International Relations Chinese Approaches to Strategy
Peter Lorge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0246


Although discussions of war and military history were contained in many Chinese works, a number of books and essays focused solely and exclusively on discussing the way war worked, how armies functioned, how to fight in groups and individually, and how to think strategically. The tradition of writing about war was far more extensive in the Chinese tradition than in the West, with one modern collection, The Complete Collection of Chinese Military Books published by the People’s Liberation Army running to fifty volumes. Of those fifty volumes, many containing multiple works, less than a half-dozen texts have been translated into any modern language, including Chinese.

Studies of Chinese Military Thought

In the West, the study of Chinese military thought has fallen into several distinct methodological fields. Sinologists and linguistically oriented scholars have translated a limited number of works, with books like Sunzi (Sun Tzu) repeatedly rendered into Western languages. Political scientists have done the most analytic work on Chinese military thought. These studies are less philological or historical, tending toward broader generalizations and theories of strategic thinking. The two poles of political science methodology argue either that societies have different strategies and ways of fighting, or that strategy is universal regardless of culture. Most studies fall somewhere in between these poles. While Chen 1992 is primarily concerned with explaining the strategic thinking of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, it does include a conventional, for its time, survey of traditional Chinese military thought. There is a similar, but more sophisticated and better informed, approach to explaining early military thought in Needham and Yates 1994. Johnston 1995 argues that Chinese strategy was pragmatic within its cultural context; Wang 2011 argues that strategy was not affected by culture. Zhu and Wang 2008 draws attention to the otherwise neglected strategic thinking.

  • Chen Ya-tien. Chinese Military Theory: Ancient and Modern. 1st ed. Mosaic Press, 1992.

    A brief survey in chapter 1 of ancient military thought is followed by a discussion of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s respective approaches to war. The ancient thought survey is brief and inaccurate, but the remainder of the work is useful as an insight into a modern Chinese perspective on the strategy of the main leaders of the Chinese civil war.

  • Johnston, Alastair Iain. Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Johnston argues that Chinese strategic culture had a symbolic “Mencian” strand of Confucian rhetoric, and a pragmatic realpolitick (“parabellum”) strand. Chinese strategy was pragmatic within its cultural context.

  • Needham, Joseph, and Robin Yates, with the collaboration of Krzysztof Gawlikowski, Edward McEwen, and Wang Ling. Science and Civilization in China: Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology—Part 6: Military Technology, Missiles and Sieges. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    An attempt to place Sunzi and Chinese military thought into a nonviolent framework of more-general Chinese analogic thinking.

  • Wang, Yuan-Kang. Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    Wang argues contra Johnston 1995 that Chinese strategy was universally pragmatic without reference to culture. The book significantly misreads Chinese history, but represents a particular political science position.

  • Zhu Zhongbo and Wang Ning. “Discourses on Salt and Iron and China’s Ancient Strategic Culture.” Chinese Journal of International Politics 2 (2008): 263–286.

    DOI: 10.1093/cjip/pon010

    A well-meaning attempt to expand the scope of works discussed as part of China’s historic strategic culture.

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