Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Francesco Sisci reviews Military Culture in Imperial China, edited by Nicola Di Cosmo -- A culture at ease with war.

The book dispels the easy notion of any conflict in Chinese culture between wen (culture, literature) and wu (military affairs), in which wen is superior to wu, and as if wu were the last resort of the weak, uncultured mind.

From ancient times, the Chinese had a passion for stratagems and ruses that minimized the full brunt of combat. Nevertheless, war was considered "a matter of life or death for the state" and everybody took it seriously, as Sun Tzu (722-481 BC), the influential author of the book The Art of War, wrote.

That the civil service was more highly regarded than the military service is a standard trope one hears in Chinese history courses. (Even if a civil officer held the same nominal rank within the imperial bureaucracy as a military officer, his de facto rank was actually higher.) Is it accurate?

Confucians would not be opposed to all war -- just war as a means of expanding empire, instead of using moral persuasion.

Still, those who seek an explanation for Chinese military defeats in the 19th and 20th centuries by attributing weakness to a Chinese culture that was too effete should probably read this book.

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