Why Master Sun Matters Today

Sun Tzu's: The Art of War trans. GriffithsMaster Sun was a wise man. So wise that his famous treatise, The Art of War (aka The Art of Warfare), has been read, written about, critiqued, and discussed for roughly 2,400 years. It has been used as a model of strategy and leadership for the military, for business, romance, sports, and for politics. And, like Machiavelli’s The Prince, it has often been misused, misunderstood, and misinterpreted for those purposes.*

It’s a short book: a mere 13 chapters written in generally brief aphorisms. And, very much like The Prince, it’s one of the most often-quoted and referred-to of unread books, sometimes reduced to a handful of bumper-sticker epithets and misquotes by the literati and ignorati alike.**

His name was Sun Wu. The word tzu (or tzi or zi) means master, as in Lao Tzu. There may not actually be a single author: the book is likely a composite, created over decades or even centuries by many authors contributing and updating the core. It was likely started by a student or a clerk writing down the master’s words, and others adding to and embellishing them. That doesn’t invalidate the content. 

Like many Chinese classics, Western appreciation and understanding of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War have suffered from the problems inherent in translation as well as cultural differences (not least of which that it was written more than two millennia ago…). As I’ve written before, translation is both an interpretive art and a linguistic activity. And translating from Chinese is fraught with complexities that do not appear when translating, say, a Romance language (a single Chinese character can represent more than one word, idea, or sound). As reviewer Quintus Curtius wrote in 2015,

There is a delicate balance that must be struck between fidelity to the original, and the need to convey ideas into another medium in a way that sounds lucid. The translator succeeds or fails in how he manages these two tensile factors.

Plus there is a problem of contextual understanding. Chinese and Western cultures and attitudes differ widely in many ways. It’s difficult enough to attempt to understand our own Western culture of a mere decades ago, let alone a distant culture more than two millennia from us in history.

In the introduction to his 1993 translation, Roger Ames writes why The Art of War continues to matter:

The simple explanation for the relationship between philosophy and warfare is that military strategy, like any of the other “arts” (culinary, divinatory, musical, literary, and so on) can be used as a source of metaphors from which to shape philosophical distinctions and categories.

The same is true of the relationship between warfare and politics, and warfare and business: the metaphors often mesh succinctly: war as political campaigns, war as corporate competition. They extend equally to sports and games like chess or go:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Chapter 1:18

Few of the Chinese classics that could help us better understand the cultural milieu that includes Sun Tzu have been translated, and only a small number of those can be found in Western bookstores (The Analects of Confucius and the Tao Teh Ching being topmost on the list with The Art of War). Others, such as the Book of History, and works of Han Fei Tzu, Mencius, or Chuang Tzu or poets Li Po, Wang Wei, and Tu Fu are seldom seen outside university classrooms. But, rather incongruously, The Art of War itself has become part of Western pop culture.***

Huang trans.First translated for Western audiences (in French) in 1772, The Art of War went through numerous versions and translations until the early years of the 20th century. Then, oddly, The Art of War was seldom revisited in English until the 1960s (the Samuel Griffiths’ translation). Griffiths was an improvement on previous editions, and important for helping spread the word to a new audience. It spawned an industry of writers who interpreted Sun Tzu for their own target audiences well outside the confines of the military. Griffiths, however, still has his problems and critics.

This was the first version I ever read, back in the 1970s. I still have a copy, albeit a later printing. It’s a good place to start and is easily accessible to non-scholars. Griffiths sticks to the military interpretation throughout.

Another generation passed before the book was again examined and translated. Then interest in it seemed to explode. In the past 20 or so years, many Sinologists have rendered it into English in both more modern and approachable terms, with more comprehensive commentaries and updates.

Choosing the right one to read, however, can be difficult. The translation is only part of the package. The layout matters. Griffiths, for example, puts the Chinese comments right after Sun Tzu’s aphorism so the reader gets the decoding and elaboration right away. Huang and Ames put them in the back, after all the chapters, so the reader doesn’t get distracted from the core. Ames presents each chapter as prose. Huang offers it in two columns, with the translation on the right and a descriptive head or subhead on the left. (I haven’t seen the Nylan edition yet; it’s on order).

You can read and compare several translations online, for example, this 1910 translation by Lionel Giles or download it in PDF here. But beware: those done pre-Griffiths are generally considered less accurate in their translations (and may suffer from outdated cultural perspectives). You may even want to own copies by different translators because their individual explanations and commentaries will provide additional content to improve your understanding.

On top of that, newer translations like Huang’s and Ames’ often incorporate text from the recent discoveries of ancient source texts. Portions of two-millennia-old Sun-Tzu’s The Art of Warfare and the long-lost work of the same name by Sun Pin (aka Sun Bin), as well as other, related works were uncovered during archeological excavations in China in the 1970s and ’80s. 

Those discoveries of 2,200-year-old texts buried in Chinese graves altered our understanding of Sun Tzu’s work; the original 13 chapters are now seen as part of a larger endeavour, one that was previously lost. Those new texts have added as much as a third more content to Master Sun’s book, although much of which is generally lost to the casual reader and requires a skilled translator to explain its significance. 

Most inexpensive reprints are based on the now-public-domain editions from before 1920. They lack the new material, as well as the extensive footnotes and commentaries in later editions. Every translation should state the name of the translator on the cover and the date of first publication on the inside: if not, it is likely a public-domain reprint, and an outdated translation: avoid this version. If you want to own a copy, you should find one by a recent translator.

Since the turn of the 20th century, roughly 50 translations have appeared; many of them (and certainly a lot of better versions) within the last 20-25 years. About half of these have been by Chinese translators. (Neither of these linked lists includes the most recent translation by Michael Nylan, released in early 2020 and which received considerable praise; you can find another listing of translations here that is more up-to-date).

Compounding the challenge for translators, Sun Tzu’s work has been commented on by a dozen or more classical Chinese writers who clarified, expanded, explained, and sometimes contradicted the author. Those commentaries, or at least a précis or quotation from them, are important to understanding Sun Tzu’s writing and intentions. They are, like the commentators on The Analects, Talmudic in nature. No translation claiming to be authoritative can leave at least references to them out.

But even among the best translators, there are disagreements as to what Sun Tzu meant. One review of the Everyman’s Library edition points out how translator Peter Harris chose to write several phrases that contradicted what other translators wrote, thus offering very different advice to readers.  A review of 30 translations of a single line in Chapter 7 shows that translators are split between determining whether Sun Tzu meant that your own army or the enemy’s army should take a “circuitous route.” That’s a pretty significant difference in a single line. 

“[A] unified theory on strategy derived from Sun Tzu is a deceptive mirage,” wrote John F. Sullivan in his review, adding: 

The fact that even native Chinese speaking translators of these passages disagree on their ultimate meaning suggests that these issues go beyond mere translation competency or Westerners inability to penetrate the subtleties of Eastern thinking. Instead, they reflect the often ambiguous nature of the received text. Ancient Chinese writing lacks the precision of its modern counterpart, and all translators of these works are at certain key points forced to make interpretive choices that have the potential to fundamentally alter the intended meaning of the original authors.

Despite these challenges,  I still believe The Art of War is among the handful of books that every politician, CEO, head bureaucrat, manager, leader or aspiring leader worthy of the name should read (I know of some whose claim to have read it is suspect). The advice in it remains relevant because it can be read as speaking to the human condition, to the dynamics of leadership and command, to the interactions between leaders and their followers, and to the challenges of competition. ****

While it’s not always appropriate or beneficial to apply his aphorisms carte blanche to every business, management or political situation — his words are often inappropriately shoehorned into modern lifestyle guides to underscore some point — there is underlying wisdom in all of Master Sun’s words. They are worth contemplating from your own personal, intellectual, and cultural perspective, to see how they might be applied. His words about leadership and the management of people are, in my mind, of particular relevance to the modern political scene (even to local politics, although our reading-averse councillors will never likely read them).

Be wary of assuming too much from the book, however. Sun Tzu’s isn’t the only valid guide to strategy (not even the only ancient Chinese guide). His aphorisms don’t cover the defensive side of war, only the offensive.  Besides, regardless of the quality of its advice or insights, no single book has answers for every person or every situation. Sun Tzu should be among other similar books in your library, not the only one.

And don’t let the title fool you: Sun Tzu doesn’t promote war: he actually discourages it:

…to win a hundred victories is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.
Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Chapter 3 (Ames’ translation)

But being a realist, he offers pragmatic advice on how to proceed when battle is inevitable.*****

The Art of War deserves a place in the personal library of everyone who aspires to lead or direct others.  However, you will have to make your own decision as to which edition you choose. As reviewer Alain Guillot put it in his post on the recent Nylan translation,

… The Art of War is interested in what I call the “politics of the common good” essentially, inquiring what sort of leadership can create a stable society in which domestic disruptions and painful divisions are at a minimum. In conversation with the so-called “Confucian” Classics, The Art of War imagines a three-pronged approach, wherein the vast majority can be brought to identify with good leaders, without imposing much conformity, as those leaders have shown themselves to be humane and deliberate when serving the people’s needs, desires, and interests.


* The original title of the book was just Sun-tzu (or Sunzi). It was renamed Sunzi bingfa (the principles for using forces) by later commentators but translated into English as The Art of War (see Huang, p. 25). Machiavelli’s only book published in his lifetime was also titled The Art of War. But while it contains many pithy epithets that also translate into business or political metaphors, because Machiavelli wrote it as a somewhat pedantic dialogue rather than in short aphorisms, it remains less accessible to the casual reader than Sun Tzu’s (you can read a translation here). Similarly, Jomini’s Art of War and von Clausewitz’s On War, as well as subsequent books on strategy and war by authors like Liddell Hart, Edward Luttwak, John Lewis Gaddis, and others are not read casually, in part because they are not presented in easily-digested aphorisms. Few of these latter books are read outside the realm of military education these days (which is unfortunate: although his is a dense, often difficult book, von Clausewitz was the first writer to conflate the goals of politics with those of war). You can also read  Napoleon’s maxims on war, with relevant comments here or read them here without comments.

Part of Sun Tzu’s continued relevance is that he focused less on technology and equipment than most subsequent military writers, and wrote mostly about general strategy in a way that could be easily grasped and used as metaphors for other fields and endeavours. As blogger Savva Pouroullis wrote:

Why it’s important today if these two men lived 400 and 2600 years ago: The lessons learned from these texts extend to canvass far more than just the art of ruling a kingdom or fighting a battle. They are manuals of management for any environment, from managing a restaurant, to running a family, to building a corporate giant.

** Despite cutesy names like “brainyquotes” most internet sites that compile collections of alleged quotations are neither accurate nor authoritative. Far too many contain literally thousands of misattributions and misquotations. Any site that allows readers to submit quotations then publish them without checking and confirming the source before posting to verify it is simply another anti-intellectual garbage heap. Most are run simply as clickbait for advertisers. Always check with verified, credible source sites like en.wikiquote.org before sharing an alleged quotation. Cite the source for any quotation, too when you share. Don’t contribute to the dumbing-down of the Internet.

*** While I believe classics like The Art of War and The Prince should be read at least once in the lifetime of every dedicated elected representative or career bureaucrat, I realize how unlikely that is among local politicians. But for other politicians who are actually keen to learn, they are worth the effort.

**** The Chinese produced several remarkable writers whose insights and observations remain relevant today, as do those words of classical Western philosophers. While Master Sun has had a widespread presence in the West since the 1960s as a strategist for political and corporate tactics, I have found the more insightful writer on politics and bureaucracy (akin to Machiavelli) was Han Fei Tzu. And, of course, there is The Analects of Confucius, a magisterial work.

***** In the Huang translation (p.48) this line is translated as, “…achieving victory in battle is not absolute perfection: neutralizing an adversary’s forces without battle is absolute perfection.” This gets translated more awkwardly by Giles as, “Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans…” And Cleary gives us, “Therefore those who win every battle are not really skillful—those who render others’ armies helpless without fighting are the best of all.”

You can read several different translations of this verse here. One gets a better appreciation of Sun Tzu’s intention in this line by reading how it has been portrayed by different translators. 

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One comment

  1. Nylan’s translation arrived this week and I began reading it right away. On page 19, she writes,
    “Why read The Art of War today? One may as well ask, why read anything today? If pressed to extract a single overriding ‘message’ from the text, it would be this: Perform your calculations for everything liable to calculation, but also think very deeply about what people are capable of.”

    From only my first glances through her text, it seems like an excellent, modern rendition of the classic.

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