Penglai, depiction of one of the mythical islands (Public Domain), and Qin Shi Huang in a 19th century portrait (Public Domain);Deriv.

The King Who Made War Illegal! Challenging the Official History of The Art of War and the First Emperor –Part I

There are two great mysteries about the life of Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China—and a grand conspiracy. And these tightly related events are of profound significance extending way beyond the borders of China.

The young prince who was far removed from the upper reaches of royal succession in the state of Qin probably didn't see himself becoming founder and emperor of China. But there were those who saw in him such a destiny. A meeting that was hardly due to chance brought together that prince and a man named Lü Pu-wei. Through careful nurturing, court intrigue and a great deal of luck (including the untimely death of senior members of the royal family) the young prince Cheng assumed the throne of the Qin Kingdom at age 13. Now that was remarkable enough, but who could have imagined that this young man would, in a mere twenty-six years, end the 200-year long "Warring States period" and found a nation?

Ancient terra cotta statues.

Ancient terra cotta statues. (Credit: BigStockPhoto)

The Child Who Made War Illegal

Qin Shi Huang succeeded in consolidating states that had been engaged in a brutal war for generations. He established a new national capital and system of government (still in place today) and cancelled all military and religious privileges. The new nation, which eliminated feudalism centuries before such a thing was even dreamed possible in Europe, made competence the sole requirement for employment and advancement. Privileges that emanated from military power or religious influence were eliminated. In the new nation rule by law, equality and most importantly - peace - were firmly established. Qin Shi Huang made war illegal.

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (Public Domain)

How did the young king, in just a few short years find out how to end war and found a nation built on peace, and make that happen? The king was firmly committed to the best rule in governance: surround yourself with the most competent advisors and administrators you can find. His court identified the best minds throughout Asia.

They were brought to Qin where he had established a series of academies dedicated to learning and advancement. He gave the academy scholars an incredible challenge. He told them he wanted to end war— forever. And he wanted to build a unified China that would last— forever.

Persuaders of Peace

The scholars worked long and hard. In time, they discovered a fundamental principle that we do not recognize to this day: "Peace," they said, "cannot be made out of war. Peace can only be realized through peaceful means."

Having achieved that monumental understanding, they then set out to determine what those peaceful means might look like. They told the king that he needed to engage a battalion of itinerant "persuaders" to travel throughout the Middle Kingdom. They were to challenge people's perceptions and assumptions such as the widespread belief that war was natural and unavoidable. They were prompted to imagine a time where states lived in harmony, lands were cultivated, and where average people had a real chance at comfort and improvement. These persuaders were masters of their art, and they practiced it in small groups, and the courts of kings.

Replica of the Emperor Qin’s throne.

Replica of the Emperor Qin’s throne. (CC BY 2.0)

Persuaders were trained at the academies, and as they travelled the land, they made continual reference to a small manual that had guided their learning, and that was the guide to their new profession. The little manual was pocket sized, and it was produced by Qin's School of Sun Tzu.

Qin Shi Huang's imperial tour across his empire. Depiction in an 18th century album.

Qin Shi Huang's imperial tour across his empire. Depiction in an 18th century album. (Public Domain)

The Mysterious Manual

The manual did not have a name. It time though, it became known as "The Art of War." This was an invention. The first sentence in the work begins with "The art of war...". In ancient Chinese that was expressed as "ping-fa," but the meaning of ping-fa 2,300 years ago was "the art of diplomacy." In my opinion, "diplomacy" as preached by the Qin academies meant, "How to manage without the waste of conflict." The scope of these instructions was both internal and external conflict.

A Chinese bamboo book, copy of The Art of War. The cover also reads "乾隆御書", meaning it was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor.

A Chinese bamboo book, copy of The Art of War. The cover also reads "乾隆御書", meaning it was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor. (CC BY 2.0)

Had someone picked up a copy of the persuader manual, they would think it a jumble of mixed strategies and tactics and odd, unintelligible stuff about military maneuvers. After all, it talked about armies and battles, storming castles and setting fires. Having had the benefit of training under masters, the persuaders knew that the imagery was an aid to learning and understanding and the instructions largely metaphorical.

The beginning of The Art of War in a classical bamboo book from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.

The beginning of The Art of War in a classical bamboo book from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. (CC BY 2.0)

There may have been another reason for the language and imagery: should a persuader be taken prisoner as a spy, the manual would give nothing away about the methods being followed. If ping-fa had been in non-metaphorical, non-military language, Qin's  plans for peaceful conquest would have been visible. And that could not be allowed to happen. It is fascinating that this ruse has been perpetuated into the twenty-first century.

Today, ping-fa is found in the military strategy and history section of bookstores and libraries. The alleged military context has migrated from the military academies to boardrooms, marital advice and fitness clubs; in fact, it’s found in just about every domain where strident command and control are preached. And often, institutions that live by that philosophy have the militarist version on required reading lists.

Today it is not easy to even gain consideration of the possibility that  "Sun Tzu" was a mythical teacher, and that the teachings were metaphorical. That hurdle remains intact despite little or no valid historical verification of the book's authorship, age, or application. The book remains in the military genre even though there is really nothing military about it, and military commentary usually finds it both incomprehensible and impractical for the management of war.


Top Image: Penglai, depiction of one of the mythical islands (Public Domain), and Qin Shi Huang in a 19th century portrait (Public Domain);Deriv.

By David G Jones

David G. Jones B.A., M.A. is a retired government executive and university teacher. Fellow of the University of King's College, he was awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal, and holds an officer's commission in the Canadian Army. He has been studying the origins of the Chinese empire for two decades, and is author of The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War.


Jones, David G. (2012) ‘The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War.’ Published by iUniverse

Giles, Lionel (1910) ‘The Art of War’. Published by Allandale Online Publishing [Online] Available at:

Huang, J.H., ed. (1993) ‘The Art of War: The New Translation’.  Published by HarperCollins Canada / Non-Fiction; 1 edition

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