Classical Methods

The Influence and Use of Chinese Classical Military Philosophy in the Writings of Mao Zedong

in Journal of Chinese Military History
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The literature of warfare records the insights of past generations into one of the most harrowing and trying elements of the human experience. The classical works from the Warring States period created the base of military thought in China that also influenced much of East Asia. According to Mao Zedong, these ancient texts bore special importance as literature, sources of study, and inspiration for the people of China. This hard-purchased expertise reflected the experiences of the past that present scholars must carefully study, especially as new works of military thought within the Chinese literary base appeared in the twentieth century, penned and spoken by Mao himself. These new texts demonstrated a steady continuity from the earliest Chinese military-philosophical literature. Most notably, these common concepts included a consistent conceptualization about the role of warfare in society, the importance of complementary opposites, capitalizing on strengths and exploiting weaknesses, and adaptability to changing dynamics. The influence of Mao’s writings ensured these precepts continued to exercise an important influence upon the People’s Republic of China, creating the base of military-philosophical literature in the prc.

Classical Methods

The Influence and Use of Chinese Classical Military Philosophy in the Writings of Mao Zedong

in Journal of Chinese Military History



AmesRoger T. The Art of Warfare 1993 New York Random House

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GilesLionel Sun Tzu on the Art of War; The Oldest Military Treatise in the World 1910 London Luzac & Co. [An online version can be found at mit Internet Classics Archive]

GriffithSamuel B. Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare 1961 New York Praeger

GriffithSamuel B. The Art of War 1963 New York Oxford University Press

IvanhoePhilip J.Van NordenBryan W. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy 2001 Indianapolis Hackett Publishing

MaoZedong “Speech at the Group Leaders’ Forum of the Enlarged Meeting of the Military Affairs Committee” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung 1958 accessed 17 June 2013 Vol.VIII (28 June 1958) Marxist Internet Archive

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Snow 1968133.


Tian 2013.


Snow 1968133.


Schram 198953.


Zhang 199510.


Defoort 2001397.


Gawlikowski 1979150.


Rand 1979107.


Sawyer 1993330 and Yates 1988 215.


Yates 1988215.


Sawyer 199324.


See for example Graff 200217.


Sawyer 199324.


Tian 2013.


Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2001xiv.


Ivanhoe and Van Norden 200198. A similar (but not identical) text appears in the Classic of History (Shu jing) where it is called the “Declaration at Gan.” Confucians typically extolled the primacy of wen (culture or the civil) over wu (the martial) in achieving objectives be they political or military ends. The events depicted in this narrative predated Mozi so his work was in its time a secondary account. This inconsistency in the timing however increases the significance of this tale because it demonstrates that Confucians understood the use of the Mandate of Heaven as a justification for war. Though in its original context this passage explored the possibility of the existence of ghosts it provides important detail.


Interview with Roger T. Ames 22 July 2013Beijing Foreign Studies University Beijing prc.


Griffith 196125.


Mao quoted in Tien 1992213.


Ames 200380. The Ivanhoe and Van Norden translation reads: To have and to lack generate each other. Difficult and easy give form to each other. Long and short off-set each other. High and low incline into each other. . . . Before and after follow each other. Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2001 159.


Graff 200224.


Ames 200315.


Tian 20132.


Mao quoted in Schram 1989187.


Sheng 199711.


Sawyer 1993292.


Sawyer 199371.


Sawyer 1993244.


Sawyer 1993244.


Sawyer 1993157 (Sawyer’s “Tao” is here modified to Dao). Ames: “War is a vital matter of state. It is the field on which life or death is determined and the road that leads to either survival or ruin and must be examined with the greatest care.” (Ames 2003 103) Wu Wu and Lin: “War is a question of vital importance to the state a matter of life and death the road to survival or ruin. Hence it is a subject which calls for careful study.” (Wu Wu and Lin 2005 3). Griffith: “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” (Griffith 1963 63) Giles: “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” (Giles 1910 1)


Sawyer 199363. Sawyer’s “Tao” is here modified to Dao.


Sawyer 1993126.


Lin Biao quoted in Mao 1958.


Mao 1958.


Schram 198954.


Mao 1966b.


Sawyer 199351.


Sawyer 1993256.


Tien 1992221. Ames: “These are the military strategist’s calculations for victory—they cannot be settled in advance.” (Ames 2003 105) Sawyer: “These are the ways military strategists are victorious. They cannot be spoken of in advance.” (Sawyer 1993 158) Griffith: “These are the strategist’s keys to victory. It is not possible to discuss them beforehand.” (Griffith 1963 70) Giles: “These military devices leading to victory must not be divulged beforehand.” (Giles 1910 7)


Tien 1992221.


Sawyer 1993437 n. 20.


Mei Yaochen quoted in Griffith 196370.


Tien 1992221.


Mao quoted in Tien 1992221.


Giles 191034-36.


Griffith 196391.


Li Quan quoted in Griffith 196391.


Wallacker 1966295299.


Sawyer 1993164-65. (Here Sawyer’s “ch’i” and “cheng” have been modified to qi and zheng.) A similar line appears in the Weiliaozi: “Those who excel at repulsing the enemy first join battle with orthodox troops then [use unorthodox ones] to control them. This is the technique for certain victory.” (Sawyer 1993 274)


Wu Wu and Lin 200531.


Ames 1993119. Ames’s “ch’i” and “cheng” have been modified to qi and zheng.


Ames 1993287 n. 144.


Ames 1993287 n. 144.


Ames 1993287 n. 144.


Griffith 196195.


Mao 196684.


Sawyer 199370.


Mao 196660.


Sawyer 1993323.


Sawyer 1993322.


Ames 2003122: “If someone wants to rule the world and goes about trying to do so I foresee that they simply will not succeed.” Ivanhoe and Van Norden: “Those who would gain the world and do something with it I see that they will fail.” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2001 173.)


Sawyer 199358.


Wu Wu and Lin 200525. Ames: “Of old the expert in battle would first make himself invincible and then wait for the enemy to expose his vulnerability.” (Ames 1993 115.) Sawyer: “Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable.” (Sawyer 1993 163.) Griffith: “Anciently the skilful warriors first made themselves invincible and awaited the enemy’s moment of vulnerability.” (Griffith 1963 85.) Giles: “The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.” (Giles 1910 26.)


Sawyer 199369.


Sawyer 1993134.


Sawyer 1993336.


Sawyer 1993441 n. 59.


Tien 1992213.


Wu Wu and Lin 200537. Ames: “Thus being able to wear down a well-rested enemy to starve one that is well-provisioned and to move one that is settled lies in going by way of places where the enemy must hasten in defense.” (Ames 1993 123.) Sawyer: “Thus if the enemy is rested you can tire him; if he is well fed you can make him hungry; if he is at rest you can move him. Go forth to position to which he must race. Race forth where he does not expect it.” (Sawyer 1993 166.) Griffith: “When the enemy is at ease be able to weary him; when well fed to starve him; when at rest to make him move.” (Griffith 1963 96.) Giles: “If the enemy is taking his ease he can harass him; if well supplied with food he can starve him out; if quietly encamped he can force him to move” (Giles 1910 43.)


Sawyer 1993141.


Dreyer 200237.


McGregor 2011.


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