China Power

China: Doublethink Nation?

What ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ and Sun Tzi’s ‘Art of War’ say about Chinese thinking.

In my last entry I talked about the inherent conflict of ideals highlighted by two classic works of literature—1984 and Dao De Jing—and what they say about the prospects for the West getting along with China.

I’d like to expand on that a little more by considering the two classic texts of Chinese strategy and diplomacy—The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Sun Tzi’s Art of War, because their depth of creative duplicity makes The Prince read like How to Win Friends & Influence People.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a long and rambling epic, but at its heart is the story of two generals, Liu Bei and his nemesis Cao Cao, in a quest for supremacy in the twilight of a dynasty. Liu Bei supposedly represents virtue and humility while Cao Cao represents opportunism and ambition. Liu Bei is forced into a leadership position to defend his emperor, and when his emperor dies his followers plead with him to resurrect a new empire. And, although Liu Bei at first refuses, circumstances and the determination of his followers force him to put on the crown. 

Cao Cao also took up the sword to defend his emperor, but once opportunity presented itself he immediately began plotting to take the throne. There’s no difference in action between Liu Bei and Cao Cao (they’re both ambitious schemers who manipulate and deceive their followers), but it’s Liu Bei’s hypocrisy and duplicity that make him the hero. In Orwellian terms, Liu Bei has perfected doublethink.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Here is Orwell’s description of doublethink: 

'Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.'


Now read some of Sun Tzi’s strategies: 

'Secret machinations are better concealed in the open than in the dark, and extreme public exposure often contains extreme secrecy.' 

'You conceal your hostility by assuming outward friendliness. You ingratiate yourself with enemies, inducing them to trust you. When you have their confidence, you can move against them in secret.'

'Inflict minor or non-fatal injury on oneself to gain the enemy’s trust. This is a technique particularly for undercover agents: you make yourself look like a victim of your own people in order to win the sympathy and confidence of enemies.'


The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a description of doublethink in practice, and Sun Tzi’s Art of War is an instruction manual on how to implement doublethink. (There really are too many Liu Beis scattered throughout Chinese history, the most famous being of course Mao Zedong.) 

Compare these foundational texts of the Chinese empire with that of the Roman empire, Virgil’s Aeneid. The Trojan Aeneas has two main qualities: he’s pious and honest. Many Chinese would find him an idiot, and even Virgil depicts him as lacking any agency or ideas of his own. He’s neither a thinker nor a debater, and he comes truly alive and displays his personality only on the battlefield where by leading his Trojans to vanquish the Latin tribes arrayed against him he sows the seeds of the Roman empire.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

And Americans admire above all else George Washington, a simple honest warrior who fathered a country and who in return asked for nothing more than to retire to his Virginia farm. Both Aeneas and George Washington would be horrified by the Art of War, and many Chinese would likely find both these men simple-minded and naïve. But the two are the heroes of history’s two greatest empires, and that’s no accident. A nation that worships Aeneas or Washington also typically worships hard work and honesty, duty and honor. And a nation that worships Sun Tzi and Mao Zedong also in many cases worships dishonesty and duplicity, deception and scheming: 

China is full of practitioners of doublethink, and Orwell warned us that the ultimate consequence of doublethink is a people incapable of progress, a culture trapped in an inward-looking game of deception and duplicity. Thus, China’s long history is not its most blessed strength but strongest curse.