The Art of War (Sun)/The Text of Sun Tzŭ

The Text of Sun Tzŭ.

I have found it difficult to glean much about the history of Sun Tzŭ's text. The quotations that occur in early authors go to show that the “13 chapters” of which Ssŭ-ma Ch‘ien speaks were essentially the same as those now extant. We have his word for it that they were widely circulated in his day, and can only regret that he refrained from discussing them on that account.[1] Sun Hsing-yen says in his preface: —

During the Ch‘in and Han dynasties Sun Tzŭ's Art of War was in general use amongst military commanders, but they seem to have treated it as a work of mysterious import, and were unwilling to expound it for

the benefit of posterity. Thus it came about that Wei Wu was the first to write a commentary on it.[2]

As we have already seen, there is no reasonable ground to suppose that Ts‘ao Kung tampered with the text. But the text itself is often so obscure, and the number of editions which appeared from that time onward so great, especially during the T‘ang and Sung dynasties, that it would be surprising if numerous corruptions had not managed to creep in. Towards the middle of the Sung period, by which time all the chief commentaries on Sun Tzŭ were in existence, a certain 吉天保 Chi T‘ien-pao published a work in 15 chüan entitled 十家孫子會注 “Sun Tzŭ with the collected commentaries of ten writers.”[3] There was another text, with variant readings put forward by Chu Fu of 大興 Ta-hsing,[4] which also had supporters among the scholars of that period; but in the Ming editions, Sun Hsing-yen tells us, these readings were for some reason or other no longer put into circulation.[5] Thus, until the end of the 18th century, the text in sole possession of the field was one derived from Chi T‘ien-pao’s edition, although no actual copy of that important work was known to have surrived. That, therefore, is the text of Sun Tzŭ which appears in the War section of the great Imperial encyclopaedia printed in 1726, the 古今圖書集成 Ku Chin T‘u Shu Chi Ch‘êng. Another copy at my disposal of what is practically the same text, with slight variations, is that contained in the 周秦十一子 “Eleven philosophers of the Chou and Ch‘in dynasties” [1758]. And the Chinese printed in Capt. Calthrop’s first edition is evidently a similar version which has filtered through Japanese channels. So things remained until 孫星衍 Sun Hsing-yen [1752—1818], a distinguished antiquarian and classical scholar,[6] who claimed to be an actual descendant of Sun Wu,[7] accidentally discovered a copy of Chi T‘ien-pao’s long-lost work, when on a visit to the library of the 華陰 Hua-yin temple.[8] Appended to it was the I Shuo of Chêng Yu-hsien, mentioned in the T‘ung Chih, and also believed to have perished.[9] This is what Sun Hsing-yen designates as the or “original edition (or text)” — a rather misleading name, for it cannot by any means claim to set before us the text of Sun Tzŭ in its pristine purity. Chi T‘ien-pao was a careless compiler,[10] and appears to have been content to reproduce the somewhat debased version current in his day, without troubling to collate it with the earliest editions then available. Fortunately, two versions of Sun Tzŭ, even older than the newly discovered work, were still extant, one buried in the T‘ung Tien, Tu Yu’s great treatise on the Constitution, the other similarly enshrined in the T‘ai P‘ing Yü Lan encyclopaedia. In both the complete text is to be found, though split up into fragments, intermixed with other matter, and scattered piecemeal over a number of different sections. Considering that the Yü Lan takes us back to the year 983, and the T‘ung Tien about 200 years further still, to the middle of the T‘ang dynasty, the value of these early transcripts of Sun Tzŭ can hardly be overestimated. Yet the idea of utilising them does not seem to have occurred to anyone until Sun Hsing-yen, acting under Government instructions, undertook a thorough recension of the text. This is his own account: —

Because of the numerous mistakes in the text of Sun Tzŭ which his editors had handed down, the Government ordered that the ancient edition [of Chi T‘ien-pao] should be used, and that the text should be revised and corrected throughout. It happened that Wu Nien-hu, the Governor Pi Kua, and Hsi, a graduate of the second degree, had all devoted themselves to this study, probably surpassing me therein. Accordingly, I have had the whole work cut on blocks as a text-book for military men.[11]

The three individuals here referred to had evidently been occupied on the text of Sun Tzŭ prior to Sun Hsing-yen’s commission, but we are left in doubt as to the work they really accomplished. At any rate, the new edition, when ultimately produced, appeared in the names of Sun Hsing-yen and only one co-editor, 吳人驥 Wu Jên-chi. They took the “original text” as their basis, and by careful comparison with the older versions, as well as the extant commentaries and other sources of information such as the I Shuo, succeeded in restoring a very large number of doubtful passages, and turned out, on the whole, what must be accepted as the closest approximation we are ever likely to get to Sun Tzŭ’s original work. This is what will hereafter be denominated the “standard text.”

The copy which I have used belongs to a re-issue dated 1877. It is in 6 pên, forming part of a well-printed set of 23 early philosophical works in 83 pên.[12] It opens with a preface by Sun Hsing-yen (largely quoted in this introduction), vindicating the traditional View of Sun Tzŭ’s life and performances, and summing up in remarkably concise fashion the evidence in its favour. This is followed by Ts‘ao Kung’s preface to his edition, and the biography of Sun Tzŭ from the Shih Chi, both translated above. Then come, firstly, Chêng Yu-hsien’s I Shuo,[13] with author’s preface, and next, a short miscellany of historical and bibliographical information entitled 孫子敘錄 Sun Tzŭ Hsü Lu, compiled by 畢以玽 Pi I-hsün. As regards the body of the work, each separate sentence is followed by a note on the text, if required, and then by the various commentaries appertaining to it, arranged in chronological order. These we shall now proceed to discuss briefly, one by one.


  1. See supra, p. xx.
  2. 秦漢已來用兵皆用其法而或祕其書不肯注以傳世魏武始爲之注.
  3. See 宋藝文志.
  4. Alluded to on p. xvii, note 3.
  5. Loc. cit.: 葢宋人又從大興朱氏處見明人刻本餘則世無傳者.
  6. A good biographical notice, with a list of his works, will be found in the 國朝詩人徵略, ch. 48, fol. 18 sqq.
  7. Preface ad fin.: 吾家出樂安眞孫子之後媿余徒讀祖書考証文字不通方略亦享承平之福者久也 “My family comes from Lo-an and we are really descended from Sun Tzŭ. I am ashamed to say that I only read my ancestor’s work from a literary point of view, without comprehending the military technique. So long have we been enjoying the blessings of peace!”
  8. Hua-yin is about 14 miles from 潼關 T‘ung-kuan on the eastern border of Shensi. The temple in question is still visited by those about to make the ascent of the 華山 or Western Sacred Mountain. It is mentioned in the 大明一統志 [A.D. 1461], ch. 32, f. 22, as the 西嶽廟:— 在華陰縣東五里廟有唐𤣥宗所製華山碑 “Situated five li east of the district city of Kua-yin. The temple contains the Hua-shan tablet inscribed by the T‘ang Emperor Hsüan Tsung [713—755].”
  9. 曩予游𨵿中讀華陰嶽廟道藏見有此書後有鄭友賢遺說一卷.
  10. Cf. Sun Hsing-yen's remark à propos of his mistakes in the names and order of the commentators: 吉天保之不深究此書可知.
  11. 國家令甲以孫子校士所傳本或多錯謬當用古本是正其文適吳念湖太守畢恬溪孝廉皆爲此學所得或過于予遂刋一編以課武士.
  12. See my “Catalogue of Chinese Books” (Luzac and Co., 1908), no. 40.
  13. This is a discussion of 29 difficult passages in Sun Tzŭ, namely: I. 2; 26; 26; II. 9 & 10; III. 3; III & VII; III. 17; IV. 4; 6; V. 3; 10 & 11; 14; the headings of the 13 chapters, with special reference to chap. VII; VII. 5; 15 & 16; 27; 33, &c.; VIII. 1—6; IX. 11; X. 1—20; XI. 23; 31; 19; 43; VII. 12—14 & XI. 52; XI. 56; XIII. 15 & 16; 26; XIII in general.