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Forever passing on ancient secrets of strategy

by Donald Richie

The Art of War: Sun Zi’s Military Methods, foreword by Arthur Waldron. New York: Columbia University Press, 208 pp., with frontispiece, 2007, $19.95 (cloth)

Here is a new translation of the sixth-century-B.C. Chinese military manual that has been long seen as the definitive work on strategies and tactics. It is said to have influenced the better decisions of Napoleon and played its part in the planning of the much later Operation Desert Storm.

Mao Zedong devoted an approving citation and Gen. Douglas MacArthur claimed that some of his inspiration came from it. Even now the General Staff College of the U.S. Department of the Army mentions the work by name and advises that it be available at staff libraries.

The work has permeated other less bellicose quarters of the culture. Football coaches have used it to inform players. It is said to have inspired Brazil and Portugal (separately) in the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup Games. Cricket coaches have handed out copies.

Its influence has also slopped over into corporate culture. Many are the business manuals following its model and applying its lessons to company strategy and office politics — particularly in Japan where the book has been required reading for key execs.

In addition, Sun Zi gets a mention in the 2002 James Bond film “Die Another Day”; in the 1987 “Wall Street” Michael Douglas reads him; in the 1999 “Ghost Dog” Forest Whitaker quotes him; and he is often praised by Tony Soprano in the TV series. His appearances in video games, manga and anime are beyond count.

There are numerous translations (the first, into French, in 1782) and more than 30 annotated editions, which must be something of a record for any BCE book except for the first half of the “Bible.” And here now is the latest edition and what authorities are calling the finest.

It has been named elegant and brilliant and comes with a full complement of scholarly additions, including an essay on the principles of translation, a guide to pronunciation, lists of key terms and abbreviations, a full precis, copious notes and a complete bibliography (but not the trivia mentioned in the paragraphs above this one. That was found in our upturned cornucopia, the Internet).

One of the well-realized aims of Victor H. Mair is to return the text its dignity. It has been so popularized, so colloquialized, that Sun Zi’s laconic dicta have been turned into fortune-cookie inserts. Now, however, the original flavor is felt. Take Mair’s new translation of the best known of these terse formulae.

“He who knows his opponent and knows himself will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. He who knows not his opponent but knows himself will win one and lose one. He who knows neither his opponent nor himself will surely be imperiled in every battle.”

Lean, clear, all fustian removed, the work is revealed not as military talisman nor as a well of arcane expectations, but rather as a historical product — one quite ready to hold its own when compared with later military authorities such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Carl von Clausewitz.