Gu Jiegang’s English Translation of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War

Mr. Qian Gurong edited the “Conversations on Contemporary Literature Series,” which includes “Conversations on Gu Jiegang’s Works” (compiled by Yin Yongqing, edited by Wei Deliang, Zhejiang People’s Publishing House, 1998 edition). The entire book consists of four volumes, with Gu Jiegang’s reading notes selected and compiled into one of them. In the “Talks on the World of Books” volume, there is an article titled “Cambridge Griffith’s Inquiry into the Date of Sun Tzu’s Book.” This article caught my attention. I happen to have a copy of Samuel B. Griffith’s translation of “The Art of War,” which was the initial version published by Oxford University Press in 1963. I recall purchasing this book many years ago at a nearby second-hand bookstore for a very low price. At that time, I read through the Chinese original text and compared it with the translation. In the “Acknowledgments” section, the translator mentions having contacted Dr. Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, which facilitated communication with Guo Moruo and Gu Jiegang to inquire about some translation issues. It was only after reading the articles in “Conversations on Gu Jiegang’s Works” that I learned about the main questions posed by Griffith and the responses from Guo and Gu.

The main questions raised by Ge Ruifusi are: whether the “Biography of Sun Wu and Wu Qi” in “Records of the Grand Historian” is accurate, whether “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu is reliable, the research status of Sun Tzu and “The Art of War” in the Chinese academic community over the past seven hundred years, Sun Tzu’s dates of birth and death and the time of composition of “The Art of War”; whether the appearance of “crossbows” in “The Art of War” can be used to determine the age of iron use; the era of using four-horse-drawn carriages; and whether there are studies available for reference regarding Chairman Mao Zedong and other famous generals quoting “The Art of War” and making comments on it. Guo Moruo provided instructions in a letter on these issues: 1. “Biography of Sun Wu” is unreliable and is a novel. “The Art of War” is a book from the Warring States period, and the author is unknown, making it difficult to determine whether it is the work of Sun Bin. The “Five Vermin” section of “Han Feizi” mentions “those who hide the books of Sun and Wu at home,” indicating its widespread circulation. 2. Crossbows in ancient times were made of bronze, so it is unnecessary to involve iron. 3. The use of iron weapons occurred towards the end of the Warring States period. The use of iron could precede this as agricultural tools, which were quite common during the Warring States period. Iron artifacts from the Spring and Autumn Period have not been discovered underground. 4. A team of horses can be used for various purposes, including as a chariot for battle or as a regular carriage. Based on the patterns of ancient bronzes, they could also be used for hunting. King Yin went hunting with a two-horse-drawn carriage. 5. The Chairman and other generals occasionally quote “The Art of War” in their writings, but there are no specialized research-based comments. Guo Moruo’s instructions largely address Ge Ruifusi’s questions, but he still instructed Gu Jiegang to provide detailed answers. According to the 2007 Taipei Lianjing edition of “The Complete Works of Gu Jiegang’s Diary,” the situation is roughly as follows:

On May 29, 1958, President Guo (Guo Moruo, then President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, under which Gu Jiegang’s Institute of History was affiliated) assigned the issue of “Sun Tzu” to Gu Jiegang after briefly reviewing the book. Three notes were recorded. On May 30, he read “The Art of War” and copied the original letter from Ge Ruifei’s office and President Guo’s comments into his notes. He collected materials criticizing “The Art of War” on June 11 and gathered “The Art of War” materials on June 12, copying them out. On June 13… he continued reading “The Art of War.” On June 18, after synthesizing the collected materials, he wrote a 1,500-word essay on “The Author of Sun Tzu,” which he copied neatly. On June 19, he copied yesterday’s essay into his notes and wrote to President Guo, Yin Da, and (Hu) Hou Xuanxin, asking Xiao Feng to deliver it to the Institute of History. At that time, Gu was busy writing the “Interchange” article, and after receiving Guo Moruo’s instructions, he responded “after two weeks.” From May 29 when he received the instructions to June 19 when he “wrote to President Guo,” it was exactly “two weeks.”

It should be noted here: Reading notes occupy an extremely important position in Gu Jiegang’s writing and scholarship. It is estimated that Gu wrote about 200 volumes of notes, totaling three to four million words. He planned to organize and publish his reading notes during his lifetime, but this plan was not fulfilled. Ten years after his death, in 1990, this plan was finally realized. The Taiwan Lianjing Publishing Company published a 10-volume, 15-volume hardcover edition of “Gu Jiegang’s Reading Notes.” Based on Guo’s work, Gu provided a detailed reply on the person of Sun Tzu and the time of the compilation of “The Art of War.” It can be seen from the English translation that Ge Ruifei fully accepted the opinions of Guo and Gu, while also making some extensions and expansions, making this translation a very rigorous and academically valuable work. In 1960, Ge Ruifei obtained his doctorate from Oxford University, and his doctoral dissertation was a translation of “The Art of War.” This translation was written based on his doctoral dissertation, with both translation and academic research. It is said to be widely popular in the British and American militaries.

Gu Jiegang believed that the Chinese academic community has been skeptical of the accuracy of “Biography of Sun Wu in the Records of the Grand Historian” since the Northern Song Dynasty until now. During the Northern Song Dynasty, Mei Yaochen believed that the tactics described belonged to the Warring States period and were different from those of the Three Dynasties (Xia, Shang, Zhou). In the Southern Song Dynasty, Ye Shi argued that the “Zuo Zhuan” provides the most detailed account of the events during the Spring and Autumn period, yet it doesn’t mention Sun Wu’s name, let alone his deeds. During the Spring and Autumn period, military officials of various states held political offices as ministers and not specialized military positions. Sun Wu being appointed as a general without holding a ministerial position is inconsistent with the political system of the Spring and Autumn period. The story of Sun Wu testing warfare with women in front of King Helü of Wu is deemed dubious. Ye Shi implied that Sun Wu might not have existed at all. In the late Southern Song Dynasty, Chen Zhensun supported Ye Shi’s argument in “Zhizhai Shulu: Jieti,” suggesting that although “The Art of War” is an ancient text, the era of Sun Wu is unclear. By the mid-Ming Dynasty, Hu Yinglin argued that Sun Wu’s achievements were evident between the states of Wu and Chu, and it would be unreasonable for the “Zuo Zhuan” not to mention him. It is likely that strategists of the Warring States period fabricated this story to demonstrate that Sun Wu was not just speaking empty words. In the early Qing Dynasty, Yao Jiheng also expressed doubts about “The Art of War” using the arguments of Mei Yaochen and Ye Shi. The conclusion is: Is Sun Wu truly an historical figure? Or does he exist but not as described by Sima Qian? Did he write the book himself, or was it authored by later scholars? These are all unknown.

This passage of Gu’s was directly entered into the chapter “The Author” by Griffith: But then, did this Sun Wu exist or did he not? Did he exist, but not necessarily as Ssu-ma Ch’ien relates? Was the book ascribed to him written by him? Or was it written by one of his later disciples? None of this can be determined.

In the mid-Qing Dynasty, Quan Zuwang also believed in his “Sun Wu Zi Lun” that neither the “Zuo Zhuan” nor the “Guoyu” mentioned Sun Wu, and these thirteen chapters were indeed the work of someone knowledgeable in military affairs. However, the story of Sun Wu was fabricated by the sophists of the Warring States period. Ge Rui Feisi faithfully transcribes this viewpoint as well: Naturally, the Thirteen Chapters were produced by someone well versed in military matters. Sun Wu and his book were fabrications of disputatious sophists.

Gu Jiegang also cited the research of Japanese scholars Saito Seto and Takeuchi Yoshio on “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. The final conclusion was that “The Art of War” was definitely not written during the Spring and Autumn Period. Since it wasn’t written during that time, it has no connection with Wu Jun’s attack on Ying during the Wu Qi episode in “Biography of Sun Wu” in “Records of the Grand Historian,” which means it’s entirely unreliable. On top of Gu Jiegang’s arguments, Ge Ruifis added Liang Qichao’s viewpoint, which also denies the existence of Sun Wu as an individual.

It’s worth noting that Ge Ruifis also referenced Feng Youlan’s perspective in “A History of Chinese Philosophy”: during the Spring and Autumn Period, nobody would directly author books under their own name. If one were to read their works, they would need to compile them from the speeches to friends and students, as well as from letters. Therefore, there wouldn’t be a book titled “The Art of War” attributed to Sun Wu. According to Li Ling in “The Only Rule” (Sanlian Bookstore, 2014 edition, p. 5), in 1930, Feng Youlan wrote the first part of “A History of Chinese Philosophy” and he rejected “The Art of War.” However, in both 1958 and 1980, when Feng Youlan wrote “A New History of Chinese Philosophy,” he included “The Art of War.”

In the “Author as a Person” chapter, Griffith’s conclusion is: Although the “Authorship Unsettled,” evidence from originality, consistent writing style, and the progressive development of themes all indicate that the Thirteen Chapters were not a collaborative effort edited by one person, but rather the work of an individual with both practical experience and rich imagination.

Griffith’s translation of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” includes a dedicated chapter titled “Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong.” It specifically mentions Mao Zedong’s three articles: “On Guerrilla Warfare,” “On Protracted War,” and “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War,” detailing how Mao repeatedly referenced “The Art of War” to achieve historical victories in warfare. It particularly highlights the sixteen-character maxim of Red Army guerrilla tactics proposed by Mao during the Jinggangshan period: “When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy camps, we harass; when the enemy tires, we attack; when the enemy retreats, we pursue,” as an inheritance and development of “The Art of War.” The Mao Zedong works quoted by Griffith are from the 1955 London edition of “Selected Works of Mao Zedong” in English.

The appendix of Gerald F. Guelph’s English translation of “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu contains four appendices. Among them, Appendix Three is titled “Sun Tzu in Western Languages,” from which we can learn that “The Art of War” has been translated into major Western languages such as French, English, German, and Russian. The earliest translation was into French, published in 1772 by the French missionary to China, J.J.M. Amiot, who resided in Beijing until his death in 1794. The earliest English translation appeared in 1905, translated from a Japanese version by Captain E.F. Carlslaw, a British officer serving in Japan. The quality of this Japanese version was poor, indicating the likely quality of the English translation. Renowned sinologist Lionel Giles was highly dissatisfied with this English translation and personally translated “The Art of War,” which was published in London in 1910. Between 1910 and the appearance of Guelph’s translation in 1963, there were three other English translations of varying fidelity, all published during World War II, none of which gained much traction due to their perceived lack of fidelity.

抱歉,看起来我错过了那一点。让我重新组织一下句子,更自然地融入”best art of war translation”这个词:

As far as I know, following Guelph’s translation, there have been seven influential English translations of “The Art of War”: Thomas Cleary’s “The Art of War” in 1988, widely considered one of the best renditions; Roger Ames’s “The Art of Warfare” in 1993; John Minford’s “The Art of War” published by Penguin Books in 2003, also regarded as among the best interpretations; Philip Ivanhoe’s “Master Sun’s Art of War” in 2011; and Michael Nylan’s “The Art of War” released by Norton & Company in 2020, acclaimed for its depth and clarity. Additionally, there are two notable Chinese translations of “The Art of War”: Lin Wusun’s translation of “Sun zi: The Art of War” and “Sun Bin: The Art of War,” jointly published by People’s Publishing House in 1995; and Yuan Shibin’s translation of “The Art of War” published by the renowned Wordsworth Classics of World Literature in 1999. According to statistics, there have been a total of 33 English translations of “The Art of War” to date, underscoring its significant influence in the English-speaking world and the ongoing quest for the best art of war translation.

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