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  • The Art of War: Sunzi's Military Methods
  • Aaron Creller (bio)
Victor H. Mair . The Art of War: Sunzi's Military Methods. Columbian Asian Studies Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 256 pp. Hardcover $19.95, ISBN 978-0-231-13382-1.

Translating, especially when the source is a classical Chinese text, constantly presents the author with choices about faithfulness to the original language, clarity in the target language, and appropriateness to the intended audience. Victor Mair has chosen to direct his translation of the Sunzi Bingfa at the nonspecialist. However, the introduction and notes of The Art of War: Sunzi's Military Methods provide content the specialist will also find useful, especially in the context of helping others gain proficiency with the text. This description thus focuses on presenting the contents of Mair's translation topically instead of linearly.

In the preface, Mair mentions that he intends his translation to be "fully accessible to the nonspecialist" (p. xxxiii). He provides a guide to pinyin pronunciation, a small list of important key terms, and, most important, an introduction designed to familiarize the reader with the historical context and comparative [End Page 136] opportunities of the text. From the historical side, Mair covers the history of the author's identity, such as the confusing fusion of Sun Wu and Wu Qi into a single entity. Also included is a traditional approach to the Sunzi biography, as represented by the short biographical story by Sima Qian found in the appendix. Beyond the biography of Master Sun, Mair covers the interplay between the text as an aggregation of military principles of various regions into a single manual and the acceptance of Sun Wu as the author for much of traditional Chinese thought.

The work also includes input from the commentarial tradition surrounding the Sunzi Bingfa. On the third page of his introduction, Mair gives a description of some of the prominent commentators within the tradition. Commentary references are further supplied throughout the notes. He also discusses the place Sunzi Bingfa holds in the Daoist canon, briefly explaining historical and intellectual connections between the two. Commentary references are also supplied throughout the notes. Mair also discusses the place Sunzi Bingfa holds in the Daoist canon, briefly explaining historical and intellectual connections between the two.

Rounding out Mair's coverage of the historical context of the Sunzi, his introduction also includes a brief mention of the technological history of the period. He looks at the historical impact of the Bronze Revolution and Iron Revolution, the use of cavalry, and other uses of technology in warfare to justify dating the text at the beginning of the Warring States period. In addition, he uses technology as the grounds for a comparison with the methods and technology described in Aineias the Technician's work, which was written during the fourth century B.C.E. Though he never commits to the notion of a direct influence by the Sunzi Bingfa on Greco-Roman military tactics, he does present an argument that incites the imagination to engage in a historical comparison. Careful to avoid asserting a common ancestor, he uses the research into the formation of military expertise in one part of the world to offer a possible, and indeed likely, explanation of its formation in another part—namely, through the process of oral circulation and tactical lore congealing into a written text.

An additional set of comparisons takes place in the last section of his introduction, which discusses the influence of the Sunzi Bingfa on the world. The text's transmission is traced through translations into European languages, first done by the Jesuits, and the possible, but very unlikely, influences this had on military commanders such as Napoleon or the Nazi high command. The translated text's role in creating interest in East Asian thought is covered, but unfortunately, this section only takes up debunking influences rather than providing examples of more solid and direct influences on military tactics in the West.

Mair's intention toward the nonspecialist should not cause the specialist to turn away too quickly. The translation itself is extremely clear and his notations are thorough. In addition, his translation methods are transparent...