- The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War by Andrew Seth Meyer
In 2010, Columbia University Press’s Translations from the Asian Classics series published, for the first time in English, a complete translation of The Huananzi (translated and edited by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer, and Harold D. Roth), an important syncretic work compiled early in the Han dynasty by Liu An, a member of the Han ruling family. Heretofore, only individual chapters [End Page 473] of this massive work had been available to the English reader. Surprisingly, the “Binglüe” chapter (“An Overview of the Military”) was not one of those chapters—surprising, because the marketability of early Chinese military texts in translation and the relatively short and straightforward nature of the “Binglüe” make this chapter a prime candidate for independent treatment. Now Meyer’s translation of this chapter has been made available as a separate book, The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War. While the publisher likely views the separate publication of the “Binglüe” justifiable on strictly economic terms, in reviewing this slim book, one must ask if there are other good reasons to consider buying Meyer’s independent translation rather than, or in addition to, the full translation of the Huananzi. The answer to this will depend largely on the value one assigns to the book’s long introduction, which is unique to The Dao of the Military. Meyer’s introduction runs to seventy-six pages, not including endnotes, and covers a broad spectrum of issues that help to put the “Binglüe” into context. The translation of the text itself fills only forty-nine pages, including a few relatively sparse footnotes.
Meyer’s long introduction is a welcome addition to the English-language literature on early Chinese military texts; in spite of some criticisms that follow below, I believe that his approach will prove useful in how we understand and teach this genre. The author situates the “Binglüe” in both the broader intellectual history of such texts and in the intellectual framework of the Huananzi itself. Both contexts are crucial to making sense of the “Binglüe,” in part because the work appears late in the history of the genre, on the heels of the establishment of empire, which fundamentally changed the social and political world within which military texts were received and transmitted. The continued success of the genre of military texts, which seem initially to have been integrally tied to the social structures and political values of the Warring States era, and their survival into the imperial period, is one of the great untold stories of Han social and intellectual history. Meyer has grasped the importance of the “Binglüe” in illuminating some of the details of this story, and his introduction takes steps to illustrate how the parameters of the old genre of military texts could be reconfigured to articulate the new ideological needs of a unified empire.
As noted above, to get at such problems, Meyer sets out in his introduction to explore various social and intellectual contexts within which we might situate the “Binglüe.” First he addresses the genre of military texts, focusing on the Sunzi text as representative of the Warring States–era works that defined the category. Later, he turns to situating the “Binglüe” within the early history of Daoism. These two sections, which together constitute a study of the intellectual context of the work, are separated by a discussion of the chapter’s relation to the Huananzi as a whole and that text’s relationship to its patron’s political position and career.
I find the first and final sections, on military texts broadly and then on Daoism, respectively, somewhat divergent. In the latter, Meyer eschews a simplistic, reductionist approach to the question of what exactly Daoism was during...