Thursday, October 27, 2011

Compass Trend (7): More Notes on Robotic Trends

We have not talked about robotic trends in a long time. Click here and here on the direction of our information society.

In this economy, achieving peak (operational) efficiency is the name of the game for those who could not innovate. They focused on cost-based efficiency. Depending on the industry, some of the solutions are robots and inexpensive labor. One should expect to see a gradual labor squeeze in certain service-based areas as technology slowly replaces human labor while health costs rise.

"Lean and mean" is the operational motto of the information economy.

To thrive in these times, one needs to focus on a relevant solution without getting overwhelmed by the irrelevant hypes of easy solutions.

The Compass Solution
Assessing the state of the Big Tangible Picture (BTP) and finding the un-mined mines that are not touched by automation sounds easy. Collecting the data takes a great deal of time and effort. Knowing how to do it is the challenge.

The successful participants of this hyper-motion information economy usually thrive by their ability to pre-positioning themselves ahead of their competition. The experience of comprehending the Big Tangible Picture enables them to decide on their objective, their approach, their means and their modes.

Our research tells us that " ... one's current understanding of the macro and micro details of their Big Tangible Picture usually leads to one's view of what the plan is. ..."

Poor understanding of the Big Tangible Picture sometimes leads to poor planning. Poor planning leads to many negative effects. The lesson is that one who fails to plan usually plan for failure.

So, do you plan by understanding the Big Tangible Picture?

Better yet, do you know how to build your plan?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jiang Tai Gong: The Supreme Strategist

An associate of ours wrote the following essay on Jiang Tai Gong for Jade (With his permission, we took the liberty of optimizing some parts of it .)
Updated on 11.08.13

In our global society, Sunzi’s (Sun Tzu) Art of War is known as the most well-written and popular strategy classic from China. Some of the other popular Chinese military classics are Sun Bin’s The Art of War, Huang Shek Gong’s Three Strategies and Wuzi’s Art of War. Before Sunzi’s Art of War was written, there was Jiang Taigong’s (JTG) Six Secret Strategic Teachings (also known as The Six Strategies of War).

Jiang Taigong was a real historical character named Lu Shang (also known as Jiang Ziya) who, in the 11th century BC, became advisor to King Wen and his son King Wu, founders of the Zhou dynasty (1122-771 BC). He was supposedly instrumental in aiding the fall of the Shang Dynasty (approximately 1700 BCE - 1045 BCE) and in establishing the Zhou (1045 BCE – 221 BCE). He was the prime minister for the first Zhou emperor and his loyalty and farsightedness in governing spread his fame throughout China.

The legend of Jiang Taigong captured popular imagination. Jiang Taigong is honored throughout Chinese history as the first great military advisor and the father of strategic studies.
He was credited with the feat of writing the first military strategic book Liutao (Six Secret Strategic Teachings). Liutao has been considered a highly important and proven source for military wisdom over the centuries, where it continues to be held in high esteem among contemporary Chinese strategy professionals.


Note: The many interpretations of Jiang Tai Gong’s biography propelled this writer to focus on the apparent.

Jiang Taigong (first known as Lü Shang of Lù-shi clan) was later known as Jiang Shang, then Jiang Ziya and Jiang Taigongwang).

As Lu Shang, he served King Zhouwang, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty (16th to 11th century BC) as an expert in military strategic affairs. The Shang ruler was a tyrannical and corrupted ruler who spent his days carousing with his favorite concubine Daji and mercilessly executing or punishing honorable officials and all others who objected to his ways.

After many years of working for the Shang ruler, Lu Shang detested him so much that he hoped that some day someone would call on him to help overthrow this evil tyrant. One day the Shang ruler came up with the extravagant goal of building 'Lu Tai' (deer platform) palace that would glorify him as a deity. This task became such a burden to the people that the hungry and sick were dying in the countryside.

Lü Shang abandoned his post and left with his wife Ma-shi to go to the west. They suffered many years in poverty and his wife later left him. During that period, Lu Shang knew that he would have another opportunity that would utilize his talent. All he needed to do was to be patient. Lu Shang waited till he was 72 years old for the next opportunity to come along.

Meeting King Wen
After his wife left him, Lu Shang went to Wei-shui River (near today’s Xi'an) to fish, knowing that the future Zhou ruler Wenwang (located in central Shaanxi) would come along one day and meet him. The opportunity occurred one day, when King Wen decided to go hunting in the area near the river, where he saw Lu Shang sitting on the grass, fishing with a bamboo pole that had a barbless hook attached to it. (Some claimed that there was no hook on the line.) The hook was then positioned a few feet above the surface of the water.

This unique act of fishing is based on Jiang’s theory that the fish would come to him of their own volition when they were ready. This action requires the fisherman to be patient and devise the philosophy of "if one waits long enough, things will come their way."

As King Wen of the Zhou state (central Shaanxi), saw Lu Shang fishing, he was reminded of the advice of his father and grandfather before him, which was to search for talented people. In fact, he had been told by his grandfather (the Grand Duke of Zhou), "… that one day a sage would come and help him to rule the Zhou state."

When King Wen saw Lu Shang, he immediately felt that this was an unusual old man and began to converse with him. He discovered that this white-haired fisherman was actually an astute political thinker and military strategist. This, he felt, must be the man his grandfather had mentioned. He took Lu Shang as his coach to the court, appointed him the role of prime minister, and then gave him the title Jiang Taigongwang (Hope of the Duke of Zhou). This was later shortened to Jiang Taigong.

The Lesson
One account of Jiang Taigong's life, written long after his time, said he believed that " … a country could become powerful only when the people prospered. If the officials enriched themselves while the people remained poor, the ruler would not last long. The major principle in ruling a country is loving the people through the reduction of taxes and slave labor. … " By following those ideas, King Wen immediately and rapidly strengthened the prowess and power of Zhou state.

After King Wen died, his son King Wu, who inherited the throne, decided to send troops to overthrow the King of Shang. But Jiang Taigong stopped him, saying: "While I was fishing at Panxi, I realized one truth—if you want to succeed you need to be patient. We must wait for the appropriate opportunity to eliminate the King of Shang."

Soon it was reported that the people of Shang were so oppressed that no one dared to speak. King Wu and Jiang Taigong decided this was the time to attack, for the people had lost faith in the ruler. ( You can find  that  specific point listed in Jiang's book)  A bloody battle was fought at Muye (35 kilometers from the Shang capital Yin, now Anyang in the Henan province).

Graphic illustration of King Wu
With battle drums beating in the background, Jiang Taigong charged at the chief of the troops, with 100 of his men and drew the Shang troops to the southwest. King Wu's troops then moved quickly and surrounded the capital. Many of the Shang troops defending the capital were untrained slaves. They immediately surrendered, enabling Zhou army to capture the capital.

The Shang king set fire to his palace and perished in it. As for Daji, one version has it that she was captured and executed; another version was that she took her own life. At that moment, King Wu and his successors established the rule of the Zhou dynasty all over China.

Jiang Taigong was made the duke of the State of Qi (today’s Shandong province), which thrived with effective communications between the king and the people. He also assisted in building the economic state of Zhou dynasty.

After some time, Jiang Taigong retired from his post before King Wu became wary of him.

The Other Lesson
There are many variations related to the biography of Jiang Taigong. The two situations "Meet the King Wen" and "Advising King Wu" has been used on many levels to explain the significance of patience and control. The story also presents a sophisticated message that is applicable in any strategic scenario: "Wait until circumstances favor you."

Trivia (mainly rumors) related to Jiang Taigong:

  • It has been said that Fan Li, Zhang Liang, and Zhuge Liang were also readers of the Jiang Taigong’s book for the ideas on the myriad approaches of prevailing over their rivals with great resources
  • Wang Xu (also known as the Master of Ghost Valley) who started the first academy of military studies during the Warring states, taught the concepts of Jiang Taigong writings to his students. His top students were Sun Bin, Sui Chang and Zhang Yi
  • Sun Bin also received this book first and later received the Sunzi text from his teacher Wang Xu
  • In the river near Xi'an there is a big stone with an indentation that said this was the spot that Jiang Taigong resided in his act of fishing
  • Rumors have stated that the following strategic classics were also attributed to Tai Gong: Huang Shi Gong Ji (Huang Shi Gong's Records) [later Sui Dynasty]; Huang Shi Gong San Lüe (Huang Shi Gong's Three Schemes); and Yin Fu (Concealed Symbols)
  • Many legends on Jiang Taigong were collected in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and can be found in a fictional work Fengshen Yanyi (Tales of Gods and Heroes)
  • There are various parts of China and Asia that honor the achievements of Jiang Tai Gong

Other Matters

During his retirement, Jiang Taigong took time to write a manuscript on how to effectively lead an empire based on his conversations with King Wen and later King Wu (who succeeded to the throne on Wen's death). This manuscript was Tai Gong Liu Tao (translated as “Tai Gong's Six Secret Strategic Teachings”). It is consisted of advices on how to organize a potential empire, military advice describing methods of insurrection and revolution that were instrumental in the overthrow of Shang dynastic rule, and a wide range of strategic insights and tactical instructions in every arena of human activity.

Six Secret Strategic Teachings (Six Secret Strategies of Conflict)

The Six Secret Strategic Teachings is a good book for "newbies" who are interested in strategic consulting and advising or understanding how the world works. 

These six chapters guided the readers in the art and science of effective strategy and leadership from a top to bottom mode.

The first two "chapters" deal with the duties of the organization and the natural transition of power to the principal rival if the organization fails. This scenario can be described as a "respective" interplay of "yin and yang."
  1. The Civil Strategic Secret: The first chapter stresses the importance of recruiting talent, managing the organization, and valuing developing a proper relationship within your client and your own organization. Once the bond of absolute trust is established, they will do almost anything for you.

  2. The Military Strategic Secret: The second chapter accentuates the importance of how to prevail over the opposition and how to build a territorial domain by the following actions: Cultivating yourself and organizing your own group in order to govern your external settings and pacify the world. The concept of "conquering without a single tactical battle" is also greatly emphasized. (It is similar to Sunzi's concept of "winning a war without a battle.")

  3. The Dragon Strategic Secret: The emphasis is on how to lead wisely through various situations by understanding the developmental stage of the operational command, the organizational order, and the liaison.

  4. The Tiger Strategic Secret: The emphasis is on the tactical essentials, including matters related to proper logistics.  
     #  Side note: Logistics is the prevailing factor that wins the grand war not the tactics.

  5. The Leopard Strategic Secret: This chapter focuses on the tactical specifics for identifying the critical path toward the completion of one's objective

  6. The Dog Strategic Secret: This final chapter focuses on the tactical specifics for trapping the target (i.e., encircling and intercepting). There are also good pointers on selecting and training the desired professionals for a team and coordinating the personnel's and resources toward the target.
This book was compiled into a single body of strategic work known as Wujing Qishu (also known as The Seven Martial Classics) during the Sung dynasty. It was designated as an essential material for the imperial military examinations and thus came to inexplicably affect subsequent military thought. Separately each of these seven classics complements each other in terms of strategic leadership.

This set of classics was read by military officials and high government officials for many hundreds of years. It also played a great role in the socialization of scholars, officials, and military officers.


The thoughts of Jiang Taigong have been known for 3000 years ago and we believed that it remains relevant for today's CEOs, managers, and leaders.

His concepts of effective strategy and leadership have been widely reinterpreted and applied in the corporate world today. A sound appreciation of Jiang's concepts is a requirement for both sophisticated and budding strategic leaders.

As mentioned before, reading this essay is a good fundamental start for those who wanted to start an uprising in their strategic setting.

Side Notes
Two of the most important contents of this book can be found in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (civil secret teachings and martial secret teachings). 

It delineates the art of "suggesting ideas and perspectives" to people.  These two chapters also outline what unique points to observe for.  Those who are in the consulting business, might find these points to be quite useful. 

One significant lesson that can be learned from reading Jiang's essay was the importance of "thinking grand " in one's own aspiration.

The other lesson is knowing the position where one stands in the political-economic-social value chain. By carefully reading this essay with a critical eye, one learns the reason behind that point. ....

The Three Categories of Strategists
Inspirational leaders have a tendency of emphasizing on bold and empty messages. The messages do not mean much to their flock after the broadcasting is over.

The next category is that small group of professionals are those who are obsessively focused on understanding the target, their logistics and the communications channels within the organization.   Their grand objective is to prevail with the maximum strategic effectiveness.

The last category are the massive group of strategists, which is usually consisted of amateurs.  They loved to discuss their favorite tactical measures. Some of them are just operating from a handful of tricks while the rest are "one trick ponies."  

So, which of the three categories are you positioned at?

Ruminations From the Compass Desk
We have noticed that the many so-called Sunzi experts have a tendency of telling their followers that all they needed to know about strategy was to follow the principles from the Art of War. Most of them do not know how to assess an opportunity with the Art of War principles.  Interestingly, most of them do not know much about the various operational measures and the unique particulars that are concealed within the Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. 

One reader of their view found this "pseudo expert" from the Sunzi's Art of War Cult to be quite amusing and shallow. His view is an extension of his "know how."

To prevail in any competitive situation, one must comprehend the specifics for mastering the means and modes.  Spending some time collecting the data, can be a challenge.

Side Note  (New  update:  10.26.14)
Click here on a modern day version of Jiang Tai Gong with a different twist.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Essence of Strategic Success (2)

The Importance of Having a Big Tangible Picture (BTP)
By seeing the configuration behind their competitive terrain, the successful strategists are able to do the following:
Wait for the Opportunity
Underdogs who wait, sometimes prevailed over the favored by finding the various undisclosed relevant variables (the components of the BTP) that give them the strategic advantage (aka. strategic power). The specifics behind these critical strategic factors typically give the strategist the prospect of certain occurrences.

Comprehending the configuration of the BTP usually enables one to do the following:
  • Knowing when to stay on course;
  • Knowing when to add more resources to the current campaign;
  • Knowing when to update the objective; and
  • Knowing when to exit.
A top-tier strategist once told us, that " ... Understanding the current state of the grand terrain and then forecasting the next change are two of the many ways that would give the up and coming strategists the professional credibility that they all sought. for. It is more effective than the constant preaching of 'basic strategic leadership values'."

After a moment of contemplation, we realized that those who preach the holiness of the Art of War (or any of the Seven Strategic Classics) usually cannot describe how to methodically use it. They have a tendency of treating each quote like a fortune cookie saying. If their followers believed that perspective, we wished them well.

We believed that the use of the strategic process that supported those principles, is a better starting point for those who are looking for an efficient solution. The proper execution of the process is the key to most successes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Connecting the Dots and Reaping the Rewards

To understand the state of the information economy, the first step is to know how everything connects.

Technology Evolves First
It has been said that necessity is the mother of all inventions. Assumption is the father of screwups. Whether there are useless wants or significant needs, devoted (and economically-driven), the users adjusted to the new changes. Most features are rarely used.

Compass Rule: When the impact of the current technology meets the sociological and economical wants of the clients, the social-political value of the technology increases.

Click here and here for two good examples that verified the above Compass rule.

To stay ahead of the curve, one should not get locked into the convenience of the technology. ... Be aware of the various vendors who needs your loyalty by quietly pushing their lock-in strategy onto you.

Technology is the Opium of the Masses
Heavens know that each one of us loved our technology. Remember that it is just a tool, not the end of all means. Tools come and go. Some evolve. Most become obsolete.

Using the Chinese strategic principles as a foundation remains the constant for some people. Transforming it to something pertinent is the goal of most serious strategists. The amateurs talk about it like if it is magic. The professionals who know, don't say.

The State of the Information Economy
In the information economy, the implementation of deception is paramount.

Regardless of the times, many businesses indirectly has a myriad of Chinese strategic principles as their strategic foundation. Implementing it covertly is the key to some level of success. Most of the masses are so overwhelmed with their situation that they cannot see the various subtle influences around them. In summary, the deception would be somehow revealed. These implementers would then disappeared and wait for the next opportunity.

It all begins by knowing the Big Tangible Picture (BTP). The first step is knowing how everything connects in one's world.

So what are the rewards for knowing the BTP, he/she can anticipate "the next big change" in their competitive arena. At that moment, Then the chief decision makers are able to comprehend whether the act of profit maximization and/or cost minimization is possible.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Competing in the Global Economy: Stopping the Pacesetter

So how does one stop a pacesetter who is quite ahead of the game?

"If one is behind, use the yin tactics.
If one is ahead, use the yang tactics. "
- The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China

In terms of weiqi (GO), this pacesetter is more than a few stones ahead of their competition. The configuration behind their macro approach can be found in this basic list of weiqi (Go) strategies.

By understanding the metaphor that the Pacesetter is using, these competitors could be able to determine how he makes his decisions.

Before an underdog competes against the favored, he or she must understand the configuration of their Big Tangible Picture (BTP).

Following is a generalized list of those things that one must focus on:
  • the informational flow of one's grand terrain and beyond;
  • the influence of the chief decision makers;
  • the belief of the chief decision makers; and
  • the judgement of the chief decision makers.
In your case, do you know the configuration?

The Process
The initial steps are:
  • Knowing the truth of one's Big Tangible Picture is the first step; and
  • Perceiving the hard and soft circumstances that lie within it.
Utilization of those two steps usually improves the possibility of prevailing over the competition.

The ideal process is to implement a strategic solution that requires no obvious effort.

Notes from the Compass Desk
Unlike what the amateurs preached to the masses, the favored does not walk around with a copy of the Art of War in their hand. They lead by example through the action of internalizing their understanding of the various strategic classics by operating beyond its format. It has been rumored that these chief decision makers followed the strategic views of Jiang Tai Gong and Wuzi's. Some of our associates preferred to carry a copy of WSJ or NYT.

To play against the favored, one must quietly "talk the walk" and "walk the talk. "

Read the Big Tangible Picture before deciding. Focus on making a progression of good decisions. So, good things will happen.

So how does the favored internalizes the strategic principles? We would only presumed that they usually talk about it with their respected peers and practice this arcane skill in their close quarters. It is rarely spoken out in the public.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Maneuvering in the "Informational" Influence Society

Living in an information economy means that some of us are being overwhelmed with many pressures and many influences.

Here are two ways for staying focused on one's objectives:

Using the Principles of Relax, Center, Ground, Calm and Whole
By focusing on the constant practice of those five principles, one becomes focused.

Script your list of objectives/approaches on a sheet of paper instead of using a ipad or a pda. ... Who knows? You might develop "a mind to matter" connection with your objectives.

Seriously, if you want to visually connect the dots, we recommended software tools like Mindjet or Visio.

Good luck!

Update: You can find more information on various principles at this site.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Read the Big Tangible Picture and Decide


Click here for an interesting story from Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker on how to combat the Goliath.

Ranadive, the coach of the high school team, solved his problem of playing against teams of physically-talented individuals by comprehending the configuration of his Big Tangible Picture (the basketball court, the physical prowess and skills of his teams, etc.) His solution originated from his understanding of how everything is connected in terms of the configuration of the terrain, the leadership and the logistics. Through this grand understanding, he was able to devise a simple and balanced strategy of pressing, stealing and scoring by layups.

However, no Big Tangible Picture stays constant.

Ranadive's team finally lost in the finals due to their inability to adjust to the new situation.

Ruminations from Compass Desk
Based on the article, Ranadive should have seen it coming. He should have realized that nothing stays constant. The status and the level of a competitive encounter usually determines how formidable an competitor is.

In terms of macro strategy development, the reliance on a particular operational mean is not always a good idea. When a macro variable abruptly changes, the strategist must have the tools and the tactics to adjust to it.

In terms of tactical options, Ranadive's could have run a 1-3-1 half court trap or a 1-2-2 trap from the mid-section of the opposition's court to pressure the pass. If Ranadive's team scored, they would run trap defense #1. If they did not score, their alternative would be running defense #2. Whenever the second or the third squad was deployed, the coach could have called for a different type of defense that the current opposition was not prepared for.

He could have accepted the possibility of fouling the players with his second stringers while maintaining their approach of pressing. Then, using the first stringers against the opposition's second stringers or putting them in play in the last six min of each halves. ... There were so many tactical moves that Randive could have deployed. Whether his team was prepared to implement it, is a different story.

There are not many people who are used to thinking in terms of contingency assessment and planning during real time. ... They are usually over-focused on achieving peak efficiency repeatedly while avoiding the importance of preparing for a worst case scenario. During an encounter with "risky" uncertainty, these non-strategists have a tendency of hoping something might happen. As some of us know, change is not a strategy. Hope is not a destination.

Compass Rule
To prevail in an extreme competitive situation, one must use their entire toolbox of implements.

Side note: We were going to use the principles of our Compass process (Portions of our process are based on the Seven Military Classics of Ancient China and the Sun Bin's strategy classic) to present more strategic points. However, we are saving it for our book.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Another Note on Sawyer's Latest Classic

“[Ancient Chinese Warfare] marks a major advance in the state of our knowledge, a rich repository to be mined not only by historians of China but also world historians, scholars of comparative military history, and students of the origins of war and the state. Its impact will be substantial, far-reaching, and unsuperseded for many years to come.”

This is a very good review.
A consultant and independent scholar based in Massachusetts, Ralph Sawyer is best known to both academic historians and a wider public for his path-breaking 1993 translation (with Mei-chün Lee Sawyer) of the Seven Military Classics (Wu jing qi shu);[1] although "Sun Tzu's Art of War" (Sunzi bingfa) had often been translated, several of the less celebrated works in the eleventh-century collection were for the first time made accessible to a non-specialist Western audience. Sawyer has since published several Chinese military and philosophical texts in translation as well as other books on the Chinese military tradition.[2] The latter consist largely of passages translated from traditional Chinese writings, arranged chronologically and interspersed with Sawyer's commentary; the overall flavor is very similar to the compendia (leishu) produced by Chinese scholars in the Qing dynasty and earlier. The book under review here is rather different; it is the first of at least two comprehensive volumes on the military history of early China, a work that has been decades in the making.
Ancient Chinese Warfare begins at the beginning, with the archaeological remains from Neolithic times and the early myths and legends that may shed light on their military and political significance. It concludes shortly before the demise of the Shang dynasty in (probably) 1045 BCE. The Zhou conquest of the Shang and the climactic battle of Muye will figure in Sawyer's second volume, which will deal with the Zhou dynasty up to ca. 771 BCE.
Although filled with many lesser claims and assertions, this first volume does not argue for any central thesis beyond the obvious one that armed conflict has had a very large role in Chinese history—something misleadingly downplayed by earlier generations of Chinese scholars and Western Sinologists.[3] In reaction, Sawyer here addresses almost every conceivable aspect of war, with a level of detail as exhaustive as the extant sources (and the publisher's bottom line) allow. To judge by his extensive bibliography and ninety-one pages of notes, Sawyer has collected and digested every relevant book and article in English, Chinese, and, apparently, Japanese, including even obscure, dry-as-dust Chinese excavation reports. The great virtue of this volume is that it makes the refined gist of that material more immediately accessible for both specialists and non-Sinologists. However, every virtue has a concomitant vice. While Ancient Chinese Warfare is certainly an indispensable reference tool, it is far from a sprightly narrative history to be read cover-to-cover for enjoyment.
Before this book, there was not much available in English on the military history of China in Shang times and earlier: a few articles on specialized topics (such as the chariot), some outdated books on weapons as works of art or artifacts,[4] summaries in more general studies,[5] a few relevant oracle bone inscriptions,[6] and a mediocre translation of Yang Hong's important book on ancient Chinese arms and armor.[7] A quick survey of the contents of Sawyer's book indicates how much more has now been made available in the twenty-five chapters and 414 pages of its main text. Organized along both chronological and thematic lines, Ancient Chinese Warfare opens by recounting the "legendary conflict" between the Yellow Emperor, progenitor of Chinese civilization, and his violent rival, Chi You. Next, two archaeologically oriented chapters trace the development of fortifications in Neolithic times, and another two examine the material remains and political and military organization of the Xia (or Hsia) dynasty (ca. 2200–1750 BCE). Chapters 6–13 deal with the Shang dynasty, its capital and settlement sites, its political history and armed conflicts with rival polities (especially during the reign of the aggressive King Wu Ding, ca. 1200 BCE), and its military institutions, organization, and battle tactics. Then come chapters (14–19) on ancient weaponry: one devoted entirely to metallurgy, another to spears and armor, and another to archery. Chapters 20–23 offer careful treatments of Shang chariots and horses. Chapter 24 attempts to address the elusive, often neglected subject of logistics. The book concludes with a chapter bearing the quintessentially Sawyer-esque title, "Musings and Imponderables."
I will not attempt to touch even cursorily on all the topics in this very wide-ranging book. Instead, I will identify a few issues that deserve special attention: the pervasive problem of evidence, the role of violence in Chinese history, and the place of the chariot in ancient warfare. Any study of China's very early history must rely on three major sources: archaeological finds, oracle-bone inscriptions on cattle scapulae and turtle shells (mostly from the late Shang capital at Anyang), and accounts written much later in Chinese history (such as the first few chapters of the Shi ji or "Historical Records" of Sima Qian, ca. 100 BCE). Sawyer also sometimes (for example, in his discussion of archery) extrapolates backward from the better known practices and techniques of later periods. Where these bodies of evidence corroborate one another or at least point in roughly the same direction, assertions can be made with considerable confidence. This is true in particular of the period from ca. 1250 BCE onward, for which oracle-bones are available. For earlier eras, the level of uncertainty is much higher, and scholars have drawn radically opposing conclusions from the same evidence. Western Sinologists, for instance, have generally taken a skeptical view of the Xia dynasty, while Chinese authorities assume its existence as a given, but disagree sharply over specifics. Against this background of sometimes "acrimonious" debate, Sawyer's exposition often evinces a tentative, double-edged quality: readers must alertly differentiate among the author's own propositions, those he is challenging, and those he is merely repeating for the record. Here, for example, is his bottom line on the Xia:
The resulting portrait depicts a transition from scattered Neolithic settlements to a few dominant fortified towns, accompanied by social stratification, economic differentiation, and gradual immersion in warfare of unspecified character. Thus, given the current startling discoveries and plethora of references to the Hsia throughout Chinese history, it seems more reasonable to assume that a proto-state known as the Hsia emerged through vigorous, aggressive action than to dogmatically assert its nonexistence and then examine the era's military history. Moreover, despite being dubious or perhaps even worthless, it is also necessary to scrutinize traditional historical accounts and conceptions because of their impact on military and political thought in subsequent ages (61).
Sawyer's assessment of a Shang stronghold unearthed by archaeologists also conveys the uncertainty involved in evaluating this sort of evidence:
Yüan-chü's abandonment despite persistent threats from the western quarter suggests that exposed fortresses lacked the tactical power necessary to function as control points in relative isolation. The Shang may have withdrawn its forces as part of a revised strategic approach or simply decided that the bastion had become an indefensible logistical burden because of its inability to rely on locally produced foodstuffs. Nearby relatively mobile steppe peoples such as the Kung and T'u-fang may have already been exerting enormous pressure, but the bastion's disuse could equally be evidence of imperial weakness or debauchery. However, even after vanquishing the local aggressors, King Wu Ting apparently chose not to reoccupy it or station a permanent garrison there, a decision that suggests the ad hoc nature of Shang military efforts, the difficulty of exerting control at a distance, an overall contraction of Shang military power, and perhaps a general disinclination to maintain standing border forces despite having erected numerous strongpoints on the perimeter (140–41).
Now, the ambiguity of the evidence and the difficulty of interpreting it allow scholars studying the Shang and earlier periods to draw only tentative conclusions, but Sawyer's peculiar approach to problematic evidence causes further difficulties. More than once, he scrupulously points out that some ancient text—for example, the "Oath of Tang" in the Book of Documents—is now recognized as a later forgery rather than an authentic Xia or Shang document, yet then detects some kernel of truth, a "vestigial" or "remnant" memory, that somehow redeems it as valuable evidence for the study of early China. As if questionable source materials could ever yield more than questionable interpretive structures or conclusions.
Sawyer does, nevertheless, present some cogent arguments, for example, concerning the centrality of violence in the early Chinese world, a leitmotif of this volume. He contends that signs of intercommunal violence may be found as far back as the early Neolithic in China, that such conflicts led to the gradual emergence of powerful chiefdoms and states, and that the Shang regime glorified the martial prowess that gave it an advantage over its neighbors and rivals. He has no patience for claims that the Shang, the Xia, or even the Yellow Emperor based their authority on superior virtue or moral influence as opposed to raw coercive power. The textual, archaeological, and inscriptional evidence he deploys is overwhelming and his conclusions are consistent with those of Western specialists in Chinese military history who have been influenced by, among other studies, Mark Edward Lewis's influential work on the Zhou dynasty.[8] Viewed in this light, the scorn Sawyer heaps on the notion of rule by virtue is rather odd: he is tilting at long-dead Confucian scholars rather than modern authorities, who have, for the most part, long ago abandoned that untenable position.
More interesting is Sawyer's extensive treatment of chariot use in ancient Chinese warfare, which draws on not only familiar evidence but also comparative data from ancient Europe and the Near East and modern experiments using "martial artists well trained in … traditional weapons" (386). He endorses the view that the chariot was developed outside China and appeared quite suddenly, rather late in the Shang period, as a fully developed weapon system; the archaeological record, he notes, offers no clear evidence of real chariots before the reign of King Wu Ding. For the rest of the period under consideration, chariots were only minor supplements to overwhelmingly foot-soldier armies. They probably served as command vehicles, platforms for observers and archers, and "battle taxis," but their crews could not have engaged in close combat—even using long-hafted weapons—without dismounting, for the physical dimensions of the vehicle would have rendered such efforts nugatory if not suicidal.
Sawyer provides a fascinating litany of the structural weaknesses of Shang chariots, which could break down and leave their crews in the lurch, especially in wet, wooded, or mountainous terrain, where infantry could easily outmaneuver them. The development of chariot warfare on a large scale well after the end of the Shang dynasty presupposes accepted conventions regarding when and where combat should take place, conventions that loomed large in the more chariot-centered warfare of the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 BCE).
The few true Anglophone specialists in the warfare of Shang and earlier times will not find much entirely new information in Ancient Chinese Warfare. But for the rest of us, the book marks a major advance in the state of our knowledge, a rich repository to be mined not only by historians of China but also world historians, scholars of comparative military history, and students of the origins of war and the state. Its impact will be substantial, far-reaching, and unsuperseded for many years to come.
[1] Full title: The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).
[2] Including The Tao of Spycraft: Intelligence Theory and Practice in Traditional China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), Fire and Water: The Art of Incendiary and Aquatic Warfare in China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China (NY: Basic Books, 2007), all in collaboration with Mei-chün Lee Sawyer.
[3] This might have been a radical position several decades ago, but recent scholarship (Sawyer's included) on Chinese military history and the much heralded "rise of China" have already done much to change perceptions.
[4] E.g., Max Loehr, Chinese Bronze Age Weapons (Ann Arbor: U Michigan Pr, 1956).
[5] Such as Kwang-chih Chang, Shang Civilization (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 1980).
[6] Translated in David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley: U Cal Pr, 1978).
[7] Weapons in Ancient China (NY: Science Pr, 1992).
[8] Sanctioned Violence in Early China (Albany: SUNY Pr, 1990).