The Art of War

‘Every battle is won before it is ever fought.’

Gordon Gekko quoted Sun Tzu (Sun Zi in Pinyin phonetic system) in the movie Wall Street. The book became even more well-known than it already was in Western societies.

The Art of War, written in 500BC, was repeatedly quoted in numerous ancient Chinese texts by great emperors and generals of Chinese history. Even Cao Cao, the infamous Prime Minister that stole the kingdom from the young Han emperor during the times of the Three Kingdom (you might know him from Koei famous computer game), wrote a kind of study guide to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This shows that the Art of War is not easy for common people to understand and to apply in daily life.

What is interesting, is that 36 strategemsmost regular Chinese would hardly know what is in the Sun Tzu’s seminal work on the art of war. Instead, the Chinese study something called the ‘The Thirty Six Stratagems
‘, written by an obscure general called Tan Daoji in 400BC during Southern Song Dynasty. It is considered a lot more applicable to the everyday life human conflicts, not just in war but also at home and in business. If we were to ask a random Chinese person to say the first thought he or she has related to strategies at war, there is a very high chance that this person would say:

‘Of the thirty six strategies, retreat is the best strategy.’

There is a comical ring to the most famous line in The Thirty Six Strategy in the Chinese world. And perhaps because it is so ironic that the line is used in almost all everyday situation. When bullies are trying to attack a Chinese person and his or her friend, instead of say ‘Run, Forest, run!’, he or she would say, ‘Of the thirty six strategies, run is the best strategy!’ instead.

It is hard to say whether the teaching of Tan Daoji shaped the Chinese personality, but it definitely shows that to win a war, a fight, or an argument, one should consider all kinds of moves, and not just the forward movements. Attack and direct confrontation maybe a way to achieve victory, but so is retreating. This might sound counter-intuitive, but many important battles throughout the history of China were fought in such a way: Retreat is a way to let the enemy believes that your forces have been weakened and under-estimate you. When they pursue you, you can lure them into badly protected area and ambush them there as well as back in the place where they have left open to attack. Genghis Khan and his Mongolian warriors are famous for retreating to win. Retreating is a regular part of their strategy to lure armies that would otherwise have been protected by the castle or city wall in a siege out into the open.

Western warriors often consider retreating as a sign of cowardice, but Chinese warriors and strategists see it differently. If retreating can bring about benefits, such as allowing enemy to fall into a trap or simply to survive till there is another better chance to retaliate, there is really no reason to say that it is not an honorable act. In the long run, the winner takes the honor. As long as you win, no one will look down on how you did it.

This attitude towards retreating to win long-term is also apparent in many common Chinese saying. One goes like, ‘Liu de qing shan zai, na pa mei chai shao’, ‘As long as you can keep the forest green, you’ll never have to be afraid to run out of wood for fire’. Another goes like, ‘Jun zi bao chou, shi nian bu wan‘, ‘For a gentleman, 10 years is not too long a wait for revenge’. (Some texts argue that it should be 3 years not 10 years but 10 years was what I learnt growing up.) Note that gentleman in Chinese culture refers to people that is smart and has an admirable character, and not the kind of gentlemen with good manners or impressive heritage.