The Art of War

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Read 11/08/2016-14/08/2016

Rating: 3 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge

Many years ago, a man I knew told me that I needed to read The Art of War. His reasoning was that I lacked guile and needed a strategy to overcome certain workplace related obstacles. I didn’t listen to him because he was a little paranoid. I also don’t like office politics and the only strategy I need is to be myself, do what I’m good at and enjoy it.

I downloaded a free epub copy of The Art of War not too long ago and I decided to tackle it for the reading challenge I’m doing. It’s an academic edition of the book, so I’ve approached it as such.

The introductory chapters presume a lot of prior knowledge of early Chinese history. I watched the programmes Michael Wood did recently about China, but I’m still none the wiser. There are too many changes of names, too many question marks over the authenticity of historical texts, and I lose interest. I am definitely a modern historian. However, if I were studying ancient Chinese history, I’d have the necessary context, and Lionel Giles’s jump-straight-in approach to the introduction would work better for me.

Giles, I discovered, translated The Art of War in 1910. He was Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Museum.

What I gathered from the first introductory chapter was that nobody can be certain that Sun Tzu even existed. The work clearly exists, and enough references to it and quotes from it in later works suggest that it was in existence towards the end of the Kingdom of Wu, around 470-473 BC. But Sun Tzu? He’s missing from other annals of the time, and the suggestion is that he either wasn’t the general his theory of war suggests or he didn’t exist as an historical person. More he existed as an amalgam of different historical persons. I have to say, I didn’t really care about that.

The second introductory chapter discusses the accuracy of the text, tracing back through various versions until a standardised version based on the earliest texts is arrived at. This is the version used by Giles for his translation. I was more interested in this historiography. It’s in the nature of my job to be interested in what makes a text, or original source, reliable. I enjoyed Giles’s brief explanation of the history of the text.

The third introductory chapter looks at the men who have provided commentary on Sun Tzu’s text over time. Again, as I’m not a student of ancient Chinese history, I wasn’t really interested, but could see why Giles laid out the significance of the work as reflected in who was commenting. Reference to unreliable commentators skewing Sun Tzu’s meaning to suit their own purposes was a nice bit of context.

The other introductory chapters didn’t interest me enough to comment on. I’m not a fan of war. I don’t buy the theory offered in the fifth introductory chapter that says war is an instrument of government, a punishment meted out by an army in the same way as imprisonment is ordered by the courts, and therefore necessary for the moral good of society. Giles comes across as being very interested in warfare and strategy, and throughout the book he raises parallels between Sun Tzu’s approach to war and approaches taken by other generals, successful and unsuccessful.

As for Sun Tzu’s treatise, it is logical. He talks sense. If you want to win at war, you have to assess whether you have the resources, know how to use them most effectively, and understand your enemy. Quite straightforward really. Some of it is couched in obscure language, which Giles unpicks with the assistance of some of the commentators he introduces earlier in the book. I found Giles’s comments intrusive at times, especially when they appear in the middle of a paragraph. I don’t know whether that’s the format of the book or whether footnotes don’t work in the epub version I read. I would have preferred to read Sun Tzu’s text and check annotations separately.

What was interesting for me was reading the book while watching the Olympics. I thought more about what Sun Tzu was saying in the context of sporting competition. A lot of the same principles apply, replacing an enemy in battle with an opponent in sport. I thought about it watching the tennis, particularly Sun Tzu’s advice on deception as a tactic, as the best tennis players know how to disguise their line of attack in the way they approach the ball before striking it.

The passages that dealt with fighting in difficult terrains, calling for disparate factions of the same army to unite against a common enemy and behave like a rapid snake that uses head and tail to strike, made me think that the whole of the Parliamentary Labour Party needs to read The Art of War.

I don’t ever plan to go to war, but at least I know I can refer to this book for guidance should I ever feel like it. I don’t see how it can help me in the workplace, as suggested by my former colleague. Fortunately, I don’t work at that place any more, so I’m not going to afford it any further thought. I will, however, remember to carry on not taking the advice of paranoid people.

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