The Art of War (Sun)/The Commentators

The Commentators.

Sun Tzŭ can boast an exceptionally long and distinguished roll of commentators, which would do honour to any classic. 歐陽修 Ou-yang Hsiu remarks on this fact, though he wrote before the tale was complete, and rather ingeniously explains it by saying that the artifices of war, being inexhaustible, must therefore be susceptible of treatment in a great variety of ways.[1]

1. 曹操 Ts‘ao Ts‘ao or 曹公 Ts‘ao Kung, afterwards known as 魏武帝 Wei Wu Ti [A.D. 155—220]. There is hardly any room for doubt that the earliest commentary on Sun Tzŭ actually came from the pen of this extraordinary man, whose biography in the San Kuo Chih[2] reads like a romance. One of the greatest military geniuses that the world has seen, and Napoleonic in the scale of his operations, he was especially famed for the marvellous rapidity of his marches, which has found expression in the line 說曹操曹操就到 “Talk of Ts‘ao Ts‘ao, and Ts‘ao Ts‘ao will appear.” Ou-yang Hsiu says of him that he was a great captain who “measured his strength against Tung Cho, Lü Pu and the two Yüan, father and son, and vanquished them all; whereupon he divided the Empire of Han with Wu and Shu, and made himself king. It is recorded that whenever a council of war was held by Wei on the eve of a far-reaching campaign, he had all his calculations ready; those generals who made use of them did not lose one battle in ten; those who ran counter to them in any particular saw their armies incontinently beaten and put to flight.”[3] Ts‘ao Kung’s notes on Sun Tzŭ, models of austere brevity, are so thoroughly characteristic of the stern commander known to history, that it is hard indeed to conceive of them as the work of a mere littérateur. Sometimes, indeed, owing to extreme compression, they are scarcely intelligible and stand no less in need of a commentary than the text itself.[4] As we have seen, Ts‘ao Kung is the reputed author of the 新書, a book on war in 100,000 odd words, now lost, but mentioned in the 魏志.[5]

2. 孟氏 Mêng Shih. The commentary which has come down to us under this name is comparatively meagre, and nothing about the author is known. Even his personal name has not been recorded. Chi T‘ien-pao’s edition places him after Chia Lin, and 鼂公武 Ch‘ao Kung-wu also assigns him to the T‘ang dynasty,[6] but this is obviously a mistake, as his work is mentioned in the 隋書經籍志. In Sun Hsing-yen’s preface, he appears as Mêng Shih of the Liang dynasty [502—557]. Others would identify him with 孟康 Mêng K‘ang of the 3rd century. In the 宋史藝文志, [7] he is named last of the 五家 “Five Commentators,” the others being Wei Wu Ti, Tu Mu, Ch‘ên Hao and Chia Lin.

3. 李筌 Li Ch‘üan of the 8th century was a well-known writer on military tactics. His 太白陰經 has been in constant use down to the present day. The 通志 mentions 閫外春秋 (lives of famous generals from the Chou to the T‘ang dynasty) as written by him.[8] He is also generally supposed to be the real author of the popular Taoist tract, the 陰符經. According to Ch‘ao Kung-wu and the T‘ien-i-ko catalogue,[9] he followed the 太乙遁甲 text of Sun Tzŭ, which differs considerably from those now extant. His notes are mostly short and to the point, and he frequently illustrates his remarks by anecdotes from Chinese history.

4. 杜佑 Tu Yu (died 812) did not publish a separate commentary on Sun Tzŭ, his notes being taken from the T‘ung Tien, the encyclopaedic treatise on the Constitution which was his life-work. They are largely repetitions of Ts‘ao Kung and Mêng Shih, besides which it is believed that he drew on the ancient commentaries of 王凌 Wang Ling and others. Owing to the peculiar arrangement of the T‘ung Tien, he has to explain each passage on its merits, apart from the context, and sometimes his own explanation does not agree with that of Ts‘ao Kung, whom he always quotes first. Though not strictly to be reckoned as one of the “Ten Commentators,” he was added to their number by Chi T‘ien-pao, being wrongly placed after his grandson Tu Mu.

5. 杜牧 Tu Mu (803—852) is perhaps best known as a poet — a bright star even in the glorious galaxy of the T‘ang period. We learn from Ch‘ao Kung-wu that although he had no practical experience of war, he was extremely fond of discussing the subject, and was moreover well read in the military history of the Ch‘un Ch‘iu and Chan Kuo eras.[10] His notes, therefore, are well worth attention. They are very copious, and replete with historical parallels. The gist of Sun Tzŭ’s work is thus summarised by him: “Practise benevolence and justice, but on the other hand make full use of artifice and measures of expediency.”[11] He further declared that all the military triumphs and disasters of the thousand years which had elapsed since Sun Wu’s death would, upon examination, be found to uphold and corroborate, in every particular, the maxims contained in his book.[12] Tu Mu’s somewhat spiteful charge against Ts‘ao Kung has already been considered elsewhere.

6. 陳皥 Ch’ên Hao appears to have been a contemporary of Tu Mu. Ch‘ao Kung-wu says that he was impelled to write a new commentary on Sun Tzŭ because Ts‘ao Kung’s on the one hand was too obscure and subtle, and that of Tu Mu on the other too long-winded and diffuse.[13] Ou-yang Hsiu, writing in the middle of the 11th century, calls Ts‘ao Kung, Tu Mu and Ch‘ên Hao the three chief commentators on Sun Tzŭ (三家), and observes that Ch‘ên Hao is continually attacking Tu Mu’s shortcomings. His commentary, though not lacking in merit, must rank below those of his predecessors.

7. 賈林 Chia Lin is known to have lived under the T‘ang dynasty, for his commentary on Sun Tzŭ is mentioned in the 唐書 and was afterwards republished by 紀燮 Chi Hsieh of the same dynasty together with those of Mêng Shih and Tu Yu.[14] It is of somewhat scanty texture, and in point of quality, too, perhaps the least valuable of the eleven.

8. 梅堯臣 Mei Yao-ch‘ên (1002—1060), commonly known by his “style” as Mei 聖兪 Shêng-yü, was, like Tu Mu, a poet of distinction. His commentary was published with a laudatory preface by the great Ou-yang Hsiu, from which we may cull the following: —

Later scholars have misread Sun Tzŭ, distorting his words and trying to make them square with their own one-sided views. Thus, though

commentators have not been lacking, only a few have proved equal to the task. My friend Shêng-yü has not fallen into this mistake. In attempting to provide a critical commentary for Sun Tzŭ’s work, he does not lose sight of the fact that these sayings were intended for states engaged in internecine warfare; that the author is not concerned with the military conditions prevailing under the sovereigns of the three ancient dynasties,[15] nor with the nine punitive measures prescribed to the Minister of War.[16] Again, Sun Wu loved brevity of diction, but his meaning is always deep. Whether the subject be marching an army, or handling soldiers, or estimating the enemy, or controlling the forces of victory, it is always systematically treated; the sayings are bound together in strict logical sequence, though this has been obscured by commentators who have probably failed to grasp their meaning. In his own commentary, Mei Shêng-yü has brushed aside all the obstinate prejudices of these critics, and has tried to bring out the true meaning of Sun Tzŭ himself. In this way, the clouds of confusion have been dispersed and the sayings made clear. I am convinced that the present work deserves to be handed down side by side with the three great commentaries; and for a great deal that they find in the sayings, coming generations will have constant reason to thank my friend Shêng-yü.[17]

Making some allowance for the exuberance of friendship, I am inclined to endorse this favourable judgment, and would certainly place him above Ch‘ên Hao in order of merit.

9. 王晳 Wang Hsi, also of the Sung dynasty, is decidedly original in some of his interpretations, but much less judicious than Mei Yao-ch‘ên, and on the whole not a very trustworthy guide. He is fond of comparing his own commentary with that of Ts‘ao Kung, but the comparison is not often flattering to him. We learn from Ch‘ao Kung-wu that Wang Hsi revised the ancient text of Sun Tzŭ, filling up lacunae and correcting mistakes.[18]

10. 何延錫 Ho Yen-hsi of the Sung dynasty. The personal name of this commentator is given as above by 鄭樵 Chêng Ch‘iao in the T‘ung Chih, written about the middle of the twelfth century, but he appears simply as 何氏 Ho Shih in the Yü Hai, and Ma Tuan-lin quotes Ch‘ao Kung-wu as saying that his personal name is unknown. There seems to be no reason to doubt Chêng Ch‘iao’s statement, otherwise I should have been inclined to hazard a guess and identify him with one 何去非 Ho Ch‘ü-fei, the author of a short treatise on war entitled 備論, who lived in the latter part of the 11th century.[19] Ho Shih's commentary, in the words of the T‘ien-i-ko catalogue, 有所裨益 “contains helpful additions” here and there, but is chiefly remarkable for the copious extracts taken, in adapted form, from the dynastic histories and other sources.

11. 張預 Chang Yü. The list closes with a commentator of no great originality perhaps, but gifted with admirable powers of lucid exposition. His commentary is based on that of Ts‘ao Kung, whose terse sentences he contrives to expand and develop in masterly fashion. Without Chang Yü, it is safe to say that much of Ts‘ao Kung’s commentary would have remained cloaked in its pristine obscurity and therefore valueless. His work is not mentioned in the Sung history, the T‘ung K‘ao, or the Yü Hai, but it finds a niche in the T‘ung Chih, which also names him as the author of the 百將傳 “Lives of Famous Generals.”[20]

It is rather remarkable that the last-named four should all have flourished within so short a space of time. Ch‘ao Kung-wu accounts for it by saying: “During the early years-of the Sung dynasty the Empire enjoyed a long spell of peace, and men ceased to practise the art of war. But when [Chao] Yüan-hao’s rebellion came [1038—42] and the frontier generals were defeated time after time, the Court made strenuous enquiry for men skilled in war, and military topics became the vogue amongst all the high officials. Hence it is that the commentators of Sun Tzŭ in our dynasty belong mainly to that period.”[21]

Besides these eleven commentators, there are several others whose work has not come down to us. The Sui Shu mentions four, namely 王凌 Wang Ling (often quoted by Tu Yu as 王子); 張子尙 Chang Tzŭ-shang; 賈詡 Chia Hsü of Wei;[22] and 沈友 Shên Yu of Wu. The T‘ang Shu adds 孫鎬 Sun Hao, and the T‘ung Chih 蕭吉 Hsiao Chi, while the T‘u Shu mentions a Ming commentator, 黃潤玉 Huang Jun-yü. It is possible that some of these may have been merely collectors and editors of other commentaries, like Chi T‘ien-pao and Chi Hsieh, mentioned above. Certainly in the case of the latter, the entry 紀夑注孫子 in the T‘ung K‘ao, without the following note, would give one to understand that he had written an independent commentary of his own.

There are two works, described in the Ssu K‘u Ch‘üan Shu[23] and no doubt extremely rare, which I should much like to have seen. One is entitled 孫子參同, in 5 chüan. It gives selections from four new commentators, probably of the Ming dynasty, as well as from the eleven known to us. The names of the four are 解元 Hsieh Yüan; 張鏊 Chang Ao; 李村 Li Ts‘ai; and 黃治徵 Huang Chih-chêng. The other work is 孫子彚徵 in 4 chüan, compiled by 鄭端 Chêng Tuan of the present dynasty. It is a compendium of information on ancient warfare, with special reference to Sun Tzŭ’s 13 chapters.


  1. Preface to Mei Yao-ch‘ên’s edition: 孫子注者尤多武之書本於兵兵之術非一而以不窮爲奇宜其者之多也.
  2. See 魏書, ch. 1.
  3. Loc. cit.: 然前世言善用兵稱曹公曹公嘗與董呂諸袁角其力而勝之遂與吳蜀分漢而王傳言魏之將出兵千里每坐計勝敗授其成算諸將用之十不失一一有違者兵輒敗北.
  4. Cf. 天一閣藏書總目 Catalogue of the library of the Fan family at Ningpo, 子部, fol. 12 v°: 其註多隱辭引而不發 “His commentary is frequently obscure; it furnishes a clue, but does not fully develop the meaning.”
  5. See 玉海, ch. 141 ad init.
  6. Wên Hsien T‘ung K‘ao, ch. 221, f. 9 v°.
  7. Ch. 207, f. 5 r°
  8. It is interesting to note that M. Pelliot has recently discovered chapters 1, 4 and 5 of this lost work in the “Grottos of the Thousand Buddhas.” See B. E. F. E. O, t. VIII, nos. 3—4, p. 525.
  9. Loc. cit.
  10. Wên Hsien T‘ung K‘ao, ch. 221, f. 9: 世謂牧慨然最喜論兵欲試而不得者其學能道春秋戰國時事甚博而詳知兵者有取焉.
  11. Preface to his commentary (T‘u Shu, 經籍典, ch. 442): 武之所論大約用仁義使機權也.
  12. Ibid.: 自武死後凡千歲將兵者有成者有敗者勘其事跡皆與武所著書一一相抵當.
  13. T‘ung K‘ao, loc. cit.: 皥以曹公注陰微杜牧注闊踈重爲之注云.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The Hsia, the Shang, and the Chou. Although the last-named was nominally existent in Sun Tzŭ’s day, it retained hardly a vestige of power, and the old military organisation had practically gone by the board. I can suggest no other explanation of the passage.
  16. See Chou Li, XXIX. 6—10.
  17. See T‘u Shu, 戎政典, ch. 90, f. 2 v°: 後之學者徒見其書又各牽於已見是以注者雖多而少當也獨吾友聖兪不然甞評武之書曰此戰國相傾之說也三代王者之師司馬九伐之法武不及也然亦愛其文略而意深其行師用兵料敵制勝亦皆有法其言甚有序次而注者汨之或失其意乃自爲注凡膠于偏見者皆抉去傅以已意而發之然後武之說不汨而明吾知此書當與三家並傳而後世取其說者往往于吾聖兪多焉.
  18. T‘ung Kao, ch. 221, f. 11 : 晳以古本校正闕誤.
  19. See 四庫全書, ch. 99, f. 16 .
  20. This appears to be still extant. See Wylie’s “Notes,” p. 91 (new edition).
  21. T‘ung K‘ao, loc. cit.: 仁廟時天下久承平人不習兵元昊既叛邊將數敗朝廷頗訪知兵者士大夫人人言兵矣故本朝注解孫武書者大扺皆其時人也.
  22. A notable person in his day. His biography is given in the San Kuo Chih, ch. 10.
  23. Ch. 100, ff. 2, 3.