The Washington Post

Reading ‘The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China’

Author: Ralph D. Sawyer

Publisher: Basic Books, 1993

ISBN-13: 978-0465003044, 592 pages


The parallels between business and warfare evoke images of brilliant generals leading armies and brilliant CEOs leading businesses. Platoons battle and businesses compete with bold, wily strategies and superior execution. Given these similarities, do the classic sagas of seven ancient Chinese military strategists have insight and wisdom that might benefit today’s business leaders? For the answer, read the “translator’s introductions” that open each chapter in sinologist Ralph D. Sawyer’s substantive book. His notes explain how these ancient strategists won their battles with the least possible military force. Sawyer presents them as sage theoreticians who were masters at outwitting their opponents. Unlike most Western military theorists, China’s ancient tacticians emphasized, “speed, stealth...flexibility,” still quite useful skills. getAbstract recommends this fascinating, deeply expert compilation to anyone who wants an educated overview of seven venerable Chinese military classics. Their authority and precision of thought will intrigue modern strategists as they have interested statesmen and military leaders throughout time.

Stretching back into time

Chinese strategic and military thought dates back some 5,000 years.Ancient Chinese clan chiefs fought to establish dominance and create dynasties. As their weaponry and tactics improved, scholars began to study their “command experience.” Military science became a valued–and frequently applied–discipline. By the 2nd century B.C., China had already struggled through 10 centuries of unrelenting warfare to become a “vast, powerful, imperially directed entity.” Twelve centuries later, during the Sung dynasty, scholars collected the seven most profound military classics, the apogee of Chinese military thought as written by its ancient generals. Applicants for military appointment had to be well-versed in their ideas. These classics are:

  1. “T’ai Kung’s Six Secret Teachings”
  2. “The Methods of the Ssu-ma” 
  3. Sun-tzu’s “Art of War
  4. Wu-tzu
  5. Wei Liao-tzu
  6. “Three Strategies of Huang Shih-kung”
  7. “Questions and Replies Between T’ang T’ai-tsung and Li Wei-kung

The ancient Chinese scholars believed that while imperial benevolence was the best way to avert dissension and civil unrest, the empire could not survive without a strong military. Chinese emperors relied on their armies to protect them against “barbarian” invasions by violent nomadic tribesmen. Most Chinese rulers preferred nonmilitary solutions to their empire’s problems, but imperial scholars preserved and studied these ancient military treatises in secret. Scholars now study these works, but that was not always the case in Imperial China during the past two thousand years when “self-styled Confucians” disparaged all things military, ignoring Confucius’ actual thoughts on the matter. These classics came to light in the 1970s, when archaeologists at a Han dynasty tomb uncovered a large collection of scholarly texts inscribed on bamboo slips, including major portions of these classics. No one knows what other texts could have been lost over time.

Chinese dynastic periods

To understand the historical context of these military teachings, startwith the Shang dynasty, which came to power in 1766 B.C. Its vast, central theocracy rested on the nobility’s military prowess. Society had four classes: the ruling elite, the royal family, slaves and commoners, mostly serfs. The military bureaucracy headed a royal army of about a thousand soldiers–or more as needed. Bronze weaponry became prominent. Single battles decided most military campaigns, which set out to support or expand “royal suzerainty” or overlordship, take captives and confiscate wealth…

Click here to read on and receive a free summary of this book courtesy of getAbstract, the world's largest online library of business book summaries. (Available through April 6, 2011.)


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