Beginning with the 1989 movie Wall Street, it's been fashionable for leaders of all types to quote the general and his most famous book. What do scholars of Chinese history have to say about it?
I learned several answers to this question last year at the first Sun Tzu conference, organized by Thomas Huynh. I enjoyed the event, but in this post I want to share my notes from the talk by Peter Lorge. Dr Lorge is the author of the incomparable Chinese Martial Arts history text, probably the best academic book ever written on the subject. (See Ben Judkins' review.)
Peter made many statements about Sun Tzu and his text which did not sit well with the audience, so they make for interesting reading here!
First, Peter does not believe Sun Tzu existed as a discrete individual. He doesn't believe Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, existed either. Peter believes they are composite figures, an assembly of historical individuals and their works. Similarly, the "Art of War" is a composite text. It was never written as a single book. The Art of War is considered one of the seven military classics, but one of those "classics" is an 11th century forgery. Apparently it didn't sit well with Chinese leaders back then to have "only" six classics, so they invented a seventh.
Peter reinforced the point that I learned in Dr. Andrew Wilson's course that the title of the book is really "Master Sun's Military Method" (孙子兵法 sun-zi-bing-fa). None of the eleven commentaries were written by generals. Rather, intellectuals likely wrote them. Most pre-modern generals in China were illiterate. Therefore, they did not read the book. Today, Western generals are more likely to talk about the Art of War than their Chinese counterparts. Sun Tzu was popular is China when they were losing battles in the 1920s, but that was the height of its popularity in the Chinese military.
Although many interpret the book's message as implying the superiority of an "indirect method," the Chinese don't focus on this concept. The book's core message is that one must use force carefully, because war is costly. This is a result of the book likely being composed during the Warring States period (475-221 BC), with commentaries written during the 3rd century BC.
Today, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) says the key message is "be cautious," and they believe that no small military force ever beat a larger military force. Although the PLA talks about so-called "Assassin's Mace" weaponry that would give smaller forces an advantage, in the end they believe in size -- hence their ongoing military build-up. Peter noted that China excels in building empires, while the West does not. Why? The Chinese are experts at using force.
Peter is currently writing a four volume history of Chinese strategic thought. Because he can read and speak Chinese, and has written several texts on Chinese history and strategy, he is uniquely qualified to do this work. He is also a martial artist, practicing BJJ in Nashville. I look forward to reading his next books and I hope to see him speak elsewhere in the future.
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