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  • The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China
  • David A. Graff
The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China. By Ralph D. Sawyer . New York: Basic Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0465-07205-7. Notes. Selected bibliographies. Selected index. Pp. xiii, 490. $29.95.

Readers already acquainted with Ralph D. Sawyer's earlier writings will find much that is familiar in The Tao of Deception. It incorporates substantial extracts from his previously published translations of the Chinese military classics into a scrapbook-like format reminiscent of his Tao of Spycraft (1998) and Fire and Water (2004), addresses themes he has touched upon before, and reiterates strong opinions (a dim view of Confucian scholars, for example) already expressed in previous books. Some may be tempted to dismiss his most recent offering as little more than a retread—but that would be a serious mistake. Proceeding in systematic fashion from ancient times to the present, The Tao of Deception in fact offers a sustained and highly focused examination of what has arguably been the central concept in Chinese military thought for well over two thousand years. It draws upon virtually all of the relevant material, not only the ancient military treatises but also later theoretical discussions, historical examples, and even popular fiction such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Moreover, the author seeks to understand the strategic and operational doctrine of the People's Republic of China (PRC) today in light of its martial legacy from the Chinese past, marking a new departure in its writing for a nongovernmental readership. The result is a tour de force, the best work that Sawyer has written so far and the closest he has come to writing intellectual history.

Even the most casual readers of the Art of War are likely to recall Sun-tzu's dictum that "Warfare is the way (tao) of deception," and may have a vague sense that trickery has loomed large in the actual conduct of Chinese warfare. Sawyer goes much deeper, correctly pointing out that "Sun-tzu's basic strategy entails manipulating the enemy in order to create the opportunity for an easy victory and then applying maximum power to the appropriate moment. . . . Deception . . . is vital to manipulating the enemy and [End Page 1215] achieving all these objectives" (pp. 57–58). In Chinese history, deception operations ranged from the simple feigned flight and ambush to highly complex disinformation campaigns causing rulers to distrust and replace their most capable generals. Efforts hinging on surprise and the creation and exploitation of misperception were (and are) labeled by the Chinese as ch'i (qi), which Sawyer translates as "unorthodox" (other renderings have included indirect, irregular, and unexpected). Its polar opposite is cheng (zheng), the "orthodox" (also direct, regular, expected, and straightforward). This book is really about the evolution of the concept of ch'i, and the ways it has been understood, interpreted, and implemented over the centuries. An interesting pattern noted by Sawyer is the tendency of some later commentators to understand ch'i and cheng in rigid, mechanical ways, even designating specific units or troop formations in these terms, whereas the original concept was flexible in the extreme: as the enemy's perception changed, the cheng effort transformed into a ch'i effort (and vice versa).

Sawyer repeatedly expresses mild puzzlement (as on pp. 183–84) that as certain ch'i gambits became increasingly commonplace and even conventional over time, they nevertheless continued to be regarded as "unorthodox." Here, it seems to me, the problem may be more an artifact of the translation he has chosen rather than any sort of conceptual paradox. Surprise attacks and the like were certainly unorthodox in the context of the relatively sportsmanlike military norms of the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 BCE), and from the perspective of the more rigid Confucian ideologues in all periods, but were a standard and accepted part of the conventional military repertoire by imperial times. The material in this book is powerful testimony that, within the military sphere, the conceptual framework embracing both ch'i and cheng had itself become orthodoxy.

Based on his study of recent Chinese military theorizing as...


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