An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Liutao 六韜

Feb 10, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Liutao 六韜 "Six Secret [Teachings]" is a military classic traditionally attributed to Taigong 太公 "Grand Duke" Jiang Shang 姜尚 (also known under the names Lü Shang 呂尚, Jiang Wang 姜望, or Jiang Ziya 姜子牙), the ancestor of the first dynasty of the regional state of Qi 齊. He was very famous for his military expertise, and quite a few military thinkers and generals hailed from this state.

From the language and from military matters it can easily be seen that the book was not compiled during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), but much later. For instance, separate cavalry units (qibing 騎兵), which were unknown in the early Zhou period, play an important role in tactical matters. The discussion of dominance and some ritual usages shows that the compilation took place during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE).

The title of the book is derived from the titles of its six chapters. The book is written in the shape of a questions and answers, the putative discussants between Taigong and his sovereign King Wen 周文王 and King Wu of Zhou 周武王 (ca. 1050 BCE).

The book was already quite widespread during the 4th century. It is mentioned in the Zhuangzi 莊子 with the title Liutao 六弢 (弢 is actually a bow case). The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 list the book Liutao with no less than 237 chapters. Quite interestingly, the section on Confucian texts (Rujia 儒家) lists a book Zhou shi liutao 周史六弢 "Six Cases of the Scribe of Zhou" with six chapters, and provides the information that it was compiled during the reigns of King Hui 周惠王 (r. 677-652), Xiang 周襄王 (r. 652-619) or Xian 周顯王 (r. 369-320) of the Zhou dynasty, and that, according to one interpretation, it included questions by Confucius (Kongzi wen yan 孔子問焉). The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Yan Shigu 顏師古 (581–645) believes that this was the transmitted Liutao text which spoke about how to conquer world and of military matters (gai yan qu tianxia ji junlü zhi shi 蓋言取天下及軍旅之事).

The bibliographic chapter Jingji zhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 lists the book Taigong Liutao 太公六韜 in the section of military treatises.

The Song-period 宋 (960-1279) scholar Ye Shi 葉適 (1150-1223), author of the critical book Xuexi jiyan 學習記言, regarded the Liutao as a forged text (weishu 偽書), a statement reconfirmed by linguistic analysis by Ming- 明 (1368-1644) and Qing- 清 (1644-1911) period scholars. The word jiangjun 將軍 "general", for instance, was totally unknown in the Western Zhou. Yet the time of compilation was heavily debated over. Luo Bi 羅泌 (1131-1189) and Cui Shu 崔述 (1740-1816) identifed it as text compiled about 200 BCE, while Hu Yinglin 胡應麟 (1551-1602) even believed it was a product of the 3rd or 4th century CE.

Tan Xian 譚獻 (1832-1901) stressed that although the Liutao was not a Western-Zhou period book it was nevertheless one of the most important military classics. Sun Tongyuan 孫同元 and Wang Renjun 王仁俊 (1866-1913) collected fragments from the Liutao quoted in other books like the Tang-period encyclopaedias Qunshu zhiyao 群書治要 and Tongdian 通典, and published the fragment collection Liutao yiwen 六韜逸文.

In 1972, bamboo slips from the early Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) were unearthed in Yinqueshan 銀雀山 near Linyi 臨沂, Shangong. The tomb library included fragments of the Liutao. It might be that the Liutao was not written by a single author but originated from the hands of many persons over a long period of time. The content of the Linyi texts is largely identical to the received version. The time of compilation ranges between the late 4th and the early 2nd century BCE. Fragments of the Liutao were also discovered in Dunhuang 敦煌.

During the Song period, the Liutao was included into the canon of the Seven Military Classics (Wujing qishu 武經七書). From that time on, it consisted of 60 chapters unevenly distributed over six parts.

Even if many scholars of the past criticized the Liutao for its base language, many paragraphs are very close to such found in the eminent military classics Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法, Wuzi 吳子 or Weiliaozi 尉繚子. It was a widespread and popular strategy book used by Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234), Sun Quan 孫權 (r. 229–252), and the Tang-period general Li Jing 李靖 (571-649).

The first two chapters, Wentao 文韜 and Wutao 武韜, deal mainly with political strategy and are based on Confucian, Daoist, legalist and strategist thinking. Benevolent government (ai min 愛民) and the Confucian virtues of humanity (ren 仁), virtuous effect (de 德), righteousness (yi 義), austerity, loyalty (zhong 忠), trust (xin 信), uprightness, and the Way (dao 道)—for a general also courage (yong 勇) and planning (mou 謀)—combined with wise economic policy would lay the fundament upon which a ruler could built up a strong army and conquer the world.

Appointment of officials and ministers was based on competence and worthiness (xian 賢), and the concordance of fact and designation (shi dang qi ming, ming dang qi shi 實當其名,名當其實)—preconditions stressed by the Confucians as well as by Mozi 墨子. The handles of punishment and rewards, a concept of legalism, would discipline and motivate people and soldiers. The wisest general would achieve victory without fights (quan sheng bu dou 全勝不鬬). In this way, even the chapter on warfare (Wutao) stresses that diplomacy or "virtuous effect" would was the solution to become the sovereign of the world.

Quotation 1. Modes of governance and warfare
利天下者,天下啟之;害天下者,天下閉之;生天下者,天下德之;殺天下者,天下賊之;徹天下者,天下通之;窮天下者,天下仇之;安天下者,天下恃之;危天下者,天下災之。 If you profit the world, the world will be open to you. If you harm the world, the world will be closed to you. If you give life to the world, the world will regard you as virtuous. If you kill the world, the world will regard you as a brigand. If you penetrate to the world, the world will be accessible to you. If you impoverish the world, the world will regard you as an enemy. If you give peace to the world, the world will rely on you. If you endanger the world, the world will view you as a disaster.
Translation according to Sawyer 1993: 54, 58.

The influence of diplomatists (zonghengjia 縱橫家) can be seen in the suggestions on "civil offensives" (wenfa 文伐). Such were, for instance, accommodating the wishes of the enemy to make him arrogant, depriving his court of loyal ministers, covertly bribing his assistants, assist the enemy in licentiousness and indulgence in pleasures, giving ministers greater presents than their ruler, make alliances with his ministers, praising the inimical ruler, being submissive towards him, and so on. Such civilian methods can become a military weapon.

The military power of an army was lying in unity (fan bing zhi dao, mo guo yu yi 凡兵之道,莫過於一) because "unification approaches the Way and touches on the spiritual" (jie yu dao, ji yu shen 階於道,幾於神). In such statements, the influence of Daoism can be seen. The impact of Yin-Yang thinking can be seen in suggestions to wait until the general situation changes (bian 變) and brings favourable conditions.

The four other chapters, the secret teachings of the dragon, the tiger, the leopard, and the dog, deal with military matters (organization, equipment, tactics, and component forces). They describe troop formations, equipment, command and tactics, personal abilities of commanders and common troops, training, transmission of orders and messages, logistics, and special tactics depending on circumstances.

Various types of warfare are described in detail, like siege war, war of defense and attack, pursuit of inimical troops, battle in mountains, in forest, in swamps, at night, chariot attack, cavalry and infantry attack, and the war with fire.

The Dragon Secret (Longtao 龍韜) speaks on the selection of courageous, wise, kind, trustworthy, and loyal generals. A novelty in comparison with other military texts is the request that a general was aided by 72 "legs and arms, feathers and wings" (guhong yuyi 股肱羽翼), which is in fact nothing else than a general staff in which each had one's distinct duty.

Table 1. The general staff as described in the Liutao 六韜
腹心 fuxin "belly and heart" (planning chief)
謀士 moushi planning officers
天文人 tianwen ren astronomers-astrologers
地利人 dili ren topographers-geomancers
兵法人 bingfa ren strategists
通糧人 tongliang ren supply officers
奮威人 fenwei ren "officers of flourishing awesomeness" (responsible for officer recruitment, weapons, and flash attacks)
伏鼓旗人 fu guqi ren secret signal officers
股肱人 guhong ren "legs and arms" (pioneers)
通材人 tongcai ren liaison officers
權士 quanshi "officers of authority" (responsible for unorthodox tactics, i.e. cavalry)
耳目人 ermu ren "ears and eyes" (intelligence officers)
爪牙人 zhuaya ren "claws and teeth" (responsible for encouragement)
羽翼人 yuyi ren "feathers and wings" (propaganda officers)
遊士 youshi "roving officers" (responsible for spies and agents)
術士 shushi officers of spiritual techniques (magicians)
方士 fangshi officers of prescriptions (physicians)
法筭人 fasuan ren accountant officers

The chapter also elucidates the way of communication between the general and the sovereign, mainly through secret tallies (yinfu 陰符) and secret letters (yinshu 陰書), and describes the tactics of unorthodox units (qibing 奇兵), i.e. cavalry. It also speaks about the "five notes" (wuyin 五音) and agricultural implements (nongqi 農器) which once more proves the syncretist character of the book.

The chapter of the Tiger Secrets (Hutao 虎韜) speaks, among other issues, of military units and their weapons, tactics in uncultivated terrain (yezhan 野戰), city defence, and spies. The first part is thoroughly unique in providing details on the equipment of late Warring States armies (unfortunately the passage seems partially lost).

A corps of 10,000 soldiers protected with corselets (jiashi 甲士) consisted of 6,000 strong crossbows (qiangnu 強弩), 2,000 halberdiers with shields (jidun 戟楯), and 2,000 spearmen with shields (maodun 矛楯), and was supported by 300 artisans (qiaoshou 巧手) to sharpen blades and repair weapons.

The corps included 36 large martial-protective chariots (wuwei da fuxu 武衛大扶胥, fuxu probably means a chariot armed with protruding spears) with a team of 24, consisting of skilled officers (caishi 材士), strong crossbowmen (qiangnu 強弩), spear bearers, and halberdiers (mao-ji 矛戟), the common troops accompanying the chariot in two wings. The chariot was carrying banners and drums.

72 large martial-flanking covered chariots bearing spears and halberds (wuyi da lu mao ji fuxu 武翼大櫓矛戟扶胥). Their teams (size?) were equipped with winch-powered linked crossbows firing multiple arrows for self-protection (jiaoche liannu zifu 絞車連弩自副) and were used to penetrate solid formations of the enemy. 140 small flank-supporting covered chariots (tiyi xiao lu fuxu 提翼小櫓扶胥) had similar arbalest support and function in battle. 36 great yellow triple-linked crossbow chariots (da huangcan liannu da fuxu 大黃參連弩大扶胥) were accompanied by teams with special arrows called "flying duck" (feifu 飛鳧) and "lightning shadow" (dianying 電影). Such units penetrated solid formations and destroyed infantry and cavalry.

36 great attack chariots (da fuxu chongche 大扶胥衝車) carried "praying mantis martial warriors" (tanglang wushi 螳蜋武士) and were flexible enough to attack horizontal and vertical formations.

So-called "baggage chariots" (ziche 輜車?) or "lightning chariots" (dianche 電車) repelled cavalry. 36 light spear-and-halberd chariots (mao-ji fuxu qingche 矛戟扶胥輕車) were used for the same purpose during the night.

For defense, chariots with "wooden praying mantis" and sword blades (mu tanglang jianran fuxu 木螳蜋劍刃扶胥) were used. They could even be used by infantry units to ward off chariots and cavalry. Another type of defensive chariot was equipped with "tiger-drop" and sword blades (huluo jianren fuxu 虎落劍刃扶胥).

Iron truncheons (tiebang 鐵棓), great handle axes (dakefufangshou tiechui 方首鐵鎚) were used against infantry and cavalry.

Flying hooks (feigou 飛鉤) with a length of 8 cun 寸 (see weights and measures) were thrown into masses of soldiers. Wooden, iron and arrowhead caltrops (mu jili 木蒺藜, tie jili 鐵蒺藜, zu jili 鏃蒺藜), as well as ground nets (diluo 地羅), square-shank spears (fangxiong chanmao 方胸鋋矛) and iron chains (tiejie suocanlian 鐵械鎖參連, tianlu suolian 天羅鎖連, huluo suolian 虎落鎖連) were recommended to obstruct chariots, infantry, and cavalry, and therefore belonged to the basic equipment of each corps.

Fortifications were defensible by shields with spears and halberds attached (mao-ji xiaolu 矛戟小櫓), and by winch-driven multiple arrow crossbows.

Pioneers would provide "flying bridges" (feiqiao 飛橋),one segment being 1.5-zhang 丈 wide, to cross moats and ditches. They were linkable to construct whole pontoon bridges. Rivers and lakes were crossed by "flying rivers" (feijiang 飛江), or by "heavenly floats" (tianfu 天浮). Fenced encampments in mountain forests or the wilderness used iron chains and ropes for defence. Heavy carts (zhongche 重車) were protected against rain by wooden canopies. Large axes (dayue 大斧) and mattocks (qijue 棨钁) were used to cut trees. The army also took with them copper rams for pounding (tongzhu 銅築), "eagle claws" (yingzhua 鷹爪), pitchforks (tiecha 鐵叉), sickles (lian 鎌), iron pegs (tieyi 鐵杙), stakes (lu 櫓) and hammers (chui 鎚).

The chapter of the Panther Secret (Baotao 豹韜) speaks on battles in difficult terrain like forest, swamps, mountains, or narrow passes. It provides methods to deal with attacks by daytime and during the night. The last chapter gives advice to the use of chariots, infantry, and cavalry, and how to coordinate them. Most of these instructions are similar to that of other military treatises of the day.

The Liutao is included in the reprint series Xu guyi congshu 續古逸叢書.

There is a complete translation of the Simafa by Ralph D. Sawyer (1993).

Table 2. Chapters of the Liutao 六韜
1. 文韜 Wentao Civil secret teaching (statehood and diplomacy
2. 武韜 Wutao Martial secret teaching (content rather political)
3. 龍韜 Longtao Dragon secret teaching (military organisation)
4. 虎韜 Hutao Tiger secret teaching (military equipment)
5. 豹韜 Baotao Leopard secret teaching (tactical solutions)
6. 犬韜 Quantao Canine secret teaching (component forces chariots, infantry, cavalry)
Chen Enlin 陳恩林 (1994). Zhongguo Chunqiu Zhanguo junshi shi 中國春秋戰國軍事史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe). (Zhongguo quanshi, bai juan ben 中國全史,百卷本).
Sawyer, Ralph D. (1993). The Seven Military Classics in Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview).
Sheng Dongling 盛冬鈴 (1992). "Liutao 六韜", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 616-617.
Zhang Lie 张烈 (1989). "Liutao 六韜", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Junshi 軍事 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 716.