An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Weiliaozi 尉繚子

Feb 10, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Weiliaozi 尉繚子 "Master Wei Liao" is a military classic of ancient China. It was compiled during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and is attributed to an author called Wei Liao 尉繚. The Weiliaozi belongs to the canon of the Seven Military Classics (Wujing qishu 武經七書).

The received version of the book has 24 chapters distributed over 5 juan. There are also fragments of four chapters collected by the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) writer Wei Zheng 魏徵 (580-643) which are preserved in his encylcopaedia Qunshu zhiyao 群書治要.

Who the author of the Weiliaozi was, is not clear. The imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 says that Wei Liao gave advice to King Hui 梁惠王 (r. 379-335) of Liang/Wei, which means that the book was a kind of record of an actual audience (Sawyer 1993: 240). Yet seems also plausible that Wei Liao was a student of the legalist master Shang Yang 商鞅 (statement in Liu Xiang's 劉向 catalogue Bielu 別錄), who served the king of Qin 秦.

Traditional Chinese scholars brought forward that the book was a forgery, yet from the textual material and the philosophical concepts (see Zhou philosophy) it can be concluded that the book was written during the 4th century BCE, when Confucianism, Daoism, and legalism were combined in political discourses (Sawyer 1993: 239).

The early history of the text is unclear, as the bibliographic chapter Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 lists two books with the title Weiliaozi, one 29-chapters long text in the section "Miscellaneous writings" (Zajia 雜家), and a 31-chapters long one in the section "Military books on topography" (Bing xingshi 兵形勢). One conclusion is that these might have been two versions of the same text, in which the one laid stress on theory and philosophy, and the other on military matters (Sawyer 1993: 240).

In 1972, the discovery of a Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) tomb library in Yinqueshan 銀雀山 near Linyi 臨沂, Shandong, brought to light fragments of six chapters of the Weiliaozi. The content of these chapters is largely identical of those of the received version and the Qunshu zhiyao version. The size of the book ranges from 24 chapters to 29 or 31 chapters. It might be that some chapters were lost after the Han period, as Liang-period 梁 (502-557) catalogues refer to but one juan of length, the Suishu catalogue to only 5 juan, and Tang-period 唐 (618-907) sources speak of 6 juan.

The book Weiliaozi explains how armies could be forced to discipline and bravery by employing lavish rewards and strict punishments (ni wei zhong xing, ze wai qing di 內畏重刑,則外輕敵). Wei Liao interrelates warfare with politics and economy. The author stresses the importance of the peasantry as a source to fill the ranks and files of the army. Only the government's care for the welfare of its population would yield sufficient funds to wage war. Moreover, troops would be more willing to fight for a benevolent ruler than for a ruthless one.

War in general was a means to punish cruel rulers (zhu bao luan 誅暴亂) and to stop rulers exhibiting improper conduct (jin bu yi 禁不義).

Quotation 1. Confucian virtues as the fundament of a strong state
國必有禮信親愛之義,則可以飢易飽;國必有孝慈廉恥之俗,則可以死易生。 A state must have righteousness of the forms of etiquette, trust, familitarity, and loven, and then it can exchange hunger for surfeit. The state must have the customs of filiality, parental love, honesty, and shame, and then it can exchange death for life.
Translation by Sawyer 1993: 248.

It explains way of operation and strategic planning, as well as the structure of armies and modes of command.

Even if Wei Liao does not totally neglect the influence of Heaven, the cosmological forces Yin and Yang 陰陽, or that of ghosts and spirits, he was convinced that the greatest influence on the outcome of military campaigns were discipline in the army and careful and far-sighting generals. Discipline could not just enforced by constant and regular training, but also by the application of punishments. Alternatively, the spirit (qi 氣) of troops could be roused by having everyone participate in banquets to reward paramount heroes.

A general had first to arrange for reconnaissance before deploying his troops. He had to keep a balance between flexible positions (the wings) and the fixed centre (qi zheng 奇正) in order to take the initiative. When meeting an enemy of unknown strength and condition, skirmishers would have to test the enemy. In defensive war, excursions had to be undertaken, in order to stay active and to hold up the fighting spirit of the troops. The commander had also to make sure that the contact with the besieged army and a relief army was not interrupted. On the march, vanguards had to secure the territory, and the rearguard to safeguard the main body of the army.

Deceit was a critical element for survival. Wei Liao explains the method to pretend not having strength or advantages if having them, and pretending to have them when they were lacking (you zhe wu zhi, wu zhe, you zhi 有者無之,無者有之) with the argument that "the tactical balance of power lies in the extremities of the Way" (zhan quan zaihu dao zhi suo ji 戰權在乎道之所極).

The Weiliaozi is the first text dedicating a longer paragraph to the siege and defence of cities. The author urges that a besieger block all access roads and climb the walls, and that a defender construct fords and bridges, repair strategic barriers, fortify critical points in the city walls, set out iron caltrops (quda 渠答), troops from forts, border guards (shu 戍) and troops abroad (ke 客) brought back to the city, buildings outside broken down, and domestic animals, staple food, and wealth and materials accumulated in the city. Defenders should occupy the outer walls of the cities (guo 郭) and the borderlands (yuting 亭) and barricades (zhang 障).

Quotation 2. Example from Liu Yin's 劉寅 commentary on Weiliaozi 尉繚子
津梁未發,要塞未脩,城險未設,渠答未張,則雖有城,無守矣。遠堡未入,戍客未歸,則雖有人,無人矣。六畜未聚,五穀未收,財用未歛,則雖有資、無資矣。 若敵人開梁未曾開發,要塞之處,城之溝塹樓櫓依倚而為曾施設,渠 答之具,則雖有城,無守備矣。渠答,鐵旗藜也。遠堡之兵未入,戌邊之客未歸,則雖有 人無人矣。六畜在野者,五穀成熟者,財用在外者,則雖有資無資矣。
Original to the left, Liu's commentary on the right. Red-marked characters are added to the original text. Blue characters are a commentary. Liu Yin tried to bring the original text of the Weiliaozi into a more modern (quasi colloquial) form, as can be seen by the addition of grammatical particles like weizeng 未曾 instead of the original wei 未, or in the addition of conjunctions like ruo 若 ("if") or ru 如 ("this is like"). In other places he added some words to better understand the context, for instance, to bring in the cattle "from the fields" (zai ye zhe 在野者) or "ripe" (chengshu zhe 成熟者) grain into the city. His longest addition in this example is a description of how a city moat was to be built to ward off the enemy (with ditch gouqian 溝塹 and watchtower loulu 樓櫓). The word quda 渠答 was apparently not commonly known, so he adds the information that these were iron caltrops (tie qili 鐵旗藜, normally written jili 疾藜). Sawyer 1993: 252 made partially use of this information for his translation.

The general and his engagement had to be a paradigm for officers and common soldiers. A wise leader would share all hardships with his troops. Rewards and punishments had to be applied in a just and clear way. During military exercises a commander had to clarify the unity of the whole corps and to make sure that the aim of all activities was victory. Military commands had to be unmistakable, and the responses to orders to be perfect.

The book also shortly describes how orders were delivered, how the formations built, how generals, officers and the common troops communicated with each other, how camps were erected, and what types of signals were used.

The Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Liu Yin 劉寅 wrote a commentary to the Weiliaozi, called Weiliaozi zhijie 尉繚子直解.

The Weiliaozi is much more practically oriented than the theoretical constructs of the Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法. It therefore attracted much attention by later scholars, like Du Mu 杜牧 (803-852), He Yanxi 何延錫 and Zhang Yu 張預 whose commentaries on the Sunzi frequently quote from Weiliaozi.

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

Table 1. Chapters of the Weiliaozi 尉繚子
1. 天官 Tianguan Heavenly offices
2. 兵談 Bingtan Military discussions
3. 制談 Zhitan Discussion of regulations
4. 戰威 Zhanwei Combat awesomeness
5. 攻權 Gongquan Tactical balance of power in attacks
6. 守權 Shouquan Tactical balance of power in defense
7. 十二陵 Shierling Twelve insults
8. 武議 Wuyi Martial plans
9. 將理 Jiangli The general as a law official
10. 原官 Yuanguan The source of offices
11. 治本 Zhiben Governing the foundation
12. 戰權 Zhanquan Tactical balance for power in warfare
13. 重刑令 Zhongxingling Orders for severe punishments
14. 伍制令 Wuzhiling Orders for the squads of five
15. 分塞令 Fensailing Orders for segmenting and blocking off terrain
16. 束伍令 Shuwuling Orders for binding the squads of five
17. 經卒令 Jingzuling Orders for regulating the troops
18. 勒卒令 Qinzuling Orders for restraining the troops
19. 將令 Jiangling Orders for the general
20. 踵軍令 Zhongjunling Orders for the vanguard
21.-22. 兵教上下 Bingjiao Military instructions 1-2
23.-24. 兵令上下 Bingling Army orders 1-2
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).
Qiu Xigui 裘錫圭 (1992). "Weiliaozi 尉繚子", 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. 3, 1207-1208.
Sawyer, Ralph D. (1993). The Seven Military Classics in Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview).
Xie Guoliang 謝國良 (1989). "Weiliaozi 尉繚子", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Junshi 軍事 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1063-1064.