The Tao of Deception

Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China


By Ralph D. Sawyer

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The history of China is a history of warfare. Wars have caused dynasties to collapse, fractured the thin fasade of national unity, and brought decades of alien occupation. But throughout Chinese history, its warfare has been guided by principles different from those that governed Europe. Chinese strategists followed the concept, first articulated by Sun-tzu in The Art of War, of qi (ch’i), or unorthodox, warfare. The concept of qi involves creating tactical imbalances in order to achieve victory against even vastly superior forces. Ralph D. Sawyer, translator of The Art of War and one of America’s preeminent experts on Chinese military tactics, here offers a comprehensive guide to the ancient practice of unorthodox warfare. He describes, among many other tactics, how Chinese generals have used false rumors to exploit opposing generals’ distrust of their subordinates; dressed thousands of women as soldiers to create the illusion of an elite attack force; and sent word of a false surrender to lure enemy troops away from a vital escape route. The Tao of Deception is the book that military tacticians and military historians will turn to as the definitive guide to a new, yet ancient, way of thinking about strategy.


In Memory of Li Kang

Our original idea for a brief primer on the intriguing concept of the unorthodox in China, something more accessible to contemporary military strategists, historians, and others with a general interest in China or perhaps even the business application of core Chinese military concepts than a heavily footnoted, limited-circulation academic paper, quickly fell by the wayside as we presented focal materials to diverse audiences. Theorizing about the unorthodox across Chinese history has ranged from the simplistic to the highly esoteric, with the resulting strategic writings continuously reflecting the earliest fundamental assumptions. Equally important, a number of illustrative battles have been traditionally viewed as defining the nature and practice of the unorthodox.
Not unexpectedly, no single formulation—not even Sun-tzu’s definitive articulation—nor individual battle adequately expresses or epitomizes the concept of the unorthodox. However, broad acquaintance with a wide range of theoretical formulations and numerous pivotal clashes can provide an adequate basis for contemplation and assimilation. In addition, all these materials continue to be actively scrutinized in various PRC military and political think tanks as part of the highly motivated quest to create a contemporary military science with unique Chinese characteristics. Much of the Chinese populace has also become so familiar with at least some of them from mass media presentations that they have significantly affected the general strategic mindset.
Insofar as few materials, theoretical or historical, from the Chinese military tradition have been translated into English and few Sinologists seem interested in carrying forth the thrust initiated by Columbia University Press some decades ago to provide Western readers with the fundamental Chinese writings in the style of the Loeb Classical Library, we felt compelled to provide somewhat more comprehensive coverage of the topic than otherwise. Thus, virtually all of the theoretical passages and nearly all the battles explicitly deemed unorthodox in the various manuals of China’s vast military corpus have been included in their entirety. To the extent that the theoretical writings continuously build upon previous works and generally hark back to Sun-tzu or some other early articulation, some (and occasionally a lot of) redundancy is unavoidable.
However, rather than artificially abstracted and then interspersed among the various conclusions being presented, the thoughts of each era have been provided complete for scrutiny and pondering, including (for convenience) all the materials being integrated from previous works and centuries. Depending upon individual interest, the entire work may be read in detail, the theoretical or historical chapters studied separately, or materials in a particular historical period examined in isolation. (A comprehensive grasp of the relevance and impact of traditional unorthodox materials in contemporary PRC strategic thought may be achieved by perusing the chapters entitled “Sun-tzu’s Definitive Formulation,” “Han Dynasty Realizations,” and “Sung Dynasty Theoretical Developments” before reading the two chapters in the Modern Theories and Implications section.)
The illustrative battles might easily have been multiplied simply by selecting additional examples from the dynastic histories that are discussed as essentially unorthodox in conception or execution by either the principle actors or the historian. However, apart from making an already substantial book somewhat unwieldy, they did not play a primary role in either Chinese theorizing or the general martial consciousness. Therefore, just as many that we viewed as paradigm implementations, they have not been included in order to essentially maintain the character of an internal study.
As originally conceived we had intended to examine the origins and evolution of the concept against early historical events; trace its peregrinations across the centuries in the theoretical writings, incorporating the illustrative battles cited in the latter in each section; and finally append a casebook of additional materials. However, perhaps because of Western absorption in chronological divisions and progression, some readers of our previous works found the Chinese penchant for “ahistorical” examination of the evidence to be confusing. Although strategists such as Li Ch’üan, Yeh Meng-hsiung, and Mao Yüan-yi were not ignorant of political developments nor insensitive to changes in military technology over the centuries, they moved seamlessly in their contemplations of military concepts and tactical principles among the centuries. Accordingly, if reluctantly, while not attempting to present a general military history of China, we have therefore abstracted all the illustrative battles and arranged them chronologically by era before presenting the corresponding theoretical discussions.
Not unexpectedly, this has occasioned criticism from one or two historical specialists who read parts of the work in manuscript because it forfeits to some degree the integrity of the illustrative materials of importance to any individual writer or text. However, readers with expertise in Chinese may easily consult the original, the incidents are all listed in abbreviated form in their original discussions, and the theoretical sources are also identified in the footnotes correlated to each battle account. (Many of the battles are only mentioned in abbreviated form in the theoretical discussions, so expansion could only be achieved by recourse to the historical writings in any event.) Several of the martial writings, such as the Wu-ching Tsung-yao, also contain illustrative chapters consisting solely of battle accounts and these have been similarly treated.
Three steps have been taken to make all the translated materials more accessible for readers unfamiliar with Chinese names and history. First, the historical illustrations have occasionally been abridged by deleting collateral events and omitting names of actors and especially honorific titles that do not add significantly to the core account. Second, theoretical and illustrative sections in the military compendia, especially the Wu-ching Tsung-yao, frequently contain erroneous characters and corrupted passages. Apart from comparing variant editions and emending where necessary (though generally without noting as this is not a work intended primarily for Sinologists, who can, in any event, readily examine the original materials and generally disparage the role or importance of military events in Chinese history), recourse for the historical incidents has primarily been to their original, expanded form in the dynastic histories, secondarily to the synthesized accounts in the Tzu-chih T’ung-chien and similar works. A certain amount of contextual information has also been provided for the historical illustrations, but only that minimally needed to understand the principles being discussed.
Although we normally keep our historical and contemporary work separate and rarely publish on modern Chinese military issues, we have diverged from our usual practice because of the importance of the traditional military writings to the ongoing formulation of PRC strategic and operational doctrine. The inclusion of certain implications was further stimulated by the preparation of a lecture for a May 2006 conference sponsored by the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies titled Continental Defense: Policies, Threats and Architecture. Portions of the accompanying paper, “Chinese Strategic Power: Myths, Intent, and Projections” (which should be consulted for further amplification), available in the September 2006 issue of the Centre’s online Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, have been incorporated in the final chapter.
Finally, as in our previous works, while I am responsible for the historical content, writing, military texts, theorizing, and conclusions, Mei-chün has contributed immeasurably through our joint examination of a wide variety of historical records, especially contemporary materials. Chinese characters for the cover have once again been provided by Lee T’ing-rong.
Ralph D. Sawyer
Centre for Military and Strategic Studies
Spring 2006

A Note on Pronunciation
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 to unpracticed readers than the older, increasingly discarded 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, previous translations of Sun-tzu’s Art of War have mainly used Wade-Giles, and for consistency with our other martial writings—as well as a minor protest against the perversities and political practices of the PRC regime—we continue to employ Wade-Giles here. (Most non-Chinese readers find the use of hyphens to indicate pronunciation breaks for the individual characters in compound words preferable to pinyin’s run-on form.)
As a crude 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 (pinyin “d”)
p, as in ping: without apostrophe, pronounced like b (pinyin “b”)
ch, as in chuang: without apostrophe, pronounced like j (pinyin “j”
and “zh”)
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.”

Dynastic Chronology
Legendary Sage Emperors 2852 - 2255 BCE
Hsia (Xia)2205 - 1766
Shang 1766 - 1045
Chou (Zhou)
Western Chou (Zhou)1045—770
Eastern Chou (Zhou)
770 - 256
Spring and Autumn 722 - 481
Warring States 403 - 221
Ch’in (Qin) 221 - 207
Former Han (Western Han) 206 BCE - 8 CE
Later Han (Eastern Han) 23 - 220
Three Kingdoms168 - 280
Six Dynasties 222 - 589
Sui 589 - 618
T’ang (Tang) 618 - 907
Five Dynasties 907 - 959
Sung 960 - 1126
Southern Sung 1127 - 1279
Yüan (Mongol)1279 - 1368
Ming 1368 - 1644
Ch’ing (Manchu) (Qing) 1644 - 1911


Incipient Beginnings
What enable the masses of the Three Armies invariably to withstand the enemy without being defeated are the unorthodox and the orthodox. One engages in battle with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox. Thus, anyone who excels at sending forth the unorthodox becomes as inexhaustible as Heaven, as unlimited as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. In warfare, the strategic configurations of power do not exceed the unorthodox and orthodox, but the changes of the unorthodox and orthodox can never be completely exhausted. The unorthodox and orthodox mutually produce each other, just like an endless cycle. Who can exhaust them?
For many contemplating Sun-tzu’s epochal definition, the unorthodox remained a mystery, tactically opaque and conceptually obscure, deliberately shrouded in fog and darkness, yet have others naively deemed it simplicity itself, reducible to merely “doing the opposite of what is expected.” Ordinary commanders were content just to know that it existed and never burdened themselves with trying to understand or implement it, but extraordinary generals adopted the unorthodox through imagination and inspiration, employing unusual strategies and unexpected methods to forge great victories in improbable circumstances.
No episode has been more famous throughout Chinese history than T’ien Tan’s innovative use of unorthodox measures to extricate the remnants of the state of Ch’i from a five-year siege at Chi-mo during the Warring States period.1 In 333 BCE, the eastern state of Ch’i had exploited Yen’s mourning to invade and seize some ten cities, an affront that continued to rankle even though they were eventually returned. Two decades later, civil war then caused such disaffection among Yen’s populace that they refused to defend the state, allowing King Min of Ch’i to occupy it in 314 BCE. Persuaded not to annex it, in 312 BCE King Min supported the ascension of King Chao, who immediately committed himself to the task of reviving his vanquished state. Assiduously cultivating his Virtue in the prescribed fashion, he nurtured the people, sought out talented men, revitalized the military, and adroitly avoided conflict with other states. Finally, prompted by King Min’s arrogance and his recent conquest of Sung, King Chao embarked upon a campaign intended to punish Ch’i for its predatory behavior.
Having recently defeated armies from Ch’u and the Three Chin, attacked Ch’in, destroyed Sung, and aided Chao in extinguishing Chungshan, Ch’i possessed unsurpassed power and territory. Yen therefore cobbled together an allied force consisting of the states of Han, Wei, Chao, and Ch’in and invaded Ch’i in 285 BCE with Yüeh Yi as commander in chief. The coalition was disbanded shortly after they severely overwhelmed Ch’i’s forces west of the Chi River, though Yen’s armies continued to sweep through the countryside, seize the capital, subjugate several cities, and persuade others to voluntarily submit, all within six months. However, despite King Min having been slain, two Ch’i cities resolutely resisted demands to surrender as well as Yüeh Yi’s promise of leniency.
Unwilling to needlessly incur heavy casualties, Yüeh Yi undertook a virtually interminable siege. However, detractors back in Yen assailed his failure to swiftly reduce the remaining cities and accused him of wanting to prolong his authority or even become king of Ch’i. Since King Chao of Yen perspicaciously disbelieved these slanders, the siege continued for nearly five years. However, when King Chao died in 279, T’ien Tan, who had been named commander at Chi-mo by popular acclaim, exploited the new monarch’s flaws and inexperience to sow discord by employing double agents who successfully reiterated the same accusations, resulting in Yüeh’s replacement by Ch’i Chieh.
T’ien Tan then embarked on a multi-stage, unorthodox effort to simultaneously undermine the enemy’s will and rebuild the defenders’ spirit. First, he created an “auspicious omen” by having food left out in the courtyards whenever the people offered sacrifice, thereby attracting flocks of birds, a phenomenon that puzzled Yen’s soldiers. Second, he imparted a transcendent veracity to his measures by pretending to receive spiritual instruction. Third, correctly anticipating it would make his troops resolute, he ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of prisoners held in Yen’s camp by volubly worrying that Ch’i’s spirit would be adversely affected if their noses were cut off. Fourth, he had double agents bemoan the severe consternation they would suffer if the outer graves were exhumed, thereby tricking Yen into enraging the populace when they burned the corpses. Fifth, his family led in the fortification work, he personally feasted his officers, and he nurtured Yen’s overconfidence by concealing the able-bodied, visibly displaying only the weak and wounded. Finally, T’ien Tan not only exploited the antique ruse of a false surrender to induce laxity but further augmented its effectiveness by bribing Yen’s generals.
As recorded in his Shih Chi biography, T’ien Tan then implemented his most famous unorthodox measure:
T’ien Tan herded the thousand cattle within the city together and had them covered with red silken cloth decorated with five-colored dragon veins. Naked blades were tied to their horns and reeds soaked in fat bound to their tails. They then chiseled dozens of holes in the walls and that night ignited the reeds, releasing the cattle through them. Five thousand stalwart soldiers followed in the rear. When their tails got hot, the cattle angrily raced into Yen’s army.
Being the middle of the night, Yen’s troops were astonished. The brightness from the burning torches on the cattle tails was dazzling. Everywhere Yen’s soldiers looked there were dragon veins, everyone the cattle collided with died or was wounded.
Accompanied by a great drumming and clamor from within the city, 5,000 men with gagged mouths exploited the confusion to suddenly attack. The old and weak all made their bronze implements resound by striking them, the tumult moved Heaven and Earth. Terrified, Yen’s army fled in defeat.
Thus, through extended but innovative psychological operations and several unorthodox tactics in sequence, just 7,000 exhausted soldiers and another 10,000 inhabitants trapped in Chi-mo defied a siege force of perhaps 100,000. Thereafter, aided by uprisings in the occupied cities, Ch’i’s reinvigorated armies drove Yen’s disorganized forces out beyond the borders, allowing Ch’i to reclaim its position, however weakened and tarnished, among the extant states. Not surprisingly, this episode has long stirred the popular imagination and been justly considered the epitome of imaginative command, accounting for its inclusion among the Thirty-six Strategies and the Hundred Unorthodox Strategies, where it is cited as an example of “estrangement.”2

Historical Origins and Connotations

Ever since the late Spring and Autumn the character ch’i (qi), herein translated as “unorthodox” in a military context, has been employed to designate the unusual, unexpected, marvelous, strange, heterodox, and sometimes eccentric. Because it does not appear in any of the Shang dynasty oracle writings, Chou dynasty bronze inscriptions, or even such historically sanctified Confucian classics as the Book of Odes (Shih Ching) or Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch’un Ch’iu), its actual origins remain unclear. 3 Traditional Chinese dictionaries, citing examples from late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States texts, classify the character under “large” (which appears as the uppermost component) and explain it as basically meaning “different,” what “differs from the ordinary” or from the commonly seen and experienced.4 The character also has a second reading, meaning “odd”—as in numbers being “even” and “odd” rather than odd in the sense of “strange”—and venerable compendia also suggest it indicates something that lacks a match or mate.5
In the sense of difference being a virtue, denoting distinctiveness, ch’i early on came to be employed in reference to people marked by superior appearance, superlative physical skills, surpassing behavior or demeanor, transcending personality, or incisive thinking that set them outside or beyond the realm of the pedestrian, common, and ordinary. Thus the Han dynasty Shih Chi, China’s first synthetic history, occasionally records that powerful officials, upon first encountering hitherto unknown persons such as Han Hsin and Liu Pang, regarded them as “ch’i” and “ch’i ts’ai,” “extraordinary” and “extraordinary talents,” respectively.
Particularly unusual objects, spectacular scenes, and inspiring vistas similarly came to be designated as ch’i, a usage that continues to expand as uniquely shaped rocks command high prices as collectibles and highly visible personalities are termed ch’i nü-jen (“extraordinary” or “remarkable woman”) or ch’i-nan-jen (a “remarkable man”), such as in a recent newspaper headline about a hao-se ch’i-nan-jen, essentially a “rake” or “Lothario.”6 Thus, the movie title The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was translated as T’ien-chiang Ch’i-ping or “Ch’i Warriors Descended from Heaven” and troops of amazingly skillful Chinese acrobats routinely call themselves ch’i-ping, “unorthodox warriors.”
As early as the Warring States period, the character was also used in an active sense, to “make something different or unusual.” More intensively, it also conveyed a meaning of weird, extraordinary, and outlandish and was used to describe the mendicant persuaders who “made their clothes ch’i,” “outlandish” or perhaps even “bizarre,” as part of their effort to create an aura of distinctiveness and visibly suggest their disdain for normal constraints. 7 They were particularly noticeable or unusual in an era when the prescriptive materials subsequently codified in such ritual compendia as the Yi Li and Chou Li not only increasingly dictated conformity to certain rules and norms of behavioral propriety, but also emphasized “rectifying one’s clothes” and generally prohibited “strange attire.”
As the centuries passed and the term acquired more divergent and darker connotations, it acquired a sense of the mysterious, of something beyond ordinary comprehension, and it was therefore said that “things that cause people not to be able to fathom them are called ch’i.” (Its employment to designate a mode of warfare—ch’i chan or “unorthodox warfare”—emphasizes this aspect of being unfathomable.) Similarly, it further came to characterize the uncanny and occult, especially in reference to ethereal events and ghostly phenomena.
An interest in difference, what is uncommon or not yet known, underlies the contemporary term for “curiosity,” hao-ch’i or “love of the unusual.” However, Confucius declined to speak about three things—spirits, images, and death—in order to preclude distractions from the present. His pronouncement came to heavily impact China’s official cultural orientation, consigning anything apart from the virtues, values, and rituals required to maintain social distinctions and court awesomeness not just to insignificance but to inimical status. However, from the Han dynasty onward, all things imaginative, esoteric, and supernatural, including ghost tales and bizarre stories, became popular among the realm’s less pretentious members.
Largely in accord with the thrust of Confucian prejudice, stories and materials considered too unusual (ch’i) and irregular for inclusion in the orthodox dynastic histories came to be preserved in works such as the voluminous T’ai-p’ing Kuang-chi compiled in 977 CE, and in the late Ming many of the bizarre tales that had always fascinated the populace were assembled into collections of ch’uan-ch’i or sagas of heroes and “tales of the unusual.” Although often bearing somewhat formalized titles such as Observations on Ancient and Contemporary Oddities (Chin-ku Ch’i-kuan),8 they vividly preserve China’s enthrallment with the esoteric and supernatural, with what is well termed


On Sale
Feb 13, 2007
Page Count
320 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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