Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Ah, the good old terracotta soldier. Where would symbolism of Chinese militarism be without you?

I don’t like history. I have enough problem trying to remember and understand the goings on of the present than to cram several more centuries of names, dates and places into my noggin’. That’s why history books will only make it onto my reading list with a great degree of reluctance.

I received my copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a gift from an anonymous benefactor as part of the Ars Technica forum’s annual “”Secret Santa” in 2009. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I only got around to reading the book in August of this year, and you’re reading the review that I’ve only just written now in November, although I did have a slight distraction to use as an excuse.

To the work itself, the 188 pages contained in this edition obviously contains much more than the eponymous work, which only consists of 13 brief chapters, totalling – at a guess – no more than 8000 words in English translation, and much much fewer in the original language – in the pithy style of idiomatic expression favoured by the Chinese. In comparison, an average novel usually contains 5 times that (according to Wikipedia).

No, aside from the actual text, which only accounts for around 1/4 of the total volume of the book, the work is comprised of: a biography of the translator, Lionel Giles, by John Minford; an Introduction where Giles provides much technical detail about the history of how the text arrived to us, lays the smack down on the entire roster of Chinese commentators throughout all history, and says some stuff along the lines of “war is bad, mmmkay?”; and finally, a comprehensive and deeply scholarly analysis of the text.

This work leaves absolutely no doubt as to Giles’ complete mastery of the subject. I can lay very little claim to my Chinese heritage, having grown up almost entirely in Australia and being educated in Western values, but I still find it funny that a gwailo should be so familiar with Chinese language and history.

As for Sun Tzu’s text itself, it certainly contains a lot of codified wisdom as pertains to practical and psychological aspects of war, but in these modern times its idiomatic nature makes it about as useful as knowing the basic mathematical axioms (1+1=2, etc.) – they are nothing without interpretation and application (hence the flurry of derivative works such as The Art of War for Business.

If you’re truly interested in what Sun Tzu has to say about war, without the academic baggage, I’d recommend you find a good documentary, or as a much more entertaining option, watch John Woo’s Red Cliff (the full / extended version, not the Western cinematic release The Battle of Red Cliff).

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