Taoism & Confucianism in Chinese Warfare

The ancient philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism have been critical to the development of Chinese warfare and strategic thought, all the way from Sun Tzu to modern times.

Sep 29, 2021By Andria Pressel, MLitt in Strategic Studies w/ Military History Concentration
sun tzu taoism confucianism chinese warfare
Painting of Sun Tzu with Chinese officials, by Ouyang Jie


Taoism and Confucianism form two of the three pillars of Chinese thought. These philosophies infused not only China’s religious and cultural spheres but also its military tradition. From the beginning of Chinese strategy in the military treatises of the Seven Military Classics, Taoist and Confucian thought pervades both the underlying principles as well as the application of Chinese warfare. We can particularly see this influence in China’s most prominent strategist and military thinker, Sun Tzu, as well as in modern Chinese warfare.


What Is Taoism?

yin yang symbol taoism
Ying-Yang symbol, via The Costa Rica News


Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy centered around the idea of harmony and balance. The famous symbol of yin-yang derives from the Taoist belief that everything in the world is balanced and interconnected, guided by an underlying energy known as ch’i. To live in a state of harmony with the universe is to be aligned with “the Tao,” or, “the Way.”


This view of harmony creates a fascinating result in Taoist dialectics. Dialectics is a field of philosophy concerned with resolving real or apparent contradictions within facts or ideas. But unlike Western dialectics, which weigh contradictions while on the journey to discern an ultimately non-contradictory truth (e.g. Aristotle’s law of Non-Contradiction), Taoist dialectics reject hard definitions and certainty by balancing contradiction with complementarity. Opposition can exist yet still be in harmony because the opposites are relational, not absolutes. Yin and Yang exemplify this by being opposites that complement each other harmonically. Indeed, their existence hinges on their relationship with each other.


While Taoism became popular in China as early as the 8th century BC, the main text known as the Tao Te Ching, authored by Lao Tzu, wasn’t written for several more centuries. China’s historical relationship with Taoism is an interesting one. Chinese elites often scorned the philosophy. However, the ordinary peoples and the more radical intelligentsia widely embraced it, essentially making Taoism a type of folk philosophy. However, its impact on China, and, indeed, Chinese warfare, is profound and must not be underestimated.


What Is Confucianism?

confucius shangai temple confucianism statue
Statue of Confucius at the Confucian Temple of Shanghai, via The College Post

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Confucianism has been a guiding philosophy in China for over 2,500 years, ever since Confucius (551-479 BC) established its foundation in The Analects. Like Taoism, Confucianism is concerned with harmony. But, that is where much of the comparison ends. Confucianism seeks harmony through ethics and proper social behavior, believing that if everyone knows their place within the social hierarchy and behaves accordingly, then all will live in harmony. Thus, Confucianism focuses first and foremost upon the individual’s moral character, especially virtuous behaviors that will help them exist well in society. Respect, altruism, humility, and filial piety (devotion to family) create a harmonic society.


Where Taoism functioned primarily as the philosophy of the people, Confucianism was adopted as the philosophy of the state. Emperor Wu Du (r. 141-87 BC) established Confucianism as the official state ideology during the Han Dynasty, making Confucianism the key ideology underlying Chinese ethics, education, and politics.


Because of their distinct class and ideological differences, Confucianism and Taoism often clashed in political views. For example, Confucianism upheld rationalism and humanism while Taoism preferred mysticism and naturalism. Moreover, as the state philosophy, Confucianism supported order, social control, and state bureaucracy, whereas Taoism was the philosophy of the peasants and rebels. The dissonance between these two philosophies had an immense impact on Chinese history, and their inextricable interconnections can also be starkly seen in Chinese warfare.


Confucianism and China’s Seven Military Classics

warring states period map
Map depicting the beginning of the Warring States period, via War on the Rocks


The Warring States period (475-221 BC) provided the context for the beginnings of Chinese strategy; namely, China’s Seven Military Classics. These treatises arose in response to the period’s dramatic increase in the size of armies, number of casualties, and sophistication of warfare technology. Though authorship is uncertain for a number of the classics, their impact on Chinese strategic thought was so profound that the Song Dynasty later compiled and dubbed them the Seven Military Classics. The most famous of these treatises is Sun Tzu’s Art of War.


Though, of course, each classic is unique in its exact scope and theory, as a body, they agree that war is not to be undertaken lightly and, in fact, should be avoided in favor of nonviolent means. This traditional nonviolent element of Chinese strategy aligns with Confucianism’s doctrine of the “Mean.” The Mean constitutes the middle path between two extremes; in this case, hard power and inaction. This type of “soft power,” which constitutes nonviolent forms of resolving conflict, progresses China’s interests while maintaining equilibrium and conserving resources. Additionally, Confucianism regards an emperor who is forced into military action as one whose virtue is in question alongside the disharmony of international relations. Though this certainly does not completely disavow aggressive military action, it does provide further incentive for defensive or nonviolent wars. Complementary to this is Taoism’s lack of rigid distinctions. Taoism sees no meaningful conceptual difference between violent means and nonviolent warfare.


ralph sawyer seven military classics china book
Modern compilation of China’s Seven Military Classics by Ralph D. Sawyer, via The Washington Post


Chinese warfare also emulates Confucianism’s belief in engaging only in just warfare. War is considered just if it is between two rulers, the last resort, reasonable retaliation, or a revolution designed to remove an incompetent government. This may well be a combination of Confucianism’s focus on ethical behavior and a desire to minimize costly, violent conflicts. Regardless, Chinese strategists had to reconcile the condemnation of war as a political instrument with the reality that war is not always avoidable. The classics accepted the fundamental assumption of just war. From there, they structured their treatises around the question of how a just war should be waged. As such, a fundamental principle addressed by each classic is the importance of decisive action, when and where it is required. In fact, though Chinese warfare is well known for its preference of nonviolent, indirect strategies, scholars like Alastair Iain Johnston iterate that it by no means translates to pacifism. As can be seen in the Seven Military Classics, Chinese strategy discusses the aggressive application of violence at length.


Taoism and Sun Tzu

sun tzu painting
Sun Tzu, via The New Statesman


If Confucianism’s significance is mainly seen in the general principles behind Chinese warfare, Taoism can especially be identified in the development of Chinese stratagems. A key example is sheer adaptability and flexibility to change. Taoism’s focus on nature makes it particularly receptive to terrain and seasonal factors, as well as the dynamic ch’i energy connecting allies and adversaries alike. Specific examples of Taoism’s influence can be seen in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.


Sun Tzu offers a practical approach to warfare and strategy. His strategic theory can be summarized as rejecting brute force in favor of techniques that minimize cost. He encourages generals to outwit the opponent and foresee his actions, widely utilize deception to upset asymmetrical balances of power, embody form and formlessness, and to use force swiftly and decisively when victory is guaranteed.


Taoist dialectics provide the philosophical framework behind a number of Sun Tzu’s principles. For example, both emphasize balance. The Taoist ideas of balancing contradictions and harmonizing with the universe allow the general’s flexibility in adapting to his environment. It takes a master of balance to know exactly how to create imbalances. As Sun Tzu advises in disrupting the enemy: “If they are rested, force them to exert themselves. If they are united, cause them to be separated. Attack where they are unprepared. Go forth where they will not expect it.” Indeed, the qualities possessed by a masterful general are very complementary to those possessed by a master Taoist.


sun tzu taoism quote
Sun Tzu quote on a billboard, via South China Morning Post


Other Taoist principles reflected in Sun Tzu are indirectness, secrecy, and paradox. Together, they form the backbone of his “Tao of deception,” which he describes as the basis of all warfare. Deception not only can upset asymmetrical balances of power, but can do so indirectly and in secrecy. This requires a commander to embody “form and formlessness.” The name itself is reminiscent of Taoism’s yin and yang. Form and formlessness refers to knowing the enemy while remaining hidden, or formless, oneself. These dialectics provide the keystone for Sun Tzu’s approach to strategy, and frees up a commander to personify fluidity in perfect action and reaction to the dynamic flow of change in real time.


Modern Chinese Warfare

ouyang jie chinese officials photograph
Chinese officials, by Ouyang Jie, via The Dispatch


For the purposes of this article, we will focus specifically on Taoism and Confucianism in modern China’s “Three Warfares,” which were endorsed by China’s Central Military Commission in 2003. The three types are psychological warfare, legal warfare, and media warfare. These constitute three nonviolent indirect strategies, each focused on creating asymmetrical balances of power in China’s favor.


Psychological warfare disrupts the enemy’s ability to resist by attacking his confidence, will to fight, or behavior. This may be done by creating self-doubt through deceptive narratives, altering and coercing an opponent’s implicit views, or fracturing enemy alliances. Psychological warfare is clearly tied to Sun Tzu’s Tao of deception as well as Taoism’s mastery of balances and imbalances. In this type of warfare, the conflict is not fought over the battlefield but instead over the “hearts and minds” of the combatants. Psychological warfare is especially potent when backed up by media and legal warfare, as when China responded to the Philippines’ 2012 investigation of its fishing boats in Scarborough Shoal by dispatching hundreds of ships, labeling the Philippine response as “radical,” and banning all imports of Philippine bananas on the premise that they contained pests.


Legal warfare uses domestic law to influence or upset international law as a substitute for military action. For example, manipulating borders, finding legal loopholes, or raising questions of sovereignty. Legal warfare also may seek to change the law in order to establish legal justification for certain actions. This type of warfare derives at least partially from Confucianism’s view of sovereignty. According to Confucius, a successful state can’t coexist while sharing power with another. Divided power creates instability. Legal warfare can also paint a country as a victim who is justified in conducting operations against its oppressors. An example of legal warfare is China’s 2012 passports that were printed with a map of China asserting ownership of territories claimed by other Asian nations.


chinese disputed passport
Chinese passport with the disputed territories, via The Wall Street Journal


Media warfare shapes public opinion. It’s a subset of the broader information warfare, which seeks to control the flow of information to enhance one’s own position while degrading one’s opponents. Media warfare targets certain audiences with certain information, often a form of propaganda. It swiftly counteracts or censors any negative view of China, fosters nationalism, and de-legitimizes other sources of information. China’s expansive media networks exemplify Confucianism’s concept of soft power via a masterful usage of Taoism’s form and formlessness technique. Its international information-collecting databases combined with its “Great Firewall” of domestic censorship is a great example of this. Media warfare also perfectly aligns with Confucianism’s goal for the state to use culture as a means of extending influence and power across its borders. Certainly, China utilizes the Confucian image of a harmonious, ethical society to justify its goals. For an example of media warfare, consider China’s internet army of fake accounts amplifying pro-Chinese content on social media like Twitter and Facebook.


Taoism and Confucianism’s Legacy in Chinese Warfare

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The world’s tallest Confucius statue in Qufu, China, via South China Morning Post


While this article merely scratches the surface of Taoism and Confucianism’s influence on Chinese warfare, their significance is undeniable. Together, they interweave an ideological tapestry that is immensely complex and dynamic, strongly inspiring Sun Tzu’s unparalleled work on Chinese strategy along with the rest of Chinese military tradition. Today, we should not only strive to understand China’s strategic history but also the philosophies that formed it.

Author Image

By Andria PresselMLitt in Strategic Studies w/ Military History ConcentrationAndria has an MLitt in Strategic Studies from the University of St. Andrews. Her research specializes in military history, but she loves anything related to the past, especially ancient, medieval, and religious history. She is also enthusiastic about philosophy, psychology, and international relations. When not writing, she may be found backpacking or wandering through the local bookstore.