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date: 27 July 2021

Abstract and Keywords

The Warring States era (464 to 221 BCE) was a crucial turning point in Chinese history. During this time, the many effectively independent states into which China had become divided were at war with each other constantly. But unlike the constant warfare of the period 770 to 453 BCE, which had been aristocratic, based on extracting tribute and admissions of suzerainty, and which had involved small armies of charioteers, Warring States warfare evolved rapidly into a deadly contest of political survival. Some rulers began raising larger, infantry-based armies with which they conducted campaigns of conquest against their neighbors. To raise and support such armies, they refashioned their administrative systems and enhanced the power of kingship against their aristocracies. The fundamental outlines of the later Chinese imperial state were created during this age of military competition.

As rulers looked for every military advantage they could get, there arose a class of military experts who wrote advice on how best to use the new, larger armies in this life-or-death environment. The most famous of these many writers, Sun Tzu, is a shadowy figure about whom we know very little. He lived during the latter half of the Warring States period. Sun Tzu was a scholar of war, and he takes his place with Confucius, Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism), and Han Fei Tzu (founder of Legalism) as one of the Chinese masters. Indeed, the influence of Confucian, Taoist, and Legalist ideas can be seen in Sun Tzu’s principles of war. The scholarly nature of Sun Tzu’s work and the other Warring States military manuals is important in two ways. First, it shows that the study of warfare and its place in statecraft was taken seriously by Chinese intellectuals. But, second, the intellectualization of war fit into the anti-aristocratic, centralizing trends of Chinese states in this age. Sun Tzu and others constructed leadership—and indeed soldierly qualities—in warfare as a matter not of heroism and practical knowledge (as it had been for aristocratic-led armies earlier) but as the implementation of rational principles by a single trained expert; they saw good soldiers as obedient followers of this enlightened leadership. The implications of this model of military leadership for the structure of the state are clear.

From Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1963).

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