The Mozi and Just War Theory in Pre-Han Thought

in Journal of Chinese Military History
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The Mozi presents one of history’s earliest discussions of the justification for war. Mozi and his followers held that although unprovoked aggression is always unjustified, defensive war and punitive aggression may sometimes be warranted. However, their criteria of just war are so stringent as to permit only defensive war, rendering offensive, punitive war nearly impossible to justify. The article reviews discussions of just war in the Mozi and other pre-Han texts and discusses how The Annals of Lü Buwei presents a conception of “righteous arms” as an alternative to the Mohist privileging of defensive over offensive war. I argue that, with minor refinements, the Mohist view answers the Annals’ criticisms while underscoring problems concerning the justification of aggression that the Annals overlooks. The article highlights how features of early Chinese justifications for war—most importantly, the analogy between just war and criminal punishment—raise deep problems for the justification of aggression.

The Mozi and Just War Theory in Pre-Han Thought

in Journal of Chinese Military History



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See for example Lin 2002Lewis 2006 Godehart 2008 Van Els 2013B and especially Graff 2010.


Knoblock and Riegel 200027.


Lewis 2006191-92. Lewis suggests that this theory of just arms formed the core of later Chinese views of justified warfare.


Lorge 201310.


Orend 201310-12.


Orend 201315-16.


Lewis 2006187.


Van Norden 2007174.


Van Norden 2007176makes this observation.


This point is emphasized by Wong and Loy 2004354-55. See too Van Els 2013A 84-91.


Yan 1996243-44also Rickett 1985 393. Rickett tentatively suggests a late Warring States date for this text.


Sawyer 1993115 places the Sima Fa in roughly the middle of the fourth century bce.


Lau and Chen 1992“Ren Ben” D1/45/18 also Sawyer 1993 127. Index numbers from Lau and Chen 1992 can be used with the concordance search tool at the Chinese Text Project


Sawyer 1993117-18.


Lau et al. 1995B“Liang Hui Wang shang” 1.5/2/28-1.5/3/2. Index numbers from Lau et al. 1995B can be used with the concordance tool at the Chinese Text Project (


See for example Lau 19792:1 2:3 and 12:19.


Graff 2010204-5.


Stroble 1998174.


Graff 2010202. The phrase “yi bing” also occurs in the Wuzi 吳子 in a list of five types of military forces where it is explained as “prohibiting violence and rescuing from disorder” (Lau and Chen 1992 C1/36/29-30 also Sawyer 1993 208). However the extant Wuzi text may be of later date than the Annals (Sawyer 1993 192). One passage in the Mengzi uses the phrase yi zhan 義戰 to refer to justified warfare in which a sovereign authority punishes a subordinate (“Jin Xin xia” 14.2/73/14) but the text does not elaborate on the concept.


Stroble 1998175.


Graff 2010208 suggests that the Mohists reject the idea of jus in bello quoting a passage that criticizes a Ruist description of humane conduct toward retreating soldiers. However the passage cited (Mozi “Fei Ru xia” 39/21-26) indicates only that morally vicious soldiers targeted by punitive warfare should not be spared. It need not imply that the Mohists reject jus in bello guidelines for humane conduct toward morally worthy opponents or innocent non-combatants.


As Loy 2015244 emphasizes the Mohists’ rhetorical aim of persuading rulers to eliminate military conflict tends to lead them away from detailed discussion of jus in bello.


Wong and Loy 2004347 raise this worry as does Graff 2010 209-10.


Zhang 200519-20 notes the role of shared belief in a universal Christian religious authority in underpinning Western conceptions of just war and stresses the absence of any counterpart belief in the Chinese tradition. However he seems to overlook how the ideal of tianxia—the community of all under heaven—and the concept of Heaven’s mandate might fill a comparable role in grounding claims about the justification for war in Chinese discourse.


Godehardt 200824-26 aptly captures these features of the classical Chinese worldview noting that the early Chinese tradition lacks a distinction between international and domestic conflict both being considered disruptions of social order and that a just war waged by an emperor is more similar to a police action than to a military one. By way of comparison Brekke 2006 119-20 suggests that one explanation for the intense interest in the justification of war in the European tradition and its relative absence in the Hindu tradition is that European thinkers drew a fundamental distinction between violence against external enemies and against internal enemies whereas Hindu thinkers did not. The use of military power against external entities must be justified whereas its use against internal enemies is merely an exercise of legitimate authority within the ruler’s jurisdiction.


Stroble 1998175 underscores these points.


Lau and Chen 1992“Ren Ben” D1/45/18-22 also Sawyer 1993 127.


Graff 2010205.


Lin 200299 sees the Annals’ response to Mohist objections to wars of aggression as hinging on the implicit claim that only through the emergence of a single unifying regime can warfare be brought to an end. He does not consider how critics such as the Mohists might have replied.


Stroble 1998175 and Graff 2010 208 both stress this point.

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