Day 6: The T’ai Kung, father of the Chinese Way of War

The Grand Duke (T’ai Kung or Tian Gong) Jiang Ziya (姜子牙) (d. c. 1000 BCE) was the adviser to Duke Wen and King Wu of Zhou in their pivotal campaign to overthrow the Shang Dynasty, where he directed Zhou forces at the Battle of Muye, outside the Shang Capital at Anyang. The ascension of the Zhou over the corrupt and over-decadent Shang court ushered in the second great dynasty of Ancient China, and established the importance precedent of the Divine Mandate, which was to arbitrate in Chinese politics for the next two millennia. The T’ai Kung, was recruited in a semi-mystical encounter by Duke Wen, who sought his counsel in civil matters for administration, and then by Duke Wen’s successor King Wu, who sought his advice for the defeat of the Shang. The T’ai Kung is said to have died long after his 100th birthday while serving in a civil post.

The T’ai Kung is a historical mystery; very little is known about him otherwise except some extempore traditions and the mentions of the Grand Historian, who puts him at the side of King Wu at the destruction of the Shang. He has semi-mystical status and has been in some instances honored as a martial divinity in Chinese traditional religion. His legacy has been established in China by his work on strategy and military tactics, The Six Secret Teachings, one of the canon of Seven Military Classics, and a work whose date and origin remains a matter of fierce debate among Chinese scholars.

The contemporary authorship of the Secret Teachings is in doubt, due to its containing a number of references to modes of warfare as yet to predominate in China, including cavalry. Nevertheless, the T’ai Kung has his many defenders, who are bolstered in their assertions that the work is, at the very least, verifiable antique by discoveries of partial and full manuals in the tombs of statesmen and generals (the teachings within were considered an offensive weapon, and access to them, especially under the Confucians who were repulsed by T’ai Kung’s moral ambiguity, was extremely limited). It is therefore been assumed to have been possibly amended or added to, but many of the historical episodes within it and general assertions of statecraft are believed to descend from the first millennium BCE. He is considered the father of Chinese strategic thought, and has been placed on par in that regard with Confucius (much to the chagrin of Confucian scholars).

The Six Secret Teachings are divided into six books with multiple divisions: The Civil Tao (or Way), the Martial Tao, Dragon Tao, Tiger Tao, Leopard Tao, and the Dog Tao. Within these are found observations on governance, contemporary politics, military organisation, equipment and procurement, tactics, and recruitment and deployment respectively. A massive work, the Six Secret Teachings is filled with tactics and variations that are, much like the work of many strategist generals, very idiosyncratic for time and place.

Yet, the T’ai Kung’s realpolitik has much resonance today with the roles of leaders in the executive, advocating a strong bureaucratic and civil administration with capable men, but also a leader’s common understanding with his subjects, using this understanding when giving reward and administering punishment. Moral propriety is not the T’ai Kung’s concern, thinking that men simply desire pleasure and hate hardship; rather it is setting the discipline that divides order from chaos that is the concern of the ruler:

“In general, in employing rewards, one values credibility; in employing punishments one values certainty. When rewards is certain to be meted out and punishments inevitable wherever the eyes sees and the ears hears, then even where they do not see or hear there is no one who will not be transformed in their secrecy. Since the ruler’s sincerity extends to Heaven and Earth and penetrates to the spirits, how much the more so to men?”

In war, the T’ai Kung is an advocate of total and unrestrained warfare, placing importance, as would many later Chinese strategic thinkers, on deception, ambushes, and explosive exploitation of weak and undefended areas.

“Make an outward display of confusion while actually being well-ordered. Show an appearance of hunger while actually being well-fed. Make an outward display of lacking fighting spirit but rally and maintain the morale high. Have some troops come together, others split up; some assemble, others scatter to create an outward display of indiscipline. Make secret plans, keep you intentions secret. Raise the height of fortifications, and conceal your elite troops for ambush purposes. If the officers are silent, not making any sounds, the enemy will not know our preparations. The we can implement ‘Feign an attack in the east and attack in the west.”

The T’ai Kung’s thinking values the use of the unorthodox, including the use of spies and agents to assassinate and spread debauchery among foreign leaders. He is also very keen to judge men’s moral and psychological state based on their habits, giving specifics as to how to make insight of the resolve of armies, men, and cities to fight and resist. Eliminating friction, weakening the enemy, and seeing his vulnerability, the T’ai Kung suggests nothing short of his complete military overthrow, which his master King Wu neatly accomplished at Muye. That done, the leader then must promote the worthy and punish the wicked, otherwise effecting little in the realm of governance.

While much of it certainly smacks a modern western reader as being the relic of a time and place, the T’ai Kung’s strategy, as the father of much of the Sino-axial world’s military understanding, is something worth reading and reflecting on,  especially as the West prepares to confront a newly-resurgent China in the Pacific (elements of the T’ai Kung’s strategy was visible in the maneuvers of Chinese forces in the Korean War, and in the generalship of Giap in Vietnam). While not as well known as Sun Tze’s Art of War, the Six Secret Teachings is an important strategic work, and one that certainly has lessons for soldiers, statesmen, businessmen, and armchair generals everywhere.

Ralph Sawyer’s Translation (and essential introduction) is necessary for an Anglophone reader: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/leadership-books/post/reading-the-seven-military-classics-of-ancient-china/2011/03/07/AFBfH4GC_blog.html

A version is available online (with Chinese text): http://www.chinese-wiki.com/Tai_Gong_Six_Teachings.

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