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Finding the Way in art of war

by Michael Hoffman

THE DAO OF THE MILITARY: Liu An’s Art of War, translated by Andrew Seth Meyer. Columbia University Press, 2012, 157 pp., $19.50 (paperback)

There are two ancient Chinese texts titled “The Art of War.” Liu An’s, the one under review, newly translated by historian Andrew Meyer, is the less famous.

The more famous is purportedly (but not actually) by Master Sun Tzu, and dates to the third century B.C. It is a best-seller to this day, read more by corporate warriors than by warriors of the battlefield.

It emerged from the disorders of China’s Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.) and owes its modern appeal to its unabashed materialism. The real Sun Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), was a gentleman-warrior, in keeping with his relatively settled times when warfare was religion by another name — “conducted,” Meyer explains, “by small armies of chariot-mounted aristocrats … constrained by myriad ceremonial protocols and taboos.”

Out with all that, proclaimed “The Art of War.” The real Sun Tzu would have blanched to see a book published under his name dismissing everything he held sacred — courage, truth, battlefield sacrifice, ritual. The point of statesmanship, the false Sun Tzu asserted, was to gain one’s end as cost-effectively as possible. Diplomacy was preferable to fighting because it used up fewer resources; likewise, deception to truth, for the same reason. In fact, said the false Sun Tzu, “Deception is the Way of the military.” “Way” with a capital W is a concept linked to the very essence of the universe. Untruth was being accorded very high status indeed.

War was not glorious, said the false Sun Tzu, but a drain on the economy; therefore, a last resort. Still, if an army must be deployed there was to be no nonsense about it: “The skilled commander should be able to maneuver the entire army as if it were a single person.” “Skilled” was a key word. In this new world, skills prevailed over aristocratic birth.

We see China here at the threshold of a unique idea that shaped its culture for 2,000 years — an aristocracy of merit.

So much for Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” Liu An’s “Art of War,” written 200-odd years later, is quite different — though, as Meyer indicates, it represents less a departure from Sun Tzu’s materialism than a softening of it.

Conditions in Liu’s time were easier. The Warring States Period had ended and China was reunified, first under the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), then under the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 9, A.D. 25-220). Qin rule was brutal and short-lived; the Han took note and loosened the reins.

Central control under the Han coexisted with a certain degree of regional autonomy. Scholarship flourished. Liu An (179?-122 B.C.) was a scholar-king ruling the state of Huainan as a Han vassal. The scholars he sponsored produced a massive text called the “Huainanzi” — “a distillation of all knowledge the monarch would need in ruling the world,” explains Meyer. “Divided into twenty-one sections, it covered a vast array of topics, ranging from astronomy and geography to logic and rhetoric, state organization, ritual observance and beyond.”

Liu An’s “Art of War” is chapter 15 of the “Huainanzi.”

The softening ingredient is qi, the unfathomable something (or nothing? no-thing?) that gave rise to, infuses and unites everything in the universe. It is more or less synonymous with the Way — Dao in Chinese. The “Huainanzai” in general and its “Art of War” chapter in particular, writes Meyer, “posited a basic structural correspondence between the operations of the cosmos and the institutions of human culture and society.”

Liu An’s “Art of War,” then, is essentially Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” plus qi.

The length of the introduction reveals something about a book. When it’s longer than the text it introduces, as here, you know you’re in for a challenge. What is “the Dao of the military”?

There’s no explaining it in a phrase; no explaining it period. You savor it, not without some bewilderment, in the enigmatic aphorisms that comprise Liu An’s text:

“The sage’s use of the military is like combing hair or weeding seedlings; those he eliminates are few, those he benefits are many.”

“The great military does no injury; it communicates with the ghosts and spirits.”

“That by which the excellent commander is ensured victory is his constant possession of a knowledge without origin, a Way that is not a Way.”

War, Meyer points out, does not antedate literacy by much in China, and yet a thousand years of fighting and writing passed before anyone thought of combining the two and writing about fighting. There is nothing quite like Liu An’s “Art of War” in the Western tradition — and little enough like it in the Chinese. Liu An ran afoul of his Han overlords and was forced to commit suicide, his text consigned to oblivion.

But not, says Meyer, to irrelevance. “It presents us with what is arguably the most thoroughly ‘Daoist’ treatment of military affairs in early Chinese letters,” and among modern movements that have felt its influence are the Boxer rebels of the early 20th century and, more recently, the Falun Gong.

Falun Gong is an apparently unmilitant, apolitical group devoted to meditation and cultivation of the Way. The Chinese government’s determination to crush it raised an enigma. Why should a firmly entrenched authoritarian regime feel so shaken by so light a wind?

Evidently the regime knew its “Art of War,” which declares, “Only the Way is invincible … It triumphs and does not submit.”