component allowed the commander-strategist to do so, while attaining a mind that was able to maintain a high level of optimal function in extreme circumstances, therefore greatly surpassing the mind of the common person. Regarding the nature of the commander-strategist’s job and what was required of him consider the following passage of the Weailiaozi:
The Sunzi Bingfa addresses the matter very clearly, advising, amongst other things, on the importance of “controlling the energy”, “controlling the mind” and “controlling the power”:
Moreover, regarding the ability of the commander-strategist to implement military-strategic affairs and its relation to the attainment of the skills that formed the mental component, several passages in most of the above-mentioned texts advise him on the importance of the mental component, as well as the dangers of its absence. For instance:
More than admonishing the commander-strategist on the importance of the mental component, the texts in question also advise him regarding its implementation from three very different perspectives. Here we have the mental component centering on the figure of the commander-strategist and being implemented in three aspects related to him. The first focuses on the commander-strategist himself, the second on the imparting of the mental component to his troops, and the third on its utilization in relation to the enemy army. With relation to the first aspect of implementation, please consider:
The second aspect of implementation, which is imparting one (or several) mental skills to the soldiers, is shown in the following passages:
Finally, the third aspect of implementation of the mental component, its utilization in order to destabilize the enemy’s own mental abilities (psychological warfare no doubt) is expressed here:
The evidence above is very compelling. Yet, how can we really be certain of the importance of the mental component to the implementation of war and strategy? Since their approach to life was very pragmatic, military-strategic thinkers such as Guiguzi and Sunzi were mainly concerned in successfully implementing military-strategic theory. In order to accomplish this goal they — very probably— became the first ones willing to break the intellectual boundaries that separated thinkers and their ideas into different groups (“schools of thought”, some might say), so that they could freely absorb any idea they deemed appropriate, regardless of its source. This means that whatever was important for the implementation of war and strategy was incorporated into their ideas and must necessarily be present in their texts. Therefore, the simple fact that passages that discuss the mental component found their way into most, perhaps all, Pre-Qin military-strategic texts is enough evidence of their importance. More than this, texts such as the Liutao devote entire chapters to the subject. Significantly, the chapter entitled “Li Jun”, of the Liutao opens with King Wu worriedly asking about how the army can be brave and fearless as a whole, to which Taigong explains him that it should all start with the commander-strategist having certain skills and imparting them to the soldiers:
Furthermore, when passages such as the next one are carefully considered, the importance of the mental component becomes evident:
The mental component can be clearly seen in Early China military-strategic texts; it is there. But to be able to actually perceive it and naturally focus on it requires a certain approach, one that I have arrived at after years of research centered around the human element. Had I researched the texts utilizing a different approach, for instance not centering on the human element but the strategic one, I would have naturally focused on a different aspect – other possibilities would have naturally been perceived.
Having established the existence of the mental component, its importance to the implementation of war and strategy and its relation to the commander-strategist, please allow me to write about the necessity of understanding it. Understanding the mental component serves two immediate purposes.
(1) It will broaden the perspective of any individual or organization that is approaching Early China military texts from the point of view of their utilization. We must keep in mind that such texts are, above all, manuals that approach the matter of war and strategy from an utilitarian point of view, that is, from the point of view of their implementation, for they were created to influence the outcome of military-strategic affairs by empowering the commander-strategist with the knowledge of its particulars. Therefore, even though such texts have a definite abstract quality (further discussed in the following paragraphs), they are very clear in defining their true purpose: implementation. Consider:
Recent years have seen a kind of cultural renaissance throughout the world (notably in China), one that promotes the study and the practical application of Pre-Qin military-strategic texts. Since these texts have been created to be implemented, I find this new renaissance movement to be extremely pertinent – in accordance with the true purpose of such texts. Yet, I am not aware of academic research that has solely focused on these texts from the point of view of their implementation. Academic research is definitively required for a better understanding of the above mentioned texts, for it will help broaden our understanding and allow us to contextualize what we already know and what is yet to be discovered. Moreover, the nature of academic inquiry permit us to approach research from different angles, allowing each researcher to focus on a single unique aspect or to build on already known ones, improving our level of understanding of them. In this sense, by focusing on the Early China military-strategic texts from the point of view of their implementation, I can focus on a unique aspect and consequently present a more complete picture of the texts in question. If we neglect the mental component and its importance to the implementation of war and strategy, our view of Early China military-strategic texts will be incomplete, and any attempt to objectively implement the knowledge they contained will be severely impaired.
(2) Regardless of our approach or objective in studying the Early China military-strategic texts, the understanding of the mental component serves the purpose of building on what we already know about them. Such texts are formed by several “components”, the mental one being just a part of the whole. They present instructions on several particulars that have the upmost importance to the implementation of war and strategy. A general overview reveals, among others, instructions related to mental abilities and states of mind (the mental component), the disposition of troops (the disposition component), the implementation of reward and punishment (the legal component) and the utilization of the terrain (the geographical component). Each of these components, (“sets of instructions” or “sets of principles”, if you chose to call them so) represent a specific kind of ability in relation to war and strategy, i.e., the ability to use the mind, the ability to dispose the troops, the ability to implement legal matters and the ability to masterfully conduct and position troops in relation to terrain. As isolated components, each one provides great advantage in war and strategy and their individual attainment was certainly most desired. However, such abilities truly shined when constantly combined between each other, revealing the endless “possibilities of their combinations”, and the great commander-strategist was the one that, having attained such abilities, was able to combine them to his advantage, thus creating irresistible force (势). Masterful combination was the higher level of military-strategic ability:
Likewise, it seems evident that a more complete and desirable understanding of the Pre-Qin military-strategic texts requires a combination of the several aspects which compose them, one supporting the other, one helping us contextualize the other, one broadening our understanding of the other, the combination of all deepening our knowledge and bringing us closer to realize their true potential. Therefore, not researching the mental component would mean ignoring one of the key components presented in these texts, impairing our quest to understand them in their totality and distorting that which we already know.
Having then established how I arrived at the mental component, its importance, its relation to the commander-strategist and the necessity of understanding it, allow me to momentarily focus more deeply on some of its characteristics by acknowledging one of the main aspects of Early China military-strategic texts: the instructions they present can be both specific and abstract. They are specific because they reveal to the careful reader a series of objectives, yet they are abstract in the sense that, in most cases, they do not present us with the methods to attain them. In this way, such texts present the reader not only with principles related to the mental component, but also to the disposition of troops, tactics, preparations, supplies and training. In my opinion, the presenting of principles and not specific techniques is a common characteristic of all the texts in question. It should be noted that, in theory, principles are superior to techniques. They are the guidelines, the intellectual repository from which techniques are created. A technique allows no freedom, and any change that might be brought upon it usually comes from the principle that originates it. However, the attainment of a principle is much harder than the execution of a technique, for the principle is the power that animates the technique, even though it remains hidden. The abstract quality of the mental component, and the fact that principles are always hidden within the implementation of the techniques might initially mislead researchers who hope to understand their true and vital importance. Yet, as shown above, thorough analysis clearly reveals that the mental component and its principles are vital to the implementation of military-strategic affairs and perfectly suited for the commander-strategist. He needs the intellectual freedom that principles provide, for he is the one who needs to create, while those commanded by him need only to learn how to execute:
Moreover, the Sunzi Bingfa introduces the concept of “preparedness”, when it tell us that:
Among other things, from an external point of view, preparedness translates as acquisition of intelligence, training and disposition of the troops, supply and distribution, clearly linking the mental component and its implementation to proficiency in the other components, thus corroborating my view on the necessity of combiningall components to create irresistible force.
Early China military-strategic texts also have a dual character, being at the same time general and unique.. They are general in the sense that all of them focus on war and strategy and present us with a series of topics that are vital to the implementation of military-strategic affairs. Yet, they are also unique in the way they present such information, and this can be used to the researcher's advantage. When we cross-reference and analyze a certain group of principles, such as the ones that form the mental component, then the differences in each text allow us to contextualize somewhat abstract aspects, thus giving us the opportunity to better understand them from different perspectives. In this way, we can first isolate each identifiable principle in order to better understand its essence; then, by means of cross-reference and analysis, we can proceed to study them from a broader perspective, in order to understand how they interact with each other. Lastly, with well-rounded knowledge acquired, we can proceed to determine how the principles relate to the components , how the mental component relates to the other components and how all the components relate to each other.