The Seven Military Classics Of Ancient China


By Ralph D. Sawyer

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The Seven Military Classics is one of the most profound studies of warfare ever written, a stanchion in sinological and military history. It presents an Eastern tradition of strategic thought that emphasizes outwitting one’s opponent through speed, stealth, flexibility, and a minimum of force — an approach very different from that stressed in the West. Safeguarded for centuries by the ruling elite of imperial China, even in modern times these writings have been known only to a handful of Western specialists.

This volume contains seven separate essays, written between 500 BCE and 700 CE, that preserve the essential tenets of strategy distilled from the experience of the most brilliant warriors of ancient China.



Arther Ferrill, Series Editor


Ralph D. Sawyer, translator

FEEDING MARS: Logistics in Western Warfare from the

Middle Ages to the Present John Lynn, editor


The Campaign of 1815 in France by Carl von Clausewitz

Memorandum on the Battle of Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington

Christopher Bassford, translator

THE CHIWAYA WAR: Malawians in World War One

Melvin Page


Military History of the Gundovald Affair, 567–585

Bernard S. Bachrach

THE HALT IN THE MUD: French Strategic Planning from Waterloo to the Franco-Prussian War

Gary P. Cox


Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World Weston F. Cook, Jr.


Leslie J. Worley

ORDERING SOCIETY: A World History of Military Institutions Barton C. Hacker


Preface to the Paperback Edition

CHINA HAS BEEN markedly transformed over the fifteen years since the original preface to Seven Military Classics was written. The economy has expanded at an unprecedented rate, unrelenting modernization affects virtually every dimension of life, and the physical and intellectual horrors of the Cultural Revolution have become fading, albeit still painful, memories. Achievement of superpower status seems assured, but whether the PRC’s ascension will foster worldwide prosperity or entail pervasive destruction remains uncertain.

Paradoxically, even as modern cities proliferate and the latest technologies are adapted, many aspects of its long-forgotten, vociferously deprecated traditional culture have not only reappeared but also been deliberately revitalized, in a desperate attempt to suppress escalating social unrest and retard a zealous plunge into corruption and hedonism. Even Confucianism, long viewed as a feudal anathema, is being brandished as a reformist tool by draconian authorities in the vacuum created by Marxism’s demise.

Amid this turbulent milieu, China’s classic military writings have soared in popularity and become virtually ubiquitous. Works such as the Art of War and Six Secret Teachings now appear in many guises, ranging from heavily annotated scholarly editions through cheap vernacular paperbacks. Comic book and lavishly illustrated editions of immense fame and popularity abound, and versions purporting to apply their contents to every conceivable realm proliferate. Numerous military terms have entered the language while the concepts and principles ground strategic thinking and continue to affect the mindset, shaping and delimiting the very categories of thought and response. The contents also provide essential materials for lengthy martial arts dramas, crucial themes for movies, and vital content for other mass media presentations.

More significantly, the classic military writings are playing an important role as the PRC consciously reformulates its martial doctrine to create “contemporary military science with unique Chinese characteristics.” As discussed in our Tao of Deception, PRC think tanks such as the Academy of Military Science are examining every passage for concepts and tactical principles that can be adopted to the contemporary battlefield so as to ensure that China’s comparatively deficient armed forces will, through unexpected and unorthodox measures, be able to wrest a localized advantage and prevail. In conjunction with paradigm battles abstracted from its three-thousand-year military history, the seven books that are contained in the Seven Military Classics, previously confined to the martial realm, thus enjoy unprecedented readership and vibrancy.

Ralph D. Sawyer



RECENT DECADES have witnessed explosive growth in American and European interest in the Far East. Books and articles about China have enjoyed popularity since the 1970s; those on Japan, especially on Japanese management practices, have proliferated since the early 1980s; and those focusing on business in terms of “corporate warfare” and theories of strategy, including Asian practices and their underlying philosophies, retain currency. The writings of Musashi, the famous Japanese swordsman, and Sun-tzu, the ancient Chinese military theorist, have been repeatedly translated, investigated, and discussed. However, as interesting as they and a few books from the martial arts have proven to be, the vast Chinese military corpus—despite its historical importance and contemporary significance—remains unknown in the West.

Chinese military thought probably originated with neolithic village conflicts four or five thousand years ago, perhaps even as mythologized in the clash of legendary cultural heroes and Sage Emperors. Subsequently, because men were compelled to direct their ingenuity toward combat, weapons were developed, tactics evolved, and power structures arose. Eventually, dominant figures—perhaps clan or lineage chiefs commanding more-warlike peoples—imposed their wills over other groups and widening domains and some groups became significant political powers. At the dawn of the historical age, as preserved in early written materials and revealed by artifacts, frequent, intense clashes were already occurring between these contending forces as they evolved into states and as powerful individuals sought to establish sole rule over the realm and to found dynastic houses. Thereafter the scope of battle expanded; the strength and effectiveness of weapons increased; and military organization, tactics, and technology all developed. Eventually, battlefield lessons and command experience became the focus of conscious study; efforts were made to preserve the insights and avoid the errors of the past; and the science of military tactics and strategy was born.

By the second century B.C. China had already passed through a thousand years of almost unremitting conflict and had been brutally unified into a vast, powerful, imperially directed entity. Along the way, skilled commanders appeared, and major battles were fought. Campaigns became interminable, and the scale of destruction was immense, consuming both men and the thoughts they had committed to writing. However, among the small number of military writings that survived until unification, there were six major ones, including Sun-tzu’s famous Art of War. They continued to be studied and transmitted down through the centuries until the remnants were collected and edited in the Sung dynasty around twelve hundred years later. Combined with a T’ang dynasty work, they compose the Seven Military Classics, a compilation that comprised the orthodox foundations for military thought and the basis for the imperial examinations required for martial appointment.

In the early 1970s, archaeologists excavating the Han dynasty tomb of a high-ranking official discovered a large number of immensely valuable texts written on remarkably well preserved bamboo slips. The military works among them include major portions of several of the Seven Military Classics and extensive fragments of Sun Pin’s Military Methods. Although this book—by Sun-tzu’s descendant—appeared in the bibliographic listings compiled in the Han dynasty, it had apparently vanished in the Han and been lost for over two thousand years. This important find thus increased the total extant military materials from the ancient period to eight classic works in all, supplemented by a few hundred other writings of various, but definitely later, dates.

Although tactical studies continued to be written throughout Chinese history, much of the vast military corpus has undoubtedly been lost over the centuries through carelessness, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, and warfare. However, ancient epigraphic materials and such early historical records as the Tso chuan and Shih chi also chronicle the exploits of generals and kings; the Twenty-five Histories preserves extensive information about men and actions; and Warring States philosophical works contain discussions of military issues. Thus resources abound, but only a part of the historical writings, including the complete Tso chuan, and essentially two of the Seven Military Classics (Sun-tzu’s Art of War—three major versions, several minor ones—and the Wu-tzu—which appears as an appendix to Griffith’s translation) have been translated and published.

Far from having vanished and being forgotten, these ancient Chinese military works have extensively influenced twentieth-century thought and are experiencing a new vitality in Asia. Not only in the military realm—throughout the century they have been thoroughly studied in Japan and China—do they continue to be discussed, but also in the business and personal spheres their resurgence is particularly evident. In the 1980s a management book that revived Sun-tzu’s thought and employed the revitalized figures of several ancient martial heroes to instruct companies in the basics of business and marketing became a bestseller in the draconian Communist environment of the People’s Republic of China and eventually in capitalist Hong Kong as well. Japanese companies have regularly held study groups to seek insights that may be implemented as corporate strategy. Koreans, enduring intense international pressure to revalue their currency, open their markets, and submit to trade limitations just when prosperity is attainable, are discovering strategies for international business warfare in these books.

In Taiwan, where companies confront a situation similar to Korea’s, books applying the thoughts of the ancient strategists to life, business, sports, and the stock market have suddenly surged in popularity, even though modernists have ignored and scorned them for decades. Perhaps more astounding is the penchant of Japanese writers to apply principles and tactics from the Seven Military Classics to all the complexities of modern society; they use such tactics, for example, for successful human relations, romantic liaisons, and company infighting. In addition to at least one scholarly translation, several new paperbacks offering simplified renditions and popularized expansions of selected teachings are published annually in Japan. The ubiquitous salaryman may be seen reading them while commuting to work, and there are even comic-book editions to satisfy those so inclined. Naturally, tactics from the classics also frequently appear in novels, movies, and on television, and their words are quoted in contemporary media throughout Asia.

There is a great temptation, given the extensive materials rapidly becoming available from diverse sources, to undertake a truly comprehensive introduction to the entire military enterprise in Ancient China. Many topics critical to understanding strategy, tactics, and the evolution of military thought merit exploration and analysis. However, we have consciously focused upon depicting the historical context and reviewing the essential material aspects, such as armor and weapons, rather than ineffectually sketching comprehensive intellectual issues. Although we have not totally neglected the latter, exploring topics such as the relationships of Taoism and military thought in at least cursory fashion in the introductions and the extensive notes, these areas must largely be consigned to another work and to expert monographs. Similarly, although we have outlined the essentials of various concepts, such as unorthodox/orthodox, we have not analyzed them in depth, nor have we discussed the details of technology; concrete tactics of deployment; or the overall implementation of strategy beyond the discussions found in the Seven Military Classics. Furthermore, except in an occasional note, we have not explored the relationship of these texts to the Kuan-tzu, the Book of Lord Shang, or other Warring States philosophical writings that prominently espouse military policies, administrative measures, and strategic concepts. These and many other topics, including the systematic analysis and integration of ideas and methods in each of the classics, require extensive studies in themselves. Because their inclusion would be premature and would also make an already massive book more unwieldy, we will focus upon them in a future work integrating the interactive development of military technology and tactical thought.

Because this book is intended for the general reader, a rubric we assume encompasses everyone except those few specialists in ancient Chinese studies with expertise in the previously neglected military writings, we have provided somewhat fuller notes on many general aspects than might otherwise be necessary. Overall the notes have been designed for several different audiences; although much of the translation cries out for detailed annotation, in order to minimize the number of notes, we have refrained from exploring deeply every thought, concept, and strategy. Many of the notes simply provide contextual information or identify figures and terms for the convenience of readers unfamiliar with Chinese history and writings. Others are intended for those students of Asia—professional or not—who might benefit from further historical, technical, or military information or from the citation of certain seminal articles. Many notes comment upon the intricacies of translation matters: They provide alternative readings; note emendations we have accepted and commentaries followed; and sometimes indicate where we have relied upon our own judgment contrary to traditional readings. Finally, some amplify those portions of the introductory material where we sought to avoid dogmatic assertions about the numerous issues, such as textual authenticity, that have only tentatively been resolved or remain the subject of scholarly controversy. Every reader is encouraged to peruse them all, at least briefly, focusing upon those of greatest relevance in the quest to understand these texts.

Full bibliographic information is provided for each work at its first appearance in each chapter, with abbreviated titles thereafter. Consequently, for the bibliography we have departed from the usual format and instead provided a selected listing by subject for those who might wish to investigate the literature on a single topic. Numerous books with only tangential connections with the Seven Military Classics and solely of interest to specialists have been excluded. For matters of general knowledge that have not been annotated, the reader should consult the Western-language works listed in the bibliography for further reading.

A work of this scope, in our case undertaken enthusiastically without fully realizing the many thorny issues it would entail, is necessarily the product of years of reading, study, pondering, sifting, and effort. We have benefited vastly from the commentaries and essays of a hundred generations of Chinese scholars and from the growth of detailed knowledge deriving from the work of Western and Asian scholars in the present century. However, having left the academic community two decades ago, we have enjoyed a rather different, vibrant perspective on these ideas and philosophies—the result of twenty-five years of technical and business consulting at all levels in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Southeast Asia. For a startling number of our Asian associates, the various military classics remain compendiums of effective tactics and strategies, providing approaches and measures that can be profitably adopted in life and employed in business practices. Their discussions and understanding of many of the concrete lessons, although not necessarily orthodox or classically based, stimulated our own enlightenment on many issues. In particular, conversations over the decades in Asia with Guy Baer, Cleon Brewer, Ma Shang-jen, Kong Jung-yul, Professor W. K. Seong, Professor Ts’ai Mao-t’ang, and especially C. S. Shim have been both stimulating and illuminating.

Certain early teachers had a lasting influence on my approach to Chinese intellectual history. In particular, as a graduate student at Harvard in the turbulent 1960s I was greatly influenced by Professors Yang Lien-sheng, Yü Ying-shih, Benjamin Schwartz, and especially Dr. Achilles Fang, under whom I was privileged to be thrust into the true study of classical Chinese. Thereafter I was fortunate to read intermittently for more than a decade with Professor Chin Chia-hsi, a Chuang-tzu specialist and university professor of Chinese at National Taiwan University. However, my greatest intellectual debt is to Professor Nathan Sivin, initially a Sage at M.I.T.; a friend for more than twenty-five years; and ultimately responsible for both illuminating the Way and making the path accessible. However, these are all general intellectual obligations, not specific, for these scholars have not seen any portion of this work, and the survivors from Harvard would perhaps be astonished to learn that I have been carrying on the Chinese tradition of private scholarship over these many years.

Whereas I am responsible for the translations, introductions, and notes, Mei-chün Lee (Sawyer) has not only been an active participant in our discussions and studies over the years but also undertook numerous burdens associated with the detailed research of such historical issues as the evolution of weapons. She also contributed immeasurably through her insightful readings of the translations and the tedious investigation and comparison of various modern commentaries. Her collaborative efforts greatly aided my understanding of many issues and improved the overall work significantly, all while she continued to fulfill her responsibilities in our consulting operations.

Finally we would like to thank Westview Press, in particular, Peter Kracht, senior editor, for his efforts on this project. We have benefited greatly from Westview’s editorial support and from the intensive, detailed reading of the translation provided through their auspices by Professor Robin D.S. Yates. Many of his numerous emendations and general suggestions substantially improved the work, and all his criticisms stimulated a careful reexamination of the texts and many additional materials; nevertheless, final responsibility for their evaluation and integration, where accepted, remains with the translators.

Others who assisted, especially in locating articles and textual materials in the United States and Asia, include Miao Yong-i, Marta Hanson, Yuriko Baer, Anton Stetzko, and Zhao Yong; Lorrie Stetzko provided expertise on horses and the intricacies of riding; and Bob Matheney and Max Gartenberg essentially made the project possible. We express our deep appreciation to all these people and to Lee T’ing-jung, who has honored the work with his calligraphy.

Ralph D. Sawyer

A Note on the Translation and Pronunciation

THE TRANSLATION is based upon and rigorously follows the so-called Ming edition of the (Sung dynasty) Seven Military Classics, which contains and benefits from Liu Yin’s consistent commentary—the chih-chieh, or “direct explanations”—throughout all seven books. However, although many of his comments are illuminating and even critical to understanding the actual text, scholarship continued to advance, and over the centuries, a few valuable commentaries and several variant editions that have furthered the process of understanding—particularly of the Art of War—have come out. Where the Ming text appears obviously defective, recourse for emendation is made first to the Sung edition and then to other variants. Full information on the individual variants employed is given in the introduction and the notes for each book, and the basic editions are listed in the bibliography.

We have sought to employ judiciously contemporary scholarship irrespective of its political perspective and to integrate insights provided by archaeological discoveries. The discovery of early versions, although dramatic and invaluable, precipitates the problem about which text to translate: the “original” versions, which entail numerous problems of their own, or the Sung Seven Military Classics edition, which has been historically available and influential for nine centuries. Because most of the Seven Military Classics have not previously been translated, we have chosen to make the traditional edition available first. Accordingly, we have used the newly recovered textual materials to make emendations only where they resolve highly problematic or completely incomprehensible passages, always annotating appropriately. Although we have refrained from indiscriminately revising the traditional text, significant differences between the newly recovered fragments and the historically transmitted edition are generally recorded in the notes.

In providing a translation for a general readership, rather than a somewhat more literal (and some would claim precise) version for sinologists, we hope to emulate the vibrant translations of Professor Burton Watson and thereby make these amazing texts accessible to the widest possible audience. We have thus avoided military jargon because, apart from the thorny question about each term’s appropriateness, such terms would render the translation less comprehensible to anyone lacking military experience or unacquainted with military history.

Unfortunately, neither of the two commonly employed orthographies makes the pronunciation of romanized Chinese characters easy. Each system has its stumbling blocks and we remain unconvinced that the Pinyin qi is inherently more comprehensible than the Wade-Giles ch’i, although it is certainly no less comprehensible than j for r in Wade-Giles. However, as many of the important terms may already be familiar to Western readers and previous translations have employed Wade-Giles, we have opted to use that system throughout our work. Well-known cities, names, and books—such as Peking—are retained in their common form, and books and articles published with romanized names and titles also appear in their original form.

As a guide to pronunciation, we offer the following notes on the significant exceptions to normally expected sounds:

t, as in Tao: without apostrophe, pronounced like d

p, as in ping: without apostrophe, pronounced like b

ch, as in chuang: without apostrophe, pronounced like j

hs, as in hsi: pronounced sh

j, as in jen: pronounced like r

Thus, the name of the famous Chou dynasty is pronounced as if written “jou” and sounds just like the English name “Joe.”

Chronology of Approximate Dynastic Periods


Years: 2852–2255 B.C.

Dynastic Period: HSIA

Years: 2205–1766

Dynastic Period: SHANG

Years: 1766–1045

Dynastic Period: CHOU

Years: 1045–256

Dynastic Period: CHOU: Western Chou

Years: 1045–770

Dynastic Period: CHOU: Eastern Chou

Years: 770–256

Dynastic Period: CHOU: Eastern Chou: Spring and Autumn

Years: 722–481

Dynastic Period: CHOU: Eastern Chou: Warring States

Years: 403–221

Dynastic Period: CH’IN

Years: 221–207

Dynastic Period: FORMER HAN

Years: 206 B.C.–8 A.D.

Dynastic Period: LATER HAN

Years: 23–220

Dynastic Period: SIX DYNASTIES

Years: 222–589

Dynastic Period: SUI

Years: 589–618

Dynastic Period: T’ANG

Years: 618–907

Dynastic Period: FIVE DYNASTIES

Years: 907–959

Dynastic Period: SUNG

Years: 960–1126

Dynastic Period: SOUTHERN SUNG

Years: 1127–1279

Dynastic Period: YÜAN (Mongol)



On Sale
Nov 6, 2007
Page Count
592 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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