Sun Tzu – The Commentary: Getting it wrong

· Sun Tzu Art of War

The Sun Tzu Commentary: Getting it wrong[1]

Author J.H. Huang and I are both convinced that “The Art of War” title is a mis-translation. The original Chinese “Bing-fa” really meant more “the art of diplomacy” than “war;” and in my view, it really meant “the art of managing organizations and relations between organizations.” My comments then will refer to “Bing-fa” (you may see this written from time to time by others as ping-fa.)

Bing-fa has been translated a number of times and published in many commentaries, the bulk of which have been militaristic in whole or in part. Calthrop (1908. 14) says that when Sun Tzu: The Art of War was introduced to Japan, it generated “an army of Japanese commentators.”

The commentary makes much of the assumption that Bing-fa was written as an “experience of war that was often savage, cruel and deadly serious” in the “vastly different context” of “military operations in China during the period of the Warring States” (Teck and Grinyer 1994, 289). An element of this tale is that Bing-fa was a commissioned work, written by a general for one of the warring lords. There is no reliable evidence supporting these notions. Nevertheless, they continue to define the Bing-fa context.

Rudnicki says Bing-fa is simply “Thirteen Chapters about war.” Lau and Ames (1996, 59) say Bing-fa is “an important classical text on the subject of warfare [which explains] why it has come down to us through an unbroken transmission.” General Griffith, Captain Calthrop, and General Tao Hanzhang obviously speak from the perspective of their lifelong military professions in their renditions of “The Art of War.” Ames (1993, 7) tells us he consulted exclusively with “China’s leading scholars in military affairs” to write his “definitive Sun Tzu.”

Marginal issues dominate the commentary, with unchallenged assumptions and interpretations. This pattern has been repeated endlessly since the Han dynasty, over 2000 years ago. Consequently, the commentary has to a very large degree molded and shaped today’s understanding of Bing-fa. New releases of Sun Tzu: The Art of War are for the most part commentators commenting on commentators.

Bing-fa is a brilliant treatise that played a key role in establishing the Chinese empire, an empire that was built through persuasion, guile and diplomacy. There was no war involved in the consolidation of the pre-China states that has been at each other’s throats for over 200 years. In what is an utterly bizarre outcome Bing-fa –  now about 2300 years old and published in millions of copies – is thought by many to be instructions on how to start a fire and kill enemies crossing a river.

With only rare exceptions today’s commentary deems Bing-fa practical and tactical. James Clavell – possibly the worst interpreter of Bing-fa in two millennia – adds what he imagines is helpful content about river navigation when he reviews chapter IX. “Do not move upstream to meet the enemy. Our fleet must not be anchored below that of the enemy, for then they would be able to take advantage of the current and make short work of you.” In another invention he says, “In crossing salt marshes … get over them quickly because of the lack of fresh water, and poor quality of the herbage.” And again, “dispersive ground” means that “soldiers, being near to their homes and anxious to see their wives and children, are likely to seize the opportunity afforded by a battle and scatter in every direction” (1983, 42–43, 56). Clavell was not the only one to come up with that latter understanding. It has no basis in the Bing-fa text.  Calthrop described “distracting ground” that way (1908, 58).

When commentators read in IX.14 about waiting until the river subsides before crossing it, they understand only that it is foolish to cross a swollen river. They take an equally literal meaning from IX.3–5, where Bing-fa discusses “getting away from rivers” and “meeting enemies at, or in rivers.” Chapter IX is actually instructing us in how to derive facts from appearances, and we do that though careful observation and interpretation. Using woodlore metaphors, Bing-fa speaks of forests and dust clouds. Oblivious to the fact that Bing-fa is largely metaphorical and otherwise pictorial for illustrative purposes, commentators debate the tactical merits of geography and the landscape. This has been taken to an absurd level by Machell-Cox, who discusses how an army should make use of trees and shrubs in combat. He suggests that in the upcoming (1940s) Japanese campaign, “the Services” would benefit if data were assembled on such matters (Machell-Cox 1943, 43).

Speaking of “the army on the march,” Bing-fa says, “Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare.” Moving from mountains to streams, Bing-fa says, “After crossing a river, you should get far away from it.” Sawyer (1996, 26) says the Bing-fa lines on “terrain” were the first systematic study of the subject. But Bing-fa, when it suggested “camp[ing] in high places, facing the sun,” was not suggesting where the army should pitch its tents.

Sawyer (1993, 172 note 118) says that armies shouldn’t camp downstream from their enemies because of the possibility of “suddenly released flood waters.” That might well be a threat if the army was encamped under the “enemy’s” dam. The Bing-fa instructions on fighting with fire and water are, from a literal view, plainly absurd.

Not all the commentary agrees that the tangible bits were meant to suggest actual tactics. Bing-fa is not written in “very specific and operational terms,” as one (better) commentator has it (Teck and Grinyer 1994, 289). But such a perspective is up against powerful forces. “Really sound knowledge of topography, movement and supply are the foundations of military knowledge, not tactics and strategy as most people think” (Machell-Cox 1943, 6).

While there is considerable invention by commentators in managing and manipulating the tangibles in Bing-fa, even worse is their assumed right to suggest interpretations that have no basis in fact, or common sense. Zi-Chang (1969, 54) says that when the army is in “disturbed country (it should) help the rulers to unite.” Krause (1995, 2) says, “Sun Tzu’s central idea is that battles or competitions are won by the organization or person who, first has the greatest competitive advantage and who, second, makes the fewest mistakes.” Where Bing-fa says ensure you will be victorious before you engage, they see an admonition to pick on weaklings. Wee et al. (1996, 110) say it is essential that you, “find the right victim [as] the chosen target must be an easy prey.” This represents a serious misunderstanding of Bing-fa’s strength management methodology. It also is in direct conflict with the ethical standards set out in both Bing-fa and the Tao Te Ching.

General Griffith (1963, 87) though he was trapped by his unshakeable belief that Bing-fa was all about war, at least showed some minor advance over Wee et al. when he told us, “Anciently those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered.” Nevertheless, it is still a long journey to achieve compliance (or even resonance) with the admonitions of the Tao Te Ching:

If actions are approached, and carried out in the natural way, the power of evil is           reduced, and so the ruler and the ruled are equally protected. They will not contrive to harm each other, for the virtue of one refreshes the other. (60)[2]

The military commentary insists that Bing-fa belongs in the military genre with Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Antoine Henri, Baron de Jomini. But we must ask. Is it reasonable that a manual on military tactics has gained Bing-fa “a place in the world’s literature,” philosophical or not? Manuals do not as a rule make great literature, and as a war manual Bing-fa  is often discredited in the military canon.

When the practical matters of the conduct of war cannot be found, the commentators become apologists for Bing-fa’s inadequacy, or they simply add in the missing bits.Rudnicki’s Art of War contains material from General Colin Powell, Marshal Turenne, and Stonewall Jackson. He even arranges to have “Sun Tzu the warrior” commenting on Sun Tzu. Like General Tao Hanzhang, Rudnicki does not favour us with references, but he does tell us unhelpfully that his “version is mostly derived” from the Giles translation.

In Bing-fa there is nothing on how to conduct a siege, how to treat sickness and wounds, and how to set up and maintain supply lines. We must look elsewhere for instructions on the care of horses and other beasts of burden. Lau and Ames say Bing-fa mentions crossbows only twice because they weren’t popular at that time (1996, 43).[3] Griffith provides reams of information on weaponry gathered from other sources, because in his view there just isn’t enough in Bing-fa. He adds to this misdemeanour with strange extrapolations that have no foundation in the text:

The organization described by Sun Tzu permitted considerable flexibility in march formations, while articulation made possible rapid deployment into those suitable for battle. The five man squad or section could obviously march either in rank or file. (1963, 37)

The commentary, frustrated at its inability to see what Bing-fa is really all about, blames it and never themselves. Vaughan Yarwood reviewed Krause’s work in July 1996 in Management and was favorably impressed. But Bing-fa did not fare so well. Yarwood noted that Krause, “included nuggets of the original’s sketchy and disordered text for flavor.” But Handel (1992, 22, 54) disagrees with that take to a point. “Many strategists are more comfortable reading Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz’s On War, whose methodology and style are not as easy to follow. On War lends itself to facile, hence erroneous, comparisons because it is seldom read in its entirety.” But, says Handel, one gets real value by taking the time to read all of Clausewitz. “The concepts for which Clausewitz is most renowned are all set forth by Sun Tzu in The Art of War, although Clausewitz analyzes them in more detail and may express them in more elegantly worded aphorisms.”

General Tao Hanzhang (1987, 90) says, “The main shortcomings of Sun Tzu’s Art of War are that it does not discuss the nature of war.” Michael Handel is unsure what you can use Bing-fa for, unless you want to study how a prince sees things from a lofty perch.

Unlike On War, The Art of War does not offer the reader a systematic explanation or step-by-step reconstruction of the logical process through which concepts are developed. From this point of view, The Art of War reads more like a manual written as a compact guide for the ‘prince’ or higher ranking military commander. Thus, while Clausewitz leads the reader through a tortuous – though educationally rewarding—reasoning process, Sun Tzu, for the most part presents the reader with his conclusions. (1992, 22)

In 1929, Tang Zi-Chang said that his military science mentor told him that while, “Sun Zi wrote a very profound book, it is not well organized.” In Zi-Chang’s view, Bing-fa is in disorder because of the effects of time and deterioration of writing materials (1969, 13). Equal to the combat preparation and activity they see in Bing-fa has been the war that commentators have been practicing among themselves for almost two millennia.

Though Giles calls Ts’ao Ts’ao (155–220 CE) a military genius and a great writer, he also says his commentary was “scarcely intelligible” and as much in need of analysis as Bing-fa itself. Much of the argument has focused on the translation of passages. Griffith translates III.4 this way: “Thus what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” Giles, he says, not only translates the passage incorrectly, but (predictably) is being too soft, as usual, in imagining Bing-fa had in mind “to balk the enemy’s plans.” Griffith apparently missed Giles’s definition of “balking.” To him it meant “an active policy of counter-attack.”

Ou-yang Hsiu, a thousand years after Bing-fa was created, praised Mei Sheng-yu and offered his reaction to those who imagined that Bing-fa was not an army manual:

Later scholars have misread Sun Tzu, distorting his words and trying to make them square with their own one-sided views. Thus, though commentators have not been lacking, only a few have proved equal to the task. My friend Sheng-yu has not fallen into this mistake. In attempting to provide a critical commentary for Sun Tzu’s work, he does not lose sight of the fact that these sayings were intended for states engaged in internecine warfare; that the author is not concerned with the military conditions prevailing under the sovereigns of the three ancient dynasties, nor with the nine punitive measures prescribed to the Minister of War. Again, Sun Wu loved brevity of diction, but his meaning is always deep.

Whether the subject be marching an army, or handling soldiers, or estimating the enemy, or controlling the forces of victory, it is always systematically treated; the sayings are bound together in strict logical sequence, though this has been obscured by commentators who have probably failed to grasp their meaning. In his own commentary, Mei Sheng-yu has brushed aside all the obstinate prejudices of these critics, and has tried to bring out the true meaning of Sun Tzu himself. In this way, the clouds of confusion have been dispersed and the sayings made clear. I am convinced that the present work deserves to be handed down side by side with the three great commentaries; and for a great deal that they find in the sayings, coming generations will have constant reason to thank my friend Sheng-yu. Making some allowance for the exuberance of friendship, I am inclined to endorse this favorable judgment, and would certainly place him above Ch’en Hao in order of merit.[4]

Cheng Hou dared suggest that Bing-fa might have been a work of philosophy that simply used military tactics for illustration. In reaction, Chu His expressed his astonishment and resentment to this, audacious comparison with the venerated classical works of a document that encourages a ruler’s bent towards unrelenting warfare and reckless militarism. (Giles 1910)

Others have approached Cheng Hou’s position, that Bing-fa is in fact a philosophical text.Lau and Ames (1996, 41) suggest Bing-fa’s imagery “naturalizes the military culture, by bringing together military detail and philosophical ideas.”

In a highly conceptual and even philosophical way, Sun-tzu addresses the issues of warfare, the operations of the military, its strategy, tactics, and so on. It is, in their view, the fact that Sun Tzu is philosophical, that has assured it a place in the world’s literature, while the Sun Pin has been ‘lost to posterity’.” (Lau and Ames 1996, 57)

The first translation done in a European language was published in Paris in 1772, under the title “L’art de la guerre.” Its author was a Jesuit missionary to China, Jean-Jacques Amiot. His translation was Tao-sensitive but not combat-free. His rationale for translating the work was, “because of the inadequacy of the work done to that time.” Following Amiot were Captain E. F. Calthrop and Lionel Giles. More recently, the field has been dominated by General Samuel B. Griffith and Thomas Cleary.

Griffith dismissed Amiot’s work because he saw it as overly focused on moral and humanitarian issues, which caused him to “misinterpret” Bing-fa. He didn’t like what Lionel Giles achieved either.

It was marred throughout by tasteless criticisms. Had this eminent orientalist devoted to his own effort the energy he wasted in denigration of Captain Calthrop’s, one may surmise that his would have been somewhat better than it is. (Griffith 1963, 181}

C. Lau has little good to say about Griffith, while Ames agrees with Griffith. Ames (1993, 8) said Giles made a “vitriolic and undignified assault” with “unrelenting unkindnesses to poor pioneering Calthrop.” Though Roger Ames commends the “invaluable insights” of Griffith, he can’t find an equal reason to praise Giles and Cleary.

Griffith’s work “is superior to Giles’s [sic] and to recent popular attempts such as the Thomas Cleary translation, informed as the latter is by neither practical military wisdom nor scholarship.”

Says Handel (1992, 158),

“None of the currently available translations of Sun Tzu is entirely accurate. Each translator has employed some modern Western phrases or words that do not exist in the original and has inevitably, even if unintentionally, contributed some of his own ideas. This is particularly true of General Griffith’s readable translation, and less so of the Giles translation.”

Cleary got his turn with Wilhelm’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower. He accuses Wilhelm of, “reading weird and superstitious ideas into the text.” In a burst of indignation, Cleary accuses Wilhelm of publishing a work that was “confused, misconstrued, unreliable, flawed, and dysfunctional (1991).” Tang Zi-Chang (1969, 175) says Griffith’s work has “chapter headings [that] do not correspond with the accurate Chinese meanings nor are they proper English military terminology.”  Wee et al. (1996, 296) have added more than their own two cents’ worth on this ongoing debate.

In the latter years of the twentieth century, bing-fa became the darling of martial artists and militarists enamoured with the wars and warriors of ancient Asia. James Clavell enthusiastically proposed that military officers should be required to write examinations on Bing-fa, which, if they fail, would lead to dismissal or demotion. Says he,

I truly believe that if our military and political leaders had studied [Sun Tzu], Vietnam could not have happened, we would not have lost the war in Korea; the Bay of Pigs could not have occurred; the hostage fiasco in Iran could not have come to pass; the British Empire would not have been dismembered; and in all probability, World Wars I and II would have been avoided—certainly they would have not been waged as they were waged, and the millions of youths obliterated unnecessarily and stupidly by monsters calling themselves generals would have lived out their lives. (Clavell 1993, 1–2)

Clavell never does explain just how Bing-fa could influence or prevent all these events, but he tells us he, “believe[s] The Art of War shows quite clearly how to take the initiative and combat the enemy—any enemy.” This is not Bing-fa but Clausewitz, who said there is really only one key decisive element in war: “sheer overwhelming force.” In the commentator’s linear universe there is little or no room for alternate methods of interorganization management and dispute resolution. Some even dismiss the value of intelligence gathering in situations leading to, or in the midst of, conflict. They never challenge the assumed inherent value of competition and the inevitability of conflict.

The military genre pretty much agrees that war and peace are cyclical, and while philosophers may dream of a world without war, it is in fact unavoidable. Warriors may embrace the notion of “strategic management,” but that has nothing to do with breaking the cycle. It may instead have to do with the economics of loss prevention. Competent generals achieve the objective without completely destroying the objective or his own forces. But if subduing the enemy takes destruction, then so be it.

Those who can blithely speak of “Mutually Assured Destruction” as a military strategy are patently unable to see Bing-fa in any way other than a reflection of their own views. That has not prevented their being able to articulate war as a beneficial activity—for its goals are right. James Clavell says, “Since ancient times, it has been known that the true object of war is peace” (1983, 7). R. L. Wing says the purpose of Bing-fa was “to outline specific strategies to overcome conflicts while viewing the world as a complete and interdependent system that must be preserved” (1988, 13).

Consider one of the most quoted Bing-fa admonitions: victory is achieved before war. Every commentator reads this as an admonition for war preparedness. But this statement does not say, “He who prepares appropriately wins the battle.” It says victory is achieved before war. Why would war be needed if victory has already been achieved?

Now consider the issue of Bing-fa’s missing information. About “mountain warfare,” Bing-fa says you should camp high up, but don’t climb to fight. On the subject of “river warfare,” it says to moor your craft higher up than the enemy’s and not to move upstream to meet him. Instructions for campaigning in salt marshes and in dry level country total three lines.

The commentators agree that chapter X describes six types of “ground,” but then imagine that chapter XI defines nine types of “situations” or “grounds.” The evident redundancy escapes them. Bing-fa is about organizational management, and the management of relations between organizations. Accordingly, Chapter X cannot be seen as anything but a definition of engagement situations. As Krause and Tang Zi-Chang have seen, Chapter XI is about engagement dynamics. It is nonsensical to imagine that two chapters of the thirteen would focus on the same subject.

The commentary projects a very long reach to ensure we don’t lose sight of the military nature of Bing-fa.  It achieves this by the insertion of new material from their own experiences or other sources.  Until my work appeared, no commentator has seen that Bing-fa is focused on peaceful engagement, engagement conducted with the express purpose of achieving objectives without conflict. Mu was isolated for his pacific views about Bing-fa.

Roger Ames (1993, 35, 40-41, 73) shows insight when he tells us that “military strategy can be used as a source of metaphors to shape philosophical distinctions and categories.” He says teaching practices at the time Bing-fa was created “grounded” theory and philosophy in experiences and “evocative metaphors.”[5] These devices were intended to aid learning and the development of knowledge, not through rote but through cognitive processes. This is all very good. But he then says, “The place of [Bing-fa] as the fundamental work in classical military literature is unassailable.”

Though hardly free of the militarist view, McNeilly is one of the modern commentators who has helped move Bing-fa from the battlefield to the boardroom. But he confesses that the link is not easily shown or maintained.

Because business, like warfare, is dynamic, fast-paced, and requires an effective and efficient use of scarce resources, modern executives have found value in Sun Tzu’s teachings.[6] But The Art of War is arranged for the military leader and not the CEO, so making connections between ancient warfare and today’s corporate world is not always easy.[7]

Consider how much more fruitful his contribution would have been if he had shown that Bing-fa’s messages and benefits were all about careful observation, evaluation, planning and project execution with the least possible loss and inconvenience. Bing-fa offers us what could be the first complete and comprehensive articulation of strategic planning and management. Today’s business and social institutions are in woeful need of help along these lines.

J. H. Huang has made a very significant contribution to helping bring Bing-fa forward in an intelligent manner by working with the 1972 discovered, oldest known Bing-fa manuscript. Recovered from an ancient tomb near Linyi in Shandong, it differs from all known Bing-fa versions. The content on which the military commentary has focused is not found in this version.

 We must conclude that over the last 2300 years, significant modifications have been made to the text. Perhaps content and tone from Sun Pin was blended into Bing-fa.[8] We may never know exactly what the state of Qin produced 2300 years ago, but one thing is clear. despite text changes and possibly additions over time, the Bing-fa methodology for ending war and building peace remans intact. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the admonitions can be modelled into comprehensive strategies and plans, and I have done so in The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War.

For me, it was a significant breakthrough when Huang challenged the accepted meaning of the word “war” in “Art of War.” “Art of War,” he feels, may be no more than a later added mistranslation.[9] Huang’s knowledge of the Bing-fa epoch, culture, language, philosophy, and writing style, and his focus on the Linyi text have enabled him to examine Bing-fa from a fresh perspective. He followed the same linguistic analysis process Paul Lin used with the Tao Te Ching, and achieved a high level of coherence as a result. His conclusion: the persistent war context and application of Bing-fa is highly suspect.

But it is more than “suspect”—it is utterly incorrect. The Bing-fa thesis is crystal clear.With great clarity, redundancy and even stridency Bing-fa brooks no mistake or confusion:

The management of organizations and relations between organizations are crucial for social stability and growth. From time to time “engagements” between organizations will be necessary. While rare, they are critically important. One enters into them only when engagement avoidance management has failed. In engagement, absolute control is essential and conclusion must be achieved as soon as possible. Risks and costs must be minimized.  Loss of control means there is a high probability for conflict. Where there is conflict we know there has been failure. Organizations – and perhaps the wider community – will suffer. There are no benefits from conflict.

[1] There have been many commentaries on Bing-fa, but not so many as the Tao Te Ching. Paul Lin, writing in 1977, believed there were then more than six hundred Chinese commentaries on the Tao Te Ching, and seventy or eighty translations, of which forty-four were English.


[3] The crossbow was likely introduced to China in 500 BC (Ames 1993, 24).


[5] Similar conditions and motives could have led to the veiling of The Masters of Huainan and Zhang’s Understanding Reality (Cleary 1989b, xxvii).

[6] Author of The Six Principles from Sun Tzu, and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers

[7] August 1996, on Also see

[8] Just as it is alleged Wang Pi’s work became part of the Tao Te Ching (Lin 1977, xii)

[9] It is actually simply extracted from the text. It is not certain that Bing-fa ever had any title.


NOTE: Some of the URLs mentioned above may now be inactive.

Please buy my book and help me to continue my research. This is an excerpt from my published work The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War. It is available from the author, and a number of resellers.


Here’s my recent work. I am now exploring at greater depth the facts – and fiction – surrounding the foundation of China and its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

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