The Art of War (Sun)/The Commentators

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The Commentators.

'Sun Tzu can boast an exceptionally long and distinguished roll of commentators, which would do honour to any classic. [ER [% Ou-yang Hsiu remarks on this fact, though he wrote before the tale was complete, and rather ingeniously explains it by saying that the artifices of war, being in- exhaustible, must therefore be susceptible of treatment in a great variety of ways. 1

I. 7% fig Ts‘ao Ts‘ao or 7% IA Ts‘ao Kung, afterwards known as 5% 'fi’i‘ Wei Wu Ti [A.D. 155—220]. There

is hardly any room for doubt that the earliest commentary on Sun Tzu actually came from the pen of this extra- ordinary man, whose biography in the Sam K210 C/zi/zg reads like a romance. One of the greatest military geniuses. that the world has seen, and Napoleonic in the scale of his operations, he was especially famed for the marvellous rapidity of his marches, which has found expression in the line 3% fig 7% fig 3% “Talk of Ts‘ao Ts‘ao, and Ts‘ao Ts‘ao will appear.” Ou-yang Hsiu says of him that he was a great captain who “measured his strength against Tung Cho, Lij Pu and the two Yiian, father and son, and vanquished them all; whereupon he divided the Empire of Han with Wu and Shu, and made himself king. It is recorded that whenever a council of war was held by Wei on the eve of a far-reaching campaign, he had all his calculations ready; those generals who made use of ‘them did not lose one battle in ten; those who ran counter to them in any particular saw their armies incontinently beaten and put to flight.”3 Ts‘ao Kung’s notes on Sun Tzu, models of austere brevity, are so thoroughly charac— teristic of the stern commander known to history, that it is hard indeed to conceive of them as the work of a mere lz'ttérateur. Sometimes, indeed, owing to extreme com- pression, they are scarcely intelligible and stand no less in need of a commentary than the text itself.1 As we have seen, Ts‘ao Kung is the reputed author of the g, a book on war in 100,000 odd words, now lost, but mentioned in the fig 2

2, 1% fi Méng Shih. The commentary which has come down to us under this name is comparatively meagre, and nothing about the author is known. Even his personal name has not been recorded. Chi T‘ien-pao’s edition places him after Chia Lin, and g; 4} Ch‘ao Kung-wu also assigns him to the T‘ang dynasty,3 but this is obviously a mistake, as his work is mentioned in the FE} g ,H In Sun Hsing-yen’s preface, he appears as Méng Shih of the Liang .dynasty [502—557]. Others would identify him with "$11 a Meng K‘ang of the 3rd century. In the 5]“: i if: i ii, 4 he is named last of the Eli ‘g‘g‘ “Five Commentators,” the others being Wei Wu Ti, Tu Mu, Ch‘én Hao and Chia Lin.

3. Li Ch‘iian of the 8th century was a well- known writer on military tactics. His jg a has

been in constant use down to _the present day. The jg fig mentions ffl  % fl (lives of famous generals from the Chou to the T‘ang dynasty) as written by him. 5 He is also generally supposed to be the real author of the popular Taoist tract, the [32 According to Ch‘ao Kung-wu and the T‘z’en-ééo catalogue,6 he followed the jg Z, fl?! text of Sun Tzfi, which differs considerably from those now extant. His notes are mostly short and to the point, and he frequently illustrates his remarks by anecdotes from Chinese history.

4. diff, Tu Yu (died 812) did not publish a separate commentary on Sun th’i, his notes being taken from the Tang Tim, the encyclopaedic treatise on the Constitution which was his life-work. They are largely repetitions of Ts‘ao Kung and Méng Shih, besides which it is believed that he drew on the ancient commentaries of I Wang Ling and others. Owing to the peculiar arrangement of the T‘zmg Tz'en, he has to explain each passage on its merits, apart from the context, and sometimes his own explanation does not agree with that of Ts‘ao Kung, whom he always quotes first. Though not strictly to be reckoned as one of the “Ten Commentators,” he was added to their number by Chi T‘ien—pao, being wrongly placed after his grandson Tu Mu.

5. 13135: Tu Mu (803—852) is perhaps best known as a poet — a bright star even in the glorious galaxy of the T‘ang period. We learn from Ch‘ao Kung—wu that although he had no practical experience of war, he was extremely fond of discussing the subject, and was more- over well read in the military history of the C/z‘zm C/z‘z'u and Clam [(250 eras. 1 His notes, therefore, are well worth attention. They are very c0pious, and replete with historical parallels. The gist of Sun th’i’s work is thus summarised by him: “Practise benevolence and justice, but on the other hand make full use of artifice and measures of ex- pediency.”2 He further declared that all the military triumphs and disasters of the thousand years which had elapsed since Sun Wu’s death would, upon examination, be found to uphold and corroborate, in every particular, the maxims contained in his book. 1 Tu Mu’s somewhat spiteful charge against Ts‘ao Kung has already been con- sidered elsewhere.

6. m [15% Ch’én Hao appears to have been a contemp- orary of Tu Mu. Ch‘ao Kung-wu says that he was im- pelled to write a new commentary on Sun Tzfi because Ts‘ao Kung’s on the one hand was too obscure and subtle, and that of Tu Mu on the other too long—winded and diffuse. 2 Ouvyang Hsiu, writing in the middle of the I 1th century, calls Ts‘ao Kung, Tu Mu and Ch‘en Hao the three chief commentators on Sun Tzfi (3 £56), and observes that Ch‘en Hao is continually attacking Tu Mu’s short- comings. His commentary, though not lacking in merit, must rank below those of his predecessors.

7. g Chia Lin is known to have lived under the T‘ang dynasty, for his commentary on Sun Tzfi is men- tioned in the and was afterwards republished by fig Chi Hsieh of the same dynasty together with those of Méng Shih and Tu Yu.3 It is of somewhat scanty texture, and in point of quality, too, perhaps the least valuable of the eleven.

8- W % E: Mei Yao-ch‘én (1002—1060), commonly known by his “style” as Mei Sheng-yii, Was, like Tu Mu, a poet of distinction. His commentary was pub- lished with a laudatory preface by the great Ou-yang Hsiu, from which we may cull the following: —

Later scholars have misread Sun thi, distorting his words and trying to make them square with their own one-sided views. Thus, though commentators have not been lacking, only a few have proved equal to the task. My friend Shéng-yfi has not fallen into this mistake. In at- tempting to provide a critical commentary for Sun Tzfi’s work, he does not lose sight of the fact that these sayings were intended for states en— gaged in internecine warfare; that the author is not concerned with the military conditions prevailing under the sovereigns of the three ancient dynasties,’ nor with the nine punitive measures prescribed to the Minister of War. 2 Again, Sun Wu loved brevity of diction, but his meaning is always deep. Whether the subject be marching an army, or handling soldiers, or estimating the enemy, or controlling the forces of victory, it is always systematically treated; the sayings are bound together in strict logical sequence, though this has been obscured by commentators who have probably failed to grasp their meaning. In his own commentary, Mei Shéng—yfi has brushed aside all the obstinate prejudices of these critics, and has tried to bring out the true meaning of Sun T zfi himself. In this way, the clouds of confusion have been dispersed and the sayings made clear. I am convinced that the present work deserves to be handed down side by side with the three great commentaries; and for a great deal that they find in the sayings, coming generations will have constant reason to thank my friend Shéng—yfi. 3

Making some allowance for the exuberance of friendship, I am inclined to endorse this favourable judgment, and would certainly place him above Ch‘en Hao in order of merit. 9. EE 7g Wang Hsi, also of the Sung dynasty, is decidedly original in some of his interpretations, but much less judicious than Mei Yao-ch‘en, and on the whole not a very trustworthy guide. He is fond of comparing his own commentary with that of Ts‘ao Kung, but the com— parison is not often flattering to him. We learn from Ch‘ao Kung-wu that Wang Hsi revised the ancient text of Sun th’l, filling up lacunae and correcting mistakes. 1

10. {BI Ho Yen-hsi of the Sung dynasty. The personal name of this commentator is given as above by Chéng Ch‘iao in the 7“ng Ckz'lz, written about the middle of the twelfth century, but he appears simply as {Bf EE Ho Shih in the Yii HM, and Ma Tuan-lin quotes Ch‘ao Kung-wu as saying that his personal name is un- known. There seems to be no reason to doubt Chéng Ch‘iao’s statement, otherwise I should have been inclined to hazard a guess and identify him with one 161‘ f Ho Ch‘ij-fei, the author of a short treatise on war entitled fifi éfi, who lived in the latter part of the 11th century. 2 Ho Shih's commentary, in the words of the T‘z'en-z'—ko catalogue, fi fig “contains helpful additions” here and there, but is chiefly remarkable for the copious ex— tracts taken, in adapted form, from the dynastic histories and other sources.

II. ;E E Chang Yfi. The list closes with a com— mentator of no great originality perhaps, but gifted with admirable powers of lucid exposition. His commentary is based on that of Ts‘ao Kung, whose terse sentences he contrives to expand and develop in masterly fashion. Without Chang Yij, it is safe to say that much of Ts‘ao Kung’s commentary would have remained cloaked in its pristine obscurity and therefore valueless. His work is not mentioned in the Sung history, the T‘zmg K‘ao, or the Yz’Z Haz', but it finds a niche in the T‘zmg Cfiz'fi, which also names him as the author of the E {5 “Lives of Famous Generals.” 1

It is rather remarkable that the last-named four should all have flourished within so short a space of time. Ch‘ao Kung-wu accounts for it by saying: “During the early years-of the Sung dynasty the Empire enjoyed a long spell of peace, and men ceased to practise the art of war. But when [Chao] Yuan-hao’s rebellion came [1038—42] and the frontier generals were defeated time after time, the Court made strenuous enquiry for men skilled in war, and military topics became the vogue amongst all the high officials. Hence it is that the commentators of Sun th’i in our dynasty belong mainly to that period.” 2

Besides these eleven commentators, there are several others whose work has not come down to us. The 5212' Ska mentions four, namely EE 7% Wang Ling (often quoted

by Tu Yu as EE 55:); fig 55 f5? Chang Tzu-shang; g 21:23 Chia Hsfi of fig Wei;3 and 3i Shén Yu of 3% Wu. The T‘amg S/m adds % 51% Sun Hao, and the T‘zmg Chi/z % =3 Hsiao Chi, while the T‘u Sfiu mentions a Ming commentator, fig EB Huang Jun—yii. It is possible that some of these may have been merely collectors and editors of other commentaries, like Chi T‘ien—pao and Chi Hsieh, mentioned above. Certainly in the case of the latter, the entry 55 in the T‘zmg K‘ao, without the fol- lowing note, would give one to understand that he had written an independent commentary of his own.

There are two works, described in the 53% K‘u Ch‘z’iam Shu[1] and no doubt extremely rare, which I should much like to have seen. One is entitled 孫子參同, in 5 chüan. It gives selections from four new commentators, probably of the Ming dynasty, as well as from the eleven known to us. The names of the four are 解元 Hsieh Yüan; 張鏊 Chang Ao; 李村 Li Ts‘ai; and 黃治徵 Huang Chih-chêng. The other work is 孫子彚徵 in 4 chüan, compiled by 鄭端 Chêng Tuan of the present dynasty. It is a compendium of information on ancient warfare, with special reference to Sun Tzŭ’s 13 chapters.


  1. Ch. 100, ff. 2, 3.