Sunday, August 23, 2015

Other Insights on Sunzi's Art of War: Alastair Iain Johnston's Sunzi Studies in the United States (Part 1)

An associate found this classic 31 pager on the perspective of Sunzi's essay from the western mind. It was published by Alastair Iain Johnston (江忆恩) of Harvard University in July 1999. 

Read and enjoy.  

Following is an abridged portion of that document 


by  Alastair Iain Johnston  江忆恩
Associate Professor
Government Department
Harvard University
July 25, 1999

There is no doubt that in the 1980s and 1990s American scholars, business  people and military officers have become more aware of Sun Zi’s Art of War. Phrases and axioms from Sun Zi’s text have also gradually moved into the popular imagination through some well-placed lines in movies, by comments from famous sports figures, and in other arenas of popular culture. For instance, Gordon Gecko, the evil protagonist businessman in the popular 1980s movie “Wall Street”, quoted Sun Zi in the movie. The famous National Basketball Association coach Pat Riley quotes Sun Zi in his book The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players (1993).

However, it is also true that the serious study and research of Sun Zi is very underdeveloped in the United States, especially in comparison with Sun Zi studies  in China and Japan. This chapter provides a brief examination of the state of Sun Zi studies in the United States. It begins by describing the major English-language translations of Sun Zi in the United States. It then goes on to summarize the status of Sun Zi studies in the US academic community, in business education and training, and in the US military.

The publication of scholarly translations of the Sun Zi text by major American publishing houses has remained relatively constant over the 1990s. As Figure 1 shows, there has been no major surge in new translations or new book-length analyses of the text. The annual production of books on Sun Zi has remained relatively constant.

As of the late 1990s, there are five main translations of Sun Zi used by American academics, business people and/or military officers. The first is Samuel Griffiths translation, first published in 1963, and reprinted over the past 25 years. 1

Griffiths, a retired U.S. Marine general at the time he translated Sun Zi, used the Song Ben Shi Yi Jia Zhu Sun Zi (宋 本十一家注孙子) version as his basic text. Indeed, the value of Griffiths translation is that he provides translations from historical commentators on the text. This allows readers to examine the nuanced  differences in how particular passages were interpreted at different points in Chinese history. The other value to the text is the forward by the famous British strategist, Basil Liddell Hart. Hart used Sun Zi to justify his critique of Clausewitz for his over-emphasis on the so-called ‘direct’ approach, defined as the massive application of military power at the enemy’s ‘center of gravity’. Liddell Hart blamed Clausewitizian thinking for the disasterous violence of the First World War (subsequent defenders of Clausewitz accuse Liddell Hart of misreading the German strategists and for mistakening playing up differences between Clausewitz and Sun Zi). While Griffiths’ translation is easy to read, as Chinese scholars have pointed out much of the information the translations provides about the Sun Zi text itself and about its impact on Chinese military thought is out of date. New research on the Griffiths text has focused on the relationship between the historical context of his translation. Griffiths saw his text has a tool for influencing senior US military and political leaders about how to deal with revolutionary warfare in the Third World.

According to one scholar who has examined Griffiths papers and letters, Griffiths asked that the publisher of his translation distribute copies to top leaders in the Department of Defense, Department of State and the White House, as well as key journalists and opinion-makers. The goals was to warn US strategic decisionmakers about the methods that China, North Vietnam and other revolutionary states were using to threaten United States interests. 2

Griffiths assumed that Sun Zi was a key influence on Mao Zedong’s military thought, and that Mao was a key inspiration for revolutionary guerilla war movements in the Third World. The Griffiths translation was the primary one available to American readers from the early 1960s through to the late 1980s. Since then, with the publication of two other major translations (see below), the Griffiths text is no longer the main translation used in the academic community or in the US military education system. In the 1980s, two new translations appeared in US bookstores. One was edited by the well-know fiction writer James Clavell and was published in 1983.3

This version has little scholarly value, however, as it is simply a re-publication of Lionel Giles 1910 version, with a few minor footnotes and comments. The introduction claims, rather hyperbolically, that the text should be required reading for US military officers because were they to internalized Sun Zi’s teachings they would be able to avoid costly conflicts in the future. A second translation that appeared in the 1980s was done by Thomas Cleary.4

Cleary, a translator of many other texts from the Buddhist and Daoist traditions, stresses the defensive, even Daoist, nature of Sun Zi’s text. This translation, however, is highly controversial among Sinologists, some of whom believe he takes too many liberties with the original text, injecting meanings that are not justified by the original Chinese language. Neither the Clavell nor the Cleary translations is taken very seriously by Sinologists, and for the most part neither translations is used in the US military education system. In the 1990s two new major translations appeared, one by Ralph Sawyer, a Hong Kong based businessperson, and one by Roger Ames, a philosophy professor at the University of Hawaii.5

Sawyer first published a translation of Sun Zi as part of the first English translation of the entire Seven Military Classics (WuJing Qi Shu) in 1993. This was followed in 1994 by a separate translation of the Sun Zi text alone. The Sawyer text focuses on Sun Zi as a manual for military strategy and operations. Thus it provides a fairly extensive discussion of the patterns in warfare, strategy, tactics and weapons from the Shang dynasty through
to the Warring States period. Sawyer provides extensive footnotes to pre-modern and modern specialists on Sun Zi in order to establish the historical accuracy of the text and its references to warfare of the Warring States period. In particularly he relies on the research work of Professor Li Ling from Peking University and Professor Wu Rusong from the Academy of Military Sciences. In his translation, Sawyer also examines a range of earlier annotations and commentaries. He relies heavily on the Ming dynasty commentator, Liu Yin’s Wu Jing Qi Shu Zhijie (明本武经七书直解) and on the retired Guomingdang general Wei Rulin’s Sun Zi Bing Fa Da Quan (孙子兵法大全) Because Sawyer tends to focus on the operational side of the text -- how it was used historically, what it says about historical warfare in ancient China, and what advice it provides practitioners of warfare -- his translation is used in many of the institutions in the US military education system.

The Ames text focuses more on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions and how the Sun Zi text can be treated as a text on philosophy. He notes that he is interested in the “cultural presuppositions” that are needed to understand Sun Zin from “its own world view”. Ames argues that military philosophy was a common topic in many of the works on political philosophy in ancient China and thus should be seen as a part of process of developing a distinctive Chinese philosophy, not as a separate field of military thought. Ames takes on a question that few Western specialists have asked, namely why is there such an rich tradition of military philosophy in an allegedly anti- militarist culture?6

He suggests that military action provides a metaphor for all other types of human behavior, and that in Chinese tradition military action was “applied5
philosophy”. His basic argument is that in both civil and military action the consumate actor is one whose character tries to achieve order through harmonizing himself with changing circumstances. In contrast to Western assumptions that there are two worlds -- a perfect, predestined, independent world that will be created through purposeful action, a teleology -- ancient Chinese philosophy assumed that order already existed in things, and was not imposed on things. The Dao was not a teleology, but a recognition of the completeness of existing reality. Harmony arose from “personal cultivation and refinement” whether in the civil or military arenas.

Ames provides an extensive discussion of several key concepts in the Sun Zi text which, he argues, reflects this philosophical tradition: the concept of yin , or to act in accord with the enemy, a “responsiveness to one’s context”7; the concept of shi  , which he translates as “strategic advantage” where all situations can be turned to one’s advantage through manipulating self and adversary, shaping the environment according to the concept of yin. Shi relies on genius, not just military skill, since no situation is ever the same. 8

The Ames text is unique in that it makes explicit use of the Yin Que Shan manuscript, and the Ma Wang Dui scripts. He also introduces readers to the evidence concerning the identities of Sun Wu and Sun Bin. Like Sawyer’s text it also uses a number of historical and contemporary commentaries. While Sawyer relies on Liu Yin’s commentaries, Ames relies heavily on Wu Jiulong’s text for interpretations of key passages.9

1   Samuel B. Griffith, Sun Tzu: The Art of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963)
2   I thank Ed O’Dowd for this information about Griffiths.
3  James Clavell ed., The Art of War: Sun Tzu (New York: Delacort, 1983)
4  Thomas Cleary, translator, The Art of War: Sun Tzu (Boston: Shambala Press, 1988)
5 Ralph Sawyer, translator, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993) and Ralph Sawyer, translator, Sun Tzu: The Art of War (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994) and Roger Ames, translator, Sun Tzu The Art of War (New York, Ballantine Books, 1993)
Ames p.40
7   Ibid., p.83
8  Ibid., p. 71-80, 8
9  Wu Jiulong, Sun Zi Jiao Shi   (孙子校释)(Beijing, Academy of Military Sciences Press, 1990)

-- More to come ---
This post will be updated and refined later this week.

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