recent milestones for Sino-Platonic Papers

The Web site for Sino-Platonic Papers, Professor Victor Mair’s iconoclastic journal, has expanded to the point that, as of the most recent batch of reissues, it offers more than half of the journal’s 198 (and counting) issues in full and for free. So if you haven’t visited that site recently you might want to have another look.

I’ll mention just a few of the recent additions:

Other recent milestones for SPP include

Below: A chart from SPP 198, Aramaic Script Derivatives in Central Eurasia, by Doug Hitch.
chart of scripts derived from Aramaic. See SPP 198 (the link for this image) for a version of this chart with machine-readable text.

How to learn real Mandarin: an anecdote

The following is a guest post by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

The personal names used in the original correspondence have been changed to generational designations.

Compared to the Hànzì-centric pedagogical approach which forces little children to memorize extremely difficult and complicated characters like 老鼠 and 蝴蝶 instead of teaching them lǎoshǔ and húdié, today I received some more hopeful and sane news.

A friend of mine is teaching her grandson Mandarin. The way she is doing it is to write out the Xī yóu jì (Journey to the West) in a simple báihuà paraphrase using Pinyin only (with glosses in English for new vocabulary). My friend is a first-generation immigrant to America, and her daughter married a German who was studying in the United States, so that makes the grandson third-generation Chinese-American/German.

The other day, the grandson asked his mom out of the blue: “What’s the difference between shíjiān, shídài, and shífèn?” My friend, the grandmother, explained to me that all of these terms were in the Pinyin text that she had prepared for her grandson, and that she had glossed them as “time” or “period.” She said that the boy’s mother was very pleased, and she was tickled too, because the boy had discerned the common element shí by himself. As my friend (the grandmother) put it, “He spends very little time on Chinese, so we were pleasantly surprised.”

Hearing this account from my friend, I wrote to her: “Thank you so much for the TRULY WONDERFUL story you wrote about your grandson. This is how to learn real Chinese!!!! And you are being a real Chinese teacher to teach your grandson this way. And I’m also happy that your daughter appreciates what you and her son are doing together. Tell your grandson I’m really impressed at the intelligence of his question.”

The Art of War: a companion volume

Sonshi, the largest website dedicated to Sun Zi’s (Sun Tzu’s) Art of War, recently selected Victor H. Mair’s new translation as “the #1 Art of War edition.”

In announcing its judgment, the site stated, “how rare a book that courageously stands up to centuries of established thought, proceeds to knock it down with sound logic and proof, and succeeds in convincing even the Old Guard to change their views.”

Professor Mair has just published a free, book-length companion to his translation: Soldierly Methods: Vade Mecum for an Iconoclastic Translation of Sun Zi bingfa, with a complete transcription and word-for-word glosses of the Manchu translation by H. T. Toh (1 MB PDF).

Yes, all that and Manchu too. The appendixes might well supply the longest text in romanized Manchu available online — not to mention the longest one with English translation. (Perhaps someone from Echoes of Manchu can comment.)

And I’d like to note the introduction to the transcription offers a cool word I hadn’t come across before: Mandjurist, which is German for “Manchu philologist.”

Here’s the table of contents:

  • Preface
  • Principles of Translation
  • Guide to Pronunciation
  • Key Terms
  • Abbreviations
  • Discussion
    • The Book and Its Title
    • Authorship
    • Historical Background
    • Dating
    • Stylistics and Statistics
    • Techniques and Technology
    • Taoistic Aspects
    • Eurasian Parallels
    • On the World Stage
    • Notes
  • Appendix I: The Pseudo-Biography of Sun Wu
  • Appendix II: Further Notes on Selected Key Terms
  • Appendix III: Transcription of the Manchu Translation of the Sun Zi with Word-for-Word English Glosses by Hoong Teik Toh
  • Appendix IV: Transcription of the Manchu Translation of the Sun Zi by Hoong Teik Toh
  • Bibliography

This is issue no. 178 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Book reviews, vol. 6

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free its sixth volume of reviews, mainly of books about China and its history and languages (5.6 MB PDF).

The reviews are by David Utz, Xinru Liu, Taylor Carman, Bryan Van Nordan, and Victor H. Mair.


  • Review Article by David A. Utz of Ádám Molnár, Weather-Magic in Inner Asia. With an Appendix, “Alttürkische fragmente über den Regenstein,” by P. Zieme. Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series, 158. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University, 1994.
  • Graham Parkes, ed., Heidegger and Asian Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. Reviewed by Taylor Carman and Bryan Van Norden.
  • Beijing Daxue Nanya Yanjiusuo [Peking University Institute for South Asian Studies], ed. Zhongguo zaiji zhong Nanya shiliao huibian (Collection of South Asian Historical Materials from Chinese Sources). 2 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1995. Reviewed by Xinru Liu.

The following 23 reviews are by the editor of Sino-Platonic Papers.

  • Ronald E. Emmerick and Edwin G. Pulleyblank. A Chinese Text in Central Asian Brahmi Script: New Evidence for the Pronunciation of Late Middle Chinese and Khotanese. Serie Orientale Roma, LXIX. Rome: lstituto ltaliano per ii Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1993.
  • YIN Binyong and SU Peicheng, eds. Kexuede pingjia Hanyu hanzi [Scientifically Appraise Sinitic and Sinographs]. Zhongguo yuwen xiandaihua congshu (Chinese Language Modernization Series), 1. Peking: Huayu Jiaoxue Chubanshe (Sinolingua), 1994.
  • WU Chang’an. Wenzi de toushi — Hanzi lunheng [A Perspective on Culture — Balanced Discussions on the Sinographs]. Wenhua Yuyanxue Congshu [Cultural Linguistics Series]. N.p. (Changchun?): Jilin Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1995.
  • ZHOU Shilie, comp. Tongxingci cidian [Dictionary of Homographs]. Peking: Zhongguo Guoji Guangbo Chubanshe, 1995. (Reviewed twice from different perspectives in the same issue.)
  • KANG Yin. Wenzi Yuanliu Qianshi (The Origin and Development of Chinese Ideographs) (sic). N.p.: Guoji Wenhua Chubanshe, 1992.
  • DUAN Kailian. Zhongguo minjian fangyan cidian [A Dictionary of Chinese Folk Topolecticisms]. Haikou: Nanhai chuban gongsi, 1994.
  • CHANG Xizhen, comp. Beiping tuhua [Peking Colloquialisms]. Taipei: Shenge Shiye Youxian Gongsi Chubanshe, 1990.
  • ZHANG Xunru. Beiping yinxi xiaoche bian [A Compilation of Words with “er” Suffix in Pekingese]. Taipei: Taiwan Kaiming, 1991; 2nd Taiwan ed.; 1956, first Taiwan ed.
  • LI Sijing. Hanyu “er” [] yin shi yanjiu [Studies on the History of the “er” [] Sound in Sinitic]. Taipei: Taiwan Shangwu, 1994.
  • Erdengtai, Wuyundalai, and Asalatu. Menggu mishi cihui xuanshi [Selected Explanations of Lexical Items in The Secret History of the Mongols]. Mengguzu lishi congshu [Series on the History of the Mongolian People]. Hohhot: Neimenggu Renrnin Chubanshe, 1980; 1991 rpt.
  • Matthews, Stephen and Virginia Yip. Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge Grammars. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Killingley, Siew-Yue. Cantonese. Languages of the World / Materials 06. München-Newcastle: Lincom Europa, 1993.
  • ZHONG Jingwen, chief ed. Yuhai (An Encyclopedia of Chinese Folk Language), Vol. 1: Mimiyu (Chinese Secret Language). Vol. editors ZHENG Shuoren and CHEN Qi. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, 1994.
  • Harrell, Stevan, ed. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1995.
  • Woo, Henry K. H. The Making of a New Chinese Mind: Intellectuality and the Future of China. Hong Kong: China Foundation, 1993.
  • Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Translated by GUO Xu, Lucien Miller, and XU Kun. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1994.
  • Hoizey, Dominique and Marie-Joseph Hoizey. A History of Chinese Medicine. Tr. by Paul Bailey. Vancouver: UBC Press; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.
  • Crystal, David. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages. London: Penguin, 1992, 1994.
  • Day, Gordon M. Western Abenaki Dictionary. Vol. 1: Abenaki-English. Vol. 2: English-Abenaki. Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service, Papers 128 and 129. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994-95.
  • Hassrick, Peter H. The Frederic Remington Studio. Cody, Wyoming: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in association with University of Washington Press (Seattle, London), 1994.
  • Jonaitis, Aldona, ed. Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press; New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1991.
  • Jerry L. Norman and W. South Coblin. “A New Approach to Chinese Historical Linguistics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 115.4 (1995),576-584.

Bits and Pieces

  • Letter concerning An Zhimin’s views on the origins of bronze metallurgy in China.
  • “Yet again on Tibet.” This is one in a continuing series of discussions with Edwin G. Pulleyblank, W. South Coblin, and others on the origins of the name “Tibet”.

This was first published in February 1996 as issue no. 70 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Mandarin newspaper with Pinyin

Victor Mair’s latest post at Language Log introduces a new U.S.-based newspaper, the Huayu Xuebao (Mandarin Learning Newspaper, ????), which is similar to Taiwan’s Guoyu Ribao (Mandarin Daily News), the main difference being the former uses Hanyu Pinyin while the latter uses zhuyin fuhao (bopo mofo).

Well, actually the Huayu Xuebao doesn’t use proper Pinyin (see recent remarks). But I’m so happy to see this long-needed paper that I’ll hold my tongue for now.

Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t have its Web site ready yet — not that the long-established Guoyu Ribao is much better at that, at least when it comes to texts as they appear in the newspaper. So, for more information about the Huayu Xuebao, write learningnewspaper [AT] or phone +1-201-288-9188 (New Jersey).

There’s also a sample issue.

source: How to learn to read Chinese, Language Log, May 25, 2008

Book reviews, vol. 5

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased for free its fifth volume of reviews, mainly of books about China and its history and languages (11.6 MB PDF).

Even if you have no particular interest in the specific works reviewed, I recommend at least browsing through this and all of the other volumes of reviews from Sino-Platonic Papers, as they often feature Victor Mair at his most direct and entertaining about a wide range of subjects.

Table of Contents:

  • Review Article: The Present State and Future Prospects of Pre-Han Text Studies. A review of Michael Loewe, ed., Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Reviewed by E. Bruce Brooks, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

N.B.: The following 29 reviews are by the editor of Sino-Platonic Papers.

  • Roger T. Ames, Chan Sin-wai, and Mau-sang Ng, eds. Interpreting Culture through Translation: A Festschrift for D. C. Lau.
  • Sau Y. Chan. Improvisation in a Ritual Context: The Music of Cantonese Opera.
  • CHANG Xizhen. Beijing Tuhua [Pekingese Colloquial].
  • CHANG/AIXINJUELUO Yingsheng [AISINGIORO *Yingsheng]. Beijing Tuhua zhong de Manyu [Manchurian in Pekingese Colloquial].
  • BAI Gong and JIN Shan. Jing Wei’er: Toushi Beijingren de Yuyan [“Capital Flavor”: A Perspective on the Language of the Pekingese].
  • JIA Caizhu, comp. Beijinghua Erhua Cidian [Dictionary of Retroflex Final-r in Pekingese].
  • Julia Ching and R. W .L. Guisso, eds. Sages and Sons: Mythology and Archaeology in Ancient China.
  • FENG Zhiwei. Xiandai Hanzi he Jisuanji (Modern Chinese Characters and Electronic Computers).
  • FENG Zhiwei. Zhongwen Xinxi Chuli yu Hanyu Yanjiu [Chinese Information Processing and Research on Sinitic].
  • Andre Gunder Frank. The Centrality of Central Asia.
  • HUANG Jungui. Hanzi yu Hanzi Paijian Fangfa [Sinographs and Methods for Ordering and Looking up Sinographs].
  • W. J. F. Jenner. The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis.
  • Adam T. Kessler. Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Genghis Khan.
  • David R. McCraw. Du Fu’s Laments from the South.
  • Michael Nylan, tr. and comm. The Canon of Supreme Mystery, by Yang Hsiung.
  • R. P. Peerenboom. Law and Morality in Ancient China: The Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao.
  • Henry G. Schwarz. An Uyghur-English Dictionary.
  • Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed. Dene-Sino-Caucasian Languages.
  • Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed. Nostratic, Dene-Caucasian, Austric and Amerind.
  • Laurence G. Thompson, comp. Studies of Chinese Religion: A Comprehensive and Classified Bibliography of Publications in English, French, and German through 1970.
  • Laurence G. Thompson, comp. Chinese Religion in Western Languages: A Comprehensive and Classified Bibliography of Publications in English, French, and German through 1980.
  • Laurence G. Thompson, comp. Chinese Religion: Publications in Western Languages, 1981 through 1990.
  • Aat Vervoorn. Men of the Cliffs and Caves: The Development of the Chinese Eremitic Tradition to the End of the Han Dynasty.
  • WANG Jiting, ZHANG Shaoting, and WANG Suorong, comp. Changjian Wenyan Shumianyu [Frequently Encountered Literary Sinitic Expressions in Written Language].
  • John Timothy Wixted. Japanese Scholars of China: A Bibliographical Handbook.
  • YÜ Lung-yü, ed. Chung-Yin wen-hsüeh kuan-hsi yüan-liu [The Origin and Development of Sino-Indian Literary Relations].
  • ZHANG Guangda and RONG Xinjiang. Yutian Shi Congkao [Collected Inquiries on the History of Khotan].
  • ZHANG Yongyan, chief ed. Shishuo Xinxu Cidian [A Dictionary of A New Account of Tales of the World].
  • Peter H. Rushton. The Jin Ping Mei and the Non-Linear Dimensions of the Traditional Chinese Novel.

  • William H. Baxter, A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Reviewed by Paul Rakita Goldin, Harvard University.
  • JI Xianlin (aka Hiän-lin Dschi). Dunhuang Tulufan Tuhuoluoyu Yanjiu Daolun [A Guide to Tocharian Language Materials from Dunhuang and Turfan]. Reviewed by XU Wenkan, Hanyu Da Cidian editorial offices in Shanghai.
  • GU Zhengmei. Guishuang Fojiao Zhengzhi Chuantong yu Dasheng Fojiao [The Political Tradition of Kushan Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism]. Reviewed by XU Wenkan, Hanyu Da Cidian editorial offices in Shanghai.
  • W. South Coblin, University of Iowa. A Note on the Modern Readings of 土蕃.
  • Rejoinder by the Editor.
  • Announcement concerning the inauguration of a new series in Sino-Platonic Papers entitled “Bits and Pieces.”

This work also continues the discussion regarding the Chinese characters “??” and Tibet.

This was first published in July 1994 as issue no. 46 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Introduction and notes for the Tao Te Ching

Victor Mair’s translation of the Tao Te Ching has certainly more than earned its place in a crowded field. Mair’s introduction and notes to the Tao Te Ching (Dàodéj?ng, to give the Pinyin form) are now available for free as part of the rereleases of the journal he edits, Sino-Platonic Papers.

Here’s the link: [The] File [on the Cosmic] Track [and Individual] Dough[tiness]: Introduction and Notes for a Translation of the Ma-wang-tui Manuscripts of the Lao Tzu [Old Master] (6.4 MB PDF). The work explains the reasons for this odd title, and in the process provides all sorts of linguistic and other goodness. This is well worth reading.

Here is how it begins:

Next to the Bible and the Bhagavad Gītā (BG), the Tao Te Ching is the most translated book in the world. Well over a hundred different renditions of the Taoist classic have been made into English alone, not to mention the dozens in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Latin, and other European languages. There are several reasons for the superabundance of translations. The first is that the Tao Te Ching is considered to be the fundamental text of both philosophical and religious Taoism. Indeed, the Tao or Way, which is at the heart of the Tao Te Ching, is also the centerpiece of all Chinese religion and thought. Naturally, the different schools and sects each bring a somewhat different slant to the Tao, but all subscribe to the notion that there is a single, overarching Way that encompasses everything in the universe. As such, the Tao Te Ching shares crucial points of similarity with other major religious scriptures the world over.

The second reason for the popularity of the Tao Te Ching is its brevity. There are few bona fide classics that are so short, yet so packed with food for thought. One can read and reread the Tao Te Ching over and over scores of times without exhausting the insights it offers.

The third aspect which accounts for the wide repute of the Tao Te Ching is the fact that it is supposedly “very easy to understand” (LXX.2 and see the note thereto) when actually it is exceedingly impenetrable. Paradox is the essence of the Tao Te Ching, so much so that even scholars with a solid grounding in Classical Chinese cannot be sure they have grasped what the Old Master is really saying in his pithy maxims. This deceptive ease which masks tortuous difficulty is both a challenge and an invitation, a challenge to the honest scholar and an invitation to the charlatan. Since no one can fully plumb the profundity of the Tao Te Ching, even the amateur cannot be held responsible for misrepresenting it. Hence the plethora of translations, many by individuals who command not one iota of any Chinese language. In the words of the eminent Dutch Sinologist, J.J.L. Duyvendak:

Not only do translations made by competent Sinologues vary considerably, but there also exists a multitude of so-called translations made by people who try to make up for their entirely imaginary or extremely elementary knowledge of classical Chinese by philosophical speculations which often are completely foreign to the Chinese spirit. With due acknowledgement of the interest which this Chinese classic has been able to arouse in a large circle, one cannot help regretting that the Tao-tê-ching has thus become the object of the worst dilettantism.

It is precisely because of my annoyance at the sheer presumptuousness of those who pretended to convey the words of the Old Master to others, when they themselves had not the slightest idea how to read them, that I vowed two decades ago I would never be so bold as to add my own voice to the cacophonous chorus of Tao Te Ching paraphrasts. Two unexpected and celebrated events, however, conspired to make me recant. One was the egregiously large advance and effusive national publicity awarded to an absolute tyro a couple of years ago who dared to dabble with the daunting Tao Te Ching. Although the individual concerned will remain mercifully unnamed, I felt duty bound to reclaim translation of the Tao Te Ching as the proper province of the conscientious Sinologist.

The other prod was the recent discovery of two ancient manuscripts in China which made it possible to produce a totally new translation of the Tao Te Ching far more accurate and reliable than any that has hitherto been published. This is the first translation of the Tao Te Ching based from its very inception wholly on these newly found manuscripts. The manuscripts came from a place in central China called Ma-wang-tui, not far south of the Yangtze River….

Above I expanded Mair’s acronym of TTC for Tao Te Ching.

This was first published in October 1990 as issue no. 20 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

The Art of War: a new translation

cover illustration for 'The Art of War', translated by Victor H. MairColumbia University Press recently published what I hope will become recognized as the standard English translation of the Art of War (Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ / 孫子兵法). This is by my friend Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies.

With the permission of the author and publisher, I offer below two excerpts from this work.

But first a bit of information from the publisher’s page for this title.

Victor Mair’s translation is the first to remain true to the original structure and essential style of the text.

Mair’s fidelity to the original, along with his insightful commentary and reliance on archaeologically recovered manuscripts, breaks new ground in solving The Art of War‘s difficult textual and contextual problems. He confronts complex questions concerning the authorship of the work, asserting that Sun Wu, a supposed strategist of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.E.) to whom the text is traditionally attributed, never existed. Instead, Mair claims that The Art of War coalesced over a period of around seventy-five years, from the middle of the fourth century to the first quarter of the third century B.C.E.

Mair also reveals the way The Art of War reflects historical developments in technological and military strategy in civilizations throughout Eurasia, especially in regards to iron metallurgy. He demonstrates the close link between the philosophy in The Art of War and Taoism and discusses the reception of the text from the classical period to today. Finally, Mair highlights previously unaddressed stylistic and statistical aspects and includes philological annotations that present new ways of approaching the intellectual and social background of the work.

The book also features a foreword by Arthur Waldron that compares and contrasts Sun Zi and Clausewitz (1780-1831).

For those who would rather read the selections below in the original format, they are also available as PDFs:

Please note that at the time of this writing, Amazon’s “search inside” function for this book is screwed up. Instead it uses someone else’s translation. So don’t order what is listed on that site as the paperback edition; because it is the wrong book. (As of February 2008 there is no paperback of Mair’s translation.) But ordering what Amazon lists as the hardback should get you the correct book (ISBN: 978-0-231-13382-1). Or order directly from the publisher should your local bookstores not have this in stock.

OK, now here are the excerpts I promised.

Key Terms

Here are highlighted only several of the more important words and subtle concepts used in the book. Other technical terms and proper nouns are defined in the notes or in the introduction. For a superb handbook of basic Chinese philosophical terms, including many that are featured in the Sun Zi, see Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden.

From The Art of War: Sun Zi’s Military Methods, translated by Victor H. Mair, © 2007 by Columbia University Press. Used by permission of Columbia University Press.

[Webmaster’s note: As Mair notes elsewhere, giving the pronunciations in Pinyin for Modern Standard Mandarin is “purely a convention of modern scholarship and does not reflect at all the pronunciation of Sinitic during the late Warring States period when this text was compiled.”]

bian. Variation, variety, transformation.

bing. The earliest form of the character used to write this word depicts two arms holding up an adze. The basic idea conveyed by this graph subsequently developed from the concrete and limited to the more general and abstract: weapon ? soldier ? troops ? war.

fa. Law, method, model.

bingfa. The combination of the previous two terms, it is usually rendered as “art of war” in English but may more literally be rendered as “soldierly methods,” “military methods,” etc. For further discussion of bingfa, see the introduction, n. 2.

gui. Deceit, deception; something contrary to the norm.

j?. Pivot, moment of change (functions somewhat like a tipping point); the instant just before a new development or shift occurs; the nodal point of a situation in flux. J? also refers to the first, imperceptible beginning of movement in an unstable situation. In organic metaphors, it means “seed, germ.” The sage or superior man can recognize the immanence or incipience of these crucial moments before they become manifest to others. It cannot be stressed too heavily that j? by itself does not mean “opportunity” nor does it mean “crisis,” although it is closer to the latter than to the former because of the extreme instability of a given situation and the unforeseen consequences that may follow.

. Count, calculate; plan; intention. Another word in the Sun Zi sometimes rendered as “plan” is mou (as in the title of chap. 3), though it tends more in the direction of “scheme” or “counsel.” Depending upon the context, and mou may also convey the idea of “strategy” or “stratagem.”

l?. A traditional measure of length equivalent to 300 paces (hence “tricent” in English). It is easy to think of how long a tricent is (about a third of a mile) by recalling that the English word “mile” is derived from Latin milia, millia (“a thousand [paces]”). For those who are not familiar with miles, a tricent is equal to approximately half a kilometer.

. Advantage, benefit; profit, interest (the basic meaning is “sharp,” which is why the character used to write it has a “knife” radical).

mou. See .

. Unformed, energetic substrate of matter; material energy; the primal “stuff ” of the universe; configural energy. In the Sun Zi, it usually refers to the vital force, energy, or morale of the men in the army. For more information on and its metaphysical implications, see Mair (1990:137–38) and Zhang (2002:45–63).

. See zheng.

quan. Power, expedient (assessment)—exerted by the commander in the field. The literal meaning of the morpheme is “horizontal balance,” hence “weigh, judge, (exert) power / authority.” Quan is often associated with bian or (qq.v.).

shi. Configuration, circumstances, efficacy, inertia, power / force (of circumstances), authority, (strategic / positional) advantage. The subject of chap. 5, but also discussed elsewhere in the text, this is one of the key concepts of the Sun Zi. It is also one of the most ineffable.

tianxia. All under heaven, i.e., the empire (writ large).

wen. Civil, culture (contrasts with wu). The evolution of the primary meanings of the graph used to write this word, in simplest terms, is as follows: tattoo ? pattern ? culture / civilization / writing. The earliest meaning of wen as “tattoo” still survives in the expression wen shen (“tattoo the body”). By the time of the Warring States period, however, when the Sun Zi was written, tattooing had become a form of punishment, and different words were used to refer to it, wen itself having transmuted into one of the most exalted terms in the language. See chapter 9, n. 12 and the biography of Sun Bin in the introduction.

wu. Martial, military (contrasts with wen). The character used to write this word shows a shafted weapon and a foot, i.e., a man going off to fight in a war.

xing. Form, shape, disposition. One of the most important tactical concepts in the Sun Zi, it occurs with particularly high frequency in chapter 6, where it means mainly the arrangement of forces, and in chapter 10, where it signifies different types of terrain. There is another word, meaning “punishment,” that is pronounced exactly alike (xing) and is written with a very similar character that one might well expect to find in a work of strategy such as the Sun Zi, but it does not occur even once. The xing meaning “form, shape, disposition” occurs a total of thirty-one times in the Sun Zi. In stark contrast, the xing meaning “punishment” occurs a total of twenty-four times in the Wei Liao Zi, a work which has very little to say about the xing meaning “form, shape, disposition.” Thus the Sun Zi and the Wei Liao Zi, which probably coalesced at approximately the same time (the second half of the fourth century and the early third century, though with the Wei Liao Zi being slightly later) may be said to be in mutual complementarity with regard to the advocacy of these two key concepts of strategy. Clearly the Sun Zi is concerned with tactics but not punishment, and vice versa for the Wei Liao Zi. Similar analyses could be carried out for other principal concepts in all of the extant military treatises from the Warring States and Han periods.

zhan. Battle; specific military actions and engagements, in contrast to bing (q.v.), which is more general and abstract.

zheng. Used in combination with to signify contrasting types of warfare; variously translated as “direct / indirect,” “regular / irregular,” “conventional / unconventional,” “orthodox / unorthodox,” “ordinary / extraordinary,” and so forth. Of these two terms, the more difficult to grasp is , which may be thought of as signifying “odd, strange, singular, unique, craft(y)” or whatever is not zheng (“straight, upright, correct, right, orthodox, normative,” etc). In purely military applications, may be thought of as “special operations” or “unconventional warfare,” whereas zheng are main force deployments and maneuvers. The counterposing of and zheng was not restricted merely to military operations but was applied to politics and morality as well:

Rule the state with uprightness,
Deploy your troops with craft
Gain all under heaven with noninterference.
(Tao te Ching / Dao de jing, 57)

When there is no uprightness,
correct reverts to crafty,
good reverts to gruesome.
(Tao te Ching / Dao de jing, 58)

Nine1 Varieties2

This chapter addresses the question of responding deftly to contingencies and advises awareness of both the advantages and the disadvantages of any action that might be contemplated. The principle of preparedness is proposed as the surest way to avoid disaster.

Master Sun said,
The method of waging war is ordinarily that the general receives a mandate from the ruler, then assembles the army and brings together the masses. He does not encamp on unfavorable terrain; he joins with allies at terrain having a crossroads; he does not linger on forsaken terrain; he devises plans to extricate his forces from surrounded terrain; if he finds himself on desperate terrain he does battle.

There are paths that he does not take; there are armies that he does not strike; there are cities that he does not attack; there are terrains that he does not contest; there are ruler’s orders that he does not accept.3

the general who is versed in the advantages4 of the nine varieties of terrain5 knows how to wage war; the general who is not versed in the advantages of the nine varieties, although he may know the types of terrain, cannot gain the advantages of the terrain. If one prosecutes war without knowing the techniques of the nine varieties, although one may know the five advantages,6 one will not be able to gain the use of one’s men.

For this reason,
in his considerations, he who is wise must pay attention both to advantage and to disadvantage. By paying attention to advantage, his affairs will proceed with assurance; by paying attention to disadvantage, his troubles will be resolved.

For this reason,
that which causes the feudal lords to submit is disadvantage; that which causes the feudal lords to serve is encumbrance; that which causes the feudal lords to give allegiance is advantage.

the method of waging war is not to rely upon the enemy’s not coming, but to rely upon my waiting in readiness for him; it is not to rely upon the enemy’s not attacking, but to rely upon making myself invulnerable to attack.

there are five fatal flaws in a general: recklessness, for he may be killed by the enemy; timidity, for he may be captured by the enemy; irascibility, for he may be provoked by the enemy; incorruptibility, for he may be insulted by the enemy; solicitousness, for he may be made anxious by the enemy. In all of these respects, if a general overdoes them, it will be disastrous for waging war.

The overthrow of an enemy and the killing of a general are the inevitable consequences of these five fatal flaws. They cannot be left unexamined.7


  1. There is vast controversy among Chinese commentators over the significance of “nine” in the title. Some say that it only means “a large number of,” while others contend that it literally means “nine.” In either case, there have been many proposals put forward for which particular group of nine (or many) items is intended. After careful study, the reader is invited to suggest his or her own set of nine (or many) variations. A good place to begin might be to look at chapter 11, “Nine Types of Terrain,” with which the present chapter
    shares considerable overlap and resonance.
    Wang Xi: “I claim that ‘nine’ is simply a very large number. The method of waging war requires infinite variations.”
    Zhang Yu: “‘Variation’ is the method of not being constrained by constancy. This implies that, when one is confronting an evolving situation [i.e., something that is happening], one should follow what is appropriate and act accordingly. Whenever one is struggling with someone else for advantage, it is necessary to know the nine varieties of terrain. Therefore, this chapter comes after ‘The Struggle of Armies.'”
  2. The term bian may be more literally rendered as “transformations.” However, no single translation of bian is suitable for this chapter, since the term is applied to widely different phenomena, including “alternatives” and “contingencies,” aside from “varieties” and “transformations.”
  3. The Yinque Shan bamboo strip manuscripts (pp. 98-99) include a commentary on these five exclusionary (“that he does not”) clauses. The commentary emphasizes and explains the specific conditions under which a general may choose not to carry out certain (viz., the first four) courses of action that he would normally be expected to take. The fifth exclusionary clause subsumes the preceding four clauses: “When the ruler’s orders contravene these four contingencies, they are not to be carried out.”
  4. And disadvantages, of course.
  5. This word is missing in the Song-period Wu jing qi shu (Seven military classics) and Taiping yulan (Imperial survey of the Great Peace [reign period]) editions of the text.
  6. This probably refers to the advantages deriving from the exclusionary clauses iterated above and discussed in n. 3.
  7. Since it appears so frequently at the conclusion of a passage, the injunction “they cannot be left unexamined” would appear to be a formulaic expression in the rhetoric of the period.

Other works by Mair published by Columbia University Press include The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, and The Columbia History of Chinese Literature.