I actually have a couple of copies of this lying around the house, but for this year’s reading journey, I decided to read the Lionel Giles version, originally published in 1910. This is a translation I don’t have (I have the Cleary and the Ames), but is freely available online and will also give a flavour of early 20th century British English. It’s also the first annotated translation and supposedly much more rigorous than the ones that came before it. Whether it ranks among the best or not is something for Sun Tzu scholars to decide. I’m a dabbler at best.
Mr. Giles gives an interesting introduction of his own, sharing a tiny bit of biographical information about Sun Tzu and the origin of “The 13 Chapters”. In it, he references several other historical works and makes several arguments for dating the original work based on verifiable historical facts, writing styles, and subsequent references, though he doesn’t seem to want to come to an exactly conclusion, having arguments for a wider range of possible dates than he’d like. He also briefly argues for the existence of Sun Tzu as a real historical figure (which others of the time may have been arguing against).
This was actually the first of six introductory sections before we get to the 13 Chapters themselves. Next, Mr. Giles notes how the “standard” text came to be, basically by going back to the oldest available version before so many editors and annotators had put their own stamp on it: an “ancient” version was discovered at a temple library around 1800 for comparison. This is the version Giles worked from, or rather a re-issue of it dated 1877.
A quick paragraph on each of the eleven “standard” commentators follows, most of whom don’t get much more than a where and when they lived, ranging from the late second century through the late eleventh century CE.
Then a note on how much Sun Tzu has been appreciated through the ages and how he’s one of the few honest writers about war and battle, his words applicable beyond mere military training.
Next a short stretch on how we (in 1910) had been accustomed to think of China as the greatest peace-loving nation on Earth, it had nonetheless seen more war than all of Europe and had a great and long tradition of able commanders. Giles quotes several great leaders of China, only one of whom I actually recognize, Confucius, though the author mentions Lao Tzu as well.
And the last piece of the introduction is a brief list of the 8 other Chinese books on war, noting their authors and time periods (plus any discrepancies or reasons to contest those periods), plus notes of a selection of Chinese encyclopedia containing large sections on the literature of war, a handful of other historical works, and the Catalogue of the Imperial Library.
Only with all of this safely out of the way do we get to the words of Sun Tzu himself. And his commentators, of course.
I’m not going to discuss each chapter in detail, and I’ve only done that with Giles’ introduction because a lot of it was completely new to me and an interesting insight into what he found important as a translator of ancient war doctrine while closing in on the eve of World War One. Instead, I’ll share my favourite point made by Sun Tzu from each chapter, and why each of them sticks with me. While I’ve enjoyed a lot of the commentary, especially for the flavour different commentators actually give things, my purpose here is more to say what speaks to me, and I may or may not consider the commentary when I’m picking my quotes. So, I suppose, this is less a review and more a personal highlights reel.
It’s worth noting that a lot of what’s written is applicable far beyond war to anything you might consider a conflict or a challenge. If your objective is victory, particularly over yourself, this whole volume is worth a read.
I – Laying Plans: “Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.” Preparation is key to success, something we’ve known for millennia, but apparently it’s a lesson that has to be relearned over and over by each of us.
II – Waging War: “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” Most of this chapter is about the cost of war, and some of it in detail, but this particular point relates to personal experience as well, and I’m particularly taking it into a martial arts or self defense viewpoint, but it can apply in any high stress situation. When working under stress, you get tired fast.
III – Attack by Stratagem: “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” So the epitome of conflict is to have won before you actually enter the conflict. Or perhaps to deflect the conflict and gain your victory without it. I can read this both ways, and I’m fond of both. In either case, preparation and knowledge are key to victory.
But I’m torn picking a favourite here, because I also really like, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” In many ways, this is the same thing, but recognizing there will be times when the fight is unavoidable.
IV – Tactical Dispositions: “One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.” You’re ready, you’re prepared, and you know exactly what you need to do. But the opportunity isn’t there yet. When it comes, you can grab it, but in the meantime, watch and wait.
V – Energy: “In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.” This is stated in several ways in this chapter, with realistic, if vague examples and metaphors. In my mind, the point of the matter is that barrelling forward towards the goal is not necessarily going to get you what you want. Keep your eyes open because there may be other skills or things required to get you there. And it might be that the route isn’t as direct as you think in the first place. To paraphrase a Pixar character, sometimes you have to turn right to go left.
VI – Weak Points and Strong: “Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.” In karate, I’ve recently begun to hear phrases like “go up to go down”. While similar to my interpretation of the last quote, this is more targeted, and much of the chapter presents details and variations on the idea of hitting where your opponent has to defend and falling back from places where the advantage isn’t yours.
VII – Maneuvering: “Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest. In raiding and plundering be like fire, in immovability like a mountain. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” This quote is cheating a bit, as it’s actually three consecutive points strung together. While Sun Tzu is providing what appears to be six separate pieces of advice, it really all boils down to one thing: your actions must be appropriate to your situation and you need to train and prepare for all situations. Sounds very simple on the surface of things. It’s not.
VIII – Variation in Tactics: “There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.” On the surface of things, you can read this as a restatement of “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” I’d certainly take it as a piece of things, but more than that, learn to see when you’re at a disadvantage or when winning/achieving your goal won’t actually gain you anything. It’s not always about the target. Sometimes the journey is the important thing, and the destination isn’t always worth achieving at any cost.
IX – The Army on The March: “He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.” It’s easy to mock what we don’t understand. I see it happen all the time. This gets you into trouble if the person on the other side of the mocking isn’t understanding about your ignorance.
X – Terrain: “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.” Make your own decisions, just be willing to live with the consequences of those decisions. Sounds easy, right?
XI – The Nine Situations: “On desperate ground, fight.” In a hard copy translation I have, it reads “death ground” instead of “desperate ground”, but, without defining either, the principle remains the same: when you’ve got no other options, you have to fight. There are people who will say there are always options, and they are often right, but there will come moments in your life when those other options are unpalatable or untenable. And by fight, we’re not necessarily talking about physical violence. Sometimes you need to stand up and be counted. Sometimes you need to make a point no one else is willing to. Sometimes you have to be that guy.
XII – The Attack by Fire: “Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.” I take this in a far more general sense than most of the chapter would indicate. Conditions may change and actions have consequences. That’s a pair of statements I’ve worked to integrate into my understanding of the world. Hopefully I manage to demonstrate it adequately to those around me, particularly my children.
XIII – The Use of Spies: “Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” Leaving aside spies, the lesson here is preparation. Think more about the boy scout motto: Be prepared. The more you know, the more you learn, the better you’ll be prepared to seize the opportunities that come your way.
Overall Rating: 4 Stars. I quite enjoy Sun Tzu, though how much sometimes depends on the translation. This particular one provides an additional lens into pre-World War I thinking, which is also pretty cool. Not all of the commentary is good, or even clear, but a lot of that can depend on the translator, as well.
While I technically read this through my own martial arts lens, there are so many things in it that you can strip away the military or combat veneer and find things of value for any chosen path. Not everything, perhaps, but more than enough to put this on my recommended reading list for anyone.by