The Tao of Deception: a review

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Chinese history – massive, complex, highly varied and fascinating – is alarmingly lacking on bookshelves. Yes, you can find books on Chinese history, but these are either broad sweeping overviews condensed down from larger, more academic works, or they are more of a contemporary society bit along the lines of “understanding modern china” or “why china will rule the world”. The upshot is that history longer and more complex than European history is effectively ignored. Want to learn more about the Han Dynasty, which echoes and has some remarkable parallels to the Roman Empire? Too bad. Interested in the Warring States Period, a time of unrelenting warfare and strategy that makes Machiavelli look like a weepy schoolboy? Too bad.

At least I haven’t found any. And I have been looking.

We desperately need a Robert K. Massie or a John Julius Norwich of Chinese and Japanese history.

I’ll be honest. Ralph Sawyer isn’t Massie or Norwich, not by a long shot. Seeing this book on the shelf, I was very excited. But no, no.

Sawyer is a serious military think tanker, who specialises in China studies. The result is that this book is written for a handful of academics, other think tankers, and a select group of US Army officers tasked with creating the next generations’ War Plan Orange (err Yellow I think in this case).

We have all read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and realised how useless it is for businessmen. We have also realised that we bought it just to have a book entitled “The Art of War” on our bookshelves. This book wades deep into Chinese military classics, with The Art of War in a place of honour. There is a huge corpus of Chinese military thinkers, spanning the centuries and dynasties.

Chinese military thought, influenced by taoism, revolved around the idea of the orthodox and the unorthodox. Roughly, orthodox is when you line up your army, and your enemy lines up his army, then you sound the trumpets, gongs, and drums, and advance into battle. The unorthodox is trickery. It can be an ambush, or a tactical retreat. It can also be complex psychological warfare, spies, assassination and just generally subterfuge.

This is very different than western military tradition. It allows for far more tactical and strategic options. Sawyer is primarily cataloging the written tradition of the unorthodox in Chinese history. This is interesting. But Sawyer rarely offers insightful or contextually enriching commentary. Rather, he tends to sum up what has just been quoted.

Chinese history is chock full of fascinating episodes and eras, and yet Sawyer largely fails to, well, dramatise it. He fails to make it come alive. He strictly avoids any understanding of Taoist philosophy, and rather favours a very clunky and academic recounting of historical sources.

I struggled with Chinese names. I struggled with contexts and finding the narrative. But most of all, I raged with a lack of background information. Only the bare minimum of contextual information was included. There was a general lack of insight and depth to this book.

Lastly, Sawyer concludes with a chapter on the modern PRC army and their theoretical mindset. I found it to be pretty paranoid. Cold Warrior mentality oozing out of the woodwork here. Basically, Sawyer has extrapolated from the ancient and written Chinese military classics and has decided that modern day China is now, currently, actively implementing all of their unorthodox tactics on the United States right now, with the ultimate aim of world domination. I get that China wants to be a world player, maybe even a hegemony. They are not bent on a war with the US after they have weakened us through trickery and subterfuge.

Even my saying that he has a “cold warrior mentality” as part of China’s devious plans. Basically, anyone who says “let’s give peace a chance” is a traitor or at least a pawn in China’s plan for world domination.

He does have a point. Taoist philosophy and war theory would indicate that the way to weaken a more powerful opponent (the United States) is to “make it grow” that is, to make it over-extend and be stretched thin. We are doing a good job of doing that to ourselves right now.

Sawyer’s neoconservative mindset is not just stupid, narrow and wrong, it’s a part of the problem, not the solution. We can’t let the hawks in China and in the United States goad us into a cold war with each other. It would be totally pointless and mutually self defeating. Do not let alarmists get control on this topic.

Still looking for good Chinese history….

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