Thursday, May 6, 2021

Bad Quotes and Good Ideas


    I have a new book coming out, someday, called Beyond Sunzi: Classical Debates on Chinese War and Statecraft. The book was exciting to write as I showed how various strands of Chinese thought interact with each other. I mention it here, besides venting my frustration at glacial publishers, because I see lots of false quotes with somewhat catchy ideas with no sources that don't pass the smell test. Here is a link to many of the worst quotes.

    What’s interesting though is that many of these lousy or fake points are related to good points found in Chinese writing. This post lists a bunch of fake quotes followed by good ideas that are represented in classical Chinese theory (and sometimes elsewhere.)  Because I’m so often responding to memes that have no sourcing at all, I’m making sure to show you the translation and page number I take it from.

 "A leader leads by example, not by force?"

    This has some relation to the teachings of Shen Pu Hai (Shenzi.) He talked about a ruler's need to display inaction or a placid mirror, so his ministers don't try to change their opinions to curry favor. This is more of a Daoist kind of actionless action.[1]

"Sweat more during peace: bleed less during war."

    This sounds a bit like a description of the Roman army by Josephus where he says that Roman training maneuvers were like bloodless battles, and battles like bloody maneuvers.

"If quick, I survive. If not quick, I am lost. This is 'death.'"

    The cadence sounds correct. Classical writing often follows something called the four-character formula. Mao’s basic rules for guerilla warfare was so popular and easier to remember because they were 4 sets of 4 character formulas. Because of the strong stylistic resemblance, it could be from a bad translation of Sunzi though I’ve read multiple translations and still don’t recognize it. 

    Sunzi often talked about quick wars, fast movement, and seizing something the enemy wants. On quick wars, “a victory that is long in coming will blunt their blades and dampen their ardor.”[2] On forcing enemy movement, “One who excels at moving the enemy deploys in a configuration to which the enemy must respond. He offers [or seizes according to Sun Bin] something which the enemy must seize.[3] Moving quickly was something that Confucians valued.

"Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price."

    The points sounds like this from the Wei Liaozi, though this line is disputed (see the next point). "I have heard that in antiquity those who excelled in employing the army could bear to kill half of their officers and soldiers."[4]

"Who does not know the evils of war cannot appreciate its benefits."

    I don't know ANY author that would say this. Sunzi stressed the benefits of winning without battle mostly due to the high material cost of warfare (see above). Confucians would point to the needless loss of life. Legalists would be upset at the economic impact of losing so many farmers/ taxbase. I tried to get, "wading through blood and treading through guts" into my title because that summarizes how pretty much every writer found battle.

"When you understand what suits the terrain…investigate the rules for marching and formation…White blades meet; flying arrows are exchanged; you wade through blood and tread through guts; you cart the dead away and support the wounded; the blood flows for a thousand li; exposed corpses fill the field; thus victory is decided. This is the lowest use of the military."[5]

    Sun Bin, a purported lineal descendant of Sunzi, advised against commanders that employ them like tossed chunks of earth and grass.[6]

    The writer considered the prototypical Confucian minister, Guanzi, said that if the people were forced to crack the bones of their children for cooking then the state uproots itself.[7]

"The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds."

    This one sounded close to something but is not in Sunzi’s text. It is in the history about him. After executing the king’s concubines because they failed to follow orders correctly the king dismissed the army. Sunzi responded to him, “Your majesty only likes the words, he is not able to realize their substance.”[8] That is a close enough translation, but it is not in the Art of War!! Moreover, his concept of punishment was disputed by many, including Sun Bin who said it wasn’t urgent.[9]

"Convince your enemy that he will gain very little by attacking you; this will diminish his enthusiasm."

    The general point is echoed in many places. Sunzi talked about displaying profit to entice the enemy and dampening their chi by waiting to attack. Sun Bin and Wuzi talked about how to manipulate the enemy. Here is the former:

The enemy’s generals are courageous and difficult to frighten. Their weapons are strong, their men numerous and self-reliant. All the warriors of their Three Armies are courageous and untroubled. Their generals are awesome, their soldiers are martial, their officers strong, and their provisions well supplies. None of the feudal Lords dares contend with them. How should we strike them?

To strike them, announce that you do not dare fight. Show them that you are incapable; sit about submissively and await them in order to make their thoughts arrogant and apparently accord with their ambitions. Do not let them recognize your ploy. Thereupon strike where unexpected, attack where they do not defend, apply pressure where they are indolent, and attack their doubts.[10]

"In peace, prepare for war. In war, prepare for peace."

    At first glance this sounded like a Latin phrase, and it is indeed: If you want peace prepare for war.

"Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust."

    This echoes a point that Confucians would make about the importance of character, proper rites, filial piety and the dangers of a corrupt state. Xunzi talked about nations that had the sharpest swords, highest mountains, toughest armor, and yet because they forfeited the mandate of heaven they fell.

"The men of Ch’u make armor out of sharkskin and rhinoceros hides, and it is so tough it rings like metal or stone. They carry steel spear made in Yuan, sharp as the sting of a wasp, and move as nimbly and swiftly as a whirlwind. [Notice the reference to swift movement.] And Chu’s troops were defeated at Chiu sha and their general Tang Mei, was killed; and…the state was ripped apart. Surely this did not come about because Chu lacked stout armor and sharp weapons. Rather it was because its leaders did not follow the proper way."[11]

    Confucius wrote that "an inhumane man cannot long abide in comfort."[12] And: "Only when the year turns freezing cold do we realize that pine and cypress are the last to winter."[13]

    Wei Liaozi wrote: The perfected man [chunzi] does not stop criminals more than five paces away….If you flog a person’s back, brand his ribs, or compress his fingers in order to question him about the nature of his offense, even a state hero could not withstand this cruelly and would falsely implicate himself.[14]

    As you can see, these are bad quotes but good ideas. Some are real quotes that are attributed to someone else. But most of these are bastardized ideas that have little relation to Sunzi and some relation to Chinese thought if you know Chinese well enough. Luckily, I do and have a book about it coming out soon. The zi/ tzu ending in Chinese means master, and they were masters of their craft. It’s a shame people don’t put much energy into learning from such great texts, many of which are translated and easily available, but rely on diluted ideas and fake quotes.

Thanks for reading! I work as a free lance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button at the bottom of the page, or you can buy one of my books using the link in the top left. 


[1] Herlee Creel trans., Shen Pu Hai: A Chinese Philosopher of the 4th Century, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 249, 351.

[2] Ralph Sawyer trans., The Art of War, in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993), 159.

[3] Ralph Sawyer trans., Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare,(Westview Press, 1995), 165, 186. One line reads: cause the enemy to roll up his armor and race far off.

[4] Sawyer, Wei Liaozi in the Seven Classics, 276.

[5] Andrew Seth Meyer trans., Huainanzi, by Liu An, chapt 15, (New York: Columbia University Press), 103.

[6] Sawyer, Sun Bin, 200.

[7] W. Allyn Rickett, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophic Essays from Early China v.1, (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1985), 294.

[8] Spring and Autumn Annals as quoted by Sawyer, Seven Classics, 151.

[9] Sawyer, Sun Bin, 90.

[10] Sawyer, Sun Bin, 169.

[11] Burton Watson trans., Xunzi: Basic Writings, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 71-73.

[12] Chicung Huang, The Analects of Confucius, (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 67.

[13] Ibid., 107.

[14] Sawyer, Wei Liaozi, 258.

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