If you have bought or borrowed The School of Sun Tzu, chances are you have already read Sun Tzu: The Art of War. And there is also a good chance that the version you read was authored by a writer who was convinced that Sun Tzu was a person, that he was an army general, and that the subject of the book was combat. The author may have conceded that Sun Tzu, the general, saw open warfare as a regrettable event, and that it should be avoided, but the notion that war is inevitable is never challenged.
When I first read The Art of War, I was intrigued. I saw a rhythm and harmony in it, and of course the language is colorful and poetic. As for its meaning, I was at a loss. Despite many years in management and training, and service as an infantry officer, I saw only obscurity and confusion. The alleged military genre seemed a long reach, as I saw little that was military about Sun Tzu. Many of the instructions seemed silly. I was confused when I read the associated commentary, which was all quite certain about Sun Tzu the person and Sun Tzu the book.
I suspect when you read that first Art of War you had a nagging suspicion that the text was saying something that you were not hearing, and that there was more to Sun Tzu than what was evident at first glance.
In my case, I assumed the version I was reading had gotten it wrong. I went on to read more than a dozen translations, a large number of articles, and several essays. The standard pattern varied hardly at all. Nobody seemed especially troubled that there was very little military in this “military manual.” Though there was military imagery, there was nothing a soldier could really use. It was all quite mysterious.
Only much later would I come to see that the “military” content was actually metaphor and the meaning was something else altogether. A key breakthrough came when I discovered one commentator who was adamant that “art of war” is an incorrect translation of ping-fa. It means, he said, “the art of diplomacy,” or perhaps more correctly, “the art of successful engagement management.” This indicated something far different from the “attacking walled cities” of which Sun Tzu speaks.
As my studies proceeded, I developed a withering disdain for the commentaries. Their analyses, in both the management and military domains, looked shoddy from a scholarship perspective. I saw the same interpretations repeated endlessly without documentation. In effect, the canon is a perpetual assumption replication machine. The commentary is one of the paradigms of which Thomas S. Kuhn (1996) speaks, a paradigm that has virtually controlled an important area of study for more than two thousand years.
The who, what, why, and where of The Art of War (I use Ping-fa when speaking of The Art of War) has received short shrift. There is no definitive, reliable statement on its date of publication, usually reported to be sometime in the several hundred years between the time of Chinese antiquity and the third century BCE. Date of issue would seem critical, if one is going to assert that the work was by a “general” who had won many wars. We also have no confirmation of authorship. We are provided with no evidence why this book was written and what it was ultimately used for.
My Rosetta Stone for Ping-fa is the Tao Te Ching. It is believed to be the second most frequently translated book in the world, with as many as a thousand Chinese commentaries and possibly a hundred translations. It is a key to Sun Tzu’s front door. Though some of the commentary sees a possible connection to Ping-fa, to date nobody has defined that relationship. In fact, like Ping-fa no one has definitively resolved the Tao Te Ching’s authorship, age, and application. There are, therefore, two mysteries. Both mysteries will be exposed in The School of Sun Tzu.
The notion that the Tao Te Ching was written by a wanderer named Lao Tzu in one evening as he rested at a border post is as silly as the notion that Sun Tzu, a retired general, took pen in hand and set down a treatise that has been read, analyzed, and studied for over two thousand years. The very idea that two very famous works were scratched out in a few days by individuals with no specialized learning or previous literary achievement is patently absurd.
The School of Sun Tzu carefully examines the Tao Te Ching/ Ping-fa relationship, the period and context within which they were created, and what use they were intended to serve. The inherent harmony of the two is obvious. The form and flow of the two are the same, and the principles and values identical. There is really only one difference: one is practice, and the other is philosophy. With the benefit of a Tao Te Ching perspective, Ping-fa is transparent and metaphorical. With Ping-fa decoded, freed of its military metaphor and retold in plain language, it emerges as a concise, comprehensive manual for strategic management. Now, one can revisit the Tao Te Ching and see quite clearly that it is a statement of values and principles intended to guide human activity.
The context for these works begins in the period known as the Warring States and carries through the peace that followed and the emergence of the first empire of China. In this journey, we encounter the short-lived Qin dynasty, its “Legalist” administration, and the Han dynasty that followed it.
The key player in this remarkable story is China’s first emperor, Qin Shih Huangdi. A brilliant and immeasurably successful champion for Chinese nationhood, he has been discredited for two millennia by his successors and history dilettantes. Because of these sins of omission and commission, we know as much today about the first emperor as we do about Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu—that is, almost nothing at all. Most of what is written today about the first emperor is fabrication.
The emergence of China is a story of elegant and gentle nation building. The small kingdom of Qin, exploiting the talents of the greatest body of strategic knowledge that the world has ever assembled, crafted an empire for the millennia.
Today’s political leaders, journalists, and intellectuals seem convinced that life without conflict and periodic combat is a naive dream. They imagine they have seen it all, and though they might think wistfully of a world without distrust, polarization, and conflict, they are convinced they will not live to see it happen.
It is time to challenge these assumptions and deeply held beliefs. The state of Qin, which gave us the great nation of China, did just that over two thousand years ago. The evidence for all this is there for all to see. All one needs do is look.
To Possess the Sky … Practice Humility.
Stop the water and seize the river.
Take hold of the air and possess the sky.
Such foolish struggle.
To seize the river … become river.
To possess sky … become sky.
Practice humility and do not try to get
ahead of each other.
A winner requires a loser.
Retribution provokes reprisal.
What a foolish circle to be trapped within.
—Ray Grigg, The Tao of Relationships