Sun Tzu's Approach to Language


Though ancient Chinese is difficult, Sun Tzu took a very scientific approach to his work. He carefully defines his terms throughout the work. He does this because he understood certain concepts differently than those with other philosophies in his era.

Unfortunately, most translators are not familiar with this approach. Most instead gravitate toward the "standard" meaning of characters, generally ignoring his specific definitions. Many explain Sun Tzu's meaning strictly in the terms of the modern usage of characters, ignoring the many differences in the ancient characters.

Sun Tzu also relies heavily on analogies and connections from the classical elements of Chinese science. Language skills depend on cultural understanding and, in this case, specifically the philosophical ideas of the period. Again, few translators seem to appreciate the importantance of this. In one sense, the entire work might be considered a definition of conceptual ideas and the formal relationships relating to the scientific and philosophical concepts of the era and outside of that context, it makes little sense. This is why we describe his work more as formulas than English sentences. As much as possible, every mention of a concept depends on former discussion of the same idea or upon the historical relationships within traditional Chinese philosophy.

For example, when we read

Sharp soldiers do not attack,

we are tempted to think of "attack" in the English sense of the word, which is used interchangeably with other words such as "fight," "battle," "conflict," and so on. But Sun Tzu uses different characters in different ways for all these concepts, and he uses them rigorously and consistently. The above phrase wouldn't make sense if the character for "battle" was inserted into it, even though the meaning would be little changed in English. Even the term "sharp soldiers" has been previously defined at this point in the text (or, more precisely, its opposite, "dull soldiers").

These relationships become even more complicated when Sun Tzu refers to traditional connections in Chinese science. All the natural objects to which he refers in the text—lakes, thunder, forests, fire, metal, taste, music, and so on—have a place in the natural order as defined by Chinese tradition. Without understanding these connections, much of The Art of War will seem vague and poetic. We have written much more about these connections here.

The precision of Sun Tzu's usage regarding concepts and context is why we feel it is more accurate to describe his work as "formulas" rather than anything like English sentences. Compare the way he defines his terms, for example, to Euclid's Geometry, and you will see how similar the two works are in design and approach despite the difference of language.

While Sun Tzu wrote in a very precise manner, the hundreds of commentaries added to his work lack that same precision. Even worse, in English the translator's commentary is usually disguised as translation.

Sun Tzu wrote in a very precise and consistent way. The text of the thirteen chapters runs to something over thirteen thousand Chinese characters, by Griffith’s count. Ames wanted to add even more phrases to the original.

Any given phrase, like this one we have used before,

Sharp soldiers do not attack,

can be interpreted in very different ways. Does it mean "Smart soldiers do not attack others" or "Do not attack smart soldiers"? Or does it mean both? The answer is found only through careful study of what Sun Tzu says about these two concepts, "attack" and "smart soldiers," elsewhere in his work.

The Sun Tzu System of Competition

Gagliardi teaches that simply reading an English translation of the text of the book is very misleading. (Even the Chinese translate the work into contemporary language.) After studying the original Chinese for years and practicing the competitive methods it teaches for decades, he realized that the text was written in a kind of shorthand for those who already understood Sun Tzu's basic system of strategy and how it used the framework of traditional Chinese philosophy.

More importantly, Gagliardi discovered that much of Sun Tzu's writing refers to diagrams used by the Chinese in classical science. Sun Tzu's system is less about objects than their relationships, and less about actions than processes. The Chinese system of diagramming captures relationships and processes. People today may be familiar with Chinese nature diagrams from feng-shui. From a close reading of Sun Tzu, Gagliardi replaced the classical elements in those diagrams with the elements that Sun Tzu describes, creating the key to transforming a collection of vague aphorisms into a rigorous system. He explained this diagramming first in his award-winning Amazing Secrets book and later in his training seminars.

The Key Is Understanding Sun Tzu's System!

Gagliardi, in making his translation, had the previous academic work to build on, but he had something more. He had first mastered Sun Tzu's system of competition in real life. His success in business using Sun Tzu's system was as real as Sun Tzu's own success on the battlefield. After that, translating the system into English and into different business disciplines was easy. After working on a variety of translations, he was able to completely reconstruct Sun Tzu's system of competition so that it can be used today.