Now that you understand the transformations taking place at the time of this book was written, and the further changes in attitudes and processes that our author, our Master, is trying to drive. We can turn our attention to the structure and content of the book.
The first thing you notice about The Art of War, it is pretty short. The original is about 9,000 characters. To put that into perspective, I could read that in about 3 hours. If your translation has more heft, its because it has been padded with unneeded information and photos. But the translation of the original text is still very lean. Comprising 13 chapters accredited to Master Sun. Each one starting with Master Sun said. Remember my other post, Master is a loaded word, many of the maxims are statements of truth, free from extensive supporting analysis and example. In addition, The Art of War is written in a very cursed style, in such, each individual passage reads as discrete pearls of wisdom, that are easily stomached.
For example, The Supreme excellence is to achieve victory without a battle. That may sound great, but once taken out of the context of the book, and historical context, the statement is about as useful as advising a rookie WallStreet investor to buy low and sell high.
My approach when reading this book is to pay close attention to how the author uses and defines certain terms. Paying attention to these definitions is very important, like in Classical Chinese, much like any language in that regards. Words can have a lot of different meanings, and you need to make sure which meaning is being used at that time.
Let’s use, for example, a word that appears only twice in The Art of War.
Benevolence. Also known as Rén (pronounced Reh-n) or 仁
It is a core concept in ancient Chinese philosophy, especially in Confucianism. Its meaning is very close to our understanding of benevolence – putting the interest of others before our own – so when the author tells us benevolence is one of the five virtues of the general, along with wisdom, sincerity, courage and discipline. We might be inclined to read into that term, in Confucian interpretation, but if we look at the only other place where that word appears, in chapter 13, on the use of spies, we see there that the utmost benevolence is acquitted to the generals willingness to pay spies and traders in the enemies camp top dollar for information. Talk about a very different interpretation of benevolence from the one authored by the Confucians.