The Art of War by Sun Tzu is one of the most widely read books at present, and the majority of the readers are not in an armed force. They could be from such diverse disciplines such as marketing, sales, management, planning ,investment and even law. This wide readership and interest has resulted in many translations and adaptation of the strategies for specific situations being available for readers.
However, it is seen that some of the translations have given meanings to some quotes which are well different from the meanings given in a majority of translations. This kind of situation is seen in books or works that have multiple translators. This is so, because each translator has different ways of comprehending and putting out a particular concept, based on the person’s understanding of the foreign language, the intended audience, the background of the translator. However, one problem associated with the different translations of Art of War is that the Chinese language does not translate well in to English.For example,even the correct name of the work of Sun Tzu has come up with this problem.Although an exact meaning of the name of the text “Bing-fa” literally means “military skills” or “military procedures,”the first English translation (known as the Giles edition,after the translator Lional Giles) has given the term “art of war” and this has stuck on for a long time and is now accepted as a the true meaning of the term
It has been stated by Chinese language scholars that translation of Chinese characters needs to be done in the context of the meaning of the whole text. In other words, the meanings have to be re-examined after the translation to see whether the chapters and the statements in them are consistent with each other in their meanings or are in contradiction to the rest. A correct rendering should not have such contradictory statements or chapters, but should show a consistency in meanings.In addition,this work has been influenced by Taoism,and hence a knowledge of these principles would help a person to grasp the meaning of a statement more deeply.
The format of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is as follows:
*The text is divided in to 13 Chapters, the names of which provide the general theme of the chapter
*Each chapter is, in turn, divided in to “blocks” of text.A Chapter may have 5 to 8 such blocks.
*Each block has a number of Statements (Stanzas) that are meant to express a single,specific idea or concept.
Reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War – Some observations (part 2)
One reason for the timeless wisdom in Sun Tzu’s Art of War is that it provides a set of analytical tools that can be employed not only to wage war, but in many other situations, especially conflict or competitive situations, to help anyone to examine oneself, one’s organization(or company),and to assess the adversary to decide on the best course of action.
The first chapter of the text(Laying Plans), is to me, one of the best. This provides a framework for the analysis of oneself, situation and the adversary. It also defines different concepts and terms within the context of the text.
The first set of statements (stanzas) of the first chapter deals with the need to study strategy.
“The Art of War is of vital importance to the state. It is the basis for life or death. Hence it is a skill that must be studied diligently.”
Within this set of statements is the acknowledgement that war strategy is a “skill” that has to be known (studied) well. Sun Tzu has hit upon the concept that complicated tasks such as the strategic knowledge are skills that need to be learnt and practiced, not inborn talents. There is a notion, prevalent even at present that some people are born with certain talent (e.g- born leaders, born artists), although research has shown, time and again that these are skills that can be learnt and excelled.In other words, Sun Tzu has dismissed the notion that there are “born generals” but want aspiring generals(and maybe rulers) to study the Art of War diligently,as the survival of oneself and the country depends upon how skilled the person is.
The second set of statements point out the five skilled that must be excelled to become a successful strategist. They are philosophy, climate, ground, leadership and military methods. This set shows that Sun Tzu does not believe that there are “born leaders” as some even still believes, but is yet another skilled that can be and should be learnt and mastered.
The next five sets of statements goes on to explain what each of the five factors mean,within the context of war strategy.
Reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War – Some observations (part 3)
There are different pieces of advice for many fields in this book and one needs to read it in total and then take out the appropriate statements as blocks( or a set of stanzas),and have to be re-arranged according to the needs of the researcher. This is because they are not arranged in the same chapter or in the same sequence of bundles, but are scattered as appropriate in the context of the purpose of the text in different chapters.
We will take “leadership principles” as an example to show how and where these are in the text. Sun Tzu offers some very important guidelines for leaders, both aspiring and established, young and old. These include things that a leader ought to think about, consider and ponder deeply in order to be successful, things to be careful about and avoid and the pitfalls along the path that need to be avoided or surmounted.
*Chapter 01 consists of things that a leader, whether aspiring or established, need to carefully consider in order to know the current position of the state(organization),the possible threats, opportunities in order to protect his position or to advance his position.
*The second bundle of statements (stanzas) discusses the five factors that determine the successful conduct of a leader.
*Chapter 04 advices a leader to learn from history, or more precisely from the conduct of successful leaders of the past.
*In Chapter 06,the skills that are needed to be developed in order for a leader to be successful are discussed.
*Chapter 07 discusses how to keep and increase the morale of followers.
*Chapter 08 emphasizes the need for the continuous assessment of situations and the importance of flexibility and adaptability in meeting changed circumstances or to exploit sudden opportunities.
* Chapter 08 also discusses the five faults of an opposing leader that can be made use of for one’s advantage. Implicit in this is the need that these have to be overcome by the leader in order to be successful.
*Chapter 10 deal with other weaknesses that can bring disaster and ruination to oneself and how to avoid them.
*Chapter 10 also lays down guidelines on how to treat your men fairly.
Jagath Gunawardana Attorney-at-law