A culture at ease with war

2009-10-01Asia Times

BEIJING - When Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes approached Europe in the early 1200s, they were preceded by scary tales of their acts of cruelty as well as the history of the invasion by their possible ancestors - Attila's Huns.

The mighty army of Genghis Khan had superior weapons (the reflex bow, which could shoot an arrow twice as far as a normal bow); sophisticated tactics involving fast horses and advanced logistics that allowed soldiers to move three or four times faster than normal armies. Moreover, they were a fierce and war-hardened people.

Earlier, to stop the Huns with a cross, as Pope Leo I reputedly did on the banks of the Mincio River in northern Italy in the summer of AD 452, shortly before Attila's plunder of Rome, was nothing short of a miracle.

For both the Huns and the Mongols, their military cultures and traditions were very strong, and one could hardly hope to settle disputes with them through discussion and finding common ground. Their main sources of "income" were conquest and pillage.

One of the traditions was that they could be bought off with a ransom high enough to out-value their costs of conflict, according to records of people attacked by the Mongols and the Huns.

With regard to China, it has developed a rich military culture over the centuries.

To explore this, Nicola Di Cosmo edited the book Military Culture in Imperial China (Harvard University Press, (February 16, 2009). He gathered 14 specialists on China's history, divided between them 25 centuries of imperial China, and asked them all the same question: what was the military tradition in that time?

The book dispels the easy notion of any conflict in Chinese culture between wen (culture, literature) and wu (military affairs), in which wen is superior to wu, and as if wu were the last resort of the weak, uncultured mind.

From ancient times, the Chinese had a passion for stratagems and ruses that minimized the full brunt of combat. Nevertheless, war was considered "a matter of life or death for the state" and everybody took it seriously, as Sun Tzu (722-481 BC), the influential author of the book The Art of War, wrote.

In Di Cosmo's book, the final two contributors, Yingcong Dai and Peter Perdue, highlight the military weaknesses that allowed the Qing Empire (1644-1912) to crumble under the combined pressure of domestic rebellions and foreign attacks. Financing the army became cumbersome, corrupt, and strained by a series of costly border wars. Meanwhile, the "privatization" (if we use a modern term) of military provisions and armaments led to the neglect of proper military preparations. This was at the time Western armies, which were organized and well-equipped, started challenging China.

This confirms and adds details to the accepted perception that the war prowess of the Manchu (the ruling elite of the Qing Dynasty) had been gradually watered down after centuries of rule. It was not an issue of corruption of the spirit, it was a very practical matter of military overstretch and poor logistical organization.

Kathleen Ryor presents an alternative view of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Contrary to the traditional idea that Ming China was in the hands of effeminate weaklings and that the Manchu conquerors were a race of warmongering predators, Ming literati made a point of also undergoing military training. They were avid collectors of swords and other weapons, and training in martial arts was necessary to become an official. A Ming official could have been as proficient with the sword as his Japanese samurai counterpart.

Throughout Military Culture in Imperial China, it is clear China did not have the dramatic split between military and literary culture that many have perceived. Nor were the Chinese cowards and coyly averse to war before bellicose foreign - mostly northern - invaders. Rivers of blood have been shed in Chinese history during domestic wars and rebellions, all fought with great proficiency and determination from generals down to foot soldiers.

Reality and ideology played different roles in China's military regimes. As Joanna Waley-Cohen shows, Manchu invaders used their alleged "martiality" as an ideological tool to legitimize their conquest. This was important, as China, subjugated by the Qing foreigners, became a target of even more martial foreigners - Western powers. This created a sense among Chinese and foreigners that China was somehow unfit for war and that it was an easy pushover.

This is not true, and the book proves it without falling into the trap of arguing that China was some kind of warmongering country akin to Genghis Khan's Mongolian raiders.

As China grows economically, politically and militarily, it will become increasingly important to understand China's present military culture, which is rooted in the imperial tradition explored in this book. According to the lessons of ancient Chinese generals, understanding the psychology of the opposing army is the key to the right strategy. (2009-10-01 Asia Times)


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