Sun Tzu And The Coronavirus

Wednesday, April 1, 2020
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Berkeley, Calif.

Ever since she was a doctoral student at Princeton in the second half of the 1970s, Michael Nylan’s passion has been the early history of China.

Ms. Nylan is the very latest in a list of translators into English of “The Art of War,” the 2,500-year-old Chinese classic attributed by long-standing tradition to Sun Tzu, or Master Sun, who served the kingdom of Wu in the late 6th century B.C. Like many others in her field, she strikes a skeptical note on the text’s paternity. “However gratifying this tale of attribution,” she says, “it can’t be verified all these years later, and is unlikely to be true.”

Yet whoever was responsible for the text almost certainly compiled it from a variety of sources. No one man wrote “The Art of War.” The first translation into English was not done until 1910, when Lionel Giles, a British sinologist, produced an annotated version. The text acquired intellectual cachet in the United States only in 1963, in a translation by Samuel B. Griffith, a retired officer of the U.S. Marine Corps. As the Vietnam War raged, says Ms. Nylan, American interest was sparked by the fact that Ho Chi Minh regarded the text as his strategic bible—as did Mao Zedong. It came to be felt in Washington that knowing “The Art of War” would help to outsmart a wily foe.

This first association of Sun Tzu with the Vietnam War has, Ms. Nylan says, distorted its value in the minds of many Americans. “It came to be seen as, ‘This is how you defeat your enemy.’” But while the text “doesn’t discount that you may have enemies, the goal is to arrive at a desirable outcome without your enemy ever noticing how something happened. So frontal attack is your worst choice.” (In Chapter 3 of Ms. Nylan’s translation, the text says that “the expert in deploying troops will humble the enemy without ever engaging them in battle.”)

Would it be more accurate to regard the book as “The Art of Strategy” instead—or, dare one ask, “The Art of the Deal”? Ms. Nylan laughs. “Absolutely. But ‘The Art of the Deal’ has been ruined by Donald Trump. He, and many of the people around him, think they’re big fans of ‘The Art of War.’ But all they’ve got out of it is ‘Kill, kill, kill.’” The text, she says, is “sometimes about appropriate negotiations, where no one necessarily has a stunning victory. It’s about long-range planning. Americans are incredibly bad at that.”    

The last major English translation of Sun Tzu was published in 1993, and Norton touts Ms. Nylan’s as the first by a woman. Since she has spent a lifetime assuring strangers puzzled by her name that she is indeed female, this publishers’ boast may have a practical use beyond its seemingly superfluous emphasis on gender. (Ms. Nylan was named for St. Michael by her grateful mother, after her birth in 1950 ended a series of miscarriages.)

Ms. Nylan speaks slowly—her enunciation almost languorous—having worked for decades with Chinese scholars for whom English is an alien slog. She is an archeologist by training, and was part of the first group of American students who studied at Chinese universities after the thaw in relations between the U.S. and China under President Nixon. Her year in Beijing in 1979 was a fiasco. Archeology in China was a male preserve, and her colleagues refused to take her to excavations. “It was considered too sexual for a woman to be on a dig, possibly out in the countryside, with people sharing tents,” she says. Scarce resources meant that it was out of the question to give her a tent of her own. So she spent the year in libraries, “reading periodicals I could have read in Princeton.”

Although her recent scholarship includes a history of the Western Han city of Chang’an—the equal in size of the coeval Rome of Augustus—she is focused at present on the “modern reception of antiquity,” or the ways that contemporary societies “use and abuse the past.”  

This last interest is opportune, as the world grapples with a pandemic that originated in a proud and assertive China, whose rulers see their nation not merely as the rightful challenger for heavyweight champion of the world, but also as the “oldest, continuous civilization.” This nationalistic “slogan,” she says, relates to “tropes of Chinese ‘exceptionalism’” in which “doubting antiquity” is “fraught”—a form of political sin. On the global stage, this feeds into a contrast with America, whose history the Chinese regard as young and shallow.

What does “The Art of War,” I ask, teach us about present-day China? Inevitably, we focus on the novel coronavirus—Covid-19—which has spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan to much of the rest of the world, and has now infected political relations between China and the United States.

“While ‘The Art of War’ could hardly weigh in on the coronavirus,” Ms. Nylan says, “it takes little to imagine how its compilers would have viewed the current crisis.” She begins with the United States. “The first thing to note is the fact that we had offices that were looking at the next pandemic, having already dealt with past pandemics like Ebola.” And yet, she says, there was a startling lack of preparedness. “Sun Tzu tells you that if you think there’s no danger to you because there’s no present danger in front of your eyes, this is about as stupid a move as you could possibly make.” 

Ms. Nylan notes a “stunning lack of trust in certain basic institutions for the common good in the U.S. of today.” The political establishment “doesn’t want money to be spent on things which they can’t see. But in viruses, as in war, the money needs to be spent in preparation.” The calculations have to be made “long before the event in order to minimize the loss of life in the event.” Everything in “The Art of War” is about “building institutions and chains of command that make sense to everyone.”

She urges a reading of the beginning and the end of the text, which emphasize the need for “long-range planning and the gathering of facts—patiently assembled facts.” In Chapter 8 of “The Art of War,” titled “Nine Contingencies,” Sun Tzu says: “Do not count on the enemy not coming. Depend instead on your side being prepared to confront him.”

The ancient Chinese would be startled—as their modern counterparts are—by how bad Americans are at patience and planning. Using a phrase from the liberal author Barbara Ehrenreich, Ms. Nylan says she’s struck by how “bright-sided” Americans are—“blindly optimistic, always believing there will be a solution. They wait till it’s right before their faces and say, ‘Don’t worry, it looks like a disaster, but someone will resolve it.’” 

How would Sun Tzu have regarded this bright-sidedness? “I think he would have thought,” Ms. Nylan says, “that we were all out of our minds.” There’s a “whole body of Chinese literature about how people who are fortunate are also incredibly unlucky, because they don’t necessarily develop the skills to begin to think, ‘How do I make my own good fortune?’.” And so they trust—as Americans today seem to do—that the good fortune will just continue unbidden.  

Sun Tzu, she says, would also be aghast at the inability of Americans to “think cooperatively, and communally, and collectively. I see it in my students, because I come from a different generation.” Her students have been trained to “think of themselves as separate entities. This prevents them from acting collectively.” Sun Tzu, by contrast, would counsel that “our sense of security and wellbeing is dependent of the security and wellbeing of those around us.”   

There have been mistakes galore in China, too, Ms. Nylan notes—mistakes that would have struck Sun Tzu as great follies. “The epidemic has heightened awareness of the yawning gaps between the privileged and the powerless,” she says. Xi Jinping—now China’s leader for life—“should have publicly apologized for his party’s perennial failures to place public health above the GDP gains that mainly serve the well-connected.” And yet, weeks after the outbreak, he “chose to communicate via teleconference the incredible ‘news’ that ‘the Central Committee’s assessment of the epidemic is accurate, all the work arrangements are timely, and the measures adopted are effective.’”

Sun Tzu would have said that Xi should know that “temporarily saving face for the Party can only end in a dramatic loss of face on all fronts. Fiscal stimuli cannot repair the damage to reputations.” To salvage a bit of Party credibility, she says, “high-profile Party members should have been out distributing face masks to the urban masses, especially the so-called migrant populations, who received them late.” 

The biggest mistake Mr. Xi has made from the perspective of “The Art of War” has been to give everyone the message that he doesn’t want to hear any bad news. “What he should have been saying is, ‘The Party is here to serve the people. I want to know all of the problems that you’ve got and I’m going to show you visibly that I’m willing to go out and do whatever we can do to assist in this.’” 

Ms. Nylan offers the example of Li Wenliang, the doctor—now dead—who’s being hailed as the Hero of Wuhan for sounding the alarm about the coronavirus and making a plea for greater freedom in China. Before dying, he’d said in an interview that “a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.” By contrast, says Ms. Nylan, “Xi Jinping was sending a message very much like Mao sent in the Great Leap Forward, which is, ‘Don’t give me any bad news.’ And then, when it was too late, he says, ‘OK, now I’ll take the bad news and I’ll do something draconian about it.’” 

At that point, says Ms. Nylan, he was “probably wise to do something draconian.” But Mr. Xi wanted “the visible goal of a harmonious society and he didn’t want, I believe, to hear about illness and pathogens. Because what he’d like to do is identify his enemies as pathogens. They are the blight on society.” She says she has been reading every official pronouncement from Mr. Xi, and observes that “he’s said very little except that everything is in control. In fact, he sounds alarmingly like Donald Trump.” 

A real question in Chinese literature, Ms. Nylan says, is what you do with bad news. “And this is right across the board. The Confucian ‘Analects’ talks about this, the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi talks about this, and Sun Tzu does, too.” The role of leadership is to “presume that plans have to be made for bad news. So things have to be stockpiled. Provisions have to be in place. And the only function of leadership is to get those things in place before they are needed.” 

“The Art of War”— “the whole book”—is predicated on the idea that there will be bad luck that comes your way, and comes quite regularly. “But what you don’t want it to come from,” Ms. Nylan says, “is your lack of planning.”  

Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at the Hoover Institution.