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Simafa 司馬法

Jan 12, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Simafa 司馬法 "Methods of the Minister of War" is an ancient military treatise. It belongs to the corpus of the Seven Military Classics (Wujing qishu 武經七書). Authorship is attributed to Tian Rangju 田穰苴, called Sima Rangju 司馬穰苴 "Rangju, Minister of War", a general of the state of Qi 齊 during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). The book is therefore also known under the title Sima Rangju bingfa 司馬穰苴兵法 or Sima bingfa 司馬兵法.

The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 says the book Junli sima fa 軍禮司馬法 "Methods of the Minister of War concerning military rituals" was 155 chapters-long. The bibliographical chapter Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the Suishu 隋書 speaks of a Simafa of 3 juan of length. The received version is only 1 juan-long and includes 5 chapters. It seems that the original text of the Simafa included not only recommendations for the conduct of war, but also prescriptions for military ceremonies and military law.

Parts of the text might have originated in the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), and there is written evidence that King Wei of Qi 齊威王 (r. 379-343) ordered to assemble fragments and reconstruct a text then called Sima Rangju bingfa. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907), no more than 10 chapters were left of the text as is existed during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), and the text as transmitted today was reduced to no more than 5 chapters during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Contraditions in different parts of the text demonstrate that the Simafa was a concoction of texts of different origin, and not the coherent product of a single author or group of authors.

About the life of the purported author, virtually nothing is known. Most famous is a story in which Sima Rangju demonstrated the importance of command and obedience by having executed grand master Zhuang Jia 莊賈 because the latter appeared late to an appointment for military review.

The text of the Simafa is to be found, for instance, in the collectanea Xu guyi congshu 續古逸叢書, which reproduces a Song-period print, as well as Siku quanshu 四庫全書, Zishu baijia 子書百家, Zhihai 指海, Sibu beiyao 四部備要, and Sibu congkan 四部叢刊.

Sima Rangju saw warfare as part of the common administration, and defined situations in which a ruler might justfully resort to war, for instance, in order to pacify a country, save the population from further disturbances, or in order to stop warfare by war (yi zhan zhi zhan 以戰止戰爭). Respect for civilian life was a crucial matter. Campaigns should not be carried out during agricultural seasons (summer, autumn). Even the population on the enemy's territory was to be respected, for instance, when a plague or natural disasters ragaved the country. Respect of the political competitor can be seen in the recommendation not to attack a country in mourning for a deceased ruler. Traditional principles of honour and respect can also be seen in the custom not to pursue fleeing troops farther than one hundred paces.

Although the author operates with the concept of the six virtues (liude 六德) ritual (li 禮), kindheartedness (ren 仁), trust (xin 信), righteousness (yi 義), bravery (yong 勇) and wisdom (zhi 智), which are usually associated with Confucianism. Sima Rangju stresses that moral values prevalent in the civilian sphere could not be used in war. Benevolence in civilian government, for instance, was expressed by creating trust, while in warfare, military spirit (wu 武) had to prevail. While the civilian sphere operated based on harmony (he 和), only methodical prescriptions (fa 法) would provide order in the rank and files. "Harmony" nevertheless played a certain role among the troops, otherwise an army would not be able to fight with a united spirit.

The author highlights the importance of leadership qualifications a general should have. A general must be a competent person able to incite the commitment of the officer corps and the common troops. He had to calculate calmly and deep-sighted and to make himself free of personal emotions, even in the face of imminent danger. Hotspurs were not good generals.

A general had to care for the well-being of his troops (provisions, clothing, weaponry) and to light the necessary martial fire in their hearts. On entering the enemy's territory an army had to keep together closely and to avoid to exposing weak points the enemy might attack. The troops and draft animals had to save their forces to be ready for battle at any time. Rewards and punishments certainly had their use, but Sima Rangju warns to apply them excessively. Neither should reward after victory make the troops arrogant, nor should punishment after defeat deprive them of their spirits. The same was true for the general himself. In case of defeat, he should take over responsibility by himself, and not blame the army.

It was important to consider five points (wulü 五慮) before engaging in war: weather and seasons (tian shun 天順), funding (fu cai 阜財), the fighting spirit of the troops (yi zhong 懌眾), topography (li di 利地), and armament (you bing 右[=佑]兵). Spies (jian 間) would have to find out about the strength and operations of the enemy, in order to know whether it would be possible to defeat him. The use of reconnaisance is strictly recommended, as well as close observation of all inimical movements.

Arousing the spirit of the people was called guiding principles of warfare (zhan zhi dao 戰之道). The "seven administrative aspects" (qizheng 七政) were men (ren 人), uprightness (zheng 正), language (ci 辭), skills (qiao 巧), attack by fire (huo 火), attack by/on water (water 水), and weapons (bing 兵). These were to be applied in the right way. Benevolence (ren 仁), credibility (xin 信), straightforwardness (zhi 直), unity (yi), righteousness (yi 義), change (bian 變, and centralized authority (zun 尊 were guiding principles for imposing order on chaos (zhi luan zhi dao 治亂之道).

Acceptance [of constraints] (shou 受), laws or standards (fa 法), establishment [of the talented and upright] (li 立), urgency [in administration] (ji 疾), distinguishing with insignia (yu qi fu 御其服), ordering the colours (deng qi se 等其色), and no nonstandard uniforms among the officers (baiguan yi wu yin fu 百官宜無淫服), were guiding principles for establishing laws (li fa zhi dao 立法之道).

Training was an integral part of preparation for battle. Troops had to know how to interprete signals, how to use their individual weapons, and how to create formations. The Simafa has a special paragraph on defence which was carried out sitting, kneeling or prostrated. Most important in all fighting situations was the density of the formation.

Each weapon had a specified use: Bow and arrow for attack, maces and spears (shu mao 殳矛) for defence, dagger-axes and spear-halberds (ge ji 戈戟)for support. The long weapons protected the short, and the short rescued the long.

The methods described in the book Simafa were applied by generals of the Warring States period. The famous warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220) from the very late Eastern Han period 後漢 (25-220) often quoted from the book. In practical matters, the Simafa had an influence which can easily be compared with the far better known book Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法.

There is a complete translation of the Simafa by Ralph D. Sawyer (1993).

Table 1. Chapters of the Simafa 司馬法
1. 仁本 Renben Benevolence of the foundation
2. 天子之義 Tianzi zhi yi Obligations of the Son of Heaven
3. 定爵 Dingjue Determining rank
4. 嚴位 Yanwei Strict position
5. 用眾 Yongzhong Employing masses
Sources:
Chen Enlin 陳恩林 (1994). Zhongguo Chunqiu Zhanguo junshi shi 中國春秋戰國軍事史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe). (Zhongguo quanshi, bai juan ben 中國全史,百卷本).
Sawyer, Ralph D. (1993), The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder: Westview).
Xu Yingli 徐英立 (1989). "Simafa 司馬法", Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Junshi 軍事 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2: 943-944.