The art of war corpus and Chinese just war ethics past and present

Ping-Cheung Lo


The idea of "just war" is not alien to Chinese thought. The term "yi zhan" (usually translated as "just war" or "righteous war" in English) is used in Mencius, was renewed by Mao Zedong, and is still being used in China today (zhengyi zhanzheng). The best place to start exploring this Chinese idea is in the enormous Art of War corpus in premodern China, of which the Seven Military Classics is the best representative. This set of treatises served as the military bible in imperial China from 1078 CE. Ideas analogous to ius ad bellum and ius in bello can be found in these texts. These norms are present in these military texts, elaborated in subsequent commentaries, understood as a matter of fact in Chinese political history, and recently and briefly acknowledged by a few Chinese military scholars in the mainland and in Taiwan. This Chinese just war ethics has its distinctiveness vis-à-vis James Turner Johnson's articulation of the Western classic view. It differs from Johnson's claims that military lethal violence is intrinsically morally neutral and that last resort is not a primary consideration in deciding for war. Contemporary Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) military publications show that the PLA understands the general idea of just war, but they acknowledge only the ad bellum part, not the in bello components. © 2012 Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc.