Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Review from The Journal of Military History on Dr. Sawyer's Book on Zhuge Liang

Below is an an excerpt of a review on Dr. Sawyer's recent book on Zhuge Liang written by Dr. Keith Knapp, professor of Chinese history at The Citadel and a specialist in the medieval period, including its military history

            Upon entering any East Asian bookstore, one is struck by the numerous books about the statesman Zhuge Liang (AD 181-234). Much of his popularity is due to his depiction in the fifteenth-century popular novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a sage and military genius. Despite his notoriety in East Asia, there are no book-length studies of Zhuge Liang in English. Thus, this volume is immediately valuable because it makes Zhuge Liang and his thought available to the general English-reading public.

            Rather than assess whether this third-century hero merits the reputation for wisdom and martial acumen he now enjoys in East Asia, the authors’ goal is to understand Zhuge Liang as a historical figure, so that we can better comprehend his writings. To accomplish this task, the book is divided into two parts: the first is a lengthy introduction that introduces the historical background of third-century China, offers a partial translation of Zhuge Liang’s biography in Chen Shou’s (AD233-297) Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, and discusses Zhuge Liang’s military campaigns, strategies, and accomplishments. The second part has translations of Zhuge Liang’s writings on military subjects, as well as two lengthy treatises.

            In assessing Zhuge Liang’s career and military wisdom, the author judiciously supplements Chen Shou’s rather sparse account with Sima Guang’s (AD 1019-1086) much richer historical narrative. By this means the author is able to effectively gauge Zhuge Liang’s success in his southern campaign and his five northern ones. Despite his legendary reputation, the author demonstrates that Zhuge Liang’s efforts to conquer the north were stymied by his lack of boldness, ill choice of subordinates, inflexibility, and excessive caution. His actual accomplishments were administrative rather than military in nature. Adding to the value of the introduction is the partial translation of Zhuge Liang’s biography. One irritant is the authors’ general unwillingness to translate names of official posts. This detracts from the smoothness of the text and to some degree will confound readers. The accompanying maps with handwritten place names could be easier to read and more detailed.

            The second part of the book is devoted to translations of Zhuge Liang’s purported writings. Here even the authors have to admit that not much can be reliably attributed to Zhuge Liang: “Other than letters such as these and the materials preserved in the Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, just what Zhuge Liang wrote remains uncertain” (p. 152). Besides three short documents that the Sawyers reconstruct from medieval Chinese encyclopedias, this part of the book primarily consists of two longer treatises attributed to Zhuge Liang: the Chiang Yüan and the Pien Yi. Although both of these are interesting documents, over the centuries many Chinese scholars have concluded that they are spurious. Neither work is mentioned in a bibliography before the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279). The author maintains both titles appear in a bibliographic treatise of the seventh century History of the Sui (p. 153), but I have been able to find neither in that work. In short, there is no contemporary evidence that they were written by Zhuge Liang. Hence, these documents almost certainly reveal nothing about his thought.

            In sum, the Sawyers have provided the first book in English that exclusively discusses the life and thought of Zhuge Liang, a man East Asians regard as the epitome of a military genius. The book furnishes valuable insights into his career and military thought; as such it is a must read for anyone interested in China’s Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280).

The original post may be read here.  It could be found in The Journal of Military History, Vol 78, No. 3 (July 2014)

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