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Interview with Roger Ames


by Sonshi.com

Professor Roger T. Ames was the Director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Hawaii for ten years, and has been the Editor of Philosophy East and West since 1987. His teaching and research interests focus on comparative philosophy, the philosophy of culture, environmental philosophy, classical Confucianism, and Taoism.

He has written many interpretive works on Chinese philosophy and culture, and has over the past decade tried to apply an interpretation of early Chinese thinking to new translations of the canonical texts, such as The Art of War. Perhaps his main contribution is philosophical, attempting to understand these Chinese works within their own interpretive context.

We agree with Robin D.S. Yates when he wrote Dr. Ames's Sun Tzu The Art of Warfare is a "masterpiece." His pioneer work translating Sun Tzu from the newly discovered Yin-ch'ueh-shan texts was an invaluable contribution to the field of Chinese literature. His book remains one of our top favorites, and is a must read for all Sonshi.com readers.

Sonshi.com: Your Sun Tzu The Art of Warfare book was the very first to incorporate the Yin-ch'ueh-shan texts. Virtually every translator has followed ever since. Please share with our readers the story behind the work.

Ames: In 1972 in Shandong province, and bamboo-strip version of Sun-tzu (Sunzi) and his later descendent, Sun Pin (Sun Bin), were recovered in a grave dating to the second century BCE. These texts are fully a millennium earlier than the Song dynasty woodblock texts from which we had worked up until this time.

What was particularly interesting about this archaeological find is that it provided us with some of the dialogical chapters that had gone missing. According to the Han dynasty court bibliographies the Sunzi in the court library comprised 82 bundles of strips, and the Sun Bin was 89 bundles. This find also allowed us a basis for authenticating other textual materials that had been passed on in the tradition in encyclopedias.

Sonshi.com: Your book's introduction and commentary focused on the philosophical aspects of The Art of Warfare. From your analysis, what are its main similarities and differences with other philosophical works?

Ames: The Warring States period (403-221 BCE) in China was a period of escalating horror on the killing fields, with the slaughter being magnified by a power of 10 over these centuries. For this reason, during this period there were more military manuals in circulation that all of the Confucian works put together. Even the "philosophers" of the period invariably turned to the topic of warfare, with almost every text having a chapter dedicated to this key subject.

What Sunzi shares with both the Confucian and Daoist worldviews is the attempt to get the most out of the particular circumstances. From Sunzi's point of view, war is always a losing proposition, and should only be undertaken when there is no other choice. And even so, we should do everything we can to minimize loss and maximize benefit.

The attitude toward warfare that we find in the Daodejing shares much in common with Sunzi, and the moral considerations that we find in the Confucian tradition come to play a role in the character of the superior commander as articulated in the Sun Bin.

Sonshi.com: Where in the continuum do you think The Art of Warfare lies -- an historical text having little practical value or a how-to strategy guide for everyday life?

Ames: The most important contribution of the Sunzi and Sun Bin is to lay out a way of thinking. While emerging circumstances require that this way of thinking be constantly adapted and reshaped, there is a persistence to some of the central themes: (shi) turning circumstances to account, (quan) calculating contingencies, (bian) flexibility, (yin) responsiveness, (zhi) foreknowledge, and so on.

And the way of thinking described (and prescribed) by these early texts has application to various dimensions of the human experience. Perhaps it is the very complexity of our contemporary world that makes the Sunzi so valuable as a clear and straightforward yet profound organizing strategy.

Sonshi.com: As a professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii, do you feel the book should be required reading for students before they graduate?

Ames: I do believe that education today should require that students become familiar with Chinese culture. China is fully 22% of the world's population, and in order for young America to be successful it its world, it will have to know much more about China than the last generation. And Sunzi is certainly a window of a Chinese way of thinking. But I am reluctant to prescribe specific readings for our students--I can only recommend them.

Sonshi.com: Please tell us more about your latest book "Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation?"

Ames: Our new Daodejing, like Sunzi, is based upon the most recent archaeological materials, with the critical text being the Ma Wangdui silk manuscripts recovered from a 168 BCE tomb, qualified by the Guodian bamboo strips recovered from a ca. 300 BCE tomb.

As important as the archaeological texts are, perhaps the philosophical considerations are even more significant. If we look for Chinese philosophy books in our bookstores, we find them between the Bibles and the new age literature. This location reflects the fact that we have first Christianized these texts, transplanting them into our own worldview. In the process of trying to recover them, we then "orientalized" them, making them into the "other": we are rational therefore they are mystical, we make arguments therefore they are ineffable, and so on.

Our most important job today is to try to take these Chinese texts on their own terms, understanding the key vocabulary and its common sense.

Sonshi.com: What is the conceptual bridge between the principles of Taoism and Sun Tzu's principles of strategic warfare?

Ames: Daoism like Sunzi requires a disciplined self-cultivation. It requires a quality of awareness concerning how things change. Both traditions begin from the wholeness and dynamic nature of the human experience, and an understanding of how opposites are mutually entailing.

Sonshi.com: From your experiences, how prevalent are Sun Tzu principles and their application in the current world?

Ames: After the Vietnam war, the American armed forces have taken this text very seriously. It has become a standard in military training. In some ways, this means that the text and its applications are known widely. But Sunzi is a philosophical text rather than simply a manual, and I am not sure that a way of living and thinking can be reduced to simple principles of engagement.

Sonshi.com: Do you have any future projects on Sun Tzu the Art of Warfare?

Ames: The Sun Bin that DC Lau and I did for Ballantine has now been reprinted by SUNY Press. I am currently working on a new Blackwell Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy that will incorporate some of the military materials. One text that I want to work on in the future is the military treatise, binglue, contained in the Huainanzi. But that is down the road.

[End of interview]

Roger Ames's Sun Tzu The Art of Warfare has always been one of our favorites, and is a must have for any Sun Tzu reader. We also recommend his Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching); it is not just another translation but one that benefits from recent archeological finds as recent as 1993.

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