Alchemy is very old. Ancient Egyptian texts talk of techniques of distillation and metallurgy as mystical processes. Greek myths such as the quest for the Golden Fleece can be seen to have an alchemical layer of meaning, and Fludd, Boehme and others have interpreted Genesis in the same alchemical terms.
A quick survey of alchemical texts ancient and modern shows that alchemy, like the [Kabbalah], is a very broad church. If there is one great mysterious ‘Work’, it is approached via a remarkable variety of codes and symbols. In some cases the Work involves Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in others roses, stars, the philosopher’s stone, salamanders, toads, crows, nets, the marriage bed, and astrological symbols such as the fish and the lion.
There are obvious geographical variations. Chinese alchemy seems less about the quest for gold and more about a quest for the elixir of life, for longevity, even immortality. Alchemy also seems to change through the ages. In the third century [C.E.] the alchemist [Zosimos] wrote that ‘the symbol of the chymic art—gold—comes forth from creation for those who rescue and purify the divine soul chained in the elements’. In early Arab texts the Work involves manipulations of these same Four Elements, but in European alchemy, rooted in the Middle Ages and flowering in the seventeenth century [C.E.], a mysterious fifth element, the Quintessence, comes to the fore.
If we begin to look for unifying principles, we can see immediately that there are prescribed lengths of time or numbers of repetitions for the various operations, the distilling, the applying of gentle heat and so on.
There are obvious parallels, then, with meditative practice and this suggests immediately that these alchemical terms may be descriptions of subjective states of consciousness rather than the sort of chemical operations that might be performed in a laboratory.
According to Confucian principles, governments were maintained by their moral weight, their capacity to promote welfare and justice. Such a virtuous government enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven, and dynasties fell when they lost this mandate. Consequently the moral corruption of a ruler provided a harbinger of his fall.
Chinese emphasis on the state as a moral entity and on the ruler as the primary ethical actor gave the notions of corruption and subversion special meanings. Among the Chinese military texts considered here, only T’ai Kung’s Six Secret Teachings explores the potential of corrupting an enemy; it is not an essential of Chinese martial thought. Nonetheless, the discussion of this subject in the Six Secret Teachings is particularly illuminating in that it differs considerably from the constant discussion of underhanded tricks in the South Asian classic the Arthashastra. The Six Secret Teachings urges a just ruler to tempt his adversary to reveal his own evil nature. In showing himself to be corrupt, the adversary would lose the Mandate of Heaven and, therefore, the support of his people. The goal is not to subvert specific policies, ministers, or generals but to allow the opponent to undermine his own legitimacy. “[A]ssist him in his licentiousness and indulge in music in order to dissipate his will. Make him generous gifts of pearls and jade, and ply him with beautiful women.” While music occupied special spiritual importance in Confucian thought, “music” here probably also means “pleasure,” as both were written with the same character. “Debauch him with beautiful women, entice him with profit. Nurture him with flowers, and provide him with the company of female musicians.” So vital is perceived virtue to power that moral shortcomings threaten a king and the state itself.
…[In the Warring States Period], the art of war in China was radically transformed in weaponry, strategy, and army size. Iron now provided stronger, more durable weapons…. It was also during this epoch that cavalry replaced chariots as the primary mobile arm. Threats from nomadic horse people just to the west and north of the Chinese states encouraged the turn to cavalry. In fact, the king of the Choa reformed his cavalry dramatically in 307 [B.C.E.], ordering his soldiers to wear barbarian-style trousers and tight-fitting sleeves in place of robes and to ride horses and learn mounted archery. These cavalrymen lacked stirrups until the end of the Han [Dynasty], and saddles were rudimentary; understandably, this hampered the effectiveness of men on horseback. Therefore, cavalry at first supplemented chariots rather than replacing them, but chariots eventually gave way….
There are five skills and four desires involved in generalship. The five skills are:
- skill in knowing the disposition and power of enemies,
- skill in knowing the ways to advance and withdraw,
- skill in knowing how empty or how full countries are,
- skill in knowing nature’s timing and human affairs, and
- skill in knowing the features of terrain.
The four desires are:
- desire for the extraordinary and unexpected in strategy,
- desire for thoroughness in security,
- desire for calm among the masses, and
- desire for unity of hearts and minds.
The capacities of commanders are not the same; some are greater, some are lesser.
One who spies out treachery and disaster, who wins the allegiance of others, is the leader of ten men.
One who rises early in the morning and retires late at night, and whose words are discreet yet perceptive, is the leader of a hundred men.
One who is direct yet circumspect, who is brave and can fight, is the leader of a thousand men.
One of martial bearing and fierceness of heart, who knows the hardships of others and spares people from hunger and cold, is the leader of ten thousand men.
One who associates with the wise and promotes the able, who is careful of how he spends each day, who is sincere, trustworthy, and magnanimous, and who is guarded in times of order as well as times of disturbance, is the leader of a hundred thousand men.
One whose humanitarian care extends to all under his command, whose trustworthiness and justice win the allegiance of neighboring nations, who understands the signs of the sky above, the patterns of the earth below, and the affairs of humanity in between, and who regards all people as his family, is a world-class leader, one who cannot be opposed.
There are nine types of generals:
Those who guide with virtue, who treat all equally with courtesy, who know when the troops are cold and hungry, and who notice when they are weary and pained, are called humanistic generals.
Those who do not try to avoid any task, who are not influenced by profit, who would die with honor before living in disgrace, are called dutiful generals.
Those who are not arrogant because of their high status, who do not make much of their victories, who are wise but can humble themselves, who are strong but can be tolerant, are called courteous generals.
Those whose extraordinary shifts are unfathomable, whose movements and responses are multifaceted, who turn disaster into fortune and seize victory from the jaws of danger, are called clever generals.
Those who give rich rewards for going ahead and have strict penalties for retreating, whose rewards are given right away and whose penalties are the same for all ranks, even the highest, are called trustworthy generals.
Those who go on foot or on a war-horse, with the mettle to take on a hundred men, who are skilled in the use of close-range weapons, swords, and spears, are called infantry generals.
Those who face the dizzying heights and cross the dangerous defiles, who can shoot at a gallop as if in flight, who are in the vanguard when advancing and in the rear guard when withdrawing, are called cavalry generals.
Those whose mettle makes the armies tremble and whose determination makes light of powerful enemies, who are hesitant to engage in petty fights while courageous in the midst of major battles, are called fierce generals.
Those who consider themselves lacking when they see the wise, who go along with good advice like following a current, who are magnanimous yet able to be firm, who are uncomplicated yet have many strategies, are called great generals.
There are eight kinds of decadence in generalship:
First is to be insatiably greedy.
Second is to be jealous and envious of the wise and able.
Third is to believe slanderers and make friends with the treacherous.
Fourth is to assess others without assessing oneself.
Fifth is to be hesitant and indecisive.
Sixth is to be heavily addicted to wine and sex.
Seventh is to be a malicious liar with a cowardly heart.
Eighth is to talk wildly, without courtesy.
In China, the warrior was despised as a hired killer; aristocrats and commoners alike could bear swords, so there was less of a mythology about swords and their power; and obligation to family was seen as the first duty, whereas in Japan that duty was loyalty to public entities. These differences combined to produce very different histories.
Neither Persians, Greeks, nor Chinese [circa 500 B.C.E.] achieved any marked improvement over the engineering techniques which had been employed by the Assyrians. Fortifications had, in fact, progressed about as far as available means would permit; the art of siegecraft had failed to keep pace. Save for a few exceptional instances of surprise, ruse, or betrayal, walled cities or fortresses were impervious to everything but starvation.
— The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 18
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and the strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
— Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The most potent weapon in any soldier’s arsenal is deception. That you don’t hear much about deception in warfare tells you something about how elusive and apparently rare this item is. Yet, as the ancient Chinese adage puts it, “There can never be enough deception in war.” Sun-tzu went further, saying, “All warfare is based on deception.”
You must come to know the particular conditions that govern a situation so that you can manipulate them to your own advantage. This requires that you understand how conditions dispose you and your opponent in an interdependent relationship along a yin-yang vocabulary of complimentary opposites: strong-weak, fast-slow, many-few, and so on. Finally, once you have arrived at an understanding of your own configuration relative to your opponent’s, you must look for the critical factors which will enable you to turn the unfolding situation into an opportunity.