Sun Tzu, Hillary Clinton, and Depth of Meaning

Allan Elder sent me this news story about Hillary's recent visit to Beijiing and quoting Sun Tzu regarding our shared danger in the current crisis. The story expresses the quote from Sun Tzu as tongchuan gongji, which probably means literally "together-boat work-river." (Probably because it is impossible to translate Chinese from phonetic representation as opposed to Chinese characters.) This is the shorten proverbial form of the saying, not what actually Sun Tzu wrote.

I am guessing that the gong of the proverb is not the gong used by Sun Tzu. The character, gong, that means "work" was not used by Sun Tzu. There are about a dozen characters that are represented as "gong" in Pinyin, but the only one of these that Sun Tzu used extensively was that gong character that means "attack," not the one that means "work." For a variety of reasons dealing with the differences between Sun Tzu's concept and our concept of attack, that character does not work here.

The phase with which Wen responds to Clinton, xieshou gongjin, is likely a proverbial reference to the following line from Sun Tzu, which is an indication that Wen knows his Bing-Fa extremely well, at least in proverbial form. Again, I say "likely" because the character for "hand," (shou) is only used twice in the text, once in the following line. Just guessing again based upon the Pinyin and without the source characters, the proverb probably literally means "harmonious-hands, work-advance."

The last part of these proverbs create a close rhyme (gongji, gongjin). In oral cultures, rhymes were often used to help people remember ideas. Since Sun Tzu's text was banned to the common people for about two thousand years, this demonstrates how his ideas were passed down in proverbs.

You can see the original Chinese verse, their characters, and their transliteration in our Art of War the Ancient Chinese Revealed book (Chapter 11, Block 4, Verse 3.) We translate it into normal English sentences as:

To command and get the most out of proud people, you must study adversity.
People work together when they are in the same boat during a storm.
In this situation, one rescues the other just as the right hand helps the left.

You can sense from this that the original Chinese is a lot more complicated than proverbial phrases of four characters. Sun Tzu's actual phrases range in this verse range from seven to nine characters.

The immediate context of the verse is a discussion of how adversity brings people together, allowing them to act as one. In Sun Tzu system, unity is strength so adversity naturally creates strength. Sun Tzu's point in this section is that, as a leader, we must be able to see the value in adversity in bringing people together.

The larger context of the chapter is about knowing immediately how to respond to a specific situation. The chapter goes through a series of nine common situations and how to respond to them. This specific section of the chapter deals with instantly recognizing and responding to these challenges.

Certainly, this context indicates that Hillary was using the phrase and its context correctly while the author of this article was really reaching to find a problem with quoting it.