I’m a fan of wargames: big complicated games with hundreds of pieces and 32-page rulebooks. I’ve played them for forty years with my dad, with my friends, and with my son. But I’m a terrible player. As much as I like to read about the American Civil War, I can’t beat my son at Bobby Lee. It doesn’t matter if I play North or South: my army is decimated by the end of the first year. I played the Allies once in a monster game of World War II; the game ended with the Japanese and Germans meeting and shaking hands in Kansas City. So I come to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with several goals in mind: to read a classic, to learn about ancient times, to learn about the Chinese, and perhaps to gain some game strategy.
The Art of War strikes me the way so many Asian stories and films do: as a mixture of the exotic and the familiar. Sun Tzu’s terse, enigmatic writing style prompts a different kind of reading strategy than (I suppose) a U.S. Army manual would: I want to search it backwards and forwards for clues as if it were a mystery novel, to roll the words and concepts around looking for the hidden connections as I would with a proverb of Solomon, to prod and poke and pull every corner as if I were trying to get inside a Chinese box. That experience places me in a foreign land. And yet Sun Tzu talks about terrain and supply and order of command, concepts familiar from reading Civil War history, from playing games, and from looking out the window or at my budget.
The most interesting concept in the book explores the relationship of Qi and Cheng. (My edition, which introduces these terms in an editorial note, uses an old system of transliterating Chinese and spells the first word “Ch’i.” An internet search through material as confusing as that Chinese box I was trying to get into a minute ago suggests that the initial sound is now rendered with a Q and is pronounced like CH but with the tongue touching the lower teeth.) According to the translator, Lionel Giles, Qi and Cheng “are mutually interchangeable and run into each other like the two sides of a circle.” To begin with, Qi means “lateral movement” and Cheng means “facing the enemy.” But Qi, which seems to be moving away from battle, is actually the way to attack, since, as Sun Tzu says, all warfare is based on deception. And Cheng, which looks like readiness for battle, is actually a deception. The attack is the deception and the deception is the attack. Qi and Cheng.
Thinking about this circular dialectic, I start to read other parts of the book the same way. Success depends on the commander’s knowledge of the enemy, of atmospheric conditions, and so on. But then success depends on the enemy’s ignorance. Knowledge and ignorance. Victory requires speed: the army must avoid long campaigns or seiges that tire the men and dull the weapons. And yet since victory depends on the enemy’s mistake, the army should wait for the right opportunity. Haste and caution. A stupid, reckless soldier weakens an army; on the other hand, the good commander knows how to use his own weaknesses as strengths and sends the stupid man forward because he has no fear of death. Stupidity and intelligence. The examples go on and on, culminating in the ultimate paradox: the best commander with consummate knowledge of all the technique of battle knows that the greatest victory captures the enemy without battle.
Taking one step back, I start to think that the familiar and the exotic that I encounter here are also mutually interchangeable. Sun Tzu’s recognition that sure ideas are mysterious sounds inscrutably Asian at first. But I’ve actually found that the most important things are the hardest to define; so that thinking isn’t so foreign after all. And while a principle such as “Attack from high ground” sounds familiar and simple, I find it quite slippery in execution. Play a wargame with me sometime, and you’ll find out.