Mastering The Art Of War: Zhuge Liang’s and Liu Ji’s commentaries on the classic by Sun Tzu, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary
Although this is a short book, and likely a very obscure one, this book is a worthwhile gem for those who are students of the lasting influence of Chinese military strategy and its larger implications . The translator and editor of this book assumes that the reader is familiar with both the Art of War and the I Ching, as well as having some passing familiarity with the larger scope of Chinese history between the Spring and Autumn and T’ang periods. Needless to say, not many readers will be familiar with either Zhuge Liang nor Liu Ji, but those readers who are familiar with both will find a great deal to appreciate in the translations as well as in the larger conceptual framework in which the translations are put, namely that Sun Tzu and many who comment on him have a profound and subtle thinking process that not only deals with matters of military strategy but also with areas outside of military thought and including sociology. The fruitful relationship between war and society is one that this book explores in considerable depth for its small size at just over 100 pages, making it a worthwhile and brief read for those who are students of the Chinese military classics already.
The contents of this book are straightforward, if somewhat obscure to many readers. Introducing by quoting passages from the iChing and Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the editor makes the statement that the military thought of noted Chinese strategists was related to Taoist thought, by pointing to striking similarities in texts and the widespread (and accurate) belief that it was better to avoid bloodshed if at all possible and that warfare was sometimes necessary but generally inauspicious. The author then introduces the career of Zhuge Liang, who was an obscure subsistence farmer during the late Han and early Three Kingdoms period before being recognized for his sound strategic thinking, ending his career, and life, as a regent for a young king and Han loyalist, before introducing Liang’s commentary on Sun Tzu and its application in his own career. The author then introduces the checkered career of Liu Ji, who served both the latter Yuan and early Ming dynasties loyally, but ended up having an up and down career because his loyalty was not rewarded and because he suffered harm due to slandering and flatterers, before giving a commentary that includes a great deal of information that provides evidence of the subtlety and flexibility of a wise general and strategist, and demonstrates that he was a sound pupil of the masters of military strategy.
The book is worthwhile for what it says both about China as well as the relationship between war and society. Contemporary military historians often view war and society as one of the fads or recent trends of history, but going back to the Warring States period more than two thousand years ago, and far earlier if one wishes to take it that far, there was a firm knowledge of the connection between the strength of a society and the strength of its military, as well as the fact that frequent and continual warfare was a drain on the strength of a people. The book is also a sound warning to those who are armchair generals who use the maxims of Sun Tzu without proper understanding, given that they are subtle and designed for those with a shrewd understanding of conditions, requiring sound intelligence, as well as a canny ability to understand and manipulate the psychology of rivals and enemies. Even if the stories are often recycled from one commentary to the next, the lessons drawn from these stories are worthwhile to ponder and reflect upon regardless of what aspect of strategy one wishes to apply in one’s own life.
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