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The Military Canon

The term “canon” is not really appropriate here, since this group of texts is not like the other canons treated here. However, these texts are typically grouped together, and it is useful to mention them.

In about 1080 AD, during the reign of Emperor Shénzōng 神宗 of the Sòng dynasty (reign 15b-6, 1067-1085), seven texts on warfare were designated as “The Seven Military Classics” (Wŭjīng Qīshū 武经七书) and mastery of them was made compulsory for promotion in the military service examination system (parallel to the civil service system).

In contrast to China’s religious canons, these works are manageably small, relatively easily understood, and widely available. All seven have been translated into English at least once, although not always with exactly the same titles.

For an English translation of all seven works, see Ralph D. Sawyer 2007 The Seven Military Classics Of Ancient China New York: Basic Books. (ISBN: 0-46500-3044.) The titles used in the present list are those used in a pretty boxed set by various translators released in 2020 by Arcturus Publishing of London (details).

  1. The Art of War (Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ 孙子兵法)
    Arcturus edition: tr. by Lionel GILES; intro. by Nigel CAWTHORNE

    This is far and away the most famous of the seven, as well as the longest text, reprinted so often that English renderings are available even in airport news stands. It is attributed to SŪN Wǔ 孙武 (544±-496± BC), who lived in the Springs & Autumns Period (period 04d).

    An introduction and the text in English and Chinese are available on this web site, in full and abridged versions (link).
  2. Wú Zǐ (Wúzǐ Bīngfǎ 吴子兵法)
    Arcturus edition: tr. by George FLEMING; intro. by Justin WINSLETT

    This work is attributed to Sūnzǐ’s near contemporary, WÚ Qǐ 吴起, famed for killing his wife to avoid a conflict of interest when their home states were at war with each other. For more about him click here.

    Some scholars believe that Wú Qǐ authored two military treatises, “Master Wú’s Six Chapters” (Wúzǐ Liù Piān 吴子六篇), now lost, and “Master Wú’s Art of War” Wúzǐ Bīngfǎ 吴子兵法), the present work. Earliest extant copies of this work date from the Sòng period (period 15), over a thousand years later, and it is reasonable to be suspicious of them.
  3. Tàigōng’s Six Secret Teachings (Tàigōng Liùtāo 太公六韬 = Liùtāo 六韬 = Sùshū 素书 = Tàigōng Bīngfǎ 太公兵法)
    Arcturus edition: tr. by Anjie Cai ANDERSON; intro. by Justin WINSLETT

    This work is traditionally attributed to the fabled military genius JIĀNG Zǐyá 姜子牙, (aka Tàigōng 太公), adviser to the rebel King Wén 文王, the father of of Zhōu dynasty founder King Wǔ 武王 (reign 4a1) about 1100 BC.

    Modern scholarship suggests the text was probably composed during the tumultuous Warring States Period (period 4e) at the end of that long dynasty.

    Jiāng features prominently in the popular novel “Romance of Canonizations,” summarized on this web site (link).
  4. The Methods of the Sīmǎ (Sīmǎ Fǎ 司马法)
    Arcturus edition: tr. by Stefan HARVEY; intro. by Justin WINSLETT

    Although Sīmǎ can be a surname, it is here a military title for the director of cavalry, and the title of the book is sometimes translated “The Marshal’s Art of War.”

    The author is unknown. The work seems to have been composed sometime in the 300s BC in the state of Qí . Only five chapters remain of a possible 155 in the original, which seems to have been a compilation from many sources.
  5. Three Strategies of Huáng Shígōng (Huángshí Gōng Sānluè 黄石公三略 (= Sān Luè 三略)
    Arcturus edition: tr. by Stefan HARVEY; intro. by Justin WINSLETT

    HUÁNG Shígōng 黄石公 would make a nice name, but in this case it translates as “The Duke of Yellow Rock” and was traditionally taken as the title of one JĀNG Láng 张良, a martial artist associated with an attempted assassination of the first emperor of Qín (Qín Shǐ Huángdì 秦始皇帝, reign 5a-1) and the eventual establishment of the Hàn dynasty (period 6) when the oppressive second emperor of Qín was finally overthrown in 206 BC. (Interestingly, this makes it a book of advice to rebel soldiers, not to government ones.)
  6. Wèi Liáozǐ 尉缭子
    Arcturus edition: tr. by Stefan HARVEY; intro. by Justin WINSLETT <

    This work was possibly written during the Warring States Period (04e) by the man whose name it bears, who may have been an adviser to the First Emperor of Qín (Qín Shǐ Huángdì, reign 5a-1)
  7. Questions and Replies Between Eemperor Tàizōng of Táng and General Lǐ Jìng (Táng Tàizōng Lǐ Wèigōng Wènduì 唐太宗李卫公问对 = Lǐ Wèigōng Wènduì 李卫公问对 = Lǐ Jìng Wènduì 李靖问对。)
    Arcturus edition: tr. by Stefan HARVEY; intro. by Justin WINSLETT

    This text purports to be a conversation between the Táng dynasty Tàizōng 太宗 emperor (reign 12-2, AD 626-649) and General LǏ Jìng 李靖 (571-649), known posthumously as the Duke of Lesser Wèi (Wèi gōng 卫公).

    Although attributed to Lǐ, this was more probably written about 300 years later. It is the latest in the collection of seven, and reflects warfare after the full incorporation of iron weaponry, the abandonment of chariot warfare, and other changes from the earliest texts.

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