Understanding the deep implications of certain passages in ‘The Art of War‘ can be challenging for many readers. Explaining further might be necessary.

Regarding the line ‘故兵闻拙速,未睹巧之久也’ from ‘The Art of War – Tactics,’ there have been varied interpretations by different scholars and commentators. Some readers find it hard to grasp.

Notably, Cao Cao commented that ‘even with clumsiness, there’s a way to win swiftly. When we speak of not witnessing skill for a long time, it indicates its absence.’ Du Mu’s interpretation suggests, ‘Although lacking in cleverness, being swift in action is superior.’ These interpretations highlight the role of swift action even in the absence of finesse. Zhang Jingyang’s perspective in ‘Mixed Poems’ aligns with this understanding. However, there have been dissenting views, such as Yu Congyan’s notion that prolonged clumsiness or quickness in itself is impossible.

The notion that ‘skill necessarily involves speed and clumsiness invariably leads to slowness’ might not hold true in every circumstance.

Clumsiness, in this context, implies lack of cleverness and stands in contrast to skillfulness. In ancient Chinese, ‘巧’ held both the connotations of skill and cleverness. ‘大巧若拙’ signifies apparent clumsiness that conceals significant skill. Conversely, some forms of skill might be minor and, when viewed from a broader perspective, could indeed appear clumsy. ‘巧’ in certain contexts could denote mere skillfulness without strategic intelligence, akin to minor proficiency. Sometimes when we call someone shrewd but not clever, it signifies their expertise in minor matters but incompetence in major ones. Hence, clumsiness doesn’t necessarily preclude speed, nor does skill always result in duration; clumsiness with swiftness or skill with longevity aren’t entirely impossible scenarios.

Here, two pairs of interconnected concepts should be noted: skillfulness/clumsiness and duration/speed. Skillfulness or clumsiness pertains to the commander’s subjective qualities, while duration or speed relates to the objective effects of military actions. These pairs intersect, creating four potential scenarios: skilled and swift, skilled and enduring, clumsy and swift, clumsy and enduring. Among these, the ideal is undoubtedly skilled and swift, while the least favorable is clumsy and enduring, a choice people can easily make. The challenge lies in deciding between skilled and enduring versus clumsy and swift. Sun Tzu opted for preferring clumsiness with swiftness over skillfulness leading to endurance, emphasizing the importance of speed in determining the outcome of warfare. His statement isn’t self-contradictory; rather, it underscores the significance of speed in warfare.

However, it should be acknowledged that Sun Tzu’s viewpoint is reasonable yet not comprehensive. He observed the drawbacks of prolonged conflict on a nation’s resources but failed to recognize its potential benefits, both for oneself and the enemy. He didn’t see that prolonged conflict, when the harm inflicted upon the enemy surpasses that upon oneself, could be advantageous. Thus, his outright rejection of duration as a strategy appears one-sided. Figures like Li Shimin and Li Jing of the Tang Dynasty recognized this, proposing strategies of ‘exploiting the weaknesses of endurance’ and ‘prolonging engagements to evade sharpness.’ Later, figures like Yu Dayou advocated for a more elaborate approach, stressing skillfulness without minding delay after unifying the country. Subsequently, leaders like Mao Zedong proposed a synthesis of strategic endurance and swift resolution, indicating an evolving understanding of the laws of warfare.

Concerning ‘倍则分之,敌则能战之,’ interpretations have varied widely. Some suggest dividing the enemy when outnumbering them twice, fighting when the enemy is capable, fleeing when in inferior numbers, and evading when unable. However, this interpretation poses contradictions that are hard to reconcile.

Another interpretation suggests dividing one’s own forces when twice the enemy’s strength and engaging the enemy directly when evenly matched. Yet, this view fails to justify the idea of fighting the enemy directly when evenly matched.

A third interpretation reverses the order, proposing ‘战之’ instead of ‘能战之.’ This version implies ‘fight when outnumbering them twice, divide when capable.’ However, this alteration deviates from the original text significantly.

Examining the text, the absence of ‘能’ (capable) in the first three phrases and its presence in the latter three phrases is crucial. It suggests a distinction. The first three phrases outline general principles of warfare, emphasizing surrounding, attacking, and dividing the enemy to establish a decisive advantage before eliminating them. The subsequent phrases with ‘能’ address the capabilities required of an army: the ability to fight when evenly matched, escape when outnumbered, and evade when at a disadvantage. These capabilities serve as the foundation for the strategic principles outlined earlier, ensuring adaptability even in equal or unfavorable situations.

Finally, regarding ‘践墨随敌,以决战事’ from ‘The Art of War – Nine Situations,’ various interpretations exist. Cao Cao and others stress adherence to principles, adapting to the enemy’s movements to determine battle outcomes. Contrarily, Jia Lin suggests avoiding rigid adherence to rules, adapting plans according to changing circumstances. Another perspective, advocated by Lu Maode, interprets ‘墨’ as ‘默’ (quiet) and ‘践墨’ as ‘默履敌后’ (quietly following behind the enemy). However, this interpretation lacks textual support and logical coherence.

In essence, Sun Tzu’s statement ‘践墨随敌’ represents a dialectical unity between adhering to principles (‘墨’) and adapting to the enemy (‘随敌’). It highlights the necessity of both planning and adaptability in decision-making during warfare. Blindly adhering to plans without flexibility leads to rigidity, while being overly adaptive without any guiding principles results in confusion. Sun Tzu’s principle embodies a balanced approach, where following established principles is necessary, yet adapting to changing circumstances is equally crucial for success in warfare.

Providing a direct, fluid translation into English would require careful consideration and might vary depending on the specific context and target audience. The essence of the original text should be preserved while ensuring clarity and readability for English-speaking readers.