Book Review: Ancient Chinese Warfare

Ancient Chinese Warfare, by Ralph D. Sawyer

Now, I have been familiar with the author’s work for some time as a translator of ancient Chinese military texts as well as a historian of ancient Chinese military warfare for some time, and this book is an excellent and weighty example of the author’s attention to both textual as well as material detail.  This is by no means a narrative history, and those people who are expecting a narrative of the course of the ancient Hsia and Shang dynasties are going to be disappointed.  Of course, such a history would be worthwhile to read for those of us who are students of Chinese military history and its ways, and this author’s approach is subtle and nuanced in some ways relating to these matters.  For example, the author subtly contrasts what later writers said about this period of ancient history (especially the rise of the Zhou and the problem of the mandate of heaven) with the material and textual remains of that particular period, demonstrating that no matter what virtue ancient rulers had, that ultimately the states of ancient China were firmly based on coercive power as well, since virtue has never triumphed in human affairs without the power of the sword to go along with it.

This particular book is a sizable one at more than 400 pages and it is divided into 25 thematic chapters.  The author begins with a preface and note on pronunciation as well as a discussion of his orientations and the legendary conflicts of Chinese prehistory (1).  There are then two chapters that deal with ancient fortifications (2, 3) and the way these demonstrate early concerns for security.  Two chapters then look at the Hsia (4) as well as warfare during the Hsia dynasty (5), insofar as it an be understood from material remains.  After that comes a discussion of the Shang dynasty (6) including a discussion of Shang capitals, citadels, and fortifications (7) as well as its mid-dynasty period of chaos, contraction, and then resurgence (8).  Two chapters are devoted to King Wu Ting (9, 10) as well as one to the reigns of later monarchs in the dynasty (11).  After this comes a chapter on the Shang military edifice (12) as well as an examination of matters of troops, intelligence and tactics (13), the metallurgical evolution in China (14), early weapons and the axe (15), knives, daggers, and swords (16), the ko, or dagger-axe (17), and spears and armor (18).  After that the author discusses ancient archery (19), the chariot (20), the horse (21), the chariot in battle (22) as well as its limitations (23) as a fighting platform, and then conclude with a discussion of ancient logistics (24) as well as some musings and imponderables about ancient Chinese military history (25) as well as notes, an integrated bibliography, and an index.

This book is definitely an eye-opener in the way that it draws insight from what is an obscure and often forgotten part of Chinese military history.  Even ancient Chinese military texts, some of which write about this period, were generally written in the Chou/Zhou period that followed this (where the author promises another writing on Chou warfare that is likely to be equally excellent), and it is only in recent decades that enough could be understood from the material evidence to see ancient fortifications and the way that organized warfare was developed very early on in the Yellow River plain where the early Chinese empires were based.  The author does a great job at examining the patterns of weapons and their development and even pays attention to logistics and communication and how these are often ignored in the historical accounts.  When an author goes above and beyond what is expected to write about obscure dynasties whose response to internal pressures as well as external opposition is well worth remembering and whose actions survive in the material record, including the construction, destruction, and abandonment of various sites, that is a book worth appreciating and reading.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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