The History of the Culture of War
War and the culture of war at the dawn of history:
Ancient China
5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


The development of the first empire in China followed a course of war and culture of war that was remarkably similar, although apparently independent, of the earlier empires in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This is described in the section on the Shang Dynasty in the UNESCO history, including the social structures of the culture of war such as slavery, monarchy and male dominantion:

"As early as 1600 BC, China entered the Bronze Age, with her oldest civilization coming into being. This civilization founded the earliest state organization, built fortified cities, created a writing system, developed bronze metallurgy and casting, and other cultural innovations. All this happened in the Shang period in China's history . . "

"The Shang dynasty ruled a slave-owning state. As the largest slave owner, the Shang king was always launching wars upon other tribes in order to seize as many captives as possible. Being their owners' tools and property, slaves had to engage in all sorts of productive and domestic work and, moreover, they were often given away as awards and gifts, and even sacrificed as human victims to be buried with their dead owner or offered to gods and spirits in religious ceremonies. In the royal burial area of the Yin ruins, numerous sacrificial pits arranged regularly have been uncovered, each containing about a dozen headless skeletons, the remains of human victims in successive memorial ceremonies to the departed Shang kings. According to statistical data, the Yin ruins have yielded human victims totaling over 2,300 . . such large-scale slaughter reflects the slave-owning nature of Shang society.

The Shang state was a monarchy, with the king holding sovereign power and governing the aristocracy, consisting of the chiefs of numerous tribes . . Men held the dominant position in the family, though women enjoyed a few social rights as well..."

The subservience of women in ancient China is illustrated by the following excerpt from a poem by Fu Xuan in the Third Century BC:

"How sad it is to be a woman!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
Then she grows up, she hides in her room
Afraid to look a man in the face.
No one cries when she leaves her home--
Sudden as clouds when the rain stops.
She bows her head and composes her face,
Her teeth are pressed on her red lips:
She bows and kneels countless times.
She must humble herself even to the servants."

It is not clear from the UNESCO history to what point various social classes, other than masters and slaves, were distinguished during the Shang Dynasty, although in the succeeding dynasty in China, the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC), it was certainly developed:

"The king and vassals controlled a whole set of bureaucratic apparatus, which managed daily governing affairs according to the wills of the rulers. Among the ruled there was the plebeian class who cultivated the 'private field' under the jing-tian system and had to work in the 'communal field' for the feudal lord; still they managed to keep their freeman status. At the bottom of society were slaves who had lost their personal liberty."

According to the UNESCO history, it was not until the Western Zhou Dynasty that religion came to fully support the culture of war:

"Some new religious ideas, for instance, the concept of the Supreme God (Shang-Ti), came into existence. The Supreme God was believed to be the sovereign dominating all other gods, and it was he who granted the 'mandate of the heaven' to the kings and entrusted them with the power of ruling the world. Such use of religious ideas for maintaining the dynasty's domination was a new development."

Did the arts glorify the culture of war in ancient Chinese civilizations? One can point to the recently-discovered life-sized terracotta soldiers buried during the Qin Dynasty around 207 BC, which was the period during which the Great Wall of China was completed. However, this spectacular finding was not necessarily pertinent to the everyday culture of the period, since it was buried with the emperor. From the earliest dynasties, Shang and Western Zhou, there are paintings and murals, but again they do not seem to have been designed to glorify the culture of war.

Important manuscripts have been preserved from the Western Zhou Dynasty, including the I Jing (divination manual), the Shi Jing (Book of Odes) and the Shu Jing (Book of Documents). The latter includes many documents relating to warfare, such as "the speech at the battle of Gan," "The punitive expedition of Yin", "the successful completion of the war on Shang", although the essential themes of these manuscripts seemed to have been more philosophical, laying the basis for the ideology of Confucius (551-479 BC).

Sun Tzu's Art of War dates from the time of Confucius. This book on military strategy and tactics has been very influential throughout Chinese history and is still respected by military minds today, having been used extensively by Mao Tse Tung. An English translation of the full text of its 13 chapters is available on the Internet at

Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of warfare to the state and of authoritarian control to the culture of war. He begins as follows with a phrase that sums up the most important message of the present book:

"The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure."

Of special interest to our thesis are Sun Tzu's assertions on control of information, in particular the role of secrecy and surprise:

"All warfare is based on deception.

Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.

Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand."

To take part in a discussion about this page, go to the Forum on the Dawn of History on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board
World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?