Reading "The Art of War"

The biggest nerd in high school -- who's now a reputable Chinese scholar -- used to tote around the ancient bible of military strategy. Could Sun Tzu make me successful, too?

Published July 4, 2005 9:26PM (EDT)

There was this kid in our high school named Peter K. who was a total nerd. And I mean total nerd: Peter K. achieved a purity of nerdiness that was rare to behold, even in a high school that boasted its fair share of nerds, myself included. What differentiated Peter K.'s nerdiness from my own was its lack of shame. I skulked and squirmed my way through high school, fearing to speak of my nerdier obsessions, and on occasion dropping friends who threatened, in their fellow nerdiness, to relegate me publicly to nerddom, or conversely, in their lack of nerdiness, to highlight my ineluctable nerditude. Peter K., on the other hand, was the sort of nerd who in sunny unawareness would publicly expostulate upon his nerdsome pursuits, blind to the smirks his nerdiose declamations provoked.

Peter K.'s nerdfulness was all the more piquant for its lack of any physical symptom. Blond, freckled, with fair skin and striking blue eyes, neither short nor tall, not lacking in athletic coordination, untainted by acne and unexceptional in his choice of dress, with the solid oval face of a Dutch farmer, Peter K. in fact bore a peculiar resemblance to Andrew E., the viciously sarcastic Mod who was arguably the coolest kid in school. The collective repression of this fact was part of the invisible force that bound the school together. It was sort of quantum. There was no clear reason why Peter K. should be a nerd and Andrew E. the coolest kid in school; they might have switched places as easily and instantaneously as a quark flipping from strange to charmed. If in fact that is what quarks do.

The white-hot core of Peter K.'s arbitrary nerditi was his study of the Chinese language. Chinese was not even offered at our school: several times a week, Peter K. would head off to another school in the area to take his weird language class, waiting lonely at the bus stop, ignoring the caustic gazes of the other, normal kids crossing the street for a sandwich on their free period. Peter K.'s Chinese was like a disease. It was invisible and horrible, warped and infectious. Sometimes we would ask him to say something in Chinese, like you ask the kid with six toes to take his shoe off, and out it would come, twisted and hysterical, his voice suddenly possessed by the mad tonal screech of a million Red Guards pissing on their professors, of flying kung fu masters, imperial eunuchs and Communist hordes swarming across the Yalu.

Today, the remorseless logic of life being what it is, Peter K. is a respected professor of Chinese studies at a mid-rank American university, appearing periodically on Chinese television shows to offer what I take to be intelligent opinions on the state of Chinese-American relations, in what I take to be flawless Mandarin. I caught him by sheer foul luck on CCTV when I was in Shanghai last year. I meanwhile am a struggling journalist attempting to cobble together some shred of credibility as an Asia hand, living in Hanoi, and gamely wrapping my lips around the cruel tonality of Vietnamese. Had I started when Peter K. did, perhaps I would be somewhere by now. (And what of Andrew E.? His name, Googled, returns a windswept silence.) But here's what I am no longer sure of: Do I remember Peter K. walking through the student lounge holding a copy of Sun Tzu's "Art of War"? I think I remember this, but it may be a chimera. It would be too perfect, right? The nerdiness of war strategy, of ancient war strategy, with its musty D&D reek, wedded to the nerdiness of Peter K.'s unspeakable tongue.

And, the remorseless logic of life being yet more what it is, Sun Tzu's "Art of War" is these days a business-management tome, the kind of book read by anti-nerds -- the sociable, not overtly stupid, popular kids, the guys who were good at baseball, uninspired but diligent in class, took a job on Wall Street after college, and now prod each other in the arm on the subway to work: "Dude, you gotta read Sun Tzu's "Art of War." It's awesome. What do you think about shorting Nokia?" It's the kind of book read by the world's Andrew E.'s, its George W. Bushes.

And why not? Maybe "The Art of War" is awesome. Maybe it can explain to me what strategic errors I've made over the past 20 years. Maybe it harbors secret lessons about how to be a cruel, determined warrior king, the kind of guy who always wins -- the kind of guy who rules our country today, in fact. Maybe Peter K. knew exactly what he was doing carrying that thing around. If in fact he ever did carry it around.

Plus, it's really short. And you can read it on the Internet, for free. So when I was invited to contribute to this series, I thought, why not take the easy way out? Or as Sun Tzu puts it, "In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak." A man after my own heart!

A bit of background: Sun Tzu was supposedly a general of King Ho Lu of the state of Wu in the late sixth century B.C. The first independent reference to Sun Tzu, however, does not appear until 122 B.C., so it's unclear to what extent the author is apocryphal. According to legend, Sun Tzu earned Ho Lu's admiration by training his concubines to drill in perfect formation; he had to cut off the head of the chief concubine when she refused to take his orders seriously. This doesn't present the guy in a terribly positive light.

"The Art of War" consists of 13 chapters. Some are of the general philosophical kind that one could imagine treating as life lessons or business strategems: "Laying Plans," for example, or "Weak Points and Strong." Others are rather more specific -- "The Use of Spies" is probably applicable to business life, but not so useful for, say, freelance writers; the chapter "Attack by Fire" will prove unhelpful to most readers, unless perhaps they are planning a large barbecue. (One helpful reminder: Stand on the windward side, not the leeward.)

Another off-putting factor in the book is its somewhat arbitrary numerological bent, which seems to be common to a lot of Chinese philosophy. A year ago, I took several lessons with a Vietnamese doctor who has become an expert in her country's traditional medicine, which is largely based on Chinese philosophy, and one of the things that seemed odd was that everything appeared to be based on the number "five." There are five organs, five colors, five elements, and so on and so forth. The various diseases are diagnosed by superimposing all these five-pointed systems on each other and drawing little lines between them. It ends up looking like something produced by a Wiccan with a spirograph.

Anyway, early on in the first chapter, "Laying Plans," it turns out that the art of war is governed by, you guessed it, "five constant factors." These are 1) the Moral Law; 2) Heaven; 3) Earth; 4) the Commander; and 5) Method and Discipline. But under exegesis, the five constant factors start to seem kind of interesting. The Moral Law, for example, is important because it "causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler." You wouldn't expect to find such a bottom-up attitude toward political hegemony in an ancient Chinese text. And then these five constant factors lead Sun Tzu to the following table of points to consider before entering battle:

13. (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued
     with the Moral Law?

   (2) Which of the two generals has most ability?

   (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven
     and Earth?

   (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?

   (5) Which army is stronger?

   (6) On which side are officers and men more highly

   (7) In which army is there the greater constancy
     both in reward and punishment?

14. By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.

This was where I, as a freelance journalist, started to get interested. Particularly in the parts about "discipline" being "rigorously enforced," about personnel being "highly trained," and about "constancy both in reward and punishment." I, it must be admitted, am utterly unable to enforce discipline, whether on myself or on anyone who has ever had the misfortune to work for me. I currently have one employee, a terrific young woman named Trang, who translates for me and does her best to organize my chaotic schedule and budget, and I am utterly failing her by not maintaining any semblance of rigor in our joint enterprise. Perhaps, I thought, if I myself had a greater "constancy both in reward and punishment"?

As the book went on, I started to find more and more material that seemed personally applicable to my style of strategic planning and management, or lack of same. "Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought," writes Sun Tzu. "The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand." Yes, I thought -- what ever happened to my plan, laid out at the beginning of the year, to sketch out project plans for each article I planned to write, with necessary interviews, outlines and dates? Why don't I make more calculations? "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." Sure, this is something our president ought to have considered before invading Iraq, but it's a lesson for me too -- why do I take so long to finish simple pieces? Who do I think benefits from all those hours of unnecessary fiddling with sentence order and diction?

The more of Sun Tzu I read, the more clearly an image began to form within my mind of the writer I might become under his influence, a cross between Robert Redford in "All the President's Men" and Chow Yun-Fat in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon": the freelance journalist as general of the armies of an ancient Chinese city-state. I would be constantly prepared for action, having studied carefully the terrain in which I was operating. I would know which magazines might be interested in a particular field, how much they paid per word, and what the personal intellectual proclivities of the editors were. I would know how many interviews were necessary to execute a particular type of piece, and what sorts of questions I needed to ask to elicit the relevant material. I would lie in wait for subject matter to present itself, and then, like lightning, I would strike. "Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger."

When recalcitrant sources retreated behind walls of obfuscation and denial, I would know how to tease them out into concrete and provocative statements. "If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch. All we need do is attack some other place that he will be obliged to relieve." Or I would simply abandon the engagement, cut off my interview peremptorily, leaving the stunned official gasping in his office, and find a more pliable source elsewhere. "You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy's weak points."

This, of course, was all well and good; but I needed something more specific. How was I going to implement these ideas? How would I transform myself into a journalistic warrior? I sat down to sketch out a plan.

Pretty quickly, however, I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to apply any of Sun Tzu's rather opaque observations to the problems that were actually facing me at the moment. In particular, I had a long series of articles I had promised to do on a particular topic that were proving far too complex to undertake. Sun Tzu would probably have advised me to abandon this subject, hide out in the mountains, and take up the campaign at a more favorable moment. But this wasn't really an option; I was already past deadline. What was I supposed to do?

I looked for a verse that might apply most closely to my present situation; at last, I found one. "Amid the turmoil and tumult of battle, there may be seeming disorder and yet no real disorder at all," it began. "Amid confusion and chaos, your array may be without head or tail, yet it will be proof against defeat." Now, this was me -- disorder, confusion and chaos! So, what was the key? How could I make myself proof against defeat? Sun Tzu continued:

17. Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline,
      simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness
      postulates strength.

18. Hiding order beneath the cloak of disorder is
     simply a question of subdivision; concealing courage under
     a show of timidity presupposes a fund of latent energy;
     masking strength with weakness is to be effected
     by tactical dispositions.

I found this advice unsettling. It wasn't clear to me why I should be "simulating" disorder for some unnamed observer or enemy. Who was the enemy here? What was the point of "concealing courage under a show of timidity?"

Then, abruptly, a rather different image began to form, an image drawn not from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but perhaps from "Kung Fu Hustle" or "48 Hours." It was the image of a wimpy, uncoordinated loser, clumsily miming a martial-arts stance and trying to stare down a bully. The image of a hopeless nerd, powerless against his enemies, pretending that he was only "concealing courage under a show of timidity," "masking strength with weakness." I'm not really timid and weak -- just wait till I show you my kung fu moves! You'll be sorry then!

This, I realized, was why Peter K. had been carrying around "The Art of War." It wasn't the key to his eventual professional success. It had just been a nerd's lonely defense against overwhelming power, a weakling's fantasy of hidden strength. If, that is, Peter K. ever had carried the book around in the first place.

And who, I wondered, had the historical Sun Tzu been? Probably some desperate freak living in a cheap rented room in Kaifeng, scribbling away at this manuscript, pretending for posterity that he was the greatest general of Wu. While, on the dusty fields of Jiangsu, the real generals of Wu and Yueh hurled men and chariots against each other in wheeling agonies of bronze and blood.

I am not, in fact, the first to have this idea. Lionel Giles, who published the authoritative translation of "The Art of War" in 1910, notes in his introduction that a 12th century Chinese literary scholar named Yeh Shui-Hsin thought Sun-Tzu couldn't have been a real general. Yeh wrote that Sun Tzu was more probably "some private scholar." "The story that his precepts were actually applied by the Wu State, is merely the outcome of big talk on the part of his followers," continued Yeh, who was a pretty skeptical guy for the 12th century. "The story of Ho Lu's experiment on the women, in particular, is utterly preposterous and incredible."

Giles disagrees, but for my money, Yeh was right. The real Sun Tzu was probably ... a total nerd.

So much for "The Art of War."

By Matt Steinglass

Matt Steinglass writes for the Boston Globe and other publications, and for the children's television show "Arthur." He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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