The Radical Sunzi

Victor Mair’s translation of the Sunzi Bingfa.

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When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi’s Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames’ translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group’s translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair’s translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer’s translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came–the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzi from the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi‘s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical.

My thoughts on this topic  have been prompted by an excellent essay by Andrew Seth Meyer. Dr. Myer is a specialist in ancient Chinese thought and classical Chinese philology. He spent most of the last decade engaged in a multi-author translation of the Huainanzi; the essay in question is Meyer’s introduction to the Huainanzi chapter  “An Overview of the Military.” The Huainanzi was written several centuries after the Sunzi, compiled under the direction of Liu An, uncle to the young Han emperor Han Wudi. The book was intended to be an encyclopedic handbook on governance, containing chapters on every topic Liu An and his team of writers thought Han Wudi might possibly need to master in order to govern the realm. The entire book is fascinating and for anyone interested in the history of the Former Han Dynasty, Chinese political philosophy, or Daoism it is necessary reading. For those daunted by its thousand page length an abridged version of the translation was published two years ago, and several of its chapters have been published as independent books, including its chapter on military methods, “An Overview of the Military.”

Meyer’s essay is the introduction of this last book, which is published under the title The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War. To understand what the Huainanzi has to say about war, Meyer suggests, you must first understand the works it was hoping to synthesize and supplant. That means taking a hard look at the Sunzi.

The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical–at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China’s old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi‘s assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:

The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]

To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:

The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]

Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:

[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing (兵), does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]

The Sunzi‘s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical–it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King’s return to his clan’s ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:

King Wu had pursued and campaigned in the four directions. In all, there were 99 recalcitrant countries, 177,779 ears taken registered, and 310,230 captured men…King Wu then sacrificed in the Zhou temple the ears taken of the many countries declaring, “Reverently I, the young son, slaughter six oxen and slaughter two sheep. The many states are at an end.” He reported in Zhou temple, saying, “Of old I have heard that my glorious ancestors emulated the standards of the men of Shang, with the dismembered body of Zhou, I report to Heaven and to Ji. [7]

Meyer comments on the significance of this account in regards to Sunzi:

From this perspective warfare was not merely a ritual but the sacred template on which all other forms of ritual were in some sense based….. In Bronze age, victory began and ended in ancestor temples; “the victory was to be reported to the ancestors and the fruits of the battlefield offered up to them in a culminating round of sacrifices. War was, form beginning to end, a sacred devotional act, one to which bloodshed (as evidenced by the offering of severed ears) was indispensable….

From this early aristocratic perspective, the maxim for which the Sunzi is perhaps most famous, “to achieve one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not supreme excellence, to reject battle and yet force the submission of the enemy troops is is the supreme excellence” is worse than nonsensical, it is offensive. To take up arms without shedding blood was sacrilege in the world of Bronze Age aristocrat. The Sunzi’s standard of excellence (like so much else in the text) plays havoc with the normative categories of the aristocratic ethos.

…Where [this] aristocratic ethos located many of the benefits of warfare in a transcendent, spiritual dimension, the Sunzi insists that all assessments of military outcomes be made in purely material terms. “Move only in accord with profit and stop if no profit is to be had.” The character translated here as “profit.” Li (利) was unambiguous in it semantic implications. It represents a stalk of grain being cut by a knife and thus it could be confused with any of the more intangible goods exalted in the spirit cult. Where King Wu could not be imagine refusing his ancestors the ears of the fallen, the Sunzi would much rather have both the ears and the living soldiers attached to them pressed into the service of the commander and his sovereign.(emphasis added). [8]

Dr. Meyer carries on this way for some time, comparing passages in the Sunzi to statements found in the Analects, Mengzi, Zuo Zhuan, Book of Documents and other texts of  great antiquity (regrettably, the complete discussion is too long to copy in total here). His point is demonstrated throughout: the Sunzi was not just sign-post or a byproduct of the transition between the social order of the Spring and Autumn Period and the age of the Warring States — it was a revolutionary attack on the old social order itself. Many of the Sunzi‘s concerns and preoccupations are difficult to understand (or see!) without knowledge of  the ideas and attitudes it was attempting to displace.

Mortimer Adler is famous for describing the famous books of Western civilization as a “great conversation.” [9] This post should give readers a sense of how the “great conversation” of ancient Chinese thought began. The material compiled by the makers of the Sunzi was but one voice in this conversation–though it was a voice so compelling that it would totally displace the ritualized and aristocratic views of war that preceded it. However, it would not be the final voice of the Chinese strategic tradition. In the age of Warring States no philosopher or political theorist could avoid discoursing on war and political survival. Many of these thinkers–legalists like Shang Yang and Han Feizi, realist Confucians like Xunzi and Jia Yi, or the Huang-Lao Daoists who compiled the Huainanzi–developed cogent and often sweeping critiques of the Sunzi’s stratagems. Arguably it was by disregarding the Sunzi‘s maxims entirely in favor of the theories of the Sunzi‘s critics that the statesmen of Qin were able to end the era of Warring States and unite all of China.

The popularity and influence of these various schools and perspectives would rise and fall over the course of Chinese history. This notion of a “great conversation” is helpful for understanding these intellectual transitions. Too much scholarly effort has been devoted to searching for a single Chinese or Asian “way of warfare” that can be found throughout Chinese history when the messy reality is that the Chinese strategic tradition is made up of many divergent voices. From this cacophony Chinese statesmen and generals are free to pull out the strands that best fit their needs and inclinations. Make no mistake: though no longer the radical voice in this conversation the Sunzi is still a powerful one. Yet it is still one voice among many. Our understanding of the Sunzi and the strategic tradition it has come to embody is often best served by paying closer attention to these other voices. 


[1] The original version is even more sparse–with normal 12 point font and single-space breaks, I can fit the entire text onto a nine page Microsoft Word document.

Roger T. Ames, The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China) (New York: Ballatine Books, 1992), 101-172; Ralph Sawyer, Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 157-187; Denma Translation Group, The Art of War: Translation, Essays, and Commentary (Boston: Shambhala, 2009), 1-66; Victor H. Mair, The Art of War: Sunzi’s Military Methods.

Before anyone asks–yes these are the only four Sunzi translations worth buying. The rest are not worth their cost. I am completely convinced the old Lionel Giles version ought to be burnt on sight.  

[2] I am hardly the first to express this idea. I am surprised, however, at how much resistance I have encountered when I express it. After all, who in their right mind discusses Plato or The Federalist Papers or even Clausewitz without also discussing the historical context and intellectual milieu in which these authors wrote? I suspect that the only reason so many acknowledge that one should understand the Athenian polis, enlightenment advances, etc. to truly understand these thinkers but are unwilling to recognize the same thing about the Sunzi is that they know very little about ancient Chinese thought or history and are not comfortable admitting it.

[3] This is the approach I took in the post “From Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?The Scholar’s Stage (9 April 2014). Most scholarly attempts to do the same inevitable come back to Mark Edward Lewis’ Sanctioned Violence in Ancient China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 97-104, who did it best. His book also contains the best description of the social and political changes that swept the Chinese kingdoms during the warring states generally.

[4]  Andrew Seth Meyer, “Introduction,” in The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War, trans. Andrew Seth Meyer and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 8.

[5] ibid. Those looking for the original Zuo Zhuan passage should see B8.13.2/209/19 – year 13 Duk Cheng Lu (573bc).

[6] ibid., 8-9 

[7] Translated in Edward Shaughnessy, “ “New” Evidence of the Zhou Conquests,Early China, vol 6 (1981–82), 66–67.

[8] Meyer, Dao of the Military, 11, 13.

[9] See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

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I always wonder what was going on in the minds of the warring states reformers. Almost to a man they all suffered terrible fates after their patrons died and their rivals ascended to power. Sun Bin, Wu Qi, Shang Yang, you'd think someone would have noticed a pattern. But no, there were still plenty of people willing to come forward to realize their political ideas.

Unfortunately, both Luttwak and Handle are wrong. I have tussled with Luttwak here before. He has a poor track record when it comes to the history of the Chinese strategic tradition.

Maybe I will devote a post to this particular claim some day. I've touched on it before though in my posts Whence Springs a Strategic Tradition? and Not Everyone Likes Sunzi. Sunzi's work was designed for a multi-polar order of centralized, bureaucratized states capable of waging war on a massive scale. That was not the kind of enemy China fought for most of its existence. But it is the kind of strategic environment it finds itself in today.

I’ve got the one with real Chinese characters… and it’s by the same guy who made a little “study” version for salespeople. I like it though compared to some other translations I’ve seen.