A New Sun Tzu Translation: Is There Any Blood Left in This Old Stone?

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Sun Tzu: The Art of War. Peter Harris. New York, NY: Everyman’s Library, 2018.

Although the English-speaking world received its own version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War unconscionably late, over the last few decades this oversight has been thoroughly rectified. Currently, there exist at least 40 English translations of the text, and bookstore shelves groan under the weight of even more numerous volumes offering to instruct Western audiences in how to harness the power of Sun Tzu’s philosophy to be all conquering in war, business, love, life and golf course maintenance.

Despite the vast number of translations, by far the most popular choice remains one of the earliest—Lionel Giles’s seminal work first published in 1910. His book remained the only widely available version in English for over half a century before Samuel Griffith’s 1963 edition presented a viable alternative. Following the significant archaeological discovery in the 1970s and 80s of tombs containing ancient military texts and fragments (including a partial version of Sun Tzu’s text from the second century BC), Sinologists renewed their interest in the subject. Updated versions from accomplished scholars such as Roger Ames, Ralph Sawyer, John Minford and Victor Mair introduced the text to a new generation in the West.

The rapid economic rise of China—and the growing uncertainty as to how this accumulated wealth will impact security issues—has only intensified interest in learning new lessons from the Chinese sage which might shed light on Beijing’s contemporary military strategy. Since the beginning of this millennium alone, over a dozen newly translated versions of this slim treatise have entered the now crowded field. Peter Harris, Senior Fellow of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, is just the latest to take up the challenge of translating the renowned ancient text for the benefit of the Western reader.

But are these continuously updated versions saying anything new that previous translation efforts somehow missed? Comparing and contrasting this latest offering with its predecessors reveals that while not much new ground has been broken in terms of translation, there still exists a significant lacuna in terms of adequately interpreting the text for the contemporary military strategist.

Unlike many of the more mundane efforts published over the last decade, Harris clearly is an accomplished translator who presents a lucid version of the text. In an attempt to modernize the work, his translation strips away much of the chinoiserie that characterized many of the earlier efforts. Whereas some translators choose to render Sun Tzu’s use of tian (天) as the more literally accurate “Heaven,” Harris brings the term closer to the terrestrial realm, labelling it as either “sky” or “weather.” Sun Tzu refers to his own forces using the arcane designation “the Three Armies,” which Harris simplifies into the “whole army” within his version. In Chapter 11, Sun Tzu references a long-forgotten type of snake through the use of a vivid analogy. Most translators tend to simply leave the original Chinese name for the serpent intact (Shuairan), but Harris chooses to give it an updated colloquial moniker, “Speedy.” For the most part, these are acceptable translation choices. In some instances, however, updating the original language to make it more palatable to the modern reader leads to less than ideal results.

In Chapter 6, Harris translates the term wuxing (無形) as “invisible,” and thus interprets Sun Tzu’s advice as to make your own army invisible to the adversary. But a more accurate translation of wuxing would be “without discernible form,” and although on the surface not as clear and concise as invisible, we lose a subtle distinction when oversimplifying the text. To see why this distinction matters, consider Sun Bin’s famous stratagem during the Battle of Maling in 342 BC, in which on three consecutive nights he ordered fewer and fewer cooking stoves lit within his army’s camp.[1] The enemy commander, Pang Juan, interpreted the dwindling fires as evidence of mass desertion and recklessly led a small vanguard against Sun Bin’s army in hopes of expediting a rout, unaware that he was racing into a deadly ambush. Sun Bin’s intent was not to remain invisible per se, but rather to visibly give the impression of a “form” that would provoke a desired response from Pang Juan, thereby masking his own true form until after the conditions for victory were met.


In Chapter 5, Sun Tzu introduces the somewhat vague concept of using what he terms qi (奇) and zheng (正) methods in combination to gain advantage over the enemy and secure victory. Translators have found multiple ways to express these two terms in English, including: unorthodox and orthodox (Sawyer), indirect and direct (Giles), or surprise and straightforward (Ames). Harris chooses to translate qi as “irregular warfare” and zheng as “regular.” This is problematic, because in its modern usage irregular warfare carries the specific connotation of conflict between state and non-state actors. As envisioned in The Art of War (and later expanded upon in Sun Bin’s military treatise), the concept of qi and zheng is based entirely upon the enemy’s expectation of one’s own action, not the action itself. A non-state actor, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), fighting an irregular war is to be expected from the U.S. perspective, so therefore is actually a zheng method using Sun Tzu’s terminology. If the U.S. suddenly found itself defending against a conventional combined arms assault from Islamic State forces, this would now be qi, or unexpected. Labelling these terms as irregular and regular warfare may, in fact, unnecessarily confuse the modern reader.

Overall, though, Harris presents an accomplished, highly readable and seemingly cohesive recitation of Sun Tzu’s text. But it is only by comparing multiple English language versions do the fissures appear in the façade of a work that, although still worthy of admiration, is far from a ready source of military principles that should be uncritically adopted in our modern age. To see an example of this, note the proposed actions Sun Tzu recommends based on an assessment of force ratios as outlined in Chapter 3. While most translators are in agreement that with a ten to one favorable ratio one should surround the enemy and with a five to one advantage one should initiate an attack, they are less unified in their understanding of Sun Tzu’s intent when one’s own force is double the size of the enemy. Compare the following two translations:

Harris Translation: If you are double his size, divide yourself up.[2]

Mair Translation: Divide the enemy when one has twice the number of his forces.[3]

Looking at the same original text, these translators both arrive at completely contradictory interpretations, yet are hardly alone in their disagreement. Giles and Griffith end up on opposite sides of this same debate as do two of the historical commentators, Du Mu and Zhang Yu (from the Tang and Song dynasties respectively). Harris neither explains nor defends his interpretive choice and fails to even alert the reader that an alternate view exists.

Painting of the 1758 Battle of Oroi-Jalatu, in which the Qing defeated the Dzungar. (Wikimedia)

This issue is repeated in Chapter 7, where Sun Tzu considers methods of maneuver to gain initiative over one’s adversary. Again, there remains disagreement amongst the translators as to which course of action Sun Tzu is ultimately recommending:

Harris Translation: So make the road the enemy travels a roundabout one, luring him with the prospect of gain, and be the last to set out and the first to arrive.[4]

Mair Translation: Therefore, take a circuitous route to reach the enemy, tempt him with advantages. Though I set out after him, I reach my destination before him.[5]

In Harris’s translation, the intent is to force one’s enemy onto a circuitous path, while according to Mair, one’s own army is designated to take this roundabout route. Only one interpretation can be correct, but translators are hopelessly deadlocked over this passage. A review of 30 English language translations results in 15 suggesting the enemy take the circuitous route and 15 favoring one’s own forces. This might seem like a minor hermeneutical cavil if it were not for Sun Tzu later adding that the “one who first understands the tactics of the circuitous and the direct will be victorious.”[6] Over two millennia after these thoughts were first transcribed onto bamboo slips, we are basically left with flipping a coin to determine which action will lead to victory and which will court disaster.

The fact that even native Chinese speaking translators of these passages disagree on their ultimate meaning suggests that these issues go beyond mere translation competency or Westerners inability to penetrate the subtleties of Eastern thinking. Instead, they reflect the often ambiguous nature of the received text. Ancient Chinese writing lacks the precision of its modern counterpart, and all translators of these works are at certain key points forced to make interpretive choices that have the potential to fundamentally alter the intended meaning of the original authors.[7]

This embedded ambiguity applies even to a verse that Harris highlights as “an idea critical to Sun Tzu’s thinking.”[8] This idea is the notion that the strategic objective is to always take the enemy state whole and intact rather than destroy it through violent means. Sun Tzu commentator Mark McNeilly labels this the “overarching” principle, on which all other principles within the text are simply the means to achieve it.[9] This view is derived from the first verse of Chapter 3, which Harris renders in a conventional fashion, similar to Giles and Griffith:

In general with the art of war, it is best to keep the enemy’s state intact. The second best is to destroy it.[10]

But in a 1965 critique of Griffith’s translation, Sinologist D.C. Lau argues that this is a misinterpretation of the original Chinese. In the received text, the verse does not clearly distinguish which state is directed to be preserved—the enemy’s or one’s own. Through textual comparisons, Lau comes to the conclusion that the true meaning of the verse should be interpreted as: “It is best to preserve one's own state intact.”[11]

If correct, this would represent a radical challenge to our conventional understanding of the book and has the potential to fundamentally alter our belief that The Art of War heavily favors non-violent means in seeking victory. Using Harris’s interpretation, since preserving the enemy state is the highest strategic objective, non-violent methods are absolutely vital to achieving this goal. Using Lau’s interpretation, while non-violent means may certainly be desired and pursued when feasible (since this will also meet the objective of preserving one’s own state), there exists no restriction on resorting to violence if the enemy stubbornly refuses to bend to one’s will. As Clausewitz wryly noted: “The aggressor is always peace-loving (as Bonaparte always claimed to be); he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.”[12]

None of this invalidates the overall work, but we should constantly remind ourselves that we are dealing with both a brilliant and ultimately problematic document. The patina of ineluctable truth which adheres itself to any venerable text that survives long enough to join the ranks of the strategic canon should not deter us from seeking out the imperfections lurking under the surface. What these new editions remind us of is that while we have come close to exhausting the limits of translation, there remains a glaring deficiency in terms of developing a comprehensive, historically based textual interpretation. Until we come closer to this goal, we would be well advised to approach the book with more skepticism and nuance than currently exists within the still nascent field of Sun Tzu studies in the West.

General David Petraeus (AP)

Yet by dragging Sun Tzu into the 21st century, we are too easily misled into believing our own doctrine is more tightly aligned with The Art of War’s philosophical outlook than is often warranted. In his foreword to Harris’s translation, General David Petraeus implies that he and Sun Tzu would be of like minds when he states:

Leaders of the wars of the past sixteen years certainly can underscore the importance of leaders at all levels understanding the intent of the overall commander and being able to translate big ideas at the top level into tactical actions by what we often termed ‘strategic lieutenants and sergeants.’[13]

But a strong argument can be made that Sun Tzu would categorically reject the modern concept of empowering one’s subordinates by providing them access to the overall intent of the operation and authorizing them to independently execute decisions based upon this knowledge. In Chapter 11, Sun Tzu states that “[the commander] can fool his soldiers about what they see and hear, leaving them in a state of ignorance. He changes what he does and alters his plans so that [his own] people do not understand them.”[14] In the same chapter, he later goes on to describe the manner by which a commander should ideally lead his forces while deep inside enemy territory:

He acts like someone driving a herd of sheep hither and thither, none of them knowing where they are going next…. He uses the forces of his whole army as if leading a single individual. He uses them by having them take on tasks, but without telling them why; he uses them by holding out the prospect of harm, but without telling them about gains.[15]

In the end, General Petraeus overreaches when he claims “victory and success invariably have been achieved by adherence to the principles discussed in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.”[16] If Hannibal followed Sun Tzu’s directive “to leave a gap for an encircled army to escape through,” we would have long forgotten the Battle of Cannae.[17] Had Ulysses S. Grant heeded his warning to “not press an opponent in dire straits,” we might only remember him today as just one of many lackluster Civil War commanders.[18] If U.S. forces in Iraq had chosen to obey the text’s repeated commands to rely solely on plundering the invaded state to sustain one’s own troops, the Sunni Awakening might never have materialized.[19]

Unfortunately, the à la carte method of selecting verses from The Art of War which appear to support one’s own proclivities while simply discarding those that don’t fit a desired narrative remains the most virulent form of contemporary Sun Tzu interpretation (this method of selectively choosing lessons from ancient texts is also prevalent in China). Predictably, this tends to falsely skew the original text in line with modern military doctrine, thereby mirror-imaging our own thoughts onto Sun Tzu’s writings. While cathartic, this prevents us from recognizing that while the text occasionally taps into universal truths about warfare, we are deluding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that the work is ultimately bound by the historical and cultural milieu from whence it originated.

Skepticism over one’s ability to infer relatable military concepts from vague ancient texts is neither a new nor exclusively Western construct. Chinese historians of the Warring States period relay the story of Zhao Kuo, who was known for brilliantly espousing precepts from strategic works he had read yet lacked any practical military experience.[20] The king was impressed by his rhetorical skills, and against the advice of his own advisors and even Zhao Kuo’s mother, assigned him as the army commander. The result was a disaster. At the Battle of Changping against the state of Qin in 260 BC, Zhao Kuo was quickly drawn into a trap and killed. His army was forced to surrender and the victorious Qin forces summarily executed over 400,000 captured soldiers.

The Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722 AD), himself a successful military commander and the first ruler to bring Tibet and Taiwan under firm Chinese control, expressed disdain for those who advocated a strict reliance on traditional texts to solve contemporary military problems:

For in war it’s experience in action that matters. The so-called Seven Military Classics are full of nonsense about water and fire, lucky omens and advice on the weather, all at random and contradicting each other. I told my officials once that if you followed these books you would never win a battle…. All one needs is an inflexible will and careful planning.[21]

If we hope to leverage The Art of War’s philosophy in the modern era, we need to cease glossing over the contradictions inherent in the text and accept the fact that a unified theory on strategy derived from Sun Tzu is a deceptive mirage. Rather than piling on more translations, we would be better served by exerting greater effort reevaluating the text in a manner that recognizes that many of its arguments were based on unique historical factors which may not directly apply to modern strategic thought yet allows for the identification of carefully derived tenets which still maintain their relevance. Establishing a more judicious interpretation of The Art of War is a worthwhile and achievable goal, but we must be willing to follow the circuitous route to reach it.

As a final note, we should abandon the Western shibboleth that Sun Tzu represents both the alpha and omega of Chinese strategic thinking. There is a rich vein of historical and military texts within the Sinic strategic tradition that we have left unmined for far too long. It is time to start squeezing blood out of some new (old) stones.

John Sullivan is a former U.S. Army China Foreign Area Officer who served assignments in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington DC. He is currently a JD candidate at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Ssu-ma Ch’ien, The Grand Scribe’s Records: Volume VII, The Memoirs of Pre-Han China(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 40-41.

[2] Peter Harris (translator), Sun Tzu: The Art of War (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2018), p. 54.

[3] Victor H. Mair (translator), The Art of War: Sun Zi’s Military Methods (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 86.

[4] Harris, p. 66.

[5] Mair, p. 101.

[6] Ralph D. Sawyer (translator), Sun Tzu: Art of War (New York: Basic Books, 1994), p. 198.

[7] Even most native Chinese speakers don’t read Sun Tzu’s original work, but instead rely on versions that convert the classical Chinese script into its modern vernacular equivalent. Even these, though, should be considered interpretive translations of the original. For instance, although the original work is composed of slightly over 6,000 Chinese characters, a modern translation by Cui Guozheng (崔国政) needs to use over twice this number of characters (12,413) to convey the same information for the contemporary reader.

[8] Harris, p. 143.

[9] Mark R. McNeilly, Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 24.

[10] Harris, p. 53.

[11] D.C. Lau. "Some Notes on the Sun Tzu 孫子" Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 28, No. 2 (1965), p. 335.

[12] Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 370.

[13] Harris, p. 9.

[14] Ibid, pp. 85-86.

[15] Ibid, pp. 86-88.

[16] Ibid, pp. 10-11.

[17] Ibid, p. 69.

[18] Ibid.

[19] References to plundering the enemy state can be found in chapters 2, 7 and 11. These repeated commands to plunder further buttress D.C. Lau’s contention that Sun Tzu’s overall strategic objective is focused on preserving one’s own country, not necessarily the enemy’s.

[20] See: Sima Guang, Zizhi Tongjian: Warring States and Qin, Volume 1 to 8 403-207 BCE, translated by Joseph P. Yap (CreateSpace, 2016), pp. 222-224; and Ssu-ma Ch’ien, pp. 269-270.

[21] Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 22

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