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Shashoujian: A Strategic Revelation or Simply an Idiom?

Jun 23, 2013

This is the story of a word: how it emerged, was selectively interpreted and then exploited in US-Sino policy discourse. The Chinese term shashoujian firstappeared in American policy literature in 1999. Despite the fact that shashoujian had been translated by FBIS and other linguists into more than a dozen loosely-related concepts, many non-threatening and innocuous, the term surfaced in 2002 Congressional testimony and shortly thereafter in Department of Defense documents carrying a singular definition, usually “assassin’s mace.” 

The American military literary community adopted shashoujian by 2004where it became a staple word in analyses of Chinese weapons development ambitions and strategy. Shashoujian ultimately reached the American popular press. Despite efforts by the informed to contextualize shashoujian as a common idiom or colloquialism, shashoujian persists in the China Threat terminological armamentarium. Understanding what has happened to shashoujian is a useful model of how American scholars can exploit obscure terms to support policy positions, and ultimately overcomplicate China. 

Michael Pillsbury unearthed the term from open sources in 1999. In November 2001, Pillsbury published a chronology of public mentions of shashoujian among China’s military leadership from 1995 through 1999. He also introduced the translation “assassin’s mace”.  Pillsbury cited Thomas Torda who had compiled 14 weapon systems described by the Chinese as “shashoujian” including “joint information warfare” strategies, “supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles”, “electromagnetic pulse weapons”, and others. A translation of an August, 1999 speech by Jiang Zemin used the far less threatening “military transformation” as the English definition of his uttered shashoujian. The mystification of shashoujian reached its apogee in 2004 in a long paper by Jason Bruzdzinski who crafted an ancient and culturally-ingrained etymology of the term, placing it squarely in the category of a mysterious and difficult to penetrate element within Chinese military strategic thought. 

Alastair Iain Johnston had posted a paper in August, 2002 in an attempt to deconstruct the mystical context scholars were layering upon shashoujian. Through term-frequency analysis Johnston showed that before 1999 shashoujian was virtually undetectable in Chinese military and political rhetoric but had been widely used in economics earlier.  It also was common in Chinese popular culture. The academic community “went quiet” on the word after 2006, perhaps heeding Johnston’s cautions. 

Despite Johnston’s attempt to defang shashoujian scholars who consistently have positioned China as a military threat to US interests have kept shashoujian alive. In the autumn of 2002 Robert Ross wrote that shashoujian was a significant component of China’s weapons development. Harlan W. Jencks elevated shashoujian to a level deserving of a separate chapter in a forthcoming book. 

In literature from Senior Service Colleges shashoujian has persisted as a “go to” term to describe elements of Chinese military strategy. In 2007 Christopher J. Larson dedicated nine pages to his visions of assassin’s mace weapons, quoting heavily from Pillsbury. Also in 2007 David A. Kummings attributed shashoujian characteristics to China’s submarine program. Andrew Krepinevich used the term in 2009 article in Foreign Affairs. Manuscripts by Rickard (2009), Cowan (2009), Erickson (2009), Paff (2011), McCauliffe (2011), Cheng (2011) and others all used shashoujian and its more threatening English translations to support policy positions. 

Outside of the China Threat School, by 2008 shashoujian had begun to lose steam as an impact term. More nuanced perspectives emerged within the defense analysis community itself. For example, RAND analysts warned about the vagueness of shashoujian. Civilian voices such as Gregory Kulacki’s raised warnings. Dennis Blasko pointed out that while shashoujian may have become a common term in PLA rhetoric, it was difficult to see how PLA traditions would readily give way. 

These analysts have resurrected Johnston’s cautions, and perhaps they are having an impact.  In the DOD “Annual Report to Congress: “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China”, the term “assassin’s mace” first appeared in the FY 2003 report and was in every report through FY 2009. However, in the comparable FY 2010 report, it had finally disappeared. 

American defense and international affairs analysts are understandably keen to develop early views into Chinese strategic developments.  By identifying, interpreting and then exploiting shashoujian, was a significant strategic insight gained? Or had they simply overheard Chinese leaders using linguistic shorthand for a variety of loosely-related concepts? Time has shown that in the case of shashoujian, it is the latter; they had captured ephemera.

Mark J. Gabrielson was educated at Princeton and is now a graduate student at the Harvard University Extension School in History. He also serves as a research intern at the Naval War College in the Department of Maritime History and the Department of National Security Affairs. His recent publications include the book Deer Isle’s Undefeated America’s Cup Crews: Humble Heroes from a Downeast Island (Charleston, SC. The History Press. 2013) and a co-authored e-brief “The ‘Tamil Nadu Factor’ in China’s Naval Basing Ambitions in Sri Lanka.” (Foreign Policy Research Institute. December, 2012). He is grateful to Joan Johnson-Freese at the Naval War College, Alastair Ian Johnston, Erez Manela, and Liang Xu who commented on and improved early drafts. 

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