The Price of War

Art of War, The 7“Thus, while soldiers have heard that it is stupid to move too fast, it is also unwise to take too long. There has never been a long war that worked to the benefit of a kingdom […]

“Sending forces far away is a heavy expense to the homeland. Meanwhile, a military force nearby will raise prices, and high prices exhaust the wealth of the common people.

“Once impoverished, they are soon forced into service. Their strength drained and livelihood gone, homes are left deserted on the central plains. The cost to the common people will be three-tenths of their worth. For the treasury, the cost for broken wheels and worn-out horses; armour, helmets, arrows and crossbows; lances, shields, spears and tents; oxen and wagons will amount to four-tenths of their worth.”

From Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a new translation by Jonathan Clements.

Miss Hokusai

katsushika-oi-1My article on the strange case of Hokusai’s daughter, an artist in her own right who has been largely airburshed from the historical record, partly with her own collusion, is now up on the Anime Ltd website. It’s a fascinating story of art and attribution, with strong resonances in the modern anime business.


collector's libraryIt’s not abundantly clear from the cover, but the hardback, gilt-edged Collector’s Library edition of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a new edition of my earlier paperback translation. It’s a very portable pocket size, and does look very posh, particularly after you throw away the horrible dust jacket. See here for details of why the world needs another version of Sun Tzu, and here for my thoughts on performance.

It’s out now in the UK and in the US.

"Master Sun says…"

In approaching a text in Classical Chinese, we must consider the immense differences between books and reading in our time and in that of the Art of War. There was, in ancient China, no such thing as our “book”. Classical Chinese was usually carved onto bamboo strips bound together with leather or string. Their physical appearance was closer to that of a modern rolling window blind than a “book”. One of the problems faced by modern archaeologists is the reconstruction of books from scattered fragments of bamboo – when the leather straps or connecting string decays, ancient Chinese books collapse into hundreds of scattered strips of unpaginated bamboo.

Many translators have overlooked the performance required from Classical Chinese texts. Classical Chinese is a literary language that often summarises the vernacular rather than directly quoting it. The meaning of Classical Chinese has to be unpacked and interpreted. We might consider the written Art of War less as Sun Tzu’s “book” than as his notes for a speech or for further discussion.

The first words of the text, repeated at the head of each chapter, are “Master Sun says.” Everything that follows is implied speech, delivered to an implied listener: a local king perhaps, or a group of officer cadets. This is surely the origin of many of the text’s apparent repetitions: not the meanderings of a forgetful author, but moments of call and response by a commanding orator. “This is how war is waged,” says Sun Tzu at various points, an antiphon to wake up the students at the back, just as he makes an important point. The reader is encouraged to read it out loud; it is often a text better heard than read.

While handmade copies certainly might circulate of the better known texts, the best way for a ruler to “read” Sun Tzu was to have Sun Tzu’s words spoken, in person, by Sun Tzu himself. It is such interactive performances, in which a monarch might question a philosopher during and after a reading of the philosopher’s work, that have generated the many conversations and interrogations that can often be found interpolating classical Chinese texts. There is the original, and then there are the conversations and responses inspired by the original, and then sometimes there is the revised manuscript incorporating such conversations, followed in later centuries by the annotations of others. In such a way, ancient Chinese books often bear a closer resemblance to academic working papers, and are less “published” than they are placed on a continuum of revisions and facsimiles.

From The Art of War: A New Translation by Jonathan Clements. Out now in the UK and the US.

The Art of War

The top FAQ about my new translation of the Art of War, is why the world needs another one. Apparently, Sun Tzu’s Art of War is the second most-translated Chinese book in history, after the Dao De Jing.

Well, there’s translations and there’s translations. Let me give you a passage of Chinese. Here is chapter one, verse two:



And here is the same piece of text, by several different translators:

Lionel Giles (1910)

The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline

Samuel Griffith (1963)

Therefore appraise it in terms of the five fundamental factors and make comparison of the seven elements later named. So you may assess its essentials. The first of these factors is moral influence; the second, weather; the third terrain; the fourth, command; and the fifth, doctrine.

Thomas Cleary (1988)

Therefore measure in terms of five things, use these assessments to make comparisons, and thus find out what the conditions are. The five things are the way, the weather, the terrain, leadership and discipline.

And finally, this is my version:

Jonathan Clements (2012)

War is governed by five crucial factors, which you must consider and implement:

· Politics

· Weather

· Terrain

· Leadership

· Training

And that is why I think the world can wear a new translation of the Art of War. In bookshops now, and also on Kindle.

Pen Names

When I handed in my manuscript of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, I decided to call myself J.M. Clements. I thought it would be a smart move to stop Amazon spamming everybody who’d bought one of my non-fiction books and expecting them to like my fiction, too. I mean, they might. But I figured Spartacus is for Spartacus fans, and my name on the cover shouldn’t influence them one way or the other.

“It’s pretty obvious who you are,” sniffed the Editrix. “It’s about as likely to fool the public as Iain ‘M’ Banks.”

“I know,” I said. “And I’m proud of the book. I’m just trying to keep fact and fiction in separate areas. I hate it when some douche on Library Thing decides I shouldn’t be allowed to write about one subject because he thinks I can only write about something else.”

“That’s stupid,” said the Editrix. “That never happens.”

“It always happens!” I protested. “And they’ve got a particular hard-on for people who switch between fact and fiction, which people often do if they write for a living. I dread to imagine what these one-track people are like in real life, as if they don’t think it’s possible to be a father and an insurance salesman, or a Saturday footballer and a chef. They probably have conniptions if they have to do two things at once. Then they review themselves and say: ‘I cannot possibly walk and chew gum, for those activities are mutually exclusive. Worst gum-chewing walk evarrr.’”

“You are over-reacting,” said the Editrix.

“If they ran the world,” I ranted, “they’d say Neil Gaiman could only write about Duran Duran. Lynda la Plante would be good for nothing but Rentaghost. Robert Silverberg could only write popular history. And Tolkien can piss right off and stick to Anglo-Saxon etymology.”

“All right,” sighed the Editrix. “Have it your way.”

The next day, the Editrix was back.

“The distributors want to know about the other things you’ve written,” she said. “It’s so they can tell booksellers how brilliant you are.”

“But won’t that make it really obvious who I am?” I said.

“Yes, probably,” she said, without pause or apology.

So I told her about The Destroyer of Delights, which was a Doctor Who audio I was very pleased with, which had a recurring subtext about the nature of slavery. And since there were lots of fights in it, I thought that my Highlander story Secret of the Sword, was probably worth a mention. I decided it probably wasn’t worth bringing up the biography I once wrote of the president of Finland. He doesn’t crop up much in Spartacus.

A day later, the Editrix was back again.

“The distributors want to know where you live,” she said.

“Jupiter’s cock! Why!?”

“They like it. Their sales people like being able to say, ‘he’s a local boy’, to a bookseller near you.”

“But isn’t it more productive if everybody thinks I am a local boy?”

“Do not question the House of Random!”

“All right, all right.” So I told her where I lived. It felt a little bit like I was handing over my bank details to a Nigerian prince.

All of which meant was that by the time Spartacus: Swords & Ashes was up on Amazon, some bright spark had already worked out precisely who I was, and it was listed with all my other books. My attempt to carefully separate my fact and fiction had failed again.

“I’ve got a translation of The Art of War coming out in the summer,” I protested. “But shelvers at book-stores are going to look me up online and order their copies on the basis of the sales of this novel, which is full of sword-fights, swearing, rape and adverbs. It will be the most heavily over-ordered classical text in living memory.”

“You say that,” said the Editrix, “like it’s a bad thing.”

J.M. Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, available now in paperback and on Kindle. He has written a few other things, too.