Ancient Chinese Warfare


By Ralph D. Sawyer

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The history of China is a history of warfare. Rarely in its 3,000-year existence has the country not been beset by war, rebellion, or raids. Warfare was a primary source of innovation, social evolution, and material progress in the Legendary Era, Hsia dynasty, and Shang dynasty — indeed, war was the force that formed the first cohesive Chinese empire, setting China on a trajectory of state building and aggressive activity that continues to this day.

In Ancient Chinese Warfare, a preeminent expert on Chinese military history uses recently recovered documents and archaeological findings to construct a comprehensive guide to the developing technologies, strategies, and logistics of ancient Chinese militarism. The result is a definitive look at the tools and methods that won wars and shaped culture in ancient China.



ANCIENT CHINESE WARFARE AND ITS COMPANION, Western Chou Warfare, were started more than thirty years ago but were soon de-emphasized, though never abandoned, to investigate more accessible topics because insufficient archaeological material was available for assessing many aspects of ancient Chinese military history. Even though dramatic new finds such as San-hsing-tui (Sanxingdui) can still provoke astonishment and significantly affect historical understanding, the accumulation of thousands of discoveries and hundreds of highly relevant reports over the intervening decades has not only resulted in something akin to a minimal critical mass, but also considerably diminished the impact of archaeology's accidental nature. To cite just one example, reports on Wangch'eng-kang in the early 1980s indicated the existence of a fortress consisting of two small but conjoined square citadels roughly 100 meters on a side that immediately prompted heated arguments about its possible identity as an ancient Hsia (Xia) capital. However, a partial excavation of the greater site in the early twenty-first century has now revealed that the "King's City" once enclosed a massive 300,000 square meters within its substantial outer fortifications, considerably buttressing claims for an imperial role.
Although my efforts over the last few years, whether in the cold of Korean winters or heat of interminable Indonesian summers, have been focused on this volume, many more could easily be spent. No one has ever been granted indefinite longevity, yet it is difficult to escape the persistent feeling that only now, after nearly a half century of pondering Chinese topics, am I approaching some requisite level of understanding upon which the entire topic should be restudied. This is particularly true with respect to the ancient period because of the inescapable necessity of relying on innumerable interpretive archaeological reports and scholarly explications of oracular and bronze inscriptional materials, the core of this book.
Despite the convenience of the Internet and the growth of extensive (but not yet fully accessible or comprehensive) databases, exhaustive examination of all relevant articles on any single aspect of ancient Chinese military history, even something as focused as arrowheads, remains impossible. Paradoxically, numerous materials that were once relatively available through interlibrary loan, especially Japanese books and articles, have become even more difficult to acquire due to declining library holdings, an unwillingness to relinquish physical possession, and insufficient staff to provide the photocopies previously enjoyed. Nevertheless, despite the elusiveness of a few known titles and no doubt ignorance of many more, articles through the end of 2008 from the major Chinese historical and archaeological journals, as well as numerous minor ones assembled in collated volumes over the past few decades, and various books and site reports published in the last half century or more provide the basis for this study.
Now that belief in objective history has been discarded, it need hardly be mentioned that all works of this type are necessarily highly individualized creations that are guided by particular views and interpretations, however eclectic. Thus, for example, although increased coverage of Northern zone knives might well be merited, their study has been foregone for examinations of more focal or directly relevant topics such as the role of the yüeh (large battle-axe) in solidifying and apportioning martial authority. Selectivity has been particularly severe in the area of contextual history despite the temptation to pursue many threads of Hungshan, Liang-chu, and other cultural ascensions with military implications or to examine the fortifications at a number of additional sites. Fortunately The Cambridge History of Ancient China, despite being silent on the Neolithic and earlier periods, provides extensive background and analysis that may be taken as fundamental, even though I sometimes disagree with their exposition and conclusions, just as I have never assumed that the latest scholarship, no matter how enthusiastically embraced by the scholarly community, necessarily represents an advance or correctness.
A number of minor issues and decisions might well be noted. To take the last first, the concluding chapter, "Musings and Imponderables," although somewhat of a summation, rather than striving for an unattainable "conclusion," is intended to raise basic questions and indicate significant topics, a few of which will reappear in a future study. The Shang's extinction, being more a tale of conquest than simple collapse, is similarly deferred to the next volume on the rise and dominance of the Chou.
The discussion essentially proceeds in two streams, the textual narrative and a collateral expansion of many aspects and subtopics in the endnotes where matters of purely Sinological import and more general points of military history are explored. To ensure that Ancient Chinese Warfare, which is intended for the broadest possible audience of interested readers rather than just Sinologists, would not only be accessible but also published at a reasonable price rather than an exorbitant one appropriate to a research tome, certain decisions were made that will no doubt be bemoaned by reviewers.
As originally conceived, Ancient Chinese Warfare was to have a number of maps, many of them quite basic, for the convenience of the reader. However, this volume is little concerned with campaigns, obviating any need for phase and tactical depictions, and superior multicolor historical and topographical maps are available on the Internet, making the time and expense of producing them unnecessary. Similarly, many more illustrations of ancient weapons were originally planned, but preliminary readers found them less useful than the relatively few generic versions now included, a fortuitous development since requests made to various archaeological museums and publications in China for permission to reproduce many interesting specimens (and maps) were, on the whole, never even acknowledged.
In part to minimize cost and because it was felt that entries in Chinese characters would be more useful to those with competence in the language, no effort has been made to provide a bibliography of Romanized titles for Chinese and Japanese books and articles. A highly compressed form of reference has also been employed in the endnotes, though shortened titles appear when an author has two or more publications in a single year or similarly titled papers. Rather than encompassing hundreds of books of contextual importance or even the many archaeological reports that individually describe one or two weapons, the expanded basis of this study, the bibliography is also confined to works cited in the endnotes. However, additional titles will appear in subsequent publications, and if interest merits, a complete bibliography of both Western and Chinese works will be made available on
As in our previous works, although I am responsible for the historical content, writing, military texts, theorizing, and conclusions, Mei-chün has contributed immeasurably to this volume through her management of the vast hoard of research materials underlying this work and the preparation of the bibliography. In addition, because she has willingly, if not always enthusiastically, suffered the tedium of many military discussions, contributed valuable insights, and tramped around the world prowling ancient fortifications, investigating military museums, and attending military conferences while continuing to participate in our ongoing intelligence and corporate consulting, I take great pleasure in dedicating this book to her.
Ralph D. Sawyer
Spring 2009

AS I HAVE REPEATEDLY COMMENTED, neither of the two commonly employed orthographies facilitates the pronunciation of Romanized Chinese characters for the uninitiated. Each system has its stumbling blocks, and I cannot imagine that qi in pinyin is inherently more comprehensible to unpracticed readers than the older, increasingly discarded Wade-Giles ch'i for a sound similar to the initial part of "chicken" or x for the simple "she," although they are certainly no less comprehensible than j for r or even t for d in Wade-Giles. However, as this work is intended for a broad audience, many of whom will have little experience with Romanized Chinese words apart from a few occurrences in the news and my other works, in which Wade-Giles has exclusively been used, the hyphenated break between syllables facilitates pronunciation, and specialists should have equal facility in either system—we have continued to employ Wade-Giles here with the exception of an idiosyncratic yi for i and contemporary provincial names.
As a crude guide to pronunciation we offer the following notes on the significant exceptions to normally expected sounds:
t, as in Tao: without an apostrophe, pronounced like d (pinyin d); otherwise t
p, as in ping: without an apostrophe, pronounced like b (pinyin b), otherwise p
ch, as in chuang: without an apostrophe, pronounced like j (pinyin j and zh), otherwise ch
k, as in kuang: without an apostrophe, pronounced like English g (pinyin g), otherwise k
hs, as in hsi: pronounced like English sh (pinyin x)
j, as in jen: pronounced like r (pinyin r)
Thus, the name of the famous Chou (or Zhou in pinyin) dynasty is pronounced as if written "jou" and sounds just like the English name "Joe."

When warriors battle over territory, slaughtering each other until they fill the fields or fight over a city until the battlements are filled with the dead, it should be termed devouring human flesh for the sake of terrain. Death is an inadequate punishment for such crimes. Those who excel in warfare should suffer the most extreme punishment, those who entangle states in combative alliances the next greatest. If the ruler of a state loves benevolence, he will be without enemies everywhere under Heaven.
FOR TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED YEARS China has viewed the late prehistoric era as an ideal age marked by commonality of interest within clans and external harmony among peoples. This vision of a golden era, nurtured by the sagacious legendary rulers known as the Yellow Emperor, Yao, Shun, and Yü, was fervently embraced by the intellectual persuasions that came to be known as Taoist and Confucian, although from radically different perspectives and with rather contradictory objectives. Confucian literati-officials in Imperial China did not merely believe that Virtue alone had subjugated the recalcitrant, but also vociferously promoted its efficacy to thwart military solutions to external threats. An essentially pacifistic yearning, it would shape much of China's military heritage and frequently preclude aggressive action and adequate preparation, however dire the need.1 Yet it was a severely distorted image that conveniently ignored the Yellow Emperor's storied military activity and the great feats wrought by Kings T'ang of the Shang and Wu of the Chou, unquestioned paragons of righteousness who still had to strive mightily to suppress the wicked.
The numerous viewpoints and diverse conceptions formulated over the centuries included a less optimistic, more realistic understanding that posited warfare as innate and deemed turmoil and conflict inescapable, although it would never dominate the intellectual terrain or prevail in court discussions.2 Despite encompassing highly disparate materials and a few contradictions, the classic military writings compiled in the Warring States period perceive the "golden age of antiquity" rather differently. The recently recovered Sun Pin Ping-fa characterizes the legendary era as a time when warfare, not virtue, wrought peace:3
At the time when Yao possessed All under Heaven there were seven tribes who dishonored the king's edicts and did not put them into effect. There were the two Yi (in the east) and four others in the central states. It was not possible for Yao to be at ease and realize the advantages of governing All under Heaven. Only after he was victorious in battle and his strength was established did All under Heaven submit.
In antiquity Shen Nung did battle with the Fu and Sui; the Yellow Emperor did battle with Ch'ih Yu at Shu-lü; Yao attacked Kung Kung; Shun attacked Ch'e and drove off the Three Miao; T'ang of the Shang deposed Chieh of the Hsia; King Wu of the Chou attacked Emperor Hsin of the Shang; and the Duke of Chou obliterated the remnant state of Shang-yen when it rebelled.
Immersed in an age of unremitting warfare that saw untold combatants slain and numerous states extinguished, Sun Pin concluded that virtue had not only proven insufficient in the past, but also remained fundamentally unattainable:
If someone's virtue is not like that of the Five Emperors, his ability does not reach that of the Three Kings, nor his wisdom match that of the Duke of Chou, yet he says, "I want to accumulate benevolence and righteousness, practice the rites and music, and wear flowing robes and thereby prevent conflict and seizure," it is not that Yao and Shun did not want this, but that they could not attain it. Therefore, they mobilized the military to constrain the evil.4
Sun Pin deemed conflict to be innate and warfare inescapable: "Now being endowed with teeth and mounting horns, having claws in front and spurs in back, coming together when happy, fighting when angry, this is the Tao of Heaven, it cannot be stopped."5 Despite its ostensibly Taoist perspective, the eclectic Huai-nan Tzu essentially seconded his belief:
Now as for the beasts of blood and ch'i, who have teeth and mount horns, or have claws in front and spurs in back: those with horns butt, those with teeth bite, those with poison sting, and those with hooves kick. When happy, they play with each other; when angry, they harm each other. This is Heavenly nature.
Men have a desire for food and clothes, but things are insufficient to supply them. Thus they group together in diverse places. When the division of things is not equitable, they fervently seek them and conflict arises. When there is conflict, the strong will coerce the weak and the courageous will encroach upon the fearful. Since men do not have the strength of sinews and bone, the sharpness of claws and teeth, they cut leather to make armor, and smelt iron to make blades.6
Hsün-tzu, a late Warring States period philosopher simplistically remembered for his assertion that human nature is inherently evil, identified human desire as the root cause of conflict: "Men are born with desires. When their desires are unsatisfied they cannot but seek to fulfill them. When they seek without measure or bound, they cannot but be in conflict. When conflict arises, there is chaos; with chaos, there is poverty."7 Conversely, the authors of another late Warring States eclectic work believed that individual weakness in the face of natural and human threats constituted the very basis for social order:
Human nature is such that nails and teeth are inadequate for protection, flesh and skin inadequate to ward off the cold and heat, sinews and bones inadequate to pursue profit and avoid harm, courage and daring inadequate to repulse the fierce and stop the violent. Yet men still regulate the myriad things, control the birds and beasts, and overcome the wild cats while cold and heat, dryness and dampness cannot harm them. Isn't it only because they first make preparations and group together?
When groups assemble they can profit each other. When profit (advantage) derives from the group, the Tao of the ruler has been established. Thus when the Tao of the ruler has been established, advantage proceeds from groups and all human preparations can be completed.8
Social order is thus envisioned as having been forcefully imposed by conscientious men of wisdom, the legendary Sage emperors, rather than engendered by radiant Virtue. As Hsün-tzu notes, constraints had to be formulated:
The former kings hated their chaos, so they regulated the li (rites and forms of social behavior) and music in order to divide them, nourish the people's desires, supply what the people seek, and ensure that desire does not become exhausted in things, nor things bent under desire.9
Even the somewhat esoteric Huai-nan Tzu conceded that the existence of evil compelled the primal leaders to resort to harsh measures:
In antiquity, men who were greedy, obtuse, and avaricious destroyed and pillaged all under Heaven. The myriad people were disturbed and moved, none could be at peace in their place. Sages suddenly arose to punish the strong and brutal and pacify the chaotic age. They eliminated danger and got rid of the corrupt, turning the muddy into the clear and danger into peace.10
Their actions assumed an outwardly directed martial form but were not undertaken for personal profit:
When the ancients employed the military it was not to profit from broadening their lands or coveting the acquisition of gold and jade. It was to preserve those about to perish, continue the severed, pacify the chaotic under Heaven, and eliminate the harm affecting the myriad people.11
With slight variation, most of the classic military writings justify undertaking military campaigns solely for the purpose of protecting the state from aggression and rescuing the people from any suffering that might be inflicted by brutal oppressors:
Taking benevolence as the foundation and employing righteousness to govern constituted uprightness in antiquity. However, when uprightness failed to attain the desired objectives, they resorted to authority. Authority comes from warfare, not from harmony among men.
For this reason, if one must kill people to give peace to the people, then killing is permissible. If one must attack a state out of love for their people, then attacking it is permissible. If one must stop war with war, although it is war, it is permissible.12
The ancient sages did not just rectify the disorder about them, but also created the very means for waging war:
Those who lacked Heavenly weapons provided them themselves. This was an affair of extraordinary men. The Yellow Emperor created swords and imagized military formations upon them. Yi created bows and crossbows and imagized strategic power on them. Yü created boats and carts and imagized tactical changes on them. T'ang and Wu made long weapons and imagized the strategic imbalance of power on them.13
The legendary cultural heroes had thus been compelled to decisively thwart chaos and quell disorder to preserve the populace. However, as the military writings emphasize, their approach equally entailed the pursuit of righteousness, cultivation of virtue, and implementation of measures intended to mitigate the people's suffering and improve their welfare. This devolution from a tranquil, ideal age prompted the authors of Huang-shih Kung's Three Strategies to assert: "The Sage King does not take any pleasure in using the army. He mobilizes it to execute the violently perverse and to rectify the rebellious. The army is an inauspicious implement and the Tao of Heaven abhors it. However, when its use is unavoidable it accords with the Tao of Heaven."14 This is a highly complex, essentially contradictory situation, because "the Tao of Heaven abhors it," yet conflict similarly expresses "the Tao of Heaven" and "cannot be stopped." Warfare is thus paradoxically inescapable and, in many views including that of Confucius himself, a crucial human endeavor for which training and preparation are required.15


Archaeological discoveries over the past several decades have suddenly infused life into previously shadowy remnants of ancient Chinese civilization, validating many early assertions about the Shang and nominally substantiating, with appropriate allowance for interpretative frameworks and the effects of millennia, vague images of the Hsia and the legendary period. In addition, many traditional battle tales that attained a life of their own within popular culture deserve recounting irrespective of their historical inaccuracy. Scholarly audiences apart, countless generations across the ages, even emperors and generals, accepted their historicity, as does much of the Chinese populace today.16 Moreover, despite the concept and portraits of the Five Emperors being generally acknowledged as having been radically shaped, if not actually created, in the Warring States period, it has still been argued that mythical tales embody events and reflect significant developments in the course of Chinese civilization, including warfare, and can be parsed and scrutinized for clues and insights. Texts considered to be late fabrications, such as the Shang Shu's "Canon of Yao," are similarly seen as valuable repositories of vestigial memory and therefore well worth detailed—synonymous with "imaginative"—pondering.17
According to early writings and traditional belief, the most famous legendary battles arose between the great progenitor known as the Yellow Emperor and two powerful opponents: first Yen Ti, the Red Emperor, and then Ch'ih Yu, a tribal leader thought to have served as one of the Red Emperor's officials before he rebelled. As depicted in the monumental Shih Chi, China's first synthetic history, the Yellow Emperor was a judicious commander as well as a cultural paragon:
The Yellow Emperor, a descendant of the Shao-tien clan, was surnamed Kung-sun and named Hsüan-yüan. When he was born his spirit was already penetrating; while an infant he could speak; as a child he could reply intelligently; and when growing up he was substantial and acute, as brilliant as an adult.
Shen Nung's clan was in decline in Hsüan-yüan's time. The various lords encroached upon each other and acted brutally and perversely toward the hundred surnames.18 Shen Nung's clan was unable to chastise them. Thereupon Hsüan-yüan practiced employing shields and halberds in order to conduct punitive expeditions against those who would not offer their fealty. The various lords all came to submit, as if they were his guests. However, no one was able to attack Ch'ih Yu, the most brutal of all.
The Red Emperor encroached upon the various clan leaders, so they all gave their allegiance to Hsüan-yüan. Accordingly, Hsüan-yüan cultivated his Virtue and put his weapons in order; regulated the five ch'i;19 cultivated the five grains; was solicitous toward the myriad peoples; took the measure of the four quarters; and trained the bears, leopards, and tigers20 in order to engage in battle with the Red Emperor in the wastes of Pan-ch'üan. Only after three engagements did he realize his objective.
Ch'ih Yu revolted and did not follow the Yellow Emperor's edicts. The Yellow Emperor summoned the armies of the clan chiefs and engaged Ch'ih Yu in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li, capturing and slaying him. The clan chiefs all honored Hsüan-yüan as the Son of Heaven, and he replaced Shen Nung, becoming the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor then pursued and rectified all those under Heaven who failed to submit, but left the tranquil alone.21
Although the Shih Chi's account has traditionally provided the basis for popular portrayals, several other texts from the late Warring States and early Han preserve fragments that are often employed to amplify the depiction. For example, Chuang-tzu states: "Being unable to attain to complete Virtue (and thereby persuade him to submit), the Yellow Emperor engaged Ch'ih Yu in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li. The blood flowed for a hundred li."22 The Hsin Shu graphically asserts that "the Yellow Emperor implemented the Tao but Yen Ti did not obey, so they engaged in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li. The blood spilt was great enough to float a pestle."23 A late T'ang dynasty work paints an even more melodramatic portrait: "The Yellow Emperor and Ch'ih Yu engaged in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li. Ch'ih Yu created a great fog so that the armies were all confused. The Yellow Emperor then ordered Feng-hou to fashion a needle instrument in order to discriminate the four quarters and subsequently captured Ch'ih Yu."24
Another version of the battle appears in the Canon of Mountains and Rivers, a former Han dynasty compilation of late Warring States material. 25 In discussing a "woman wearing blue clothes" who was sometimes sighted in the Ta-huang-pei area, the narrative notes: "Ch'ih Yu fabricated weapons and attacked the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor then ordered the winged dragon Ying to assault him in the wilds of Chi-chou.26 Ying Lung gathered up the waters, whereupon Ch'ih Yu asked Feng Po (Wind Duke) and Yü Shih (Rain Commander) to unleash fierce winds and rain. The Yellow Emperor then had the Heavenly female deity Pa (who wore blue clothes) sent down and the rain ceased. The Yellow Emperor subsequently slew Ch'ih Yu. However, Pa was unable to re-ascend to Heaven and wherever she dwelt it never rained."


  • Nicola Di Cosmo, Henry Luce Foundation Professor of East Asian History at the Institute for Advanced Study
    Ancient Chinese Warfare is an important, informative, and exciting book. Written with panache, brimming with new ideas, and based on a level of knowledge that would challenge any expert, Sawyer's work has transformed single-handedly our understanding of ancient Chinese military history. Readers will find in this book a solidly informed and vivid account of China's ways of warfare from the Shang dynasty to the mid-first millennium BC. Only few of them will appreciate the massive effort of synthesis and analysis that this book represents, and it is to Sawyer's credit that he has succeeded in bringing an extremely difficult topic to a level that everyone can understand, learn from, and enjoy.”

    Edward N. Luttwak, author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
    “Not unexpectedly, this book enhances Ralph D. Sawyer's reputation as the premier interpreter of Chinese strategy and warfare. The surprise is that with the aid of a flowing style he has written a highly readable, indeed very enjoyable book on a seemingly abstruse subject. In a manner fascinating in itself, Sawyer brilliantly reconstructs the fragmentary archaeological evidence.”

  • P. H. Liotta, author of The Real Population Bomb: Megacities and Global Security
    “After decades of intense and dedicated scholarship, Ralph Sawyer has produced an astonishing volume. His linguistic and strategic skills—his fierce genius—are everywhere in evidence. Sawyer is a master, and Ancient Chinese Warfare is his masterpiece.”

    Ralph Peters, retired Military Intelligence officer and author of The War After Armageddon
    Ancient Chinese Warfare is, paradoxically, a crucial book for the 21st century. As the ‘new' China aspires to global power, understanding the foundations of this civilization's way of war helps us grasp Beijing's present psychology and behavior. The Chinese take a very long view of history, and we need to learn to do so. To that end, the brilliant work of Ralph D. Sawyer has long proven unrivalled...and this book is his masterpiece. No work better illustrates the deep (and gnarled) roots of China's contemporary ambitions.”

On Sale
Mar 1, 2011
Page Count
576 pages
Basic Books

Ralph D. Sawyer

About the Author

Ralph D. Sawyer, one of America’s leading scholars in Chinese warfare, has worked extensively with major intelligence and defense agencies. After studying at MIT and Harvard and a brief stint of university teaching, Sawyer has spent the past thirty years lecturing and doing international consulting work focused on China.

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