Ancient Chinese Warfare by Ralph Sawyer. The whole review may be read here.
Ralph D. Sawyer, Ancient Chinese Warfare. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Pp. xiv, 554. ISBN 978–
Review by David A. Graff, Kansas State University (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A consultant and independent scholar based in Massachusetts, Ralph Sawyer is best known to both academic historians and a wider public for his path-breaking 1993 translation (with Mei-chün Lee Sawyer) of the Seven Military Classics (Wu jing qi shu);1 although “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” (Sunzi bingfa) had often been translated, several of the less celebrated works in the eleventh-century collection were for the first time made accessible to a non-specialist Western audience.
Sawyer has since published several Chinese military and philosophical texts in translation as well as other books on the Chinese military tradition.2 The latter consist largely of passages translated from traditional Chinese writings, arranged chronologically and interspersed with Sawyer’s commentary; the overall flavor is very similar to the compendia (leishu) produced by Chinese scholars in the Qing dynasty and earlier. The book under review here is rather different; it is the
first of at least two comprehensive volumes on the military history of early China, a work that has been decades in the making.
Ancient Chinese Warfare begins at the beginning, with the archaeological remains from Neolithic times and the early myths and legends that may shed light on their military and political significance. It concludes shortly before the demise of the Shang dynasty in (probably) 1045 BCE.
The Zhou conquest of the Shang and the climactic battle of Muye will figure in Sawyer’s second volume, which will deal with the Zhou dynasty up to ca. 771 BCE.
Although filled with many lesser claims and assertions, this first volume does not argue for any central thesis beyond the obvious one that armed conflict has had a very large role in Chinese history—something misleadingly downplayed by earlier generations of Chinese scholars and Western Sinologists.3 In reaction, Sawyer here addresses almost every conceivable aspect of war, with a level of detail as exhaustive as the extant sources (and the publisher’s bottom line) allow.
To judge by his extensive bibliography and ninety-one pages of notes, Sawyer has collected and digested every relevant book and article in English, Chinese, and, apparently, Japanese, including even obscure, dry-as-dust Chinese excavation reports. The great virtue of this volume is that it makes the refined gist of that material more immediately accessible for both specialists and non-Sinologists. However, every virtue has a concomitant vice. While Ancient Chinese Warfare is
certainly an indispensable reference tool, it is far from a sprightly narrative history to be read cover-to-cover for enjoyment.