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Reviewed by:
  • Ancient Chinese Warfare
  • Peter Lorge (bio)
Ralph Sawyer. Ancient Chinese Warfare. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 576 pp. Paperback $39.95, ISBN 978-0-465-02145-1.

Ralph Sawyer has done a great service to the field of Chinese military history by writing Ancient Chinese Warfare. It is an extremely useful source for information on the means and methods of warfare, though not the actual battles, in China from the earliest available archaeological record until roughly the end of the Shang dynasty. Sawyer’s book includes a discussion of the legendary prehistoric period. Just as important, it is the first of two volumes, with a second volume soon to follow that will cover the Zhou dynasty. Taken together, assuming the second volume is of comparable quality to the one under review, these books will form the point of departure for all subsequent studies in English on the military history of preimperial China. Sawyer claims that these volumes are the result of three decades or more of research; from that perspective, these volumes would appear to be a magnum opus for his late-in-life career as a translator of ancient Chinese military texts.

Ancient Chinese Warfare is itself a dense read. Sawyer provides an impressive weight of detail, making the contents of dozens of archaeological reports conveniently available in English for fast reference. For those, like myself, who do not specialize in early China, this is a tremendous boon. Rather than attempt to sift [End Page 303] through decades of Chinese journals in order to find relevant articles on matters of fortifications or weapons, he has already gone through this process, presenting us with the accumulated data of those years of reading. It is now a simple matter to refer to Ancient Chinese Warfare and find the relevant citations. The great strength of this book is that it functions like a thorough state-of-the-field article.

It is also a difficult book to review, not least because Sawyer has taken an unnecessarily defensive stance in his introduction, stating that “To ensure that Ancient Chinese Warfare, which is intended for the broadest possible audience of interested readers rather than just Sinologists, would not only be accessible but also published at a reasonable price rather than an exorbitant one appropriate to a research tome, certain decisions were made that will no doubt be bemoaned by reviewers” (p. xi). He then goes on to explain why the volume contains no maps, why there are very few illustrations of the weapons, and why there is no romanization for the Chinese and Japanese works in the bibliography. As a reviewer and sinologist, it would seem, then, as if I am doomed unfairly to bemoan any decisions made to make the text more accessible or affordable. What makes his defensiveness unnecessary is that with respect both to weapon illustrations and romanization his decisions make good sense. I take more issue with his lack of maps because his extensive discussion of archaeological materials necessarily mentions dozens of sites. Even someone familiar with Chinese geography but who is not an expert on this material would have to locate a map to get a sense of the relationship of these sites to each other. While no one likes to be criticized, this book is far too useful for Sawyer to be apprehensive about the ordinary process of review.

The main focus of the book is on the physical components of early Chinese warfare. Due to the paucity of sources, Sawyer has reasonably decided not to spend much time on battles and campaigns. Any attempt to reconstruct tactics, let alone strategy, is impossible. Of course, without battles, tactics, or strategy, the account is dry. He is forced regularly to fall back on much later military texts to provide explanations for how the physical remains of war—walls, weapons, and armor—fit together. This is not a very satisfactory solution given that the texts in question not only bias our interpretation in the first place, but also were sometimes written more than a thousand years after the artifacts in question were created. All of the explanations of early warfare based upon later texts are ahistorical and unreliable. Archaeology...


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pp. 303-305
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