An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Wuzi 吳子

Feb 10, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Wuzi 吳子 "Master Wu" is one of the ancient Chinese military writings. The book is attributed to Wu Qi 吳起, a general of the states of Lu 魯 and Wei 魏 during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). He took part in military campaigns against the state of Qin 秦 and the conquest of the state of Zhongshan 中山. Because of differences with Gongshu Cuo 公叔痤, Wu Qi left Wei and became prime minister (lingyin 令尹) in Chu 楚, where he carried out some administrative reforms under King Dao 楚悼王 (r. 401-381). After the king's passing away a rebellion among the nobility broke out in the course of which Wu Qi was killed. Biographies and anecdotes on the life of Wu Qi are somewhat "romantic, anachronistic, and even dubious" (Sawyer 1993: 196).

During the fourth century BCE, a book allegedly written by Wu Qi was as widespread as the writings of Master Sun, the Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法. During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), the book Wuzi had 48 chapters, but Tang-period 唐 (618-907) catalogues speak of but one juan. The received book is thus a collection of surviving chapters and fragments.

Since the Song period 宋 (960-1279), when the Wuzi was included into the canon of the Seven Military Classics (Wujing qishu 武經七書), the text consisted of six chapters spread over 3 juan, but some editions divide the text into 33 articles.

The book is arranged as a question-and-answer dialogue between the marquesses Wen 魏文侯 (r. 424-387) or Wu 魏武侯 (r. 386-371) of Wei and Master Wu Qi. The questions are not related to each other thematically but follow a divergent path. Some phrases or paragraphs are identical to such found in the military treatise Liutao 六韜. Some modern scholars like Yao Jiheng 姚際恒 (1647-1715) or Guo Moruo 郭莫若 (1892-1978) therefore believed the text was the product of a lager age drawing heavily from Sunzi bingfa, the Quli 曲禮 chapter of the Classic Liji 禮記 or the chapter Binglüe xun 兵略訓 of the Daoist book Huainanzi 淮南子. Other researchers, mainly the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Hu Yinglin 胡應麟 (1551—1602), saw it as a loose collection of military thought compiled under the name of Wu Qi during the Warring States period.

The book Wuzi sees, just as the earlier military treatises Simafa 司馬法 and Sunzi, successful domestic policy as the fundament for a strong military. A ruler had therefore to carry out a benevolent government and to practice the virtue of civility (nei xiu wen de 内修文德). This would strengthen the state because the peasantry, which provided manpower for the infantry units, would pay sufficient taxes to nourish the state and sustain a large standing army (wai xiu wu bei 外修武備). A virtuous way of government would also convince competent ministers and generals to stay and dedicate themselves to the state they served.

Wu Qi's preference for the application of "virtue" in government, express by the right Way (dao 道), propriety (li 禮), righteousness (yi 義), and kindheartedness (ren 仁) might go back to his young, when he was a disciple of the Confucian scholar Zeng Shen 曾參.

Frugality was not just an expression of the ruler's proximity to the people, but also a practical means to lower cost for unnecessary things and to invest them, for instance, into matters of defence. The soldiers of such a state would not harass the population.

Wu Qi explained that there were five reasons for and five types of war: to contend for fame, to contend for profit, from accumulated hatreds, from internal disorder, and from famine. An army was called "righteous" (yibing 義兵) if suppressing the violently perverse and rescuing the people from chaos; "strong" (qiangbing 彊兵) if relying on the strength of the masses; "hard" (gangbing 剛兵) if mobilizing out of anger; "fierce" (baobing 暴兵) if abandoning the forms of propriety and greedily seeking profit; and "contrary" (nibing 逆兵) if embarking on a military campaign and mobilizing the masses while a country is in turmoil and the people exhausted.

For each type of army, Wu Qi recommended a strategical means (dao 道) to fight them: propriety (li 禮) against the "righeous", deference (qian 謙) against the "strong", persuasion (ci 辭) against the "hard", deceit (zha 詐) against the "fierce", and balance of power (quan 權) against a "contrary army".

Regular and disciplined training was of course one precondition for victory. Consistent training in peacetime would succeed in making troops nearly invincible, they would intimidate the enemy, keep to the line in advancing, and not be battered when retreating.

Each unit had to include experienced and brave veterans to stimulate their comrades. Clever and experienced persons would train small groups (yi ren xue zhan, jiao cheng shi ren 一人學戰,教成十人), which would then will join and exercise together in ever-larger units, until the whole army was able to exert successful movements on the battlefield. Companies should be composed of persons from the same village in order to strengthen their comradeship. Tall persons were used in crossbow units, and smaller ones for the files fighting with polearms. A commander had thus to select carefully whom he could apply in the right position.

Commands had to be clarified to avoid misunderstanding. The use and meaning of signals like bells, drums, and flags, was to be learnt: thorough instruction came first (jiao jie wei xian 教戒為先). Rewards and punishments had to be applied justly and only if needed—without lenience and without exaggeration. Unlike the legalists, Wu Qi did not advocate the use of punishments for soldiers performing less well, but urged to have them participate in banquets feasting the heroes, in order to motivate all others.

This method would raise the fighting spirit of the troops. Generals and officers served as paradigms for their subordinates. They had to share with their troops all hardships of warfare, so that soldiers were willing to fight or to sacrifice themselves. A wise general would possess five virtues, namely the abilities to command easily large armies (li 理) and to engage an enemy even if not prepared (bei 備), furthermore defiance of death (guo 果), stamina (jie 戒), and brevity in commands (yue 約).

An excellent general would also be able to cope with four difficult circumstances (si ji 四機), namely rousing the spirits of the troops, the use all types of terrain and various circumstances in the own army and that of the enemy, and to keep or rebuild the strength of the own troops.

Wu Qi warns that war had always to be waged according to circumstances. The natural conditions, population, size and strength of the armies of each one of the Warring States were different, and attacks on each of them had to be planned and carried out in a different way. The book gives advice how to attack the states of Qi 齊, Qin, Chu or Yan 燕. Wu Qi contacted, for instance:

Quotation 1. Military characterists of the regional states according to Wuzi 吳子
夫齊陳重而不堅,秦陳散而自鬬,楚陳整而不久,燕陳守而不走,三晉陳治而不用。 Although Qi's 齊 battle array is dense in number, it is not solid. That of Qin 秦 is dispersed, with the soldiers preferring to fight individually. Chu's 楚 formations have good order, but they cannot long maintain their positions. Yan's 燕 formations are adept at defence, but they are not mobile. The battle arrays of the Three Jin 三晉 (Han 韓, Wei, Zhao 趙) are well controlled, but they prove useless.
夫齊性剛,其國富,君臣驕奢而𥳑於細民,其政寬而祿不均,一陳兩心,前重後輕,故重而不堅。擊此之道,必三分之,獵其左右,脅而從之,其陳可壞。 Now Qi's character is hard; their country is prosperous; the ruler and ministers are arrogant and extravagant and insulting to the common people. The government is expansive, but salaries are inequitable. Each formation is of two minds, with the front being heavy and the rear light. Thus while they are dense, they are not stable. The Way (dao 道) to attack them is to divide then into three, harrying and pursuing the left and right, coercing and following them for then their formations can be destroyed.
Translation by Sawyer 1993: 210.

Sound reconnaissance ("espionage") was the best preparation for war, while inquiring diviners was less helpful. The Wuzi enumerates different cases of tactics. Rapid attack was sometimes be the best method, but was not always recommendable. A good commander was able to apply various fighting techniques, like attacking the infantry body, or the elite troops of the enemy, to engage him in narrow valleys, to fight on water or with water or fire, on rainy days, or to encircle an enemy.

If not knowing the strength and spirit of the enemy, a wise commander would test him in skirmishes, and decide according to the enemy's reaction. A less intelligent opponent would interpret such test skirmishes as full-scale attack. There were certain conditions under which an enemy could be vanquished: when his battle formation was not yet established; just after having taken a meal; after a long march; when crossing a river; when tired and exhausted; when he was in unfavourable terrain; when the signals were in disarray; when the fighting units were on the move; when a general was not with the army, or if the troops were frightened. It can be seen that Wuzi suggested unfair attacks that in earlier ages would have been unthinkable.

The Wuzi is the earliest military treatise mentioning horse breeding, and is thus a witness of the growing importance of cavalry. It also provides a few examples of how to use cavalry during attacks.

In ancient times, the book Wuzi was almost as important for military strategists like the much more famous Sunzi. Both books were often mentioned together as Sun-Wu bingfa 孫吳兵法 "The military strategies of Sun and Wu".

Two ancient commentaries, one by Jia Xu 賈詡 (147-223) and another by Sun Qiao 孫鐈 from the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280), are lost. Shi Zimei's 施子美 Wujing qishu jiangyi 武經七書講義 (also called Shishi Qishu jiangyi 施氏七書講義) from the Jurchen-Jin period 金 (1115-1234) and Liu Yin's 劉寅 Wujing qishu zhijie 武經七書直解 from the late Ming period contain commentaries to the seven military classis, including the Wuzi. The Wuzi is also included in the collectanea Xu guyi congshu 續古逸叢書.

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

Table 1. Chapters of the Wuzi 吳子
1. 圖國 Tuguo Planning for the state
2. 料敵 Liaodi Evaluating the enemy
3. 治兵 Zhibing Controlling the army
4. 論將 Lunjiang About the general
5. 應變 Yingbian Responding to change
6. 勵士 Lishi Stimulating the officers
Li Ling 李零 (1992). "Wuzi 吳子", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 3, 1240. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Li Shuozhi 李碩之, Xiang Lusheng 向麓生 (1989). "Wuzi 吳子", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Junshi 軍事, vol. 2, pp. 1073-1074. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.