"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.