Sun Pin: The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China) Review

Sun Pin: The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China)
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Sun Pin: The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China) ReviewThis 1996 volume in the Ballantine "Classics of Ancient China" series has been allowed to go out of print in its original format, although used copies seem to be readily available. There is a modified (but apparently not revised) 2003 edition under a different title from another publisher (see below). The Ballantine series was notable for offering texts re-edited or re-assessed on the basis of documentation recovered by archeologists in China during the 1970s, instead of the "received" texts handed down over centuries of copying, editing, and Imperial censorship, including some works otherwise lost. They combined up-to-date scholarship with an attractive presentation, popular appeal, and reasonable prices for bilingual volumes on rarefied topics.
For those not familiar with this one already, "Sun Pin ping-fa" was long thought to be a bibliographic ghost, or even a lost forgery, a long-missing supposed counterpart to the existing "Art of War" (Ping-Fa) of the elder Sun (Sun-tzu; in Pinyin transliteration, Bingfa and Sunzi). It was one of the texts described in Han Dynasty bibliographies and histories, but not reliably reported as existing for well over a thousand years, although sometimes quoted in compendia. The conclusions that it probably hadn't existed, or wasn't authentic if there was such a work, and that the supposed citations were worthless, had to be abandoned when substantial fragments of it, and other texts, turned up in 1972, during the excavation of early Han Dynasty tombs.
There have been several other translations of Sun Pin into English during the last decade, but the co-authors of this volume make a distinguished combination of an eminent senior Sinologist, with a long career working with the problems of early literary texts (Lau) and a sophisticated modern interpreter of Chinese intellectual history (Ames). Ames had earlier edited and translated an edition of Sun-tzu for the "Classics of Ancient China" series, which made use of archeologically-recovered ancient copies in addition to the received ("traditional") text, and re-assessed the place of "militarist" thinkers in early Chinese philosophy.
As a result of this collaboration, the reader is assured of first-rate technical scholarship, and clearly-expressed explanations. Their emphases, not unexpectedly, are on textual and linguistic problems, and the place of the text in the development of Chinese military and political theory.
The Ballantine Books production of the volume was outstanding. The Chinese text is presented in traditional vertical format, with as much or little space given it as necessary, and the English translation is presented beginning on a facing page. This leaves a lot of blank space, but it appears fully legible, and for the shorter chapters seems to be conveniently arranged for those able to read early Classical Chinese; the longer ones require flipping back a page or two to compare the original to the translation. A nice set of photographs includes the tombs, period weapons and other equipment, and some examples of the tomb texts as recovered. These last give some indication of the obstacles facing the Chinese scholars who had been given the task of publishing them.
As mentioned above, the Lau and Ames translation is available new (for the moment) as "Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare: A Translation of the Classic Chinese Work of Philosophy and Strategy" in the SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture (State University of New York Press, 2003). So far as I have been able to tell (and reported in my review of it) there were no textual changes in the English text beyond the replacement of Wade-Giles transliterations with Pinyin equivalents, but it was substantially altered in appearance. The English print is smaller, or at least more cramped-looking (reduced leading?). The Chinese text now runs horizontally (although the characters seem larger and more easily distinguishable), and, with white space drastically reduced, the blocks of Chinese alternate with blocks of English on the same page in a manner which may be confusing. (The difference is particularly evident in Part III, "Texts Recovered From Later, Commentarial, Historical, and Encyclopedic Sources," which becomes very crowded and a bit confusing.) The photographs are omitted, except for one used as cover art. As a result, the 367 total pages (including plates) of the Ballantine edition are reduced to just 265.
Of the several other translations of the fragmentary, and in part enigmatic, text of Sun Bin that are now available, "Military Methods of The Art of War" by Ralph D. Sawyer, with the collaboration of Mei-chun Lee Sawyer, published in various formats, may be the most satisfactory alternative, or, better, companion volume. It is somewhat more popular in presentation than Lau and Ames, but the most important difference is the Sawyers' attempt to place the text in the military (and political) history of China (as against Ames on the the history of Chinese military thought), a topic on which they have produced a series of translations and studies, including the monumental "Seven Military Classics of Ancient China," offering the whole "Military Canon" as established in the eleventh century.Sun Pin: The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China) Overview

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