Trapped by Thucydides? Updating the Strategic Canon for a Sinocentric Era

December 28, 2020

Ancient Greek roots run deep in America. “What Athens was in miniature,” Thomas Paine predicted, “America will be in magnitude.” From the beginning of the American experiment, Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta provided useful lessons for the nation’s founding fathers. John Adams wrote to his ten year old son, John Quincy, that his future country “may require other Wars, as well as Councils and Negotiations,” adding, “[t]here is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this usefull Purpose than that of Thucidides.” Nearly two centuries later as an emerging Cold War threatened America’s sense of security, Secretary of State George Marshall declared, “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.”

The end of the Cold War did not result in Thucydides’ retirement. “Whenever we get a new war, we get a new Thucydides,” Joseph Lane astutely noted. Most recently, the text was repurposed in the 21st century by Harvard professor Graham Allison to describe the risks of war with a rising China in terms of a supposed “Thucydides Trap.” In its latest reprise the analogy comes off more strained than illuminating. Neither the United States nor China fits neatly into the old Athens-Sparta antagonist roles, nor does the current international system resemble the system of ancient Greece: two roughly equal alliance structures vying for dominance within the confines of a zero-sum competition. Thucydides examines one possible outcome of an extended contest between two great powers not possessing powerful incentives to prefer coexistence over unilateral dominance. The persistent use (and misuse) of Thucydides has led to problematic thinking about great-power competition with China. It is time to expand our thinking beyond Western perspectives by considering historical works on strategy and rivalry in addition to Thucydides.



Fortunately, a viable candidate already exists within the Chinese canon, a work roughly contemporaneous with Thucydides. This text, known as the Zuozhuan, is China’s oldest historical narrative and chronicles the decline of the Zhou dynasty from 722 to 468 BCE. Describing the machinations of various rulers, ministers, and military commanders over a span of 255 years, this complex masterpiece traces the difficult strategic choices faced by regional powers during this chaotic period as they struggled to adjust to an uncertain security structure. In particular, its description of the competition between the two greatest powers of its time, the states of Jin and Chu from roughly the mid-7th to mid-6th centuries, provides interesting parallels with the current state of Sino-U.S. relations. The Jin-Chu rivalry reflected the multi-faceted challenge of two competing powers navigating a multi-state system neither side sought to destroy or overthrow, but instead hoped to co-opt and lead on its own terms. Moreover, the length of the historical arc measured in centuries rather than decades better facilitates analysis of the long-term strategic impact of great-power competition.

International relations scholars might find much food for thought through study of this classic text. As central authority retreated, the former Zhou system reflected many traits similar to anarchy, with dozens of regional states resorting to hegemony, balancing, or bandwagoning to mitigate threats to survival. Leaders on the central plains of ancient China, it turns out, practiced balance of power politics just as energetically as their European counterparts. Powerful countervailing incentives also existed within the system, particularly a desire to return to the rules and norms that moderated interstate behavior under the old Zhou governing rubric. These incentives tended to limit the scope and scale of warfare and opened up potential avenues for cooperation and coexistence. This combination of realpolitik coupled with a desire for predictable norms in some ways mirrors the contemporary security environment. While we should continue to study Thucydides intensely, we would benefit by pairing his text with this near-contemporary classic from China.

A (Chinese) Possession for All Time?

The Zuozhuan is technically a commentary to another work, The Spring and Autumn Annals. Believed by some to be written or edited by Confucius himself, the Annals were developed in the regional state of Lu as a record of significant political, military, diplomatic, and other events. While the entries in the Annals are laconic and sparse, the Zuozhuan supplements them by providing extensive background through narrative and dialogue constructions. It provides the meat and connective sinews to the Annals’ skeletal structure. For example, in 632 BCE the Annals simply record that the Prince of Jin and his allies “did battle with a Chu leader at Chengpu.” It is only through the Zuozhuan narrative that we recognize this as one of the most famous battles in Chinese history. As described in the text, Jin deceives the Chu army by tying wooden logs to the back of their chariots and stirring up dust to feign a retreat. When the Chu force falls for this ruse and rushes forward in pursuit, the Jin army decisively defeats them in what the text labels a “pincer attack” (夹攻) — a double envelopment successfully executed four centuries before Cannae.

The Zuozhuan remains an important cultural touchstone in China. The historical vignettes from the text are referenced extensively in the works of iconic Chinese philosophers from the Warring States period, such as Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, Zhuangzi, and Han Feizi. Sima Qian, the famed scholar writing during the Han dynasty also relied heavily on the work to construct his own history of the period. Prominent stories from the text live on as colorful idioms (chengyu) in modern Chinese, and Xi Jinping references Zuozhuan passages in his speeches. Discussing its strategic merit, Yao Nai, a scholar writing during the Qing dynasty, noted that the text “excels in discourses on the art of war and strategies.”

While certainly not unexamined in the West — there have been several excellent books discussing the Zuozhuan’s literary, historiographical, and philosophical value — it has rarely been embraced by those studying war, diplomacy, and strategy. One major reason has been its inaccessibility. The first full-length English translation, completed by James Legge in 1872, was marred by archaic Victorian phrasings, a confusing transliteration system, and lack of necessary context, leaving the text nearly impossible to follow. Recently, though, a team of renowned contemporary scholars of ancient China published a lucid and comprehensive English translation, with excellent commentaries and useful indexes. There is no longer any good excuse — besides its astronomical price — for Western political scientists and military strategists to avoid this complicated but highly rewarding classical text.

Adjusting to Zhou Decline

The Zuozhuan opens in an era of momentous historical import. Confucius considered the opening decades of the longstanding Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) to be the golden age of Chinese cultural development, but by the early 8th century, feckless Zhou rulers coupled with internal and external threats quickly led to disaster. In 771 BCE the Zhou capital was sacked by nomadic tribes and the Zhou ruling elite relocated their palaces eastward with the assistance of local Zhou regional leaders. Although safely ensconced in its new capital, the Zhou’s reversal of fortune resulted in subordinate domains paying less deference to the weakened central court and focusing more on aggrandizing their own internal sources of power. Early in the Zuozhuan narrative the ruler of the central state of Zheng defeats the Zhou army in battle and wounds the king with an arrow. Zhou rule nominally continues throughout the period covered in the text, but the relationship between the center and periphery is irreparably altered, resulting in near-constant tension and strife.

The domains left in the wake of Zhou’s political retreat show several hallmarks of modern sovereign states. They each possess their own territory and ruler, establish their own governing bureaucracies and laws, maintain their own armies, and conduct independent diplomacy. War remained a central feature of political life during the entire period covered in the Zuozhuan. The text catalogs 584 examples of interstate military conflict as well as dozens of devastating internal rebellions.

Despite the prevalence of violence, overthrowing the old Zhou system was not the primary goal of these competing states. In one of the text’s most famous stories, the ruler of Chu conducted a successful military campaign against the Rong tribes that often threatened the Zhou capital. When an official of the Zhou court went out to meet him at the end of the campaign, the Chu leader hinted at ambitions of usurping Zhou authority by inquiring about the weight of the Zhou king’s cauldrons — the ceremonial symbols of Zhou rule. The Zhou representative explained why this question was premature:

Size and weight depend on virtue, not on the cauldrons . . . When virtue is bright and resplendent, the cauldrons, though small, are heavy. When virtue is distorted, dimmed, and confused, the cauldrons, though large, are light . . . Although Zhou virtue is in decline, the heavenly command has not yet changed. The question of whether the cauldrons are light or heavy may not be asked yet.

In other words, the power of the Zhou king rested not in his land, army, or economic might, but in the legitimacy his position at the apex of the hierarchy conferred. As one of the translators of the text explicates, the “king is defined not as an individual with power but as the occupant of a special position within an inherited hierarchy … [this] power, although neither grounded in military force nor entirely under [the king’s] control, is nonetheless quite real.” Throughout the text, no one state would fully usurp Zhou legitimacy, but the political reality of the period necessitated a new player in the hierarchy, one possessing the material power that the king lacked, that of the “hegemon” or “overlord” (霸).

Anointed by the king, the position of hegemon conferred tangible benefits — the hegemon could set the agenda for interstate meetings, enlist subordinate states for assistance, or punish other states for transgressions. However, the status of hegemon was not permanent, and deference to the position was conferred not just by the king’s authority, but also through acquiescence from the other lesser domains. In interesting ways this parallels the current international system: Neither the United States nor China seeks to rule over the globe directly, but instead hopes to be viewed as the legitimate leader of the international system, one whose rules and norms other member states still view as beneficial and legitimate. Possessing the power and authority to lead this loose organization, particularly the ability to set agendas, modify rules in one’s favor, and adjudicate disputes, confers tangible material benefits to the modern “hegemon.” Yet the ephemerality of the hegemon’s position and the need for other states to support its status as leader also pushes the most powerful members to seek ways to reach consensus and limit the scale and scope of armed conflict.

A Contest for Allegiance, Not Survival

Although the text describes many examples of the rise and fall of various states, one of the most interesting narratives concerns the extended contest for hegemonic status waged between the states of Jin and Chu from roughly 632 to 546 BCE. The state of Jin, situated just north of the Yellow River, was a powerful and influential domain within the Zhou system since its founding. The state of Chu, centered on the southern Yangtze River, begins as an outsider to the established system, often chided for not being “kith and kin” to the other Zhou domains. As Chu gains in power, though, it not only seeks to exert influence in the other domains, but willingly embodies many of the Zhou’s governing norms to the point where other states begin viewing it as the rightful defender of Zhou legitimacy.

The Jin-Chu rivalry mirrors the dynamics of the Sino-U.S. rivalry better than the Athens-Sparta construct. Like Jin, the United States was instrumental in shaping and leading the current international system and has the most to lose in being displaced from its position at the top of the hierarchy. Like Chu, China initially existed outside this system, but as its power expands, the benefit of co-opting, modifying, and potentially leading the existing system on its own terms drives its quest for international status.

Neither Jin nor Chu, though, was in a position to effectively destroy their greatest rival. Their fear was not that their opponent might gain military superiority sufficient to threaten their survival, but rather that their adversary might become perceived as the legitimate leader amongst the other states. Warfare, therefore, was generally limited and focused on efforts to either protect or poach the allegiance of weaker domains. Jin and Chu were direct belligerents in three major battles during this period: Chengpu (632 BCE), Bi (597), and Yanling (575). Each of these battles was fought over the allegiance of smaller states. At no time did either Jin or Chu venture a full-scale assault into the home territory of their primary opponent. Even during periods of intense fighting, they maintained diplomatic relations and sought ways to mitigate conflicts.



While the territories of Jin and Chu were largely insulated from the devastation of constant warfare, the hapless states wedged between these two great powers were not so fortunate. In the decade preceding the Battle of Bi, for example, the government in the state of Zheng switched its allegiance no less than seven times, resulting in a combined eleven invasions from one or the other great power as punishment. In 594 BCE, Chu, hoping to expand its power even more, besieged the capital of the state of Song. Holding out for over a year, the desperate residents of the besieged city exchanged their children with neighbors in mutual acts of cannibalism and resorted to using human bones to kindle fires. The exhausted central states insisted that all of the existing powers meet in 546 BCE to codify the Peace of Song. The covenant established Jin, Chu, Qi, and Qin as the four most powerful states in the system, with the smaller states required to submit to both Jin and Chu in equal measure. Jin and Chu also committed to jointly develop “plans to benefit the small domains.” Having temporarily eased the tension caused by extended great-power competition, the remaining unanswered question was how long the truce would last.

Great-Power Competition Measured in Generations

As noted by Thucydides, the Spartan king Archidamus presciently predicted at the outset of the war that its conclusion would be left as a “legacy to our children.” But neither Thucydides nor Archidamus could anticipate what legacy would be left for his grandchildren. By the time Archidamus III assumed kingship of Sparta in 360 BCE, the great victory over Athens in 404 was already a distant mirage. In 371, Spartan supremacy in Greece was decisively crushed at the hands of Thebes, its erstwhile ally during the Peloponnesian War. Archidamus III took the reins of Sparta only two years after the second Battle of Mantinea, whose outcome left the Greek world with “more uncertainty and disturbance after the battle than there had been before.” Great-power competition often leaves a legacy best measured in generations, and the ultimate victor is not always one of the two original antagonists. The Zuozhuan’s widened temporal scope highlights the long-term strategic impact of great-power competition.

In many ways the Peace of Song accomplished its objective. It reduced the threat of direct conflict between Jin and Chu waged on the backs of the smaller central states. The two great powers refrained from engaging each other directly in battle over the next 67 years, until a new dispute over the allegiance of Zheng resulted in a minor skirmish. Competition between Jin and Chu, though, was not extinguished. It simply evolved in new and unexpected ways. For Chu, a dangerous new front opened on its eastern border. Shortly after its defeat at the hands of Chu at the Battle of Bi in 597 BCE, Jin dispatched emissaries to the state of Wu, a non-Zhou domain centered on the mouth of the Yangtze River. Jin provided military assistance to the fledgling Wu state and encouraged them to begin attacking Chu. What began as minor raids evolved in the decades after the Peace of Song into near annual large-scale invasions. This culminated in the disastrous Boju campaign of 506 BCE, in which the significantly smaller Wu force decisively defeated the Chu army and temporarily occupied its capital. Although Chu would regain its territory and maintain its status as a major power, these proxy wars and conflict on multiple fronts left it in a weakened state.

Jin, though, would not find itself in a position to capitalize on the military misfortunes of its greatest rival. In the opening decades of the Zuozhuan, Jin was wracked with internal strife as the traditional ruling clan was decimated by a secondary lineage, which managed to seize control of the state in 678 BCE. It is under the leadership of this usurping clan that Jin rapidly rose to power within the Zhou system. While the Jin-Chu conflict often served to suppress this internal unrest, conflict between the various Jin clans came to the fore in the decades following the Peace of Song. Six powerful lineages within Jin vied for control of the domain, and the Zuozhuan foreshadows the rift that would result in three lineages being completely decimated, with the remaining three breaking away to form their own separate states: Zhao, Wei, and Han. This partition of Jin in 453 BCE heralded a new phase in Chinese history known as the Warring States period, in which seven roughly equal states vied for total control of the Zhou system. The goal of reestablishing the norms of the former Zhou system faded into the background, as a zero-sum competition raged for the next two centuries. This bloody period ended in 221 BCE when the state of Qin finally exterminated the Zhou state, conquered the remaining powers, and established a brutal dictatorship of one.

The lessons from the Zuozhuan imply that great-power permanence rests on two pillars: internal domestic stability and skillfully managed alliances. Despite China’s impressive economic and military growth, its domestic support remains brittle and it struggles to form lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships. Although the United States has traditionally been relatively strong in these two areas, since at least the turn of this century, the bases of these pillars have eroded quickly. If America hopes to avoid a zero-sum conflict with China over the fate of the international system, it would be prudent to begin repairing and strengthening these supports.


This brief survey only scratches the surface of potential areas of inquiry illuminated through study of the Zuozhuan. Another subject ripe for additional research is military theory. In the West, the study of ancient Chinese military thinking rarely ventures beyond Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This is unfortunate, because the context provided by the Zuozhuan can help Westerners better understand many of Sun Tzu’s more vague pronouncements. The few historical references found in The Art of War, such as the rivalry between the states of Wu and Yue or the courage of figures like Cao Gui and Zhuan Zhu, are explained within the Zuozhuan narratives. Moreover, the text allows us to expand our scope of analysis beyond one individual viewpoint. The Zuozhuan references other military texts extant at that time, such as the Book of Military Maxims (軍志), reminding us that a rich body of strategic thinking existed in China outside the confines of Master Sun’s work.

Alas, the Zuozhuan demands much of any potential reader, particularly one not well versed in its specific milieu. It will resist easy inclusion into any university or war college syllabus. Similar to Thucydides’ work, fierce millennia-old debates exist over its authorship, date of composition, historical accuracy, as well as every aspect of its purported meaning. It can also be a frustrating book. Those attempting to make sense of its temporally fractured narratives or cast of several thousand individuals and locations (some with at least a half-dozen variations on their name) will long for the simplicity of trying to discover if Thucydides is referencing Naxos in Sicily or the one in the Aegean. But those who persist will be rewarded with a complex and rich historical narrative of no less impressive depth and breadth than the most venerated works of their Hellenic cousins.

Thucydides’ work has earned its exalted status in the study of strategic thought. However, analysis of other cultures’ struggles to achieve peace and security in roughly comparable eras of great-power competition might stimulate new thinking on old problems. As Confucius once noted, “If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you’re worthy to be a teacher.” In that effort, we should resist limiting the scope of our inquiries to only Western historical examples. Through study and synthesis of the failures and shortcomings of all of our distant forefathers, we might gain wisdom to forge a new and better path forward.



John F. Sullivan is a former U.S. Army China foreign area officer. He is currently a J.D. candidate at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law.

Image: Zuozhuan