The classical literature of ancient China, like that of ancient Greece and Rome, appears to emphasize moral goodness as the foundation of wisdom. But Chinese classical teachings on statecraft offer another perspective: one that places a special emphasis on deception, subversion, and secret agents.

In a book titled The Tao of Spycraft, Sun-tzu translator Ralph D. Sawyer describes classical Chinese texts in terms of their preoccupation with “craftiness”; first, in military strategy; second, as a method of softening up an enemy through false defectors and agents of influence. Early Chinese chronicles offer object lessons in “stealthy intrigues … [and] perverse methods that should be denied the unrighteousness and kept from the dangerous,” according to Sawyer.

The idea of using evil means for the advancement of good became firmly fixed at an early date in classical Chinese thought. The sages of the orient did not take precautions against the corruption of those exercising power; rather, Chinese despotism grew out of traditions which justified evil actions as indispensable to survival.

Adding cynicism to cynicism, Chinese autocracy gravitated toward the doctrine of “the Mandate of Heaven,” which says that the acquisition of power (by whatever means) was proof of divine favor. According to this same logic, a ruler’s overthrow was proof of his unworthiness. Thus, success by any means was morally justified. The cynical use of dishonesty and cruelty by those in power would thereafter prove unstoppable in a never-ending game of dog-eat-dog. Thus the Chinese era of The Warring States would became the focus of a classical curriculum rooted in deceit, cruelty and murder.

The idea of a constitutional process, with limited power under the rule of law, was alien to Chinese thought and practice. Chinese sages wrote about virtue, but developed no practical means of limiting evil rulers. There is no Lycurgus in Chinese history — no Marcus Junius Brutus, no Cato, no Cicero, no practical champions of liberty. China’s advocates of practical wisdom were experts in the concentration of power, not experts in its limitation.

Of course, the ancient Greeks and Romans had their tyrants — like Dionysius of Syracuse, and the Emperor Nero. These two figures received philosophical educations (Dionysius was taught directly by Plato, and Nero was a pupil of Seneca). Yet their behavior stood in opposition to the principles they were taught. The same cannot be said for the Chinese emperors and generals who learned Sun-tzu’s Art of War, emphasizing falsehood and espionage, together with the ideas of Han Fei-tzu — the Machiavelli of ancient China.

If Dionysius and Nero turned their backs on Plato and Seneca, the Chinese rulers received positive intellectual encouragement to act contrary to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. But even the teachings of Confucius would prove dubious, because he was understood as saying “anyone who abandons a perverse ruler to support …. rebels claiming the Mandate of Heaven is a discerning defector, a hero rather than a traitor.” [Sawyer] Confucius was cynically interpreted to say, in effect, that if rebels win, they are virtuous. If they lose, they are not. This produced in China a legacy rich in treason, a history overpopulated by defectors and betrayers whose opportunism became synonymous with “moral virtue.”

The idea of using evil methods to defend the good was not effectively championed in Western thought until the Renaissance, when Machiavelli penned The Prince. Even then, Machiavelli was denounced by nearly everyone. Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote a book against Machiavelli’s ideas, titled Anti-Machiavel, in which he stated: “I have always regarded The Prince as one of the most dangerous works which were spread in the world….” Frederick went on to say,

…it is a book which falls naturally into the hands of princes, and of those who have a taste for policy. It is all too easy for an ambitious young man, whose heart and judgment are not formed enough to accurately distinguish good from bad, to be corrupted by maxims which inflame his hunger for power.

Given the hyper-Machiavellian content of some Chinese classics, we can only imagine the anathemas Frederick would have poured out against the “sages” of the East. Undoubtedly he would have noted the dismal history of China — a history of tyranny, betrayal and fatalism. Frederick wrote, by way of warning:

The floods which devastate regions, the fire of the lightning which reduces cities to ashes, the poison of the plague which afflicts provinces, are not as disastrous in the world as the dangerous morals and unrestrained passions of the kings; the celestial plagues last only for a time, they devastate only some regions, and these losses, though painful, are repaired. But the crimes of the kings are suffered for a much longer time by the whole people.

Frederick added that “The true policy of kings is founded only on justice, prudence and kindness….” He characterized Machiavelli’s philosophy as “full of horror….” — An effrontery to the public.

Though Frederick was an absolute king, he saw himself as subject to God, as owing duty to his people. He wrote his Anti-Machiavel on behalf of the Western philosophical tradition, which was grounded in the Old Testament prophets — informed by the Greek and Roman philosophers — and by the classical historians.

We read in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War the chilling “Melian dialogue,” in which democratic Athens dictates terms to a neutral city which they arbitrarily exterminate. When the Melians argue for justice, the Athenians scoff. Thucydides shows the wickedness and short-sightedness of Athenian policy. For Athens was courting destruction, even then, falsely imagining itself invincible and beyond the reach of justice. (Athens would lose the war.) Thucydides underscored the disastrous consequences of the “might makes right” philosophy of the Athenians, and the appalling cost to society when evil men attain high office.

In The Annals of Imperial Rome Tacitus shows us how the despotism of the Caesars declined into the wickedness of abject tyranny, sexual deviancy, murder and madness. When Titus Livius wrote his History of Rome in the first century, he prefaced it with an appeal to the moral values of his country’s forefathers — comparing ancient nobility to modern depravity.

In this vein Livy recounted the generalship of Marcus Furius Camillus before the walls of Fallerii. According to Livy, a Greek tutor had treacherously lured his young pupils, the sons of the town’s leaders, into the Roman camp — offering these unsuspecting children as hostages with which to break the siege. Camillus had the Greek tutor stripped and scourged, handed the whip to the eldest pupil and let them return safely to their parents with their flayed and unfaithful teacher in tow. The people of Falerii were overawed by this noble act, and promptly surrendered to the Roman general out of gratitude, trusting their lives and property to him. Thus an enemy state was transformed, by honorable conduct, into a friend.

Likewise the Greek historian Polybius, in his famous commentary on the Roman constitution, praised the ancient Romans for their honesty and piety, to which he credited the success of their Empire. It was only afterwards, when success had spoiled them, that the Romans descended into moral degradation.

Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero upheld moral goodness and virtue — as did Confucius and Mencius. But the Chinese maintained, beneath the surface, an esoteric teaching that made Machiavelli look like a Boy Scout in comparison. So evil were the teachings of China’s sages, that China’s rulers saw them as dangerous in the wrong hands. Thus, in very ancient times these teachings were kept secret by the governments of successive kings. The dark underside of China’s classical teachings were conceived as “the essence of our state” (as one high-level Chinese official explained). “Since the classics contain timeless methods for governing, they cannot be loaned to other people’s.”

According to ancient Chinese generals and administrators, wise rulers do not allow others to read the “military strategies and the books of the philosophers, with crafty techniques.”

So if the Han emperor was unwilling to show his beloved relative these books … how can we today hand over classics filled with such information to our nemesis, the Western barbarians?

In Sawyer’s translation, one high official argues that the Western barbarians are sensitive and intelligent: “If they penetrate the Book of Documents, they will certainly know how to conduct warfare.” Crafty methods and concepts were, in themselves, secret weapons in a cultural treasure-trove of secret weaponry.

It is prudent to know evil techniques — not because we ought to practice them, but to recognize when others are practicing them on us. What is certain, at this time in history, is that China and Russia, and the far left, consistently employ Machiavellian methods — and those taught by Sun-Tzu. We must be clear as to where we stand and what we believe about their use. Subversion and deception are activities that corrupt the practitioner. Like weapons of war they can only be used reciprocally, and not without risk to the user. Just as killing in war is a terrible thing, and not to be entered into lightly, lying to an enemy is also dangerous. The penalty which nature readily imposes on liars is known by history through the cognitive degeneration of the tyrant. He lies and threatens everyone, and everyone is obliged to delude him in return.

As anyone can see, the left’s moral degeneracy is exemplified by a conceit so corrosive that moral idiocy and ideological sclerosis are immediately visible on every side. The ruling elites of the West, immersed in fables of their own making, can no longer recognize the truth. Less and less do they see or understand the situation they are in. Their tendency is to delude themselves; but how will that serve them? It must be the case, however invincible they seem, that they are doomed.

China and Russia, the two leading empires of the Sun-tzu legacy (and the legacy of Lenin), are awash in corruption and gangsterism. They are degenerate empires. The power they have accumulated can only be used for destruction, since they have no intrinsic moral worth. They will be damned by history, even as they attempt to deceive the historians.

If the legacy of Sun-tzu takes hold throughout the world, then history will everywhere conform to the laws and patterns of Chinese history. The West will then lie buried in its own rubble. Humanity will suffer a dark age — an age of blood and ignorance. Perhaps the human race will die of shame; for such an outcome would be, in truth, unendurably shameful.

6 thoughts on “The Chinese and Western Classical Traditions: On Whether the End Justifies the Means

  1. I was particularly impressed by the account of Marcus Furius Camillus. Where are leaders of his ilk today? Would we even want him? How long would he survive the twitter mob and media vitriol for not toeing the company line on today’s issues du jour?, for surely a man like him wouldn’t jibe well with today’s institutions.

    ” . . . when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” But do we deserve different?

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    1. Camillus has a famous history which is suggestive of our own. Great men often arouse great envy and are persecuted or exiled. Camillus’s great clemency at Falerii aroused resentment from those who wanted to plunder the town. The mob subsequently impeached Camillus on false charges of embezzlement. He went into exile. Meanwhile the Gauls attacked Rome and destroyed the entire city, which burnt to the ground. Thousands were trapped in the citadel, being starved and on the point of paying ransom in gold. Camillus raised a relief force and saved them, driving the Gauls away. Rome was rebuilt and re-founded with Camillus restored to honor. This pattern of persecution of great leaders also appears at other times, most infamously after Rome’s astonishing comeback victory in the Second Punic War, when the man who defeated Hannibal at Zama — Publius Scipio Africanus — was charged with embezzling state funds. He went into exile never to return. Hannibal was likewise exiled by the Carthaginians on account of his great reforms which saved their state after that same war. Both Rome and Carthage were Republics, as we are today. Envy is the bane of Republics, and great men are often ruined on account of their virtues. But Camillus was greater than them all in having no bitterness in his heart — rescuing his city even as it had turned against him.

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      1. PS — “Romantic” stories which exemplify great virtue are uniquely Western; whereas, Chinese stories often feature incredible tales of “sages” who dupe Kings and destroy entire kingdoms. It is said that Confucius sent his disciple Tzu Kung to save Lu by means that are, to the Western mind, incomprehensibly devious. The tale is difficult to follow because of this deviousness. Tzu Kung is nonetheless celebrated for this, and Confucius approves of him.

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  2. Jeff

    This article is well written and I believe there is something in regards to Hong Kong that needs to be revealed.

    Hong Kong’s Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Government (CEO) and the Legislative Council is all for show only, they are a front, the real power in Hong Kong lies in a entity that is not very well known to the public in Hong Kong, it’s called the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party.

    Carrie Lam is all for show only, she does what she is told by the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party, the Legislative Council in Hong Kong does what it is told by the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party. The Hong Kong Underground Communist Party dates back as early as 1920 when Hong Kong was under the control of the British. The Hong Kong Underground Communist Party has never been outlawed by the British when Hong Kong was a British Colony.

    It is very well known, many Mainland Chinese University students who study in Hong Kong are also members of the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party. Xu Jiatun the high ranking Chinese Communist Party Official who died in 2016 which Florence Leung MoHan writes in the Taipei Times in an article called Hong Kong’s Secret Rulers Unveiled that Xu Jiatun’s official title was head of the Xinhua News Agency’s Hong Kong Branch but in reality he is the secretary of the Hong Kong-Macao Working Committee which is Beijing’s De Facto Administrator in Hong Kong during the 1980’s which has connections with the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party. Members of the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party included Szeto Wah one of the founders of the Hong Kong Democratic Party.

    Florence Leung MoHan the author of the Hong Kong’s Secret Rulers Unveiled confirmed that she was also a member of the Hong Kong underground communist party and her role in the 1960’s was to recruit young people. This is mentioned in Christine Loh’s book Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, Second Edition on Page 120.

    It would also be safe to say, the Hong Kong Independence Movement and Hong Kong Democracy Movement is also connected to the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party. It would be higly possible Hong Kong’s student activists like Joshua Wong, Sunny Cheung, Nathan Law and Joey Siu are also connected to the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party as it is probable that the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party are also connected with the protest and violence that took place from September until now.

    Carrie Lam’s Predescessor C Y Leung or Leung Chun Ying was also a member of the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party.

    References:

    Hong Kong’s Secret Rulers Unveiled
    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2019/10/09/2003723624/1

    Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, Second Edition
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/9888028944?pf_rd_p=2d1ab404-3b11-4c97-b3db-48081e145e35&pf_rd_r=XVBP56W2ZHTV3YK414WY

    The Party in Hong Kong’s Underground
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-china-party/the-party-in-hong-kongs-underground-idUSKBN0F62YM20140701

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    1. I am reading Loh’s book now. There is a lot of naïveté about Hong Kong after the British departure. The communists control it. Freedom there is kept — in degraded form — for the sake of appearances.

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      1. Jeff

        Just wanting to ask, are you interested in a book called 我與香港地下黨 (My Time in Hong Kong’s Underground Party) by Florence MoHan Aw, she was a member of the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party and wrote about her time there if you are interested in a copy, I can request my uncle to buy and send it to you as I have 2 copies on hold until Monday at a bookstore in Hong Kong

        http://www.greenfieldbookstore.com.hk/index.php/books?task=view&id=168&catid=3

        My Time in Hong Kong’s Underground Party has also been mentioned in Christine Loh’s book called Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong.

        My Time in Hong Kong’s Underground Party by Florence MoHan Aw is written in Cantonese only and has not been translated into English.

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