Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Other Insights on Sunzi's Art of War: Alastair Iain Johnston's Sunzi Studies in the United States (Part 2)

An associate found a 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. 

Click here for part 1.

Scroll down for part 2 of this document 


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

Sun Zi studies are limited to a small community of Sinologists, historians and philosophers in the U.S. There has been relatively little direct research on ancient Chinese military thought, still less on Sun Zi specifically. For example, there were no articles devoted to the study of Sun Zi’s thought in the 1980s and 1990s issues of the premier journal on pre-modern China, the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, and there were only a couple of articles on ancient Chinese military thought. A search of the index of articles for another high-profile journal, The Journal of Asian Studies also shows no articles specifically about Sun Zi, nor indeed about ancient Chinese military thought in general. 11

There have been at about 5 major PhD dissertations on ancient Chinese military thought since the 1970s that all, in one way or another, discuss Sun Zi. One by Christopher Rand, focused on six different ‘schools’ within ‘militarist’ (bingjia 兵家) thought up to the Han Dynasty. 12

In particular he traces the historical evolution of the ‘wen’  (文)  versus ‘wu’  (武)  debate in statecraft. He extends this analysis up to the Tang Dynasty as well to see how this debate evolved in an era of very different military technology and military strategic challenges. In particular he identifies and expands on what he calls the ‘metaphysical’ school of military affairs in the Tang, the school which stressed the metaphysical qualities (qi ) of an ideal general. 13

Another, by Robin Yates, focused on theory and practice of siege defense in ancient China, based on an analysis of the writings of Mo Zi and his disciples. 14

Another by Edmund Balmforth provided the first English-language translation and analysis of Sun Bin’s work on strategy. 15

Alastair Iain Johnston’s dissertation analyzed the Seven Military Classics (武经七书) to determine what influence they had on Ming strategy towards the Mongols.16

Likewise, David Graff analyzed the effect of ancient Chinese military thought on the ways of warfare during the Tang dynasty. He found that practical experience was more likely a better source of strategic ideas than Warring States period texts. 17

In addition to these dissertations there have been a small number of specialized books published on topics relating to ancient Chinese military thought. In his book, Sanctioned Violence in Early China , Mark Lewis examined the role of ‘sanctioned violence’ in the political transitions from the Spring and Autumn to the Warring States period. He shows how sanctioned violence evolved from a highly ritualistic and symbolic use of hunting, limited engagements among warrior aristocrats evolved into larger-scale ‘interstate’ conflicts involving mass soldiers commanded by more or less professional officers. Lewis is the first US scholar to extract and  examine the concept of quan bian, and its impact on military thought and practice in early China18

In his book, Cultural Realism, Alastair Iain Johnston examined the role of strategic culture in strategic decision making during Ming conflicts with the Mongols. He analyzed the ‘deep structure’ of the Seven Military Classics to see whether there was a consistent preference ranking among offensive, defensive and accomodationist grand strategies across these texts. He then asked whether these preference rankings had any effect on strategic choice in the Ming dynasty. His conclusions challenged the traditional view that ancient Chinese military thought stressed defensiveness and even an anti-militarism.

Instead, he argued, these texts embodied certain realpolitik axioms, similar to those in Western strategic thought, and that their influence was seen in the fact that Ming strategists generally preferred, when material conditions allowed them, offensive strategies to deal with the Mongol threat. 20

Johnston argues that the traditional Confucian view of China’s own strategic traditions underestimate the degree to which the offensive use of military force was advocated in traditional Chinese thought and practice. This argument is controversial and at the moment is a minority interpretation of Sun Zi and other ancient Chinese military thinkers.       

But together this research does not constitute a coherent body of work, nor are the authors addressing similar issues. Indeed there is little direct debate over the Sun Zi text because there has been so little written on the topic in the Sinological community. The research in the 1980s through 1990s has generally not focused on the intellectual or philosophical content of ancient Chinese military thought. Rather it has tended to focus on on military history and operations (Tang, Song and Ming strategy). 21

In the 1990s, a group of historians and scholars of Chinese philosophy set up a Chinese Military History Group. But Sun Zi’s military thought is not the primary focus of this group. The underdeveloped nature of Sun Zi studies in the scholarly community is underscored by the fact that there been no major scholarly conferences in the US focused on Sun Zi’s text in the 1980s or 1990s. There is the potential for a major debate over the Sun Zi text as a pragmatic source of more or less universal ideas for military strategists versus its status as a uniquely Chinese philosophical text on violence. The lines of such a debate are evidenced in the differences between the approach to the text taken by Ralph Sawyer and by Michael Handel (see below) on the one hand and Roger Ames on the other. However, this potential faultline in Sun Zi studies has not really developed into a full-blown academic debate. There are simply too few people in the academic world working on these issues, and too little is at stake currently in terms of intellectual development for scholars to stake a position one way or the other.

There has been an increase in the popular attention paid to Sun Zi and business over the 1980s and 1990s. Mostly Sun Zi is treated as a source of ideas about how to understand market opportunities. One author, Bernard A. Boar models his book, The Art of Strategic Planning for Information Technology on the Sun Zi text. 22

Boar argues that The majority of aspiring strategists would be much better off studying the teachings of Sun Zi and Machiavelli than most teachers of business or information management strategy.”

In most cases, however, the application of Sun Zi to business tends to be somewhat faddish and shallow, the reduction of the text to easy-to-remember aphorisms and platitudes. While many business people have read the text, it is not the subject of study in major US business schools. In contrast to the US military education system, the US business education system evidently does not find much concrete value in the text as a source of instruction for future business leaders. Top American business schools put a great deal of emphasis on training in accounting, economics, statistics, and organizational sociology. 23

The adaptation of strategy from war studies to business is not seen as a particular important part of professional business education, and there are no courses devoted to the discussion of Sun Zi’s application to business in the major schools. There are, for instance, no specific courses devoted to Sun Zi and business taught at the Harvard School of Business or at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

A handful of business entrepreneurs offer short-term training programs, books, and cassette tapes that apply Sun Zi in a facile way to some aspect of business. The objective is almost always to make money by charging for these services.24

Typical of the application of Sun Zi to business is the consulting service provided by Jim Hight, a former financial consultant to the Merrill Lynch company.25

Hight defines the ‘enemy’ in markets as other “participants”, such as firms and companies. He uses quotations from the Clavell, Griffiths and Sawyer translations of Sun Zi. His approach is to move through the Sun Zi text translating each major line or concept into an analogical example for financial managers. For instance, in reference to Sun Zi’s comment in chapter one on the importance of ‘xian sheng er hou zhan’ ( 先胜而后战), Hight draws from this the parallel advice in business: “Always manage within the context of a written strategic plan that has been prepared from an objective analysis of market information. The plan should include very specific guidelines for money management, trade selection, risk control, and profit taking.”

In reference to Sun Zi’s famous dictum that “deception is the essence of war”, Hight states: “Although, as individual portfolio managers and risk managers, we have limited ability to deceive and manipulate the markets, however, we can minimize the opportunity for other market participants to impair our success by keeping our strategies and tactics to ourselves. Allow strategies and tactics to become apparent only when results have been secured and if disclosure enables rational and gainful business development efforts, or when regulatory reporting requirements necessitate.” 

As another example, concerning the concept of flexibility in Sun Zi’s chapter 5, where the commander is urged to change operations as strategic circumstances change, Hight notes in a rather vague way: “The way to capitalize on the endless opportunities created by ever-changing market conditions, is to become engaged as a part of a well thought out trading plan and be flexible in adapting to conditions within the context of the plan. In so doing we will become a part of the markets' energy flow and, thereby, continually improve our ability to successfully understand and utilize market conditions to our advantage.” The advice is, like the Sun Zi text itself, general enough to be very hard to apply specifically in practice.

Interestingly enough, the application of metaphors from war and conflict to business introduces two tensions into the ‘ethics’ of business. The first is that in the Sun Zi text there is no developed concept of a ‘just war’. For Sun Zi the ‘ends justify the means’. Using warfare metaphors, particularly from the Sun Zi text, raises questions about whether Sun Zi-influenced business practices would be unrestrained by business and societal ethics. The second, and related, tension is between market economics conceived as a search for win-win, non-zero sum solutions to contractual problems on the one hand, and economics conceived as a zero-sum war where the objective is the defeat of all adversaries and competitors on the other. In the US the use of Sun Zi as a guide to business often seems to promote this latter view of economics. 

--- More to come ---

This post will be updated and refined later this week.

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