Dié 諜 – ‘spy/reconnaissance scout’

An important Chinese character related to the ancient Chinese arts of stealth is dié 諜. It is composed with the radical for ‘words’ or ‘speech’ on the left side and a right hand component for the foliage of a tree, prompting some speculation that it first referred to someone concealed in a tree covertly listening to or observing others.

In the Zuo Zhuan 左傳 the word dié 諜 functions both as a noun, referring to ‘spies’, and a verb, meaning ‘to spy upon’. In addition, dié 諜 also designates reconnaissance scouts inconspicuously observing the enemy.

The first use of dié 諜 is found in a passage chronicling events that occurred in 700 B.C:

The forces from Luo 羅, wanting to attack, sent Bo Jia 伯嘉 to spy on them. Three times he went round their encampment, counting them…1


Based on this account, Bo Jia 伯嘉 obviously passed among the Chǔ 楚 forces in some sort of disguise – or in stealth – in order to estimate their total numbers. This was essential information needed for the process of assessing battlefield options under Sun Tzu’s classic approach to warfare.

Yet another passage from the Zuo Zhuan 左傳 states as follows:

The scout (dié 諜) observed birds about the Chǔ 楚 encampment.. 2


The observation of birds, or lack thereof, became a classic hallmark of hidden observers throughout Chinese history. Birds in number, tend to avoid armies so the above example indicated the encampment was abandoned. This exact method was later utilized, and recorded by the Ninja in Japan, almost perfectly connecting the two traditions. The spy/observer would then check on why there were no people in the camp – was it a trap or a genuine retreat?

  1. Zuo Quiming 左丘明, Zuo Zhuan 左傳, Duke Huán 桓 – 12th year, China, 300 BC
  2. Zuo Quiming 左丘明, Zuo Zhuan 左傳, Duke Zhuāng 莊 – 28th year, China, 300 BC