How often does one get the chance to read a genuinely awesome work that purports to be from three thousand years ago that was once “particularly fatal” to own, in the words of its translator into English? Well, if you take a look at T’ai Kung’s Six Secret Teachings, part of the Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, translated by Ralph Sawyer, you can read it as often as you like. Of course, reading such a work would imply that you are interested in military history and have an interest in Asian literature, both of which apply to me.
Now, the work as a whole is interesting enough. For one, it is divided, as its (English) title would suggest, into six teachings. No one really knows, apart from the first two, what relationship the names of the teachings have to do with the contents, but we can still guess. The Civil T’ao (teaching) shows how moral and effective government is both necessary for the survival of the state and as the foundation for warfare, advocating limited expenditures on government and low taxes to ensure loyalty and moral virtue among the people. The Martial T’ao discusses political measures (set in the Shang vs. Chou showdown in the 11th century BC), assessing the chances of Chou victory favorably and advocating the use of psychological and moral warfare against one’s opponent to sow the seeds of their downfall through any means possible. This is advocacy of warfare at its most devious and tricky. The Dragon T’ao focuses on military organization, including the command staff, and advocates the separation of civil and military leadership, offering substantial freedom of action to generals. The Tiger T’ao focuses on misdirection, speed & flexibility in maneuver, as well as how to extricate one’s army from dangerous battlefield situations. The Leopard T’ao focuses on solutions to fighting in difficult terrain, against stronger foes, and how to stop rampaging invaders through skillful troop deployment and explosive action. The last teaching, the Canine T’ao, focuses on principles for employing chariot, infantry, and cavalry forces, including how to exploit enemy weaknesses in their ores and how to identify and select people worthy of elite units and train one’s soldiers so that they can be more effective.
Why was possession of this work “particularly fatal,” and why is it such a controversial work? For one, the work clearly support the revolutionary overthrow of tyrants through any means necessary, meaning that its possession by a common person would indicate two things: that they thought the rulers were tyrants, and that they were committed to overthrowing them. Generally, tyrants look down upon being called out on their tyranny, even implicitly, and tend to react a little bit forcefully to such a threat by capital punishment, usually of a particularly gruesome sort.
To answer the second question, the work is controversial for at least a couple of reasons. For one, some people doubt that it was really written during the period it purports to be, even if it has a “core” of applicability to it. It is very possible that the work was written in the late Warring States period (3rd century BC) to advocate the overthrow of the tyrannical Ch’in dynasty (as the Han dynasty eventually did), by pointing to the previous situation when a virtuous leader defeated a vastly more populous empire ruled by a similarly despotic and tyrannical emperor. If it worked once, it can work again, right? Additionally, one of the best ways to advocate new ideas in a very conservative and tradition-bound society is to pretend that the advice is very old, or even to use lessons from a long-time ago to apply them to the current situation, so that the advice is not (and more importantly, is not seen) as new at all, as “progressive” ideas are generally bad in such a hidebound culture. Clearly this idea has applicability to areas outside of Chinese military studies, to the alert reader.
Additionally, there are some elements of the advice of the book that cause controversy among students of Chinese military history and culture. For one, the military arts in China have typically been attacked and maligned by the dominant Confucian literati, who thought that generals could not be wise sages, but that only those who could understand poetry and the Confucian classics could be considered a sage. Even those military leaders, like T’ai Kung, who advocated Confucian virtue for leaders, were not given credit for their moral teaching, but rather condemned for their military profession. Additionally, many Chinese mandarins found it unsettling and shameful that a virtuous man would advocate taking advantage of an enemy ruler’s morally dissolute nature by sending him bribes and prostitutes to whittle away his power and focus while working to overthrow his rule, seeing the exploitation of an enemy’s immorality as itself immoral. (Truth be told, I’m with T’ai Kung on this—if one is in a life or death struggle, exploit the weaknesses of one’s enemies.)
Suffice it to say, the work deserves a far larger audience than its present obscurity has condemned it to. Since the book has escaped the very narrow audiences of imperial historians and emperors (apparently the book was forbidden to read by imperial relatives, for fear that the book’s teachings would inspire sedition and revolt), a clearly revolutionary and rather entertaining dialogue (the form in which the book is set) makes for a read that is not only historically significant, but also very enlightening for an audience far beyond those who are experts in East Asian studies.