Mar 6, 2012

China – Some Background, Culture, People and a Brief Philosophy of Strategy



China – Some Background, Culture, People and a Brief Philosophy of Strategy

There has been much misconstrued perception that the people of China are homogenous, the people of China are not homogenous and are in fact one of the most multi ethnicity nation in the world all throughout its history.

Today China has 56 multi ethnic groups officially recorded and in the ancient Chinese almanac “Tung Shu” has listed that there were more than 90 ethnic groups.


These ethnic groups today still maintain their own spoken language and customs, these multi ethnic groups in China are unified by the written language, however some small groups still practice their own writing language. The interesting part about the written Chinese language is that they are read in all the different ethnic spoken dialect generating the same interpretation.

The name China was commonly described during the Qin dynasty of Shih Huang Ti and before that it was recorded in old Chinese texts to be known as “Zhong Quo” or otherwise literally translated known as the Middle Kingdom of which even at present it is still called Zhong Quo.

Right from the recorded Xia dynasty of more than 4000 years around 2100 BC which is also known as the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, China all throughout has been multi-racial with a varied group of racial mix. 

Xia dynasty which is also known as the first dynasty was before Shang dynasty then came Zhou dynasty which ruled for some 800 years making it one of the longest ruling dynasty, this was the time of Jiang ZiYa, the Grand Duke of Zhou or the Father of Strategy, followed by the Spring and Autumn period of Confucius after which came the tumultuous time of the Warring states which is the time of Sun Tzu of the Art of War fame and the warring state period  (475 BC – 221 BC)that came to an end with Shih Huang Ti of the Qin dynasty conquering and unifying all under one rule of the first emperor.

Till today China is one of the most multi ethnic country and as in some common ethnic groups like the Cantonese, Hokkiens and the Hakkas all with their own language and customs and traditions, these common ethnic groups are today found all over South East Asia as well as all throughout the world.

The present China still commonly designate themselves as Northerners or Southerners with their own distinct culture, language and climate, and they still would call each other “Barbarians”. They have very differing culture and customs and even their staple diet is very different, the Southerners are “rice can” as the northerners will tell you and the northerner diet are buns or dumplings and lots of meat. They can be geographically divided by the Yangtze River running through. Beijing and Sichuan is a Northern Province and Guangzhou, Fujian are Southern provinces

Then we have the proud Shanghainese, the ethnic group from Shanghai who do not want to be known as either Northerner or Southerner maybe they are stuck right in the middle coastal section of China, the Shanghainese are quite unique with their own form of spoken language which to me is one of the most unintelligible language ever heard. Shanghai probably today is one of the wealthiest cities in China if not maybe one of the richest city in the modern world.

In order to have some idea of the cultural and customary events one needs some understanding of the Chinese calendar so as to have some idea of the festivities in China like the Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival. The Chinese calendar is in two parts and are read or interpreted together in accordance to a cosmological sphere or from a heavenly viewpoint.

The earliest recorded calendar are from the Xia dynasty more than four thousand years ago and evidence are found in abundance in the Shang dynasty period in the forms of the oracle bones which has inscription of annual events and festivities. The Xia calendar which is also called the agricultural calendar is today still in use and is the solar calendar of the ancient Chinese which is related to the modern Gregorian calendar of the west. The Chinese read their calendar intertwined with the solar calendar and not just the lunar calendar as is commonly perceived.

The so called Chinese New Year is celebrated in accordance with the Lunar New Year which usually falls between January and mid-February of the Gregorian calendar. Then we have the beginning of Spring “Lap Chun” which is in accordance to the solar calendar and usually falls on the 4th of February which signifies the first day of spring. Some of you might remember your grandfather trying to stand an egg on the tabletop on this day.

And the metaphysics of Chinese cosmology or “Ba Zi” and “Feng Shui” reads from the Xia calendar (solar calendar) and recognizes the beginning of the astrological influences of the new year from this day onwards i.e. the 4 February and not the lunar calendar of the new year.

Today in China the Lunar New Year is celebrated together with the Spring Festival and is celebrated with a preliminary celebration on the day of the winter solstice on 21 or 22 December which is also known as the Chinese thanksgiving and that’s when you have the “Tong Yuen” of glutinous ball in  syrup or soup.

The Southerners will refer to the Lunar New Year celebration as New year or “Xinian” and the Northerners will commonly refer to it as the Spring Festival or “Chunjie”, however both description are acceptable anywhere you go.

Most festivities are derived from the lunar calendar and some of the important festivities are from the Xia calendar (solar calendar). An example would be the day of 5 April in accordance with the Xia calendar is the day of the ancestral worship or the “Qing Ming” where the Chinese will converge to pay respect to their ancestral tombs or temple ancestral altars.

The Chinese are one of the earlier civilizations with a cosmological measurement of the heavens which was part of a study of the universal forces which brings us to the subject of the ancient art of political or military strategy.

The study of the cosmological forces through the use of the I Ching which is a universal theory of the heavens and the philosophy of the sciences of the ancients and from such studies the use of strategic planning and tactical manoeuvres evolved from a philosophical standpoint of the wisdom from the I Ching.

We are today exposed to the Art of War by Sun Tzu which has been widely interpreted and translated to management books and books on political strategies. However one must remember that in a study we not only study the contents of the Art of War but a consideration of the situation and circumstances of the times of the author are a prerequisite.


However it is the intention here to share some thoughts on the study of the ancient strategy of the various Military Classics and it should be noted that any study should start from the fundamental of wisdom and virtue which has been neglected by modern scholars and students of this subject. Taking note that even Sun Tzu studied the ancient arts from somewhere and in those days such treatise are closely guarded secrets and are kept and pass on from generations to generations.

Taking into consideration here albeit briefly some of the sages, military and political strategist before the time of Sun Tzu, they are Jiang Ziya, the grand duke of Zhou dynasty and another from the same dynasty of Zhou, he is Ji Dan commonly known as “Zhou Gong” or the God of Dreams much revered by Confucius referring to the Duke as a paragon of virtue. These two great sages are from an era of more than 500 years before Sun Tzu.

Historians have deliberated that Sun Tzu would have learned from this two great sage of an earlier period, however what is missing from Sun Tzu’s Art of War are the essence of strategic philosophy from the sages, that is the essence of wisdom and virtue which the sages has took great pains to reiterate that the harmonic balance of strategic employment dwells on the continuous cultivation of virtue and wisdom and that too is the philosophy of the I Ching.

It is the balance between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and distortion as without the persistent and determined cultivation and reflection of the virtue and wisdom of this philosophy one will not be steadfast and will eventually waive from the path of the true way or of the “Tao”.

The foundation for the ancient strategic study of strategy are bounded in within the study of the I Ching which is a study of the Tao and this study of the I Ching will require an understanding of the ancient cosmological sciences.

It is assumed here that you could comprehend the definition of virtue and wisdom and we will not deliberate further but moved on to some historical facts of the earlier dynasty in their military strategy in that although there were great period of conflict but the tactic of people or racial division was almost never employed throughout its history except for some later minor exceptions.

There were tactical divisive of breaking down the alliances of the warring kingdoms but never was it employed on the people as the virtue of all military strategies have always been people centric, to elaborate on this principle the Method of the Sima who is another great strategist during the Warring States period will be quoted as follows:

 “Sima stresses that the only justification for warfare is the assistance of the common people. Because warfare must benefit the people of all states involved in a conflict in order to be legitimate, nations must avoid engagements that injure the people of enemy states, and actions which might antagonize a subject populace are severely prohibited. Because it identifies the only justification for warfare as eradicating a government evil.”

The above from the Method of the Sima should suffice an in-depth understanding of some basic virtue of employing strategy in that there are certain areas of great evil that must be avoided as it will plunge the employer of such tactic to an abyss of mental distortion of the great void and in the event that such tactical approach are successful it will only cause great darkness for the populace that will take generations to unwind.

Throughout the military history of China it has always been about unifying the forces and not about destruction of the forces which will return to haunt you for eternity right down to your descendants.

Even the cruel Shih Huang Ti’s strategy was about unity and which he succeeded in uniting China under one rule but due to his lack of virtue and wisdom his dynasty was the shortest dynasty in China lasting only 15 years.

Don’t underestimate the rising of the forces which can be like water in the sea looking calm and still but once activated can cause massive destruction. Careful where you thread as the strategic idiom from Sun Tzu reminds that the ultimate is to conquer the kingdom intact without destruction.

I have just uploaded a short video clip as a reminder to what can be no matter how powerful you are, it is just a matter of time if your governance is of evil and unjust.



Read more of Jiang Ziya, the great strategist HERE
Read some info about the I Ching HERE

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