The Tao of Spycraft: Intelligence, Theory and Practice in Traditional China, by Ralph D. Sawyer, Westview Press, $35.
In the late summer of 1950, Mao Tse-tung called in a North Korean liaison officer, pointed to a map of Korea, and let his finger fall on the city of Inchon. The Chinese leader warned his ally that the Americans were likely to stage an amphibious operation at the port and urged measures be taken to guard against such an event. A few weeks later, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s masterstroke unfolded: United States Marines stormed ashore at the precise spot Mao had fingered, and Kim Il Sung’s North Korean army fell back to its homeland.
Mao Tse-tung’s prediction of the United States’ amphibious landing was one in a long list of Chinese military intelligence feats, a record that Ralph Sawyer traces beginning as early as 1045 B.C. However, Sawyer does not treat the Communist era; as the subtitle of this book indicates, the author’s account is concerned with traditional China. The book does not address internal intelligence; it concentrates on the military aspects of external threats. It also deals with the covert world and the exploitation of identified vulnerabilities by intelligence operatives. Sawyer points out the early Chinese use of sex and bribery, the spreading of rumors, and the wily practice of secretly provoking dissension within the ranks of adversaries. He recounts the 400-200 B.C. identification of five types of spies: local agents recruited from a native population; internal spies clandestinely enticed into service while working within an opponent’s government; double agents, those enemy spies turned to serve the target nation’s purposes; expendable spies who spread traceable lies and rumors; and living agents who return home with required information.
Sawyer, the author of The Complete Art of War, Sun Tzu: Art of War, Sun Pin: Military Methods, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, and One Hundred Unorthodox Strategies: Battle and Tactics of Chinese Warfare, is well qualified to deal with his subject. And, since no comprehensive history of classical China’s military intelligence principles and practices exists, this book fills a yawning void.
Other than educating the reader about the ancient origins of modern-day intelligence operations, the book has little astounding information. However, it is written in a professional and straightforward manner. Most of all, it reveals early Chinese thinking about a vital craft that can save lives and extend a nation’s reach and purpose.