Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ancient Chinese Warfare

Ah another book read amidst the excitement of volunteer work. This was written by Ralph D. Sawyer who is one of the most respected Chinese Military Historians in the world and it would seem with good reason. A previous work that I had read of his Seven Military Classics of Ancient China is utterly superb though it is mostly translation (albeit in the process of translation inevitably the translator becomes almost a second author). I won't go into particular detail about that book here but suffice to say it includes writings from not simply Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) but also from the T'ai Kung, Wu Qi and several other "Great Captains" of Chinese history.

I am not positive but I believe Pinyin was the latin alphabet style chosen for Seven Military Classics but for some reason a different type is utilized in Ancient Chinese Warfare. Having read and re-read Moss Roberts' Three Kingdoms translation and taken a few rudimentary Chinese courses I'm used to reading Pinyin which led to some confusion. Presumably almost anyone reading this book would be at least somewhat familiar with Pinyin which is definitely the dominant form utilized in China itself; as Chinese typing would show (you can even test this yourself using the alternate language features of Microsoft Office).

Ancient Chinese Warfare is a fairly interesting book covering an enormous span of history in just a few hundred pages; this inevitably leads to some glossing over of various periods and of course the admittance that not much is fundamentally known about the era apart from assorted legends. The Yellow Emperor and such Three Kingdoms-mentioned examples as "Yao yielding to Shun" are referenced and Sawyer does at least attempt to justify how such a myth would come into being, be it a pure fiction based on history or a fictionalized version of a historical persona. I was most interested in these aspects of the book, those sections that dared to assert different ideas and theories; but the book does not consist entirely of these.

I realize conjecture is not a particularly good basis for history but it is definitely a more interesting way to discuss history about which not much is known. When dealing with limited facts painting something of a picture by yourself via such assertions isn't the worst thing and one can easily get bogged down in pedantry if you stick merely to what is "perfectly" known and understood at the time (though certainly some aspects of history that are supposed to be fact are disproven in wide swaths in future publications). There is a lot of discussion of minute details such as the approximate yet seemingly exact dimensions of various Shang and Xia settlements; which I do find somewhat valuable. However they are repeated in the case of every individual city; instead some sort of comparison or frame of reference could have been utilized to expedite this process. I eventually started simply glazing over these.

There is however a very important and interesting point that Sawyer makes regarding the massive walls of Ancient Chinese cities. In the era prior to Siege equipment walls were only needed militarily up to a certain point yet some of these constructs were utterly massive. Sawyer suggests that this was a way of forcing the local culture to embrace ethnocentrism; as they existed in proto-Urban environments that kept out the various "barbarian" civilizations that roamed the steppes or wilds of China. This is an interesting sociological foundation for the eventual massive uniculture in China which exists today; a single extremely assimilation prone culture with only some mild amount of variability. While diversity is hailed as the reason for America's success with some regularity (and no doubt some cynicism) it is nonetheless impressive how efficient a group which is 90% one ethnicity can function. Again this is not a proven fact but in stating this interesting element Sawyer posits a thought provoking theory which seems to have a great deal of validity; this is what makes historical writings much more interesting and indeed useful.

Sawyer goes on to discuss the development weapons and chariots based on archaeological evidence. Horses especially are discussed and their usage as a sort of prestigious and terrifying presence on a battlefield. While horses themselves may be skittish their sheer size is often enough to inspire terror and cause men to break from defensive formations (though if said formation simply held its ground it would likely be victorious). The bow and arrow too is well documented and discussed and various Chinese tales regarding particular archery performances. Both of these things have reflections in Three Kingdoms in the person of Lu Bu; who's feats of archery put an entire army to halt and who was matched with an enormous and impressive horse Red Hare (later to be granted to Lord Guan).

Perhaps the biggest fault in the book lies in the abortive discussion of Shang's downfall at the hands of Zhou; instead a sort of "product placement" paragraph is placed that suggests reading the as of yet unpublished successor to this book discussing Western Zhou. However it strikes me as absolutely mandatory to discuss the downfall of Shang in discussing pre Spring and Autumn period China; as the politics of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou are extremely influential in China to this day. The battle of Muye may well be one of the most important events in the entirety of Chinese history and while much of the details remain difficult to discern exactly it is essential to discuss it in any history concerning either Ancient China or simply the Shang; if you are to discuss the mythical Yellow Emperor or Yao yielding to Shun it then becomes paramount to discuss the (much more likely to be) historical descendants of them and their further example of supposed "Virtue."

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