Ralph D Sawyer
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Irreguler and Unexpected: Early Unorthodox Warfare
Panel: War, Diplomacy, and the State in Early China
AAS New England Meeting, Dartmouth College, 6 November 2004

Ralph D Sawyer


Over its long history, China's battles, often prolonged and spatially extensive, were generally guided by different strategic concepts and tactical principles than those adopted in Europe. In particular, the pervasive concept of ch'i or the "unorthodox," initially articulated in the Art of War, has grounded Chinese theorizing for more than two millennia.

Being defined against the orthodox and expected, the unorthodox is not synonymous with mere trickery, but is the very essence of knowledge-based maneuver warfare. Unorthodox actions are intended to create the localized tactical imbalances necessary to achieve a stunning, apparently easy victory. While its implementation stresses special operations and manipulating the enemy, the unorthodox also encompasses elements currently identified with asymmetrical warfare but in a more esoteric, almost metaphysical, context.

Pivotal historical battles in which desperate forces overcame immense odds by relying upon craft, cunning, and knowledge came to define the nature of unorthodox techniques, and to furnish a library of examples for later commanders, contributing - with active theorizing - to the concept's gradual transformation as a concrete realization. The primary Warring States statement about unorthodox warfare already recognized the concept's potential for unlimited expansion and development: "In warfare, the strategic configurations of power do not exceed the unorthodox and orthodox, but the changes of the unorthodox and orthodox can never be completely exhausted." That original concept will here be examined within the perspective of some of its many later modifications.


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29 May 2004 / Contact The Project / Conferences Page