History Snippets: China

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

In the world time frame around 500BC, early Greeks were not quite aware of it yet, but their civilization was about to confront a vast military struggle for the survival of a culture we today regard as “the western world”. They were only partially successful, because they always regarded conflict as having only a purely military solution.

Another part of the world was also beginning a massive territorial reshaping of its own, a struggle that would come in several waves, like Europe’s, of over two thousand years’ duration. In each world, that struggle would tear lives of the common people apart, and put them back together in ways pleasing to the ebb and flow of the ruling powers.

That land was China.

If equal attention were given to the written history of Asia and the Western World, China’s volume alone would dwarf all of the volumes for western Europe. China is the world’s longest continuous civilization.

We today need to remember than, to the early Greeks, the Persian territory of the great Darius was “the east”. As I recall, when I looked in the index of my translation of Herodotus, there was not even a listing for “China.” It was known that there was a mysterious land we call India. Of that other world beyond India, beyond the undiscovered Pacific, the vast lands of China, Japan and Southeast Asia were unknown.

China’s fractious regions in that old era were about the size of all of Persia, yet only a quarter of China’s eventual size. China’s warlords were just commencing thousands of years of change with a bloody 250 year upheaval known as their “Warring States Period”.

What is remarkable is that each region was embarking on its own remarkable struggle, unaware the other was also beginning the same perilous journey into death and servitude. Neither world was capable of learning from the experience of others, nor willing, if capable. When limited contact between the two worlds eventually became possible, each side viewed the other (with some justification) with the suspicion due hostile, backward barbarians.

How vain, insecure and disinterested in discovery our cultures can be, bristling with all the paranoid suspicion of isolated bucolics when somebody new comes visiting! They are going to take away our Dear Leaders, and deprive us of the degree of impoverished servitude to which we’ve become accustomed!

There is an instructive listing in Wikipedia for China. Of interest is not only the encyclopedia entry for this culture, but the time span covered in the sections labeled “prehistory” and “dynastic rule”. This civilization boasts some 6,000 years of written history.  Geography dictates that the great early hominid land migrations out of Africa reached  the Middle East and perhaps Europe before Asia,   but nonetheless:

“archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest hominids in China date from 250,000 to 2.24 million years ago.” [Wikipedia]

In China lived a great general who had learned how to tame and subdue opposing armies both great and small. His name, Sun Tzu, is remembered today mainly by the same people who study Spartan military tactics. If the Spartans could have read Sun Tzu to improve upon their brave but suicidal military tactics, and embraced all the good in the Athenian philosophy at the same time, perhaps they could have ruled the world.

Sun Tzu wrote a long outline of principles of military conduct and governance. It is called The Art of War. I will quote only a very few passages to show why the Spartan strategy could only defend against greater ranks of Persians when (1) the friendly forces are vastly superior in morale, training and supply, or (2) the enemy forces are vastly inferior in the same respects.

Today, it turns out that our own culture has run the good ideas of Sun Tzu into the ground. Not only can we find volumes on the art of modern warfare, but on business strategy, poker (the card game), and Facebook (the web site) – all in Sun Tzu’s name.

Traditional representation of the Chinese Dragon figure. Credit: earthstarshop, UK.

Traditional representation of the Chinese Dragon figure. Credit: earthstarshop, UK.


1. Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:

(1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

(2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

(3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

(4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

(5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

It would seem there are still lessons to be learned from Sun Tzu.

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