Sun Tzu (541–482 BC) said, “Seek victory through Shih, not reliance on men.”
Instead of using military force to subjugate another society or to defeat an enemy’s army, Shih operates to convince an opponent to yield without battle. Instead of using weapons and strength to destroy an enemy, Shih prefers to threaten, manipulate, or deter.
Shih can cause an enemy to accept compliant terms without fighting. Sun Tzu famously taught that “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
Shih, an intangible power,encourages people who enjoy it and discourages those who lack it. Neighbors willingly join—without domination—a country with strong Shih, while enemies with lower Shih withdraw or surrender without coercion. Although political theorists and military strategists alike emphasized Shih as a nucleus of military affairs, they explained the concept through metaphors and left no explicit definitions of the term.
With deep roots in both political theory and also Chinese daily lives, the Chinese word, Shih, carries many meanings distinguishable within Chinese culture largely from the context. The most familiar meanings are power, force, or influence. Another common usage refers to a situation’s natural features or a person’s circumstances. Some Chinese use the term to suggest a tendency, trend, or series, or even people’s gestures. The Chinese use Shih in political theory,military strategy, the Wei-Chi game, and daily life to express a special formof power or influence.
In a military context, Shih refers to power or influence. Military Shih may reside within the army, the general, the people, and the ruler—endogenous Shih —or in the external conditions, terrain, weather, weaponry, and time—exogenous Shih.
Foundations of Chinese Thought
Philosophical development in ancient China culminated during the late Zhou period (500–221 BC) in its dual understandings of existence. The practical Chinese mind developed into a sophisticated social consciousness of human relations, moral values, and government.
The complementary, mystical Chinese soul insisted, however, that the highest purpose was to transcend the prosaic, everyday world into a higher consciousness above the individual and beyond society.
Uniting intuitive wisdom with practical knowledge, the few enlightened persons, like Plato’s philosopher-guardians, became by their stillness sages and by their movement, kings, one with universal Tao in harmony with nature.
By the sixth century BC, the two sides of Chinese thought had developed into two distinct approaches—Confucianism and Taoism.
Celebrating common sense and practical experience, Confucianism emerged in the teachings of Kung Fu-tzu, or Confucius (551–479? BC), who undertook to transmit China’s cultural heritage to his disciples. Going beyond his teachers, Confucius interpreted the Six Classics of the holy sages within his own moral values as the Lun Yü —Confucian Analects—compiled by his disciples. Although Confucius taught self-protection and self-control, only during the Song period did Wang Anshi expand them into China’s hierarchic social organization—authority, etiquette, and education—built around the family baojia.
Taoism congealed in Lao Tzu’s teachings (sixth century BC), Tao Te Ching —The Way and Power—later refined by Chuang Tzu (369?–286 BC) into a coherent Taoist doctrine. Taoists observed nature to discover the Way, the Tao. People achieved happiness when they followed nature’s Way by acting spontaneously and trusting intuitive knowledge. China’s culture accepted these contrary ways of understanding as poles of a single human nature embodied in both the individual and in society.
Tao: The Universal Way
Confucians and Taoists alike recognized an ultimate, undefinable, universal reality that supported, contained, and unified all things that people observed and the events that they experienced. “There are three terms—complete, all-embracing, and the whole. These names are different, but the reality sought in them is the same: referring to the One.”
This was the Tao —the Way of the universe, the universal principle of all things, nature’s essential order, or moral law. Unlike Hinduist Brahman, Buddhist Dharmakaya , or theist visions of Olympus, Valhalla, or Heaven, Tao was intrinsically both eternal and dynamic. “The Yellow Emperor obtained it and…followed the process of change in nature, but in keeping to the One, he knew that the One was eternal and changeless.”
Continuous change within Tao occurred in changeless patterns that revealed individual Tao to people who recognized them and directed their actions and thoughts toward, into, and within the patterns. The ruler’s Tao was ruling, inspiring,and indulgent benevolence. The people’s Tao was following, loyalty, and filial piety. If the ruler ruled through Tao, people would obey through Tao . “He who conforms to the course of the Tao , following the natural processes of Heaven and Earth, finds it easy to manage the whole world.”
The predominant pattern within Tao was the cycle—expansion and contraction, victory and defeat. “Returning is the motion of the Tao ” and“going far means returning.” Every situation, being, and thing developed to its extreme, reversed, and became its own opposite, not as the result of some force or will, but consequent to its own existence. The cyclic reversal patterns in the Tao’s eternal motion reflected the eternal pairing and interplay between yin and yang , the intellectual motif that penetrates every dimension of Chinese living. “The yang having reached its climax retreats in favor of the yin ; the yin having reached its climax retreats in favor of the yang .”
“That which lets now the dark, now the light appear is Tao .”
Tossed between yin and yang, human Tao was not to subdue nature, but to act in harmony with the cyclical current and the local environment. People did not need to force themselves or things into events, but merely to adapt their actions to the patterns and directions of Tao . It was better to move slowly in the right direction than to hurry along the wrong way. By the third or fourth centuries BC, Confucianists and Buddhists had deepened Confucius’s moralistic interpretations into Tao as the right way to moral living.
As Plato (429–347 BC) was developing similar ideas into The Republic, Confucianists imposed on people—rulers, sages, generals, and ordinary men and women—a positive moral responsibility to discover their Tao and contain their lives within it. By harmonizing or clashing with nature, people could enhance or diminish their Tao . In contrast, the Taoists had expanded Tao into eternal time and universal space with little moral content. From the eternal pairing of opposites, Taoists deduced that the best path to anything lay through its opposite—the indirect approach. “To weaken, one will surely strengthen first. To overthrow, one will surely exalt first. To take, one will surely give first.”
The best security for anything lay in preserving its opposite—deception. “Be bent and you will remain straight. Be vacant and you will remain full. Be worn and you will remain new.”
Although their methods were incompatible, for Confucianists and Taoists alike, acting and being in harmony with nature bestowed great power on individuals and societies. By about the fourth century BC, Chinese had begun to refer to this special power as Shih.
Shih: A Dynamic State of Power
Not a static power or discrete force, Shih represented a dynamic power and integrated force that combines the effects of material things, natural forces,and human factors in some action. In his famous metaphor of floating stones, Sun Tzu explained that “Shih is visible in the onrush of pent-up water tumbling stones along.”
Faith in experience and physics leads to the common perception that their greater specific gravity prevents stones from floating in water. When water rushes rapidly from a reservoir, however,the water’s momentum generates power, which floats the stone. Water could either float a stone or do nothing to it. The effect depended upon the rapid flow of water— Shih —draining from the reservoir, which floated the stone, not upon the amount of water— Li —in the reservoir, which could not float the stone.
Sun Tzu’s water represented either the static expression of national power—population or wealth—or the army’s specific combat power troops and weapons. The power to float a stone was the dynamic power— Shih —that the entire army or country exerted for its collective purpose.
Sun Tzu’s strategic message was that the method of draining the water was more important than the amount of water behind the dam. Sun Tzu urged his king not to build forces or apply new technology, but to create Shih.
Sun Tzu’s prescription for creating Shih was to achieve Tao , “the state in which people are in full accord with the ruler….in such a state [people] will die with the ruler, they will live with the ruler, and not fear danger for the ruler.”
Like the ruler, the strategist should assess power and design campaigns around Shih, and the general should fight wars with Shih -strategy.
For Sun Tzu and Sun Bin, good strategy rested not on static forces-based power but on a dynamic state of power, which was Shih.
Like Sun Tzu, Shang Yang (390–338 BC) depicted Shih in the imagery of flowing water. While Sun Tzu stressed flowing water’s power to move boulders, Shang Yang stressed a stream’s nature to follow the easiest course. To achieve Shih, his legalist successors advocated generous material rewards and harsh punishments to guide individual energies through universal political participation into the population’s collective strength concentrated in the ruler as Shih.
When soldiers introduced the bow and crossbow onto Chinese battlefields, Sun Bin took the new weapons in explaining Shih . “Released from between the shoulders, they kill a man beyond a hundred paces without him realizing the path. Thus it was said that ‘bows and crossbows are Shih’.”
Aware that the static weapon itself was not Shih , Sun Bin distinguished the crossbow and arrows—visible force—from the effective power created by the man-weapon combination invisible, dynamic Shih. By the third century AD, technology had created strong synergy in coordinated joint operations— Shih —between infantry, archers, cavalry, and navy as changing technologies made larger forces possible and sophisticated logistics essential. By the later-Han period, technology, coordination, and logistics had emerged as essential—usually invisible forces in both an army’s combat operations and a ruler’s national grand strategy— Shih. Shen Tao (360?–300? BC) stressed strategic political advantage as endogenous Shih . He clarified the idea with his famous dragon metaphor:“The flying dragon mounts the clouds and the t’eng snake wanders in the mists. But the clouds dissipate and the mists clear, the dragon and the snake become the same as the earthworm and the large-winged black ant because they have lost that on which they ride.”
With Shih, the dragon could fly on clouds. When it lost Shih , it was only a worm. It was not his superiority, morality, or wisdom that carried the dragon on clouds, but his Shih. He elaborated political Shih with the experiences of Emperor Yao (2356–2255 BC).
“When Yao was teaching from an inferior position, the people did not listen to him. When he assumed the throne and became emperor over the world, his orders were carried out and his prohibitions were observed.”
Ignored as a common teacher without Shih, the same man with the same character and intelligence gained authority and respect as emperor through the Shih of political status and legitimacy. Just as the dragon had become a worm, if Emperor Yao lost Shih , he would resume his former status as the miserable teacher whom people ignored. Shen Tao taught that this great, intangible, influential power was endogenous Shih.