Sun Tzu

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Dissonance: The Art of War Commentators

The Art of War has been translated many times and published in many commentaries, the bulk of which have been militaristic in whole or in part. The commentary makes much of the assumption that Art of War was written as an “experience of war that was often savage, cruel and deadly serious” in the “vastly different context” of “military operations in China during the period of the Warring States” (Teck and Grinyer 1994, 289). An element of this tale is that Art of War was a commissioned work, written by a general for one of the warring lords. There is no reliable evidence supporting these notions. Nevertheless, a brilliant treatise that played a key role in establishing the Chinese empire, and published in millions of copies, is thought by most to be instructions on how to start a fire and kill enemies crossing a river. The first translation done in a European language was published in Paris in 1772, under the title “L’art de la guerre.” Its author was a Jesuit missionary to China, Jean-Jacques Amiot who was not pleased with the translation work done to that time. Following Amiot were Captain E. F. Calthrop and Lionel Giles. More recently, the field has been dominated by General Samuel B. Griffith and Thomas Cleary. For a good many years, there has been a raging battle between the miltarists and those who believe there is more to Bing-fa than war. Griffith dismissed Amiot’s work because he saw it as overly focused on moral and humanitarian issues, causing him to “misinterpret” Bing-fa. He didn’t like what Lionel Giles achieved either. It was

marred throughout by tasteless criticisms. Had this eminent orientalist devoted to his own effort the energy he wasted in denigration of Captain Calthrop’s, one may surmise that his would have been somewhat better than it is. (Griffith 1963, 181)

D. C. Lau has little good to say about Griffith. Roger Ames (1993, 8) said Giles made a “vitriolic and undignified assault” with “unrelenting unkindnesses to poor pioneering Calthrop.” Though Ames commends the “invaluable insights” of Griffith, he can’t find an equal reason to praise Giles and Cleary. Griffith’s work “is superior to Giles’s [sic] and to recent popular attempts such as the Thomas Cleary translation, informed as the latter is by neither practical military wisdom nor scholarship.” Cleary got his turn with Wilhelm’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower. He accuses Wilhelm of “reading weird and superstitious ideas into the text,” and in a burst of indignation, refers to him in the space of three sentences as having published a work that was confused, misconstrued, unreliable, flawed, and dysfunctional (1991). Says Handel (1992, 158),

None of the currently available translations of Sun Tzu is entirely accurate. Each translator has employed some modern Western phrases or words that do not exist in the original and has inevitably, even if unintentionally, contributed some of his own ideas. This is particularly true of General Griffith’s readable translation, and less so of the Giles translation.

Tang Zi-Chang (1969, 175) says Griffith’s work has “chapter headings [that] do not correspond with the accurate Chinese meanings nor are they proper English military terminology.” A good example of this never-ending debate can be seen in Wee et al. (1996, 296). In the latter years of the twentieth century, Bing-fa became the darling of martial artists, militarists, and writers enamored with the wars and warriors of ancient Asia. James Clavell enthusiastically proposed that military officers should be required to write examinations on Bing-fa, which, if they fail, would lead to dismissal or demotion.

I truly believe that if our military and political leaders had studied [Sun Tzu], Vietnam could not have happened, we would not have lost the war in Korea; the Bay of Pigs could not have occurred; the hostage fiasco in Iran could not have come to pass; the British Empire would not have been dismembered; and in all probability, World Wars I and II would have been avoided—certainly they would have not been waged as they were waged, and the millions of youths obliterated unnecessarily and stupidly by monsters calling themselves generals would have lived out their lives. (Clavell 1993, 1–2)

Clavell never does explain just how Bing-fa could influence or prevent all these events, but he tells us he “believe[s] The Art of War shows quite clearly how to take the initiative and combat the enemy—any enemy.” This is not Bing-fa but Clausewitz, who said there is really only one key decisive element in war: “sheer overwhelming force. Rudnicki says Art of War is simply “Thirteen Chapters about war.” Lau and Ames (1996, 59) say it is “an important classical text on the subject of warfare [which explains] why it has come down to us through an unbroken transmission.” Ames (1993, 7) tells us he consulted exclusively with “China’s leading scholars in military affairs” to write his “definitive Sun Tzu.” Forcing Bing-fa into the military genre with Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Antoine Henri, Baron de Jomini has led to bizarre interpretations and conclusions. Is it reasonable that a manual on military tactics has gained Bing-fa “a place in the world’s literature,” philosophical or not? Manuals do not as a rule make great literature, and as a war manual Bing-fa just doesn’t cut it. It is in fact often discredited in the military canon. Considerable pain has been taken at times to maintain the militaristic charade. The commentary achieves this by the insertion of new material or by an extravagant and convoluted interpretation of what Bing-fa must have meant. When the practical matters of the conduct of war cannot be found, the commentators become apologists for Bing-fa’s inadequacy, or they simply add in the missing bits. To date, no commentator has seen that Bing-fa is focused on conflict free organizational and engagement management. Stefan Rudnicki’s Art of War contains material from General Colin Powell, Marshal Turenne, and Stonewall Jackson. He even arranges to have “Sun Tzu the warrior” commenting on Sun Tzu. Like General Tao Hanzhang, Rudnicki does not favor us with references, but he does tell us unhelpfully that his “version is mostly derived” from the Giles translation. In Art of War there is nothing on how to conduct a siege, how to treat sickness and wounds, and how to set up and maintain supply lines. We must look elsewhere for instructions on the care of horses and other beasts of burden. Lau and Ames say Art of War mentions crossbows only twice because they weren’t popular at that time (1996, 43). Griffith provides reams of information on weaponry gathered from other sources, because in his view there just isn’t enough in Art of War. He adds to this misdemeanor with strange extrapolations that have no foundation in the text:

The organization described by Sun Tzu permitted considerable flexibility in march formations, while articulation made possible rapid deployment into those suitable for battle. The five man squad or section could obviously march either in rank or file. (1963, 37)

The commentary, frustrated at its inability to see what Bing-fa is really all about, blames it and never themselves. Vaughan Yarwood reviewed Krause’s work in July 1996 in Management and was favorably impressed. But Art of War did not fare so well. Yarwood noted that Krause “included nuggets of the original’s sketchy and disordered text for flavor.” But Handel (1992, 22, 54) disagrees with that take to a point. “Many strategists are more comfortable reading Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz’s On War, whose methodology and style are not as easy to follow. On War lends itself to facile, hence erroneous, comparisons because it is seldom read in its entirety.” But, says Handel, one gets real value by taking the time to read all of Clausewitz. “The concepts for which Clausewitz is most renowned are all set forth by Sun Tzu in The Art of War, although Clausewitz analyzes them in more detail and may express them in more elegantly worded aphorisms.” General Tao Hanzhang (1987, 90) says, “The main shortcomings of Sun Tzu’s Art of War are that it does not discuss the nature of war.” Michael Handel is unsure what you can use Art of War for, unless you want to study how a prince sees things from a lofty perch.

Unlike On War, The Art of War does not offer the reader a systematic explanation or step-by-step reconstruction of the logical process through which concepts are developed. From this point of view, The Art of War reads more like a manual written as a compact guide for the ‘prince’ or higher ranking military commander. Thus, while Clausewitz leads the reader through a tortuous - though educationally rewarding—reasoning process, Sun Tzu, for the most part presents the reader with his conclusions. (1992, 22)

In 1929, Tang Zi-Chang said that his military science mentor told him that while “Sun Zi wrote a very profound book, it is not well organized.” In Zi-Chang’s view, Art of War is in disorder because of the effects of time and deterioration of writing materials (1969, 13). Though Giles calls Ts’ao Ts’ao (155–220 CE) a military genius and a great writer, he also says his commentary was “scarcely intelligible” and as much in need of analysis as Art of War itself. Much of the commentator argument has focused on specific passages. Griffith translates III.4 this way: “Thus what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” Giles, he says, not only translates the passage incorrectly, but (predictably) is being too soft, as usual, in imagining Art of War had in mind “to balk the enemy’s plans.” Griffith apparently missed Giles’s definition of “balking.” To him it meant “an active policy of counter-attack.” There is, however, a continuing line of analysts who have veered from the established militarist path. Tu Mu was isolated for his pacific views about Bing-fa. Cheng Hou dared suggest that Bing-fa might have been a work of philosophy that simply used military tactics for illustration. In reaction, Chu His expressed his astonishment and resentment to this, audacious comparison with the venerated classical works of a document that encourages a ruler’s bent towards unrelenting warfare and reckless militarism. (Giles 1910)

Ou-yang Hsiu, a thousand years after Bing-fa was created, praised Mei Sheng-yu and offered his reaction to those who imagined that Bing-fa was not a manual for the conduct of war:

Later scholars have misread Sun Tzu, distorting his words and trying to make them square with their own one-sided views. Thus, though commentators have not been lacking, only a few have proved equal to the task. My friend Sheng-yu has not fallen into this mistake. In attempting to provide a critical commentary for Sun Tzu’s work, he does not lose sight of the fact that these sayings were intended for states engaged in internecine warfare; that the author is not concerned with the military conditions prevailing under the sovereigns of the three ancient dynasties, nor with the nine punitive measures prescribed to the Minister of War. In his own commentary, Mei Sheng-yu has brushed aside all the obstinate prejudices of these critics, and has tried to bring out the true meaning of Sun Tzu himself. In this way, the clouds of confusion have been dispersed and the sayings made clear. I am convinced that the present work deserves to be handed down side by side with the three great commentaries; and for a great deal that they find in the sayings, coming generations will have constant reason to thank my friend Sheng-yu. Making some allowance for the exuberance of friendship, I am inclined to endorse this favorable judgment, and would certainly place him above Ch’en Hao in order of merit.

Lau and Ames (1996, 41) suggest Bing-fa’s imagery “naturalizes the military culture, by bringing together military detail and philosophical ideas.”

Contemporary scholars who work on classical Chinese military thought [consider Sun Tzu to be] a philosophical text. In a highly conceptual and even philosophical way, Sun-tzu addresses the issues of warfare, the operations of the military, its strategy, tactics, and so on. It is, in their view, the fact that Sun Tzu is philosophical, that has assured it a place in the world’s literature, while the Sun Pin has been ‘lost to posterity.’ (ibid., 57)

Roger Ames (1993, 35, 40-41, 73) shows insight when he tells us that “military strategy can be used as a source of metaphors to shape philosophical distinctions and categories.” He says teaching practices at the time Bing-fa was created “grounded” theory and philosophy in experiences and “evocative metaphors.” These devices were intended to aid learning and the development of knowledge, not through rote but through cognitive processes. This is all very good. But he then says, “The place of [Bing-fa] as the fundamental work in classical military literature is unassailable.” Mark McNeilly is one of the modern commentators who has helped move Bing-fa from the battlefield to the boardroom. But he confesses that it has not been easy.

Because business, like warfare, is dynamic, fast-paced, and requires an effective and efficient use of scarce resources, modern executives have found value in Sun Tzu’s teachings. But The Art of War is arranged for the military leader and not the CEO, so making connections between ancient warfare and today’s corporate world is not always easy.

If only he had shown that Bing-fa’s messages and benefits were all about careful observation, evaluation, and settlement with the least possible disturbance. Bing-fa is the stuff of strategic planning and management, and both military and civilian organizations are in woeful need of help along these lines. The military commentary has no room for alternate methods of inter-organization management and dispute resolution. Some even dismiss the value of intelligence gathering in situations leading to, or in the midst of, conflict. They never challenge the notion of inherent value in competition and the inevitability of conflict. Some imagine conflict to be beneficial. “Strategic management” to these folks is all about the economics of loss prevention. The competent general, in this view, achieves the objective, without completely destroying the objective or his own forces. But if subduing the enemy takes destruction, then so be it. Some are able to articulate war as a beneficial activity. James Clavell says, “Since ancient times, it has been known that the true object of war is peace” (1983, 7). R. L. Wing says the purpose of Bing-fa was “to outline specific strategies to overcome conflicts while viewing the world as a complete and interdependent system that must be preserved” (1988, 13). Now consider an example of missing information—in this case, what the militarist really needs to know about types of warfare. About “mountain warfare,” Art of War says you should camp high up, but don’t climb to fight. On the subject of “river warfare,” it says to moor your craft higher up than the enemy’s and not to move upstream to meet him. Instructions for campaigning in salt marshes and in dry level country total three lines.

James Clavell adds what he imagines is helpful content about river navigation when he reviews chapter IX. “Do not move upstream to meet the enemy. Our fleet must not be anchored below that of the enemy, for then they would be able to take advantage of the current and make short work of you.” In another invention he says, “In crossing salt marshes … get over them quickly because of the lack of fresh water, and poor quality of the herbage.” And again, Art of War's “dispersive ground” means that “soldiers, being near to their homes and anxious to see their wives and children, are likely to seize the opportunity afforded by a battle and scatter in every direction” (1983, 42–43, 56). He may have borrowed this fascinating idea from Calthrop, who describes “distracting ground” this way (1908, 58). When commentators read in IX.14 about waiting until the river subsides before crossing it, they understand only that it is foolish to cross a swollen river. They take an equally literal meaning from IX.3–5, where Art of War discusses “getting away from rivers” and “meeting enemies at, or in rivers.” Chapter IX illustrates how one can derive facts from appearances though careful observation and interpretation. Using wood lore metaphors, Art of War speaks of forests and dust clouds. Oblivious to the metaphor, commentators debate the details. This has been taken to an absurd level by Machell-Cox, who discusses the tactical uses of trees and shrubs. He suggests that in the upcoming (1940s) Japanese campaign, “the Services” would benefit if data were assembled on such matters (Machell-Cox 1943, 43). Zi-Chang (1969, 54) says that when the army is in “disturbed country … help the rulers to unite.” Krause (1995, 2) says, “Sun Tzu’s central idea is that battles or competitions are won by the organization or person who, first has the greatest competitive advantage and who, second, makes the fewest mistakes.” Speaking of “the army on the march,” Art of War says, “Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare.” Moving from mountains to streams, Art of War says, “After crossing a river, you should get far away from it.” Sawyer (1996, 26) says the lines on “terrain” were the first systematic study of the subject. But Art of War, when it suggested “camp[ing] in high places, facing the sun,” was not suggesting where the army should pitch its tents. Sawyer (1993, 172 note 118) says that armies shouldn’t camp downstream from their enemies because of the possibility of “suddenly released flood waters.” That might well be a threat if the army was encamped under the “enemy’s” dam. The Art of War instructions on fighting with fire and water are, from a literal view, plainly absurd. Art of War is not written in “very specific and operational terms,” as one (better) commentator has it (Teck and Grinyer 1994, 289). But such an analysis is up against powerful forces. “Really sound knowledge of topography, movement and supply are the foundations of military knowledge, not tactics and strategy as most people think” (Machell-Cox 1943, 6). Where Bing-fa says ensure you will be victorious before you engage, they see an admonition to pick on weaklings. Wee et al. (1996, 110) say it is essential that you “find the right victim [as] the chosen target must be an easy prey.” This represents a serious misunderstanding of Bing-fa’s strength management methodology. It also is in direct conflict with the ethical standards set out in both Bing-fa and the Tao Te Ching. General Griffith (1963, 87) shows some minor advance over Wee et al. when he tells us, “Anciently those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered.” Nevertheless, it is still a long journey to achieve compliance (or even resonance) with the admonitions of the Tao Te Ching:

If actions are approached, and carried out in the natural way, the power of evil is reduced, and so the ruler and the ruled are equally protected. They will not contrive to harm each other, for the virtue of one refreshes the other. (60)

The commentators agree that chapter X describes six types of “ground,” but then imagine that chapter XI defines nine types of “situations” or “grounds.” The evident redundancy escapes them. Chapter X is about engagement situations, and as Krause and Tang Zi-Chang have seen, chapter XI is about engagement dynamics. But there are other problems with the commentary. Over the last 2300 years, it is possible that modifications may have been made to the text. It could well be that elements, including the tone of Sun Pin could have been blended into Bing-fa. The 1972 the oldest known Bing-fa manuscript was recovered from an ancient tomb near Linyi in Shandong. It differs from all the known militarist Bing-fa versions used by the commentary. J. H. Huang has made a very significant contribution to linking today’s “Art of War” with Qin’s Bing-fa. His first challenge was to the accepted meaning of the word “war” in “Art of War.” “Art of War,” he feels, may be no more than a later added mistranslation. Huang’s knowledge of the Bing-fa epoch, culture, language, philosophy, and writing style, and his focus on the Linyi text have enabled him to examine Bing-fa from a fresh perspective. He followed the same linguistic analysis process Paul Lin used with the Tao Te Ching, and achieved a high level of coherence as a result. His conclusion: the persistent war context and application of Bing-fa is highly suspect. But it is more than “suspect." The Bing-fa thesis is crystal clear: conflict free management and engagement are critically important. Ensure control. Ensure minimal loss and costs - to all parties. With great clarity and even stridency, Bing-fa says that if relations have dissolved into conflict, then the cause and consequence is failure. Organizations – and perhaps the wider community - will suffer.

D.G. Jones, author of The School of Sun Tzu, available from iuniverse.

Biographical Works[edit | edit source]

Offline Reading Material[edit | edit source]

Primary Texts[edit | edit source]

  • Sun Tzu - The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith, translation & commentary, forward by B.H. Liddell Hart, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1971), ISBN 0-19-501476-6
  • Sun Tzu on the Art of War, Lionel Giles, translation & commentary, (Singapore: Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd., 1993), ISBN 9971-49-107-9
  • Sun-Tzu The Art of Warfare, Roger T. Ames, translation & commentary, (NY: Ballentine, 1993), ISBN 0-345-36239-X (first English translation incorporating the recently discovered Yin-ch’üeh-shan texts)
  • Art of War, Ralph D. Sawyer, translation & commentary, (CO: Westview, 1994), ISBN 0-8133-1951-X
  • Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Thomas Cleary, translation & commentary, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1988), ISBN 0-87773-452-6
  • Sun Tzu: The New Translation, J.H. Huang, translation & commentary, (NY: William Morrow, 1993), ISBN 0-688-12400-3
  • "The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War." David G. Jones (iuniverse)(ISBN 978-1-4697-6911-0; 978-1-4697-6912-7)
  • Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Yuan Shibang, translator; commentary by General Tao Hanshang, (NY: Sterling Publishing Co., 1990), ISBN 0-8069-6639-4
  • Sun Zi: The Art of War, Zhang Huimin, translator, Maj. Gen. Xie Guoliang, commentary, (Beijing, Panda Books, n.d.), ISBN 0-8351-3176-9
  • Sun Zi Speaks: The Art of War, illustrator, Tsai Chih Chung; translated by Brian Bruya, (NY: Doubleday, 1994 ), ISBN 0-385-47258-7
  • The Essentials of War, Zhong Qin, transcription & translation, (Beijing: New World Press, 1996), ISBN 7-80005-331-8
  • Sun Tzu: The Technology of War, C. Thorne, Translation and Commentary, (2010) ISBN 978-0-9858806-9-9

Commentaries and Articles[edit | edit source]

  • Sun Zi’s Art of War: A Picture Story Book, 6 vols., Ma Shouliang, et alia, editorial committee, (Hangzhou: Zhejiang People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1995), ISBN 7-5340-0312-1/G-38
  • Mastering the Art of War: Zhuge Liang & Liu Ji, Thomas Cleary, translation & commentary, (Boston: Shambhala, 1988), ISBN 0-87773-513-1
  • Emerson M. S. Niou & Peter C. Ordeshook, “A game-theoretic interpretation of Sun Tzu's Art of War,” Journal of Peace Research. 1994 May; 31(2):161-174.
  • Edward O'Dowd & Arthur Waldron, “Sun Tzu for strategists,” Comparative Strategy. 1991; 10:25-36.
  • Laure Paquette, “Strategy and time in Clausewitz's On War and in Sun Tzu's The Art of War.” Comparative Strategy. 1991; 10:37-51.
  • Christopher C. Rand, “Chinese military thought and philosophical Taoism.” Monumenta Serica. 1979; 34:171-218.
  • Benjamin E. Wallacker, “Two concepts in early Chinese military thought,” Language. 1966; 42(2):295-299.

Biographical Works[edit | edit source]