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Interview with Ralph Sawyer


Dr. Ralph D. Sawyer did undergraduate study in philosophy, the history of science, and electrical engineering (AI/computers) at MIT. His graduate studies were in history and Chinese language at Harvard University; further Chinese language study at the Stanford Center in Taipei.

Dr. Sawyer then continued private study in classical Chinese with noted professors such as Chin Chia-hsi and Ts'ai Mao-t'ang. He followed the Chinese tradition of private scholarship while maintaining a consulting practice for more than 25 years in the Far East, initially in Taiwan but eventually throughout Asia, though anchored in Korea and Taiwan.

For the last decade, Ralph Sawyer has increasingly focused on study and writing, but continue to consult with certain conglomerates and government agencies. He is a very popular author with readers, and his familiar red-cover Art of War book published in 1994 remains among the highest ranked Sun Tzu translations of all time.

For more information about Ralph Sawyer, please visit his official website at One of your most outstanding works we feel was your translation of the Seven Military Classics (which includes Sun Tzu). Please share with our readers how the book came about.

Sawyer: Commencing Chinese studies just when the Vietnam War first escalating, I was astonished to find that the Chinese military writings were not only unstudied, but actually disparaged, even vehemently deemed irrelevant to China's historical tradition and great culture. (The misperception that China has no military history, that the civil always controlled the martial, and that battles and wars were fought with the idea of "preservation" -- even though records such as the comprehensive Tzu-chih T'ung-chien show millions perished and the infrastructure was ravaged -- was as fervently held then as today.)

While initially pursuing my inquiry into comparative psychological conceptions and the role of strong emotions as conceived in early Chinese thought, I discovered that the classic military works preserved the most intriguing material, particularly the sections focusing on the psychology of warfare, manipulating the enemy, and the doctrine of ch'i, and therefore focused upon them.

After pondering the intriguing contents for some twenty years, I decided to present these early texts to a wider audience, not necessarily as a counterbalance to Sun-tzu, but to show that Chinese military thought had not become moribund after Sun-tzu's initial impetus and defining conceptions.

Of course, the Seven Military Classics are really the quintessential expression of Warring States military thought since the Questions and Replies, while clearly reflecting the evolution of practices and technology over the intervening centuries, particularly the cavalry's development as the component force primarily entrusted with executing unorthodox tactics, in many ways constitutes a critical review of classical doctrine. You are not only a scholar of ancient Chinese works and culture but are also a successful businessman. From your experience, are Sun Tzu's principles truly being applied in the marketplace? If so, how well?

Sawyer: Even though it has been common practice in recent decades to speak about business as a form of warfare and there are some parallels in the dynamics, certain fundamental differences radically define and segregate the military sphere from the civil and all the aspects encompassed by the latter, including business, the stock market, personal relations, romance, and sports, all of which have recently been the subject of popular books purportedly applying Sun-tzu's principles.

As the ancient Chinese classics point out, the values and forms of behavior appropriate to the civil and the martial never intersect. The ultimate purpose of the latter is to brutalize, conquer, slay, and exterminate; direct action to achieve these purposes is not only permissible, but absolutely required. Executives may speak about eliminating their competitors, even try to think of ways to subvert them, but it in actual practice the battle remains solely for the consumer's mind. It is waged by creating and manipulating perceptions rather than direct attacks.

Nevertheless, while stressing the informational aspect Sun-tzu provides a means for conceptualizing every sort of conflict and contest, if not most life tasks. When I reflect upon discussions at virtually every level over the past decades throughout Asia, even though superficially saturated with Confucian vectors and supposed concepts of virtue, my impression is that much thinking has been fundamentally affected and oriented by Chinese military concepts. The initial reaction, the primary response, of most people across the spectrum of positions normally reflects a traditional, martially influenced and oriented mindset. Some of these first (or "knee jerk") responses are appropriate, others wildly inappropriate.

The thrust of Sun-tzu's thinking is to control external perception, shaping the enemy's view, with deception being the most ballyhooed technique. Although his teachings are constantly and incorrectly reduced to this simple principle, creating misperceptions in your competitors can be advantageous and is frequently attempted through disinformation, yet fraught with the danger of contaminating the marketplace. (Examples of successful manipulation commonly seen in Asia, where people follow each other's activities with great intensity, might be leaking "secret" information about a change in research or marketing direction, a new product emphasis, the abandonment of items with strong sales potential, or shifting of personnel assignments.)

In more direct confrontations ranging from real estate transactions through gang wars and personal vendettas, Sun-tzu's admonition to manipulate the enemy can and has been frequently implemented, but many instructions are clearly inappropriate apart from the crisis of combat. Conversely, perhaps the most important are those devoted to self-realization, emphasizing knowledge and assessing all aspects of the market and competitors, as well as those crucial to business in general, such as command and control, motivating all the participants, and unifying one's "forces." In your Art of War, we were impressed with the amount of detail you went into explaining the turbulent Warring States period, e.g., weapons, equipment, battle formations, military organization, major players. We think it is important to have good background information to better understand what Sun Tzu faced. Do you think it was more difficult to apply warfare strategies in that time period than more modern times?

Sawyer: I wouldn't say more difficult, rather different. Confronted by multiple enemies, Sun-tzu evolved a vision for the ruthless prosecution of efficient warfare based upon the era's battlefield experience and technological capabilities of the time.

(It is my contention that Sun-tzu had a unified vision but the medium of expression, narrow bamboo strips which contained perhaps 12 to 15 characters each, being cumbersome and inconvenient -- I actually had one of these books made when I was in Taiwan some 20 years ago -- constrain written thought to laconic expressions, to lecture notes and prompts rather than expository statements just as seen in the pronouncements of Confucius, Sun-tzu's contemporary, in the Analects. Moreover, they easily become confused before stringing together and misplaced when bindings break. Although not generally accepted, this contortion well explains the frequent appearance of numbers as memory aids and the sometimes discordant nature of elements in various "chapters," later editors having inappropriately juxtaposed even contradictory assertions.)

However, field forces in Sun-tzu's era, being well controlled by flags and drums, were already capable of tactical maneuver while formations, albeit still few in number, had already evolved. Despite rapidly growing in size, armies were reasonably manageable compared to the massive forces proliferating in the Warring States that became incapable of the maneuver warfare and the quick prosecution of battles envisioned by Sun-tzu.

Today, barring enemy jamming, the problems of communication have been essentially solved but the battlefield has become far more extensive, the tempo unbelievably rapid, and the technology horrifically lethal. The most potent weapons of antiquity, the bow and arrow and later the crossbow, both of which were not only fundamental but essentially defined early Chinese warfare, have of course been replaced with a variety of modern missile weapons. Yet in the recent Iraq war special forces played a major role in thwarting the enemy's response and structuring the battle. Their employment in this fashion well coheres with Sun-tzu's concept of unorthodox warfare, of consciously manipulating the battle space and shaping the conflict.

Complexity is of course a relative term, defined against ability to master the situation and dispel the fog of war. In antiquity enemy commanders on both sides were thwarted by slowness of movement and therefore battling within the same realm, suffering the same constraints. Thus the commander's intent and army's ability to realize the overall strategic objective was in many ways equally problematic, unlike certain stages in military history when either the ensconced defense or some newly potent offense enjoyed a clear-cut advantage. However, the history of warfare prompts these intriguing questions and lengthy arguments could probably be made for comparative ease of realization in antiquity rather than modernity, or vice versa. Sun Tzu said, "[Spies] are a ruler's treasures." You wrote the Tao of Spycraft, a book much discussed on the Sonshi Forum. Would you mind giving us some insight into this topic?

Sawyer: The chapter on spies being the last in the extant book has prompted suggestions that it was not from Sun-tzu's hand, but the contents are remarkably consistent with the views expressed in the other chapters, particularly within a historical context which saw the practice of intelligence gathering become crucial to the survival of individual states.

Moreover, it well coheres with his conception of efficient warfare and the requisite thrust to the detailed knowledge of the enemy upon which all plans and action, military and political, must be based. (Please note that I am again emphasizing the ruthless prosecution of efficient warfare rather than the efficient prosecution of ruthless warfare, the latter being a concept attributable to Sun Pin.) Particularly when enemies are ready to pounce and exploit every opportunity, whether created by victory or defeat, disproportionate resources must be allocated to the acquisition of critical information.

From inception Sun-tzu's agents were not merely passive collectors, but highly motivated seekers who actively penetrated the enemy's environment and key administrative structures. Moreover, many were tasked with the primary work of creating disaffection and disseminating false information, both for immediate effect and to achieve the ideal of being "formless." (This amorphousness causes the enemy to misdirect and dissipate their resources in a multitude of directions, creating broad weaknesses that can be discovered by clandestine agents and exploited both diplomatically and on the battlefield.)

Intelligence activities have long de-emphasized human agency even as disinformation has come to be considered politically incorrect, critics apparently believing that transparency will reveal U. S. motives to be benign even as people are terrified by our awesome power. In consequence, it's often said that we are expert in counting tanks and hard targets but lack a penetrating understanding of the enemy's intent or even their contemporary culture. This results not just from the elimination of agents gathering essential military secrets, but also large numbers studying all available sources of information to understand the enemy's culture and perceive shifts in intent. (Of course the latter is so nebulous as to cause heated interpretive arguments, whereas missile site configurations are basically self-evident.)

Sun-tzu's insight is increasingly crucial in this age of cyber information, yet ironically over the centuries in both China and the West the craft of intelligence gathering, even the tasks of analysis, have not only been disdained, but condemned as inappropriate and unrighteous, as if the battle between states is a football game bounded by rules, a well-defined playing field, and referees, forgetting that the losers merely get bad press whereas extinction awaits those who flail about ignorantly in the real world.

Moreover, clandestine activities continue at a pace unimaginable just decades, not to mention centuries ago, practiced extensively on the Orient's home ground through a wide variety of methods, many dependent upon exploiting women and pleasure. Do you think ancient works have a place in our modern world? Steven Sample, President of USC, called a few of them supertexts. In essence, a person can be successful in life without reading about the "latest and greatest," as found in (for example) newspapers. Do you agree?

Sawyer: In our era, new theories arise and are embraced as fervently as the latest pop icon, yet -- apart from hard science and engineering -- generally fail to offer more than a slightly different perspective on fundamental issues.

Despite the contemporary pace of innovation and social change, the complexities of modern society and information integration, I tend to think the fundamentals of human behavior and repetition of defining experiences make classic insights as valuable, if not more important, than when they were initially conceived. Certainly fundamental teachings, even though often contradictory, provide insights and possibilities for life orientation, including the Analects, Tao Te Ching, I Ching, original teachings of the Buddha, many Greek and Latin works, and others of more recent vintage. Whether conceived as "great books" or "super texts" and limited to some arbitrary number such as ten, twenty-five, or a hundred, they are clearly surpassingly transcendent works, that elucidate the possibilities and parameters of reflective existence. Please tell us about your latest book The Tao of War.

Sawyer: The Tao of War -- again a work of translation with commentary and historical context rather than a historical study -- was apparently stimulated when Wang Chen, the author, was revolted by the incessant warfare and carnage he witnessed as a provincial military commander late in the eighth century in the decades subsequent to An Lu-shan's epochal revolution against the T'ang. Within a classic tradition that assets conflict is inherent to the human condition, Wang pondered the overwhelmingly complex issue of how warfare might be ended. Seizing upon the great Taoist classic known as the Tao Te Ching, he meditated upon its eighty-one verses -- though from a decidedly Confucian perspective -- in search of a solution.

The Tao Te Ching, an immensely influential book that impacted military thought early on, dates back to roughly the third century BC in China. Certainly not the product of a single mind or hand, but rather a composite that evolved over decades if not longer, it encompasses often contradictory impulses within an overall naturalistic view of the world, one stressing simplicity and attaining harmony with the Tao or "Way." The focal intention of the original or core text is much argued, some viewing it as a blatantly political writing appropriate to rulers rather than recluses, though the majority hold that it is not an activist work, but one intended for understanding the nature and processes of the universe, designed for individual self cultivation and the pursuit of tranquility.

Wang Chen paradoxically accepts both perspectives and thus derives some interesting conclusions, including a justification for pre-emptive action provided that it benefits humanity. (Hitlers are to be eliminated before they pose a threat, while they are still at the stage of mere saplings. However, this thrust entails many undiscussed difficulties because one man's freedom fighter may be another's evil personified.) Given that our millennium has witnessed an astounding proliferation of violence and the widespread resurgence of localized conflicts rather than the cessation of strife and violence that should accompany increased knowledge and community, the book's intriguing contents seemed particularly worth translating. What is currently on Ralph Sawyer's work plate, and what are his future plans?

Sawyer: We have just completed a two-year study of incendiary and aquatic warfare that will be published by Westview Press in the winter of 2003 under the title Fire and Water: Incendiary and Aquatic Warfare in China. Prior to the invention and perfection of explosives -- that is, gunpowder based weapons -- the only means to massively affect the enemy was through incendiary assault and flooding. Both were developed and exploited in China from the Warring States onward, being increasingly employed as external peoples (termed barbarians in the historical records) pressured Chinese civilization southward after gaining their greatest impetus in the Three Kingdoms period.

Fire of course has always been the ready weapon of the outnumbered and downtrodden and incendiary attacks continue to wreck great havoc even today. The book examines the evolution of incendiary and aquatic theory over the centuries, the intriguing technologies developed and deployed prior to the introduction of gunpowder, and finally actual practice in a number of historical battles.

As of today we are also actively re-examining a number of intelligence issues and completing the first volume of the History of Warfare in China, one which has consumed far more time than expected because of the need for extensive research in archaeological reports and the slow pondering of the enormously difficult oracle bones and often obscure bronze inscriptions which preserve Shang and early Chou activities. However, the archaeological discoveries of the past three decades have caused us to radically revise the traditional understanding of early Chinese warfare, particularly the nature of combat. Moreover, we believe this new perception well coheres with the outline of practices visible in these early non-textual sources.

(In all these activities I have been aided immeasurably by my wife, Mei-chün Lee, who focuses primarily on the secondary literature and also investigates a wide variety of potential historical sources.)

[End of interview]

In addition to Ralph D. Sawyer's books below, the author expressed that you may find his article, "Chinese Warfare: The Paradox of the Unlearned Lesson" in the autumn, 1999 issue of the online journal American Diplomacy Magazine of interest.

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