Thursday, June 18, 2015

Sun Tzu and the Art of War

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the June 18, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

I love lists. I’m always drawn to lists like “The Ten Best Movies for a Rainy Afternoon” or “A Hundred Things to Organize Before You Retire.”

I especially like lists of books because, well, mainly because I’m a librarian, and that’s my job.

I’ve always been curious about a title that appears on most lists of “books you must not miss.” I read many classics as a child and college student, but I was never required to read, or never was introduced to, the military classic of all time. The Art of War, by military general and philosopher, Sun Tzu was written sometime around 522-496 B.C. I must confess, I managed to avoid reading The Art of War until this past year until it was assigned reading for a master’s of public administration course in strategic leadership.

The Art of War has been assigned reading in military colleges since it was translated from Chinese to French in the 18th century. Before that, it was one of the most important military works in Asia for two millennia. It wasn’t completely translated into English until about one hundred years ago, and while that translation (by Lionel Giles) has been published over and over again, there are dozens of others. Today, it is required reading at all military colleges and academies, and in many business programs.

Legend has it that Sun Tzu wanted the job as General during the Zhou Dynasty in the court of King Wu. Sun Tzu declared that the general, or the one in charge, must first ensure that his/her soldiers believe and follow the commands they are given. King Wu’s test for Sun Tzu was this: take 180 of the King’s concubines, train them, and turn them into soldiers. Clever Sun Tzu ordered the king’s favorite two women in turn to lead each half of the total. In this case, the female officers and their subordinates, when given the command to turn to the right, merely giggled. Sun Tzu immediately ordered the two women to be beheaded in front of King Wu and ordered two more women up front and in charge. It’s not surprising that the officers following his next command without fail.

Sun Tzu’s response got him the job. And the rest, of course, is military and Ancient Chinese history.

I found that The Art of War was not as daunting a read as I feared. The actual translation can be read in one sitting. The original version was written in the ancient 5th century B.C. tradition of bamboo “slips” which were thin, narrow lengths of bamboo (the length of a chopstick and the width of two) on which Chinese characters are written from top to bottom. The slips are then bound together with thread and the “pages” of these slips folded like an accordion. There were 6,000 characters in The Art of War and thirteen chapters.

While the critical lessons of The Art of War are dividing among those thirteen chapters, Forbes has a list of “Sun Tzu’s 31 Best Pieces of Leadership Advice.” Sun Tzu tells us to know yourself and know your enemy in this simple phrase: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” This advice is exemplified in a book just published a month ago, The Navy Seal Art of War by Rob Roy. Roy includes “leadership lessons from the world’s most elite fighting force.” Roy claims that success can be found in any organization using the tools that Sun Tzu includes, such as “so it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” Roy writes that those who figured out that being a SEAL early on knew whether to see it through. Others knew to drop out by ringing the “Bell three times and placing their helmet on the deck.”

There are hundreds of published titles of The Art of War – some in illustrated, annotated, and graphic form. In the past twenty years, the Art of War has been applied not only to study and practice on the battlefield, but in the boardroom, and in the classroom. There are just under a hundred titles if you are searching Sun Tzu as the author in the Minuteman Library catalog. Yet, there are hundreds more written about the book or using the principles and philosophy of the ancient Chinese general. One version, The Art of War Visualized (2015) by Jessica Hagy further interprets the Lionel Giles translation into charts and graphs. The graphic novel (2014) by Kelly Roman and illustrated by Michael DeWeese uses the Sun Tzu philosophy in a futuristic tale of both Wall Street and China. There’s even Sun Tzu for Women with its focus on the art of war for winning in business.

A lovely illustrated edition of the Giles English text is 202-page The Art of War (2014) that the Morrill Memorial Library owns. It includes chapters on the life and times of Sun Tzu, descriptions on the various translations, and suggestions for further reading on both Sun Tzu and The Art of War. There are audio and video editions of The Art of War available in the Minuteman library catalog.

An argument ensues whether Sun Tzu (Master Sun) truly existed or if one man wrote The Art of War. Perhaps, some say, it is a compilation of works by many philosophers, even Sun Tzu’s descendent Sun Bin. What matters most, of course, is that it is a book that ranks on most top 100 lists of books not to miss, and it continues to influence readers in every generation and country.