Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 157-160
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China's armed legacy is arguably the most successful, sustained, continuous military tradition on the planet. War united China, re-united it, and expanded it while Rome lay like Humpty Dumpty. Not surprisingly, to live in Chinese culture is to cherish martial stratagem. Chinese soldiers and civilians actually read Sun Tzu, printed in affordable paperback editions with learned explanatory notes. Themes from classical warfare color the earthy idiom of very ordinary folk. By contrast, most Westerners, even those appreciating Sun Tzu in translation, would probably identify the Roman military writer Vegetius as a grocery store.
But here's a paradox. Treatises abound on the Western military heritage, while apart from Sun Tzu renditions there was hardly any scholarly literature on pregunpowder Chinese warfare. Until now. The late Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, volume 5, part 6, section 30 has finally appeared. This section joins an encyclope-dicÝwork, like Gray's Anatomy, where epigones advance the bygone master's name.
Section 30 actually constitutes a tome unto itself entitled Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges. Needham's capable disciples here are Robin D.S. Yates, Krzysztof Gawlikowsky, Edward McEwen, and Wang Ling. This committee's result is several authoritative treatises bound as one, not fully knit together, yet each well worth soldiering through.
An introduction about Chinese literature on bing fa, sometimes [End Page 157] mistranslated "art of war," provides background to the book's subsequent technological focus. Gawlikowsky inexplicably omits the gleanings on war from Shang oracle bones (thirteenth to twelfth centuries B.C.E.) and Western Zhou bronze inscriptions (eleventh to eighth centuries B.C.E.). He briefly reviews the classical military theoreticians, of whom Sun Tzu was but one. There might have been more about the Sun Bin bing fa text, unearthed in 1971.
Gawlikowsky does introduce some lesser known scholastic military encyclopedists. Chinese compilers postulated an interface between cosmic numerology and battle theory, if not actual praxis. Besides responding to terrain and enemy dispositions, their concepts of armed formation supposedly respected winds and clouds, yin-yang spatial notions, heavenly portents, and five-element theory. At least in formula books. Gawlikowsky then recounts how it was popular culture that shaped the real Chinese military ethos over centuries, particularly through renditions of the Three Kingdoms epic in oral storytelling, novel, and opera.
On to weapons. Section 30 is more a reference manual on devices than a narrative history. Its scheme recounts weaponry and fortification systems one after the other, thereby subordinating chronology to topic. However definitive for each given technology, this plan necessarily obscures the integral, step-by-step evolution of Chinese arms. Periodization is unavoidably awkward, leaping back and forth over centuries.
The topic-by-topic approach leaves some fundamental questions unasked and hence unanswered. Beyond details of weaponry, what encompassing features made China militarily unique? Besides its evident strengths, what were the tradition's intrinsic weaknesses? How scientific was Chinese military practice? Could fluctuations between offensive and defensive dominance be attributed to technique? What factors evolved, and which stagnated?
It is people who wield weapons. During the Warring States period and thereafter, military participation in imperial China remained broad-based. No permanently specialized fighting caste developed separate from the agricultural masses. Scholar officials practiced longbow archery, a patrician sport, and took on armed command responsibilities as needed. A regimented peasantry doubled as a regimented soldiery armed with China's hallmark plebeian weapon, the crossbow.
Working from classical sources and archaeological finds, Robin D.S. Yates and Edward McEwen ably discuss the crossbow's development and variants, comparing designs to Eurasian bows. There is textual [End Page 158] lore on Chinese crossbow battle doctrine. However, more might have been learned about the crossbow's actual effectiveness had the authors subjected working models to rigorous testing. I...