“The Rebel Princess”
The Crown Prince of the Kingdom of the Great Cheng - Ma Zilong - thought of her as his birthright. The Third Prince - Ma Zitan - thought of her as the love of his life who must become his, no matter what. The Second Prince - Ma Zilü - underestimated her, and that was his peril.
Her beloved uncle, the Emperor Ma Yao, showered her with love, honor and favor, but sometime in the midst of struggle, she was seen as a threat.
Her own father used her as a chess piece, a valuable piece that could be traded to gain power.
Born as the only daughter of Wang Lin, the Prime Minister of the Great Cheng, and Ma Jinruo, the Grand Elder Princess Jinmin, Wang Xuan - or A’wu for the close family and friend and Princess Shangyang for the others - seemed to have everything the world could offer: beauty, luxury and love. Pampered and spoiled by both the Imperial Clan and the Wang clan, Princess Shangyang grew up to be a carefree, willful, smart and wild. She ran, rode horses, climbed trees and what her father said: she had curiousness that surpassed those of a normal boy (a jab aimed at her brother, but also described her perfectly).
Unaware, that beneath the beauty and joyous life of the palace, a struggle of power was brewing between the Emperor, the Wang clan and the Xie Clan. Namely, in the Great Cheng, three clans had been keeping the balance of power at the Imperial Court : the Imperial Ma clan, the Wang clan and the Xie clan; thus they kept the stability throughout the land.
But under the reign of the Emperor Ma Yao, two new powers rose up.
In Jiangnang, The Emperor’s brother Prince of Jianning, who had lost the battle for the throne twenty years ago, grew stronger. The prince whose nickname was “The God of War”, had an army that was able to take over the capital and enthrone the current emperor. It was more than certain that he would be coming for trouble any day soon.
In the Northwest, in Ningshou city, the third generation of Ningshou army, General Xiao Qi, started growing his own power that trembled the hearts of the noble families. Rumoured to have destroyed the kingdom of Liupan, and kept the border safe from the Hulan’s attack through the years, his reputation could only get bigger. With around 200,000 loyal soldiers under his banner, he practically governed his own ‘kingdom’ in Ningshou.
The unwritten law of the Great Cheng dictated that the daughters of the Wang clan will be the Empress of the Ma Emperor, as the condition for the support that the Wang Clan gave to the Imperial Ma clan.
Now, having grown weary of the Wang clan at the point regretting to have taken Wang Huanxi of the Wang clan as his Empress, the Emperor wanted to weaken the Wang clan’s influence. Much to his delight, A’wu did not care about the unwritten law, for her heart belonged to the Third Prince, Ma Zitan, whose mother came from the Xie clan.
As General Xiao Qi won the battle against Hulan and killed the King of Hulan, the Emperor saw the opportunity to remove the Wang clan’s influence once and for all. Since the day of the founding of the Great Cheng, the Wang clan controlled the military, and the Xie clan controlled the fund and the grains. If a new military power could join the Xie clan, wouldn’t the Wang clan become obsolete?
Three years ago, the Emperor had decreed, whoever killed the King of Hulan would be bestowed the title Prince, regardless of their background. A chance for common people to prove their merits. As a low born, General Xiao Qi would be the first who became a Prince with non-royal descent. His position would be higher than any nobleman at the Imperial Court, even the Prime Minister himself.
Unmarried and having a military power was certainly making General Xiao Qi - now Prince of Yuzhang - a most-wanted son-in-law in the eyes of those who have power.
Together with Xie Yuan - the patriarch of Xie clan, the Emperor had a plan to bestow Prince of Yuzhang a marriage with Xie Yuan’s daughter, Xie Wanru. Their marriage and Wang Xuan - Ma Zitan marriage would certainly cement a new and strong alliance between the Imperial Clan and the Xie Clan, thus weakening if not even removing the Wang Clan’s influence at the Imperial Court.
The Prime Minister Wang Lin had a plan to forge an alliance with Xiao Qi, by offering a marriage between Wang Xuan and Xiao Qi.
The Crown Prince Ma Zilong did not want others to be his Crown Princess, but A’wu. It was his birthright, was it not what the tradition dictated? He must have his A’wu, even when it meant he had to ruin her reputation, and by then, she would have no other choice but to marry him.
Schemes, plans and intrigues were laid down carefully, waiting for the General Xiao Qi and his troops to enter the capital. As together with his Lieutenant General Song Huai’en, he secretly attended the invitation of the Prime Minister, he met Princess Shangyang and the Third Prince Ma Zitan on the street at the lantern festival.
That night was the starting point where the fates of the four them were about to change.
As General Xiao Qi and Song Huai’en managed to stop the assassination attempt on the Third Prince Ma Zitan, and when during the banquet for General Xiao Qi, instead of Wang Xuan as the Empress had planned, the Crown Prince Ma Zilong raped Xie Wanru, the patriarchs of the three clans wondered if there was a fourth player escaped from the surveillance of their eyes and ears.
The balance of power was completely running off its course, when some days after the marriage of the Crown Prince Ma Zilong and Xie Wanru, the Emperor Ma Yao fell sick due to being poisoned. The Prime Minister Wang Lin and the Empress used the opportunity to wipe the power of Xie clan by blaming the Noble Consort Xie. Putting every member of Xie clan, including the Third Prince Ma Zitan, to jail, gave them the leverage to force Wang Xuan into the marriage with General Xiao Qi. Through the Empress, the Prime Minister Wang Lin, gave the only option for Wang Xuan to save the Third Prince Ma Zitan.
A perfect plan for the Wang Clan to take over the empire. Because, who would refuse the chance to sit on the throne with a beautiful wife by his side... ?
Desperately trying to save her daughter from the future unhappy marriage, the Grand Elder Princess Ma Jinrou went to beg the Third Prince Ma Zitan to leave the capital with A’wu. Forget the desire to avenge the death of his mother, go eloping with A’wu. She and the boat that would take them away from the capital would wait for him at the river tonight.
Under the heavy rain, from the middle of the night until the crack of dawn, Wang Xuan waited. But the only one who came was her father. He and his people came to take her home. The Third Prince was struggling to decide whether to stay or to go to A’wu. When he finally was able to make up his mind, the sun was high at the sky, and A’wu was no longer there.
People said, Princess Shangyang was the only woman who was fitting for a hero like General Xiao Qi. Their marriage was meant to happen. But when General Xiao Qi left the capital at his wedding night without even completing the ceremony, perhaps...perhaps, all those stories at the street fair were only stories, told to lift up the mood.
But for the Prime Minister Wang Lin, it meant only one thing: his carefully orchestrated plan had gone astray.
As later on the Prime Minister Wang Lin admitted, he might have been good in judging character of many people, but he had definitely misjudged General Xiao Qi. And something that he had never reckoned, he had a daughter who matched his own wits and that there would be a man like General Xiao Qi, who recognized and respected her astute, perceptive understanding of the situation.
"The Rebel Prince” has 68 episodes. The ‘short’ resume that I wrote covers only the early eight episodes, but for me, those episodes are the foundation of the story. The next episodes are the explanation or the enrichment of those episodes. The drama has also a lot of secondary... what comes after secondary? I know quaternary (4th)... but what is third... well, anyway.... just say it secondary characters...Like the Wen clan, the Gu clan, the Wei clan... members of the Wang clan, the Helans, then we have the brother-sister generals, the names of the servants....
So, buckle up. It will be a long ride.
The Story And The Characters
“The Rebel Princess” is a fascinating story of a power struggle and everything that goes with it: murderous plot, backstabbing, betrayal, broken promises, and things that people do for those they claim to love.
From the premise, it may sound like “Nirvana In Fire 1″, but the rendition is completely different. If NIF 1 is solely focusing on Li Shu/Mei Changsu’s revenge and how he played the players like a violin; “The Rebel Princess” focuses more on the study of characters of those who got in touch with powers. Although all of them claimed to do their deeds based on love, their actions spoke a different value.
“The Rebel Princess” also a story of the journey of Wang Xuan entering the adult world. All that happened during the power struggle laid the path for Wang Xuan to grow from - as General Xiao Qi lovingly described her - an arrogant little girl into a determined woman who looked into the eye of the death at the chasm without flinching.
While the men schemed, plotted and murdered their opponent....did the women become victims or chess pieces only?
This is when I think “The Rebel Princess” is more interesting than “Nirvana In Fire 1″.
For me, “Nirvana In Fire” was very structured. We all know that at the end Mei Changsu would succeed. He was as Sun Tzu described - yeah, I read Sun Tzu. Did I not tell you, I take my generals seriously? - able to foresee the event before the action begun. Was he really a divine, who was able to plan secretly, to move surreptitiously, to foil the enemy's intentions and balk his schemes only by sensing something in the air, or was it because he had ten years or more of preparations?
I am not as gullible as General Meng (nobody is allowed to be as gullible and being so adorable while at it as General Meng, if you ask me), so I will take the later one. He must have had abundant resources and a lot of spies, planted everywhere, which unfortunately, we never saw any of them.
“The Rebel Princess”, on the other hand, showed us the usage of spies. Everybody used spies in the drama, including General Xiao Qi. Even the Wang clan had a special black ops force, and after the Siege of Huizhou, under the leader of Pang Gui, a group of covert agents worked for A’wu.
The characters are not simply figures to play by the main players (the Emperor and Xie Yuan, the Prime Minister, the Empress and the fourth player and fifth player (I better keep the name out, you know, I don’t want to spoil it for you). The people whom you thought were loyal, stabbed the main players without warning.
The women in this series were as cruel as the men, when it comes to gain their goals. There is no taboo. They were not shy away from betraying, poisoning, killing, and yes, even harming a baby. All’s fair in love and war? Well, this is when my understanding reaches its limit.
As the episodes go on, A’wu got into more troubles. You might think she had some kind of special magical ho-ha that many characters focused their feelings on her. The hatred she received, maybe as General Xiao Qi put it, she could blame it on her own father for marrying her off to a man with a military power like him, whom was considered as a thorn in the eyes of those who wanted the power.
Men were attracted to her because she was different from other noble ladies. Not only that she was smart, she also had a mindset that was similar to the noble men, which was quite rare. Her understanding on the state affairs was on par with her own father. Even he and the Emperor Ma Yao admitted her ability, and had she been a man, she could fight for the throne.
My favourite part of the drama is the Battle of Huizhou. This part showed clearly the characters of the four main characters - A’wu, Xiao Qi, Ma Zitan and Song Huai’en.
According to Sun Tzu, it is the worst policy to besiege walled cities. Let’s skip the months of preparation here, but what did Prince Jianning know about the city? After the defeat of the Governour Wu, instead of trying to get information about what really happened inside, he launched an attack. Yeah, he quoted Sun Tzu about warfare is based on deception... so I wonder, if he also read the part, where Sun Tzu said: If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
And what did he know about General Xiao Qi?
General Xiao Qi - let me use Sun Tzu again: was a general that skilled in defense hides in the ninth earth, and who was skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. He had the ability, on one hand to protect his troops, and on the other to have a victory that complete. You will see it in the drama what I mean. I really don’t want to spoil you. Unless, of course, you want to talk to me about it.
Certainly, Prince Jianning had read some battle reports on General Xiao Qi! To expect that General Xiao Qi would not do anything, knowing the importance of city for the empire simply did not make any sense. He must also have heard or his spies told him, that Princess Consort Yuzhang was escorted by one of his best lieutenants.
Those who think that A’wu’s ability to defend the city is a part of her being Mary Sue must have skipped or not paid attention to the first episode, where it clearly showed, she learned from the best since she was small. And they must have also skipped the conversation between her and Xiao Qi, where Xiao Qi said to her, he would not allow her to be weak. My take, it meant Xiao Qi expected her to think like him -as a leader of the most feared army in the whole empire, to be his equal partner facing whatever that may come. Besides, A’wu did not figure everything out by herself, but she made decisions based on the information gathered by General Song, General Mou and others.
We can also see from this battle, the future of the Great Cheng, if the Third Prince Ma Zitan ever took over the throne from his brothers. And what Song Huai’en was willing to do for A’wu.
If you expect a kind of drama that focuses on the relationship between A’wu and Xiao Qi, then you will be disappointed. Unlike “Nirvana In Fire”, however, this drama has romance. Except that the romance is woven into the political disputes between the players.
To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself, said Sun Tzu.
To put it simply, we can only wait for our enemies to make mistakes.
In “Nirvana In Fire”, that was exactly what happened. Mei Changsu’s enemies/opponents and Prince Jing made mistakes; one by one, falling into the traps that he had set up. Except Prince Jing. He fell into the trap set up by the enemy. I tried to remember when Mei Changsu ever made mistakes, but failed.
In “The Rebel Princess”, everybody made mistakes, for the lack of better words. Either for underestimating the enemy, having bad strategy, or simply because of their own weaknesses.
Both A’wu’s and General Xiao Qi’s weaknesses are their compassion.
Throughout the series we can see A’wu’s compassion. Even though she was wronged, she was still able to find excuse or reason to help. And sometimes she was blind of other wrong doing or evil planning, simply because she saw the goodness in every person.
It is impossible for the new prince to avoid the reputation of cruelty, because new states are full of dangers. Machiavelli said (yeah, I read him, too...).
General Xiao Qi did not try to do anything against the rumour, that he had committed genocide against the Liupan people. In return, he created a strong adversary with a personal vendetta in the form of Helan Zhen. When he even rescued Helan Zhen from death and sent him back to Hulan both due his compassion and political strategy, he was taking a risk of letting a tiger grow stronger. Or when one of his trusted men took bribes and committed corruption, he did not do anything against them. It was not clear why he did it, I can only think, either he did not believe it, or he hoped that they might change.
But I think, A’wu’s and Xiao Qi’s compassion is something that set them apart from the other characters. They become some kind of moral point of view of the drama, whose world is full with shady, untrustworthy, greedy, cruel, delusional people. Yes, it caused them problems too, but hey, to lead is to suffer, isn’t it?
Other thing that I like about A’wu and Xiao Qi is their relationship is very refreshing in the drama world (both Chinese and Korean dramas) full of partners that cannot even communicate. The trust they had in each other and the ability to talk about the problems they were facing is something I rarely see. The intimacy between them is real.
Maybe it is not bad to choose older, experienced actors to play such complex roles, after all.
The actors’ performances are top notch, and they gave the characters nuance. Not a single miscast. You would love to hate most of the characters, really. The thing is, even when they are such evil characters, you will understand their motives....well, I understand them... until one of them is willing to abuse a baby to achieve their goal. I already did not like this character, now I officially hate them. But I don‘t want them to die. That will be too easy for them. I want them to lead a lonely miserable life for the rest of their life. Sorry, I am being carried away.
The characters were plunging to their dooms one by one, you can’t help but feel sorry for them, and then they made you realize, that they were actually rotten to the core, and feeling sorry for them is just a waste of time. That’s how good the performances are.
Oh, please pay attention to General Hu Yao, the only female general in the General Xiao Qi army. If there was a female general I want to see kicking some asses, then it would be her. Other female fighters I saw until now are mostly either too pale or too weak to be able to wield the swords or bows.
And General Chu Beijei of “General And I” can learn from General Xiao Qi how to flip a chariot.
Some says it is an over budgeted production. I say, the more the merrier. The Great Cheng was supposed to be a rich kingdom. So, lavish should be a standard. The wardrobe is beautiful. The colour palettes are breathtaking. The usage of the CGI is smooth, you can’t even notice it.
I love the warfare. Yeah, they could have looked like as if they had been used many times... but at least they did not look brand new, and the bow that Xiao Qi had, that was just beautiful! It is good to see the armory that does not look like a Playmobil (as Do described the armory in “World of Warcraft”). And I really love the fighting and the battle scenes. It is intense, and since the generals spoke a lot about Sun Tzu, I wanted to see how they applied it.
Beautiful cinematography. The over long capes and gowns, that swept the floor, make the characters look as if they were gliding. The buildings, the landscape are beautiful. You can watch it over and over again and find something new to admire.
I also love the usage of normal lights. Some scenes could look too dark, but that what makes the situation looked real, and even strengthened the atmosphere. You can compare the Empress’ palace at the beginning of the drama and at the end, how different it looked due to the changing of colour and lighting.
“The Rebel Princess” is a drama that comes very rarely. Especially in “Historical Chinese” genre. Yes, it has many episodes, but trust me, every episode is like a Zhang Zi Yi’s movie. Beautifully acted, beautifully told.
I urge you to watch it.
“The Rebel Princess”
Starred by: Zhang Zi Yi, Zhou Yi Wei, Tony Yang, Liu Duan Duan, Yu He Wei, Coco Shi, etc.
Written by: Li Jing Ling (drama), Amei (manga)
Director: Cheng Yuan Hai, Huo Yong, Xu Zhi Ming.
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Anonymous asked: I love your long posts which make for great reading and I wish you could do more because you’ve got such a range of astonishing interests. I’m hoping because you’ve served in the military you would have studied military thinkers. Do you think the Art of War by Sun Tzu is way overrated by everyone? I studied him a bit for my masters but I still couldn’t get my head around him. Interested to know your thoughts. Thanks!
“To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear." - Sun Tzu's Art of War, Chapter IV - Tactical Disposition, Clause 10.
Sounds cool, doesn’t it?
But what the hell does this quote really mean? Do you know what it means? Can anyone else tell me?
Look, I enjoy a good Sun Tzu quote as the next person. Only recently I was exchanging thoughts with a fellow blogger whose studying Thucydides, Clausewitz, and Kissinger for an advanced course at the US Naval War College. Even he prefers Sun Tzu over Clausewitz. I can see why too. If you can make sense of chapter one of Clausewitz’s tome On War you deserve a Nobel Prize.
Unlike my very learned fellow blogger, there are lot of folk who don’t know Sun Tzu at all. They can quote him, but almost certainly out of context. As someone who partly grew up in the Far East and even learned Chinese and Japanese (a pitiful but functional degree of fluency) I’m embarrassed (not hard since I’m English) when I hear other Western compatriots romanticise and elevate Eastern icons to mythic status that the Chinese themselves have never done.
I am even more bemused than embarrassed after having hung up my military uniform for ‘civvy’ corporate clothing at how badly abused Sun Tzu’s book is in the corporate world. In my workplace I grit my teeth at corporate high flyers who mistake a balance sheet for a real battlefield by quoting Sun Tzu out of their arse, and then as self-styled ‘corporate warriors’ work themselves up in a lather of testosterone induced self-importance to crush their corporate enemies into the dust.
This is why the The Art of War by Sun Tzu has invited a jaundiced eye roll. And rightly so. I can see why many view Sun Tzu as over-rated because many easily impressed people go all woo woo over anything ancient and Eastern.
It’s become a familiar trope to say the art of ‘strategy’ as a science began 2,500 years ago with the writing of The Art of War. I would dispute this. Not that the writing of Art of War was the earliest written but whether I would call it a manual of strategy per se - more on this below in my answer. However you rate or overrate the Art of War it’s important to have perspective and remember this book is written in 512 BC. Other than the bible and some religious books, there are not many books that can survived thousands of years and still remains a steady bestseller and enjoys a wide influence in military academies and army staff colleges today and even as far into board rooms.
The question behind your question is just as interesting to me: why did Sun Tzu and his Art of War gain such traction in the West?
Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) wrote the original text of The Art of War shortly before 510 BC. During most of the past two thousand years, the common people in China were forbidden to read Sun Tzu's text. However, the text was preserved by China's nobility for over 2,500 years. The Chinese nobility preserved the text of The Art of War, known in Chinese as Bing-fa, even despite the famous book-burning by the first Emperor of Chi around 200 BC. The text was treasured and passed down by the Empire’s various rulers. Unfortunately, it was preserved in a variety of forms. A "complete" Chinese language version of the text wasn't available until the 1970s. Before that, there were a number of conflicting, fragmentary versions in different parts of China, passed down through 125 generations of duplication.
Indeed at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were two main textual traditions in circulation, known as the (Complete Specialist Focus) and (Military Bible) versions. There were also perhaps a dozen minor versions and both derived and unrelated works also entitled Bing-fa. Of course, every group considered (and still considers) its version the only accurate one.
When I last visited China before the Covid pandemic for work reason, I had time off to go to a couple of museums that housed the fruits of a number of archeological digs uncovering the tombs of the ancient rulers of China in which sections of Sun Tzu’s works were found. These finds have verified the historical existence of the text and the historical accuracy of various sections. I understand new finds are still being made.
The first complete, consistent Chinese version was created in Taipei in the 1970s. It was titled The Complete Version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War." It was created by the National Defence Research Investigation Office, which was a branch of Taiwan's defence department. This version compared the main textual traditions to each other and to archeological finds and compiled the most complete version possible.
This work was completed in Taiwan rather than mainland China for a number of reasons. Mainland China was still in the throws of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, which actively suppressed the study of traditional works such as Sun Tzu. The mainland had also moved to a reformed character set, while Taiwan still used the traditional character set in which the text was written. Only today is the study of Sun Tzu in mainland China growing, interestingly enough, through the translation of Sun Tzu into contemporary Mandarin. Based on the archeological sources we have today, we are reasonably certain of the historical accuracy of this compiled version that is the basis of what most people use today.
Surprisingly, the Art of War only came to light in the West around the 18th Century.
Historians believe it was first formally introduced in Europe in 1772 by the French Jesuit Joseph-Marie Amiot. It was translated at the time by the title “The thirteen articles of Sun-Tse”. Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-1793) was not just a Jesuit priest but also an astronomer and French historian, as well as fervent missionary in China. He was one of the last survivors of the Jesuit Mission in China (he died in Beijing).
Many of the historical problems with understanding Sun Tzu's work can be trace back to its first Western translation in French. A Jesuit missionary, Father Amiot, first brought The Art of War to the West, translating it into French in 1782. Unfortunately, this translation started the tradition of mistranslating Sun Tzu's work, starting with the title, The Art of War (Art de la guerre).
This title, copied the title of a popular work by Machiavelli (a criminally underrated writer on military strategy), but it didn't reflect Sun Tzu's Bing-fa, which would be better translated as "competitive methods."
We cannot say what effect being translated by a Jesuit priest had upon the text. It was unavoidable that the work's translation reflected the military prejudices of the time era when war was both popular and Christian. It was also unavoidable that most future translations would reflect some of the first translation's prejudices. However, war was on the verge of becoming much less Christian in the West since this time was the era of the French Revolution (1789).
The work might well of slipped into obscurity after its initial publication, but it was discovered by a minor French military officer. After studying it, this officer rose to the head of the revolutionary French army in a surprising series of victories. The legend is that Napoleon used the work as the key to his victories in conquering all of Europe. It is said that he carried the little work with him everywhere but kept its contents secret (which would be very much in keeping with Sun Tzu's theories).
However, Napoleon must have started believing his own reviews instead of sticking with his study of Sun Tzu. His defeat at Waterloo was clearly a case of fighting on a battleground that the enemy, Wellington, knew best. Wellington’s trick at Waterloo was hiding his forces by having them lie down in the slight hollows of this hilly land. This is exactly the type of tactic Sun Tzu warns against in his discussion of terrain tactics.
After Napolean, Sun Tzu's theories made their way into western military philosophy. Many of his ideas are reflected in the ideas of work of Carl von Clausewitz. who defined military strategy as "the employment of battles to gain the end of war."
The first English translation of The Art of War is less than a hundred years old. Captain E. F. Calthrop published the first English translation in 1905. Lionel Giles, an assistant curator at the British Museum and a well-known sinologist and translator, attacked this early translation, and he published his own version in 1910. It soon began to be read alongside Clausewitz’s 8 volumes of turgid German military prose.
It wasn’t long before military thinkers were ditching Clausewitz for Sun Tzu because no one could get past Chapter One of Clausewitz’s On War. The “Clausewitz is dead, long live Sun Tzu” school was first championed by the influential British military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart in the 1920s. Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was a captain in the British Army. He was a very influential military theorist and historian, and author of several books such as The Future of War (1925) and Strategy (1954). Having witnessed first-hand the mechanised onslaught of the Great War, Liddell Hart sought a philosophy of warfare based in the prudent use of technology, psychology and deception - and the avoidance of the 'total war' catastrophes of preceding decades.
The main idea of Liddell Hart is to bring the set of principles of warfare in a so-called ‘indirect approach’ to the enemy. His advocacy in his scholarly work of an ‘indirect strategy’ over direct, frontal operations, was a reaction to the high casualties of the Western Front in the First World War. But his ideas were not simply about physically outmanoeuvring an opponent. Instead he pushed for a psychological scheme: to strike from unexpected directions, to generate strategic dissonance, and to induce paralysis. Hart’s well-known thoughts are “Only short-sighted soldiers underestimate the importance of psychological factors in time of war”, “Originality is the most important from all military virtues”, and “The principles of war could shortly be condensed in a single word: concentration”.
Liddell Hart believed that distilling historical insights of strategy and operations would offer the chance to avoid the costly disasters of modern war and ensure a more cost-effective route to success. He imagined technological solutions in the form of air power and mechanised land forces outflanking and shocking an enemy at the tactical level. This would be complemented by taking indirect strategic ‘ways’. Like his contemporary J.F.C. Fuller, Liddell Hart considered concentrations of air and armoured forces driving deep into enemy territory to destroy their ‘nervous system’. The psychological aspects of this were central, since acquiring an advantage demanded moves that were unexpected, with precise attacks at the most vulnerable points. As the most influential military writer of the modern age, revered and reviled by three generations of strategists, armchair and armipotent, his controversial theories of armed attack laid the foundation of the famed German Blitzkrieg.
Hart’s championing of Sun Tzu’s work as articulated through his own works got a new lease of life as the world gingerly settled into the ice bath of the Cold War. The rise of Communist China, against all the odds having defeated the well disciplined nationalist armies of Chian kai-Shek, was a wake up call for the West. There was a general befuddlement among western military analysts to explain the secret of Maoist success. There was an intellectual inquest in the 1950s and 1960s for some way to explain (and, it was hoped, learn to counter) Maoist military doctrine. Sun Tzu was seen as one of the historical and cultural sources of some particularly Chinese or Asian way of war, and his work made its way into Western discussions of counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare.
Into the breach - and with fortuitous timing - appeared a new translation of The Art of War that was to become the defining translation right down to our day. Liddel Hart provided the foreword to Samuel Griffth’s 1963 translated copy of the Art of War. It was to quickly become a key text in US war colleges and this version is still to this day favoured by most of these institutions. We also studied Griffith’s translation at Sandhurst alongside Liddell Hart’s ideas.
There is no question that Griffith’s translation has become the standard go to translation to this day in military circles - that is until James Clavell’s more populist and looser translation came along in the 1980s. One can see why. Griffith’s translation provided a number of historical Chinese commentaries on the text. It should also be noted that Griffith’s strengths was his immense experience in the military and knowledge of military history as a brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps.
However, this was also his version's greatest flaw. Like many other critics I have the impression that Griffith did not really believe or understand all of Sun Tzu. Indeed he would often explain away Sun Tzu's direct statements without making it clear that this was his commentary and not what Sun Tzu wrote. The other main criticism and this one is stylistic and therefore just my opinion, Griffith was also not much of a writer. By our standards today, much of Griffith’s language can seem awkward and dated.
Looking back it feels ironic of the US military were wrapping their heads around Sun Tzu as way to get inside the Chinese communist mind (of Mao the military strategist especially). Unknown to them Mao had desperately tried everything to get hold of a copy of the Art of War from the Chinese Nationalists. Cambridge historian and doyenne of intelligence history, Christopher Andrew in his book The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, wrote that the theory that Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was critical to mastering contemporary warfare is propagated through the use of a tantalising anecdote: “During the civil war between Communists and the Kuomintang regime [Mao Zedong] sent aides into enemy territory to find a copy of it.” The ancient text, ostensibly, was of such vital importance that Mao was willing to risk men’s lives to obtain it, while Chiang Kai-shek vowed to protect it all costs. It’s a questionable anecdote at best as there are no historical evidence of it.
We can say that the notion that Sun Tzu’s slim treatise is considered both potent and slightly dangerous - providing the master key to unlocking victory in war through the ages - is a compelling myth that refuses to die. Mao most likely never ordered a clandestine operation to pilfer the text, nor did Chiang Kai-shek give any thought to shielding its contents from prying eyes. Both men certainly read it long before the start of their civil war, both most likely had ready access to it during the conflict, and neither man won or lost based on adherence or divergence from its teachings. But undoubtedly it set the hearts of Western military theorists aflutter in trying to unlock the secrets of Eastern military thought.
Sun Tzu and his ideas in a reincarnated form took hold of the wider public imagination in the 1980s. The 1980s was synonymous with Japan. With the perceived rise of Japan as a global economic power and the changes in post-Mao China, there was a Western (meaning American) search for more explanations. What was the secret of Asia’s rise? How were Japan and China ‘doing’ this?
In Western business circles it was for a time trendy to read it because of the perception that it was part of what made Japanese businesses so successful during the 70s and 80s. Management gurus and other corporate consultants certainly latched on to it and touted it as a way for Western businesses to re-orient their entire management and business philosophy. I don’t know if that ever actually was the case in Japan - my father who worked in both China and Japan in the corporate world at a very senior level said it wasn’t - but what is true is that in the West as the Japanese economy languished into the lost decade of the 90s so too did interest in Japanese business practices, and thus Sun Tzu.
The idea that The Art of War was a kind of how-to guide to ‘strategy’ was made especially popular by Hollywood in the 1980s. Oliver Stone’s iconic film ‘Wall Street’ seemed to typify the ‘greed is good’ New York capitalist scene of the 80s and 90s. Hollywood mirror imaged the rise of the corporate raiders and junk bond kings like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. Hollywood sent thousands of American businessmen off to read Sun Tzu to look for ‘leadership secrets’. This is part of a general Western fascination with ‘timeless Asian wisdom’, the American idea that ‘the mysterious East’ is possessed of secret knowledge. American and European businessmen were enamoured of the idea that “a battle is won or lost before it ever begins”, a saying that reinforced traditional American business attitudes about a winning mentality and a ‘can-do’ spirit being two keys to success.
Because Japan and China were trendy in the 1980s and 1990s it also influenced Western popular culture, not just fashion (think Kenzo) but also comic books (manga) and anime. In this Eastern friendly climate it led a number of popular fiction authors to release their ‘own’ versions of the work to capitalise on its newfound popularity. These versions were more about the pop culture of the era than Sun Tzu. Unfortunately, though popular, none of these versions took advantage of the work completed in Taiwan creating a definitive version of Sun Tzu's text by this time. These versions were based either on old English translations (the Calthorp and Giles versions) or incomplete Chinese sources. However, all of these versions remain popular today, despite their questionable sources and poor quality of translation.
In 1983, James Clavell updated The Art of War translation of Lionel Giles and published it in a very popular version. This started a very common practice in English translation: creating a ‘new’ version from other English translations instead of going back to the original source. Authors today continue to follow this practice, which only perpetuates and exaggerates the problems with early translations.
Thomas Cleary, another well-known author, did his own The Art of War translation with historical commentary in 1988. Again, his name recognition did much to increase awareness of Sun Tzu, even if his work did nothing to improve the general quality of the translation.
Looking back the whole Sun Tzu as a business model fetish in the 1980-90s was really pretty silly, rather like 80s shoulder pads. Of course, there are some similarities in leadership regardless of profession, but the basic goals and working environments of war and of business are so wildly different that applying Sun Tzu to business is superficial at best.
So to me the problem is not that Sun Tzu is ‘overrated’ per se, the problem is that every half baked author out there try to apply its principles to every problems that mankind have. The Art of War, as the title suggest, is not The Art of Managing your Business, the Art of Winning in Competition against your classmates, The Art of picking up Women, The Art of Living Life to the fullest. It is, and only is, The Art of War. It is ‘overrated’ only if you expect it to answer every problems in your life.
The Art of War is not the word of God. It is a war manual advocating common sense with pithy aphorisms - and a very good one.
It’s not that I think the Art of War is over-rated it’s that the more common problem is that many people vastly under-rate Sun Tzu. By misreading Sun Tzu thoughts and ideas, I believe many are in effect under-rating the problems which Sun Tzu is addressing, namely war, or the continuum of conflict resolution where divergence in interests of multiple parties extends to the possible use of lethal force on a massive scale. A lot of people trivialise this problem with idiocies like “what if someone threw a war and nobody came” (clue, they would win, then hunt down and enslave or kill everyone too foolish to contest the issue, as has happened countless times in human history) or “ban war” (said ban apparently enforced by throwing flowers at soldiers).
Understanding that war is a very real and intractable problem is necessary to fully appreciate the genius of Sun Tzu’s work, especially where it avoids fixed and easily definable tactics specific to the Warring States period and instead illustrates timeless concepts of out-thinking the enemy at every level of conflict. That the text is still mostly readily applicable or at least reasonably insightful after thousands of years is a testament to the inability of humans to push warfare beyond the fundamental aspects of conflicting interests and continuum of forcible resolution Sun Tzu addresses.
Still, the particular translation matters far less than having an appreciation that, in war, you have an active opponent who is trying to out-think and counter any moves you make, and having an appreciation of non-dualistic philosophical reasoning more characteristic of Chinese classics generally. The classic symbol of Yin-Yang (and a number of derivative versions) illustrates apparent dualism as being a part of a deeper structural unity which does not permit a fixed division into separate parts.
Hence the difficulty of applying the principles of the Art of War to artificial ideas of “winning/losing” (or war/peace, right/wrong, us/them) as categorical absolutes rather than negotiated possibilities in a continuum of desirability/costs. And it is very difficult, no one should sugar coat that. Humans sort and construct their perceptions of reality by appeal to such gross simplifications. Binary logic is an immensely powerful tool in many areas because it leverages the ability to simplify complexity and then build valid inferences based on fixed premises. But at some point you have to go beyond that to have a more fluid response to reality as it is. Which Sun Tzu does for the reality of war.
I would recommend anyone to read it. At the end of the day it’s a book of highly general aphorisms that effectively synopsise the essential insights that apply to all kinds of human conflicts. Turning an enemy's flank has the exact same effect in 2500 B.C. and in 2000 C.E. and it has the same effect in the boardroom, or public market as it does on the battlefield. Deception and intelligence are still used in exactly the same way, whether conquering foreign lands, or stealing market share from a competitor. It's a book about common sense; but common sense must seem profound to those who have none.
Overall, I think Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a worthy read and not overrated because in our society of over educated achievers, common sense is in as short of supply as it has ever been; if this book can provide the meaningful framework for educating very bright people in down to earth common sense, that can only be a good thing.
The value of the book then is to drive home the fact that, in human conflict, there really is Nothing New Under the Sun (Tzu).
Pardon the pun and thanks for your question.
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