A conversation with C.C. Tsai, a Chinese artist and illustrator of Sunzi’s classic “The Art of War” (Princeton University Press, 2018), translated into English by Brian Bruya.
When C.C. Tsai decided to adapt Sunzi’s “The Art of War” into a more contemporary format more than 30 years ago, his ambition was to breathe new life into the 2,500-year-old text. “When people talk about transmitting the classics to the present generation, it’s often very sterile and uniform and, frankly, boring,” Tsai said. After studying multiple editions of the text and secondary sources about it, he saw an opportunity to reconceive “The Art of War” — which to this day remains one of the most important pieces of writing on warfare and strategy — as an illustrated narrative. In 1990, Tsai created a comic-book version for a Chinese audience, and an English-language edition followed in 1994. Since then, Tsai’s extended series of illustrated classics have sold millions of copies and have been translated to more than 20 languages.
Tsai’s adaptation of “The Art of War” revitalized the millenniums-old treatise by trimming away the repetitive elements, tightening the narrative until the ancient lessons of warfare leapt off the page. But the defining element of Tsai’s work is the illustrations. His Disney-influenced style brings humor and immediacy to the text, with Sunzi himself popping into the story as both the wise and fearless commander of blank-eyed, child-like soldiers and the conniving nemesis to the enemy who tries to cross him. Humiliated soldiers seethe and bluster while Sunzi and his men titter with laughter. A particular pleasure is the anthropomorphized livestock, like the horse who surrenders while standing on its hind legs with hooves raised in the air, mirroring its rider’s hands-up posture. Tsai’s characters are drawn to entertain, whether you’re a comic-book enthusiast or a military strategist.
In June, Princeton University Press released a new edition of Tsai’s adaptation with a foreword by Lawrence Freedman, a longtime professor of war studies at King’s College London. Freedman makes note of something hinted at throughout Tsai’s drawings: Sunzi is a brilliant military commander, but he’s also amoral, “celebrating ruthlessness as well as cunning.” According to Freedman, this is why Sunzi has become associated with villains of Western fiction like Gordon Gekko (from the Oliver Stone film “Wall Street”) and Tony Soprano. Sunzi can be thought of as the master manipulator — always controlling all the pieces (literally on a chessboard in some panels) to stay a step ahead the enemy.
From his home in Hangzhou, China, Tsai spoke about Sunzi, his own time in the military and what readers often misunderstand about “The Art of War.”
The style of the illustrations is such a drastic departure from the traditional presentation of the text. How did you come to choose the style you used for this book?
When I started to think about how to present Chinese classics to a contemporary audience, I felt like I had two duties. One was to thoroughly understand it myself, and the second was to lead the reader through a door into a field that they might be apprehensive about and have some kind of fear of. My duty, I felt, was to use humor and stories to get the ideas across, to get the reader to relax and to be able to accept these ideas in a straightforward and simple format. I feel like this is one of the strengths of the comic format.
I read that you’ve developed 20 different styles of drawing. So how did you choose the style you used in “The Art of War”? And what would you call it?
I do have many styles, and if you see them without my name attached, you’d never know that they were drawn by me. When I did this series with “The Art of War” and Confucius and so on, the style is all pretty much the same, except that if you look closely, you’ll notice the style of “The Art of War” is whimsical to an extent, but it’s more serious than in, say, the Daoist books, which are even more whimsical and humorous. In “The Art of War,” I used very simple lines, and if something didn’t need to be drawn, it was left out. You can see a lot of white space. When something did need to be drawn, I put a lot of detail into it. Even if you look at the smallest horse or person or roof, you can see a lot of details in each one. I don’t have a name for any particular style, but I try to tailor the style to the content.
I understand that you first read “The Art of War” when you were very young. Is there anything in the text that you recall connecting with as an adult that you didn’t when reading it as a child?
Yes. Some things did stand out to me when I was trying to really understand the central ideas and the spirit of the text, like the idea that you should win before you go to war. And that when you lose a war, it’s because you haven’t prepared adequately. Also, that you shouldn’t fight without there being clear goals. You have to have some reason to go to war. Also, that anger is something one should be very cautious about when it comes to warfare. That it shouldn’t be a pretext to warfare.
How did you approach adapting the original text to comic form?
I focused on what I thought were the most important ideas and stories, and so it’s not drawn in its entirety. “The Art of War” is not a really long text, but it is longer than other Chinese classics, like the “Dao De Jing.” So I didn’t draw every word from it. But I think one could say that I’ve drawn all the ideas in it.
What do you think people most often get wrong about “The Art of War”?
I think there is a basic misunderstanding that it’s not really about war — it’s about preventing war. From very early times, the Chinese attitude toward warfare was that you need to end it as quickly as possible. The way to do that was to use irregular fighting: special strategies and tactics so that you could minimize the loss of life and the damage to crops and villages and so on. This started very early in Chinese history. Sunzi says the point of warfare is not the fighting but the winning. He says that anger can turn to happiness later, but a dead person can’t be brought back to life. A country that is lost can’t be brought back either. So the main goal of war from a Chinese perspective is to avoid it at all costs, or to figure out how to win while suffering the least amount of damage.
Can you expand on that idea of preventing warfare?
One way to think about it is when the Chinese settled and became an agricultural society, they had some valuable land, and it would often be attacked by outsiders. So they had to figure out how to defend it. War was not about imperialists going to take something from someone else; it was about defending. If you think about the Great Wall, the Great Wall was not built to attack or to take over somebody else’s land. It was to keep out invaders. China actually had very few horses in the oldest days, like in Sunzi’s time, so they had to figure out ways to fight these advancing cavalries. They had to be very clever about it. If you look at “The Art of War,” it’s about preparation. Only very little of it is about how to actually fight, and I think that people tend to neglect that.
You served in the military for a time yourself. Can you tell me a little about it?
I went into the Taiwanese military in 1968 when I was 20 years old. I was in the air force. In Taiwan, it was always as if a war was coming but the war never actually came. The Chinese on the mainland were shelling one of Taiwan’s islands in the Taiwan Strait, and it was a very scary time. But really, most of the time, it was just for show. We would sit in the barracks and play chess and so on. So in one sense, in my lifetime that I’ve been in Taiwan, there hasn’t been a war at all. You could call me very fortunate.
I was in an antiaircraft artillery unit, and I went to my commanding officer and said: “Look, I’m very good at drawing. It would be a waste to have me just standing guard eight hours a day,” which was basically what people in my unit did. They gave me the job of drawing instruction manuals for these three different kinds of antiaircraft guns we had. And as I drew them, I also inserted stories so they would be more enjoyable for the soldiers to read and understand. I’m not very good at taking orders, so I tried to find a place in the military where I could live in a way where I didn’t feel like I was actually in the military.
John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He is based in Washington.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Illustrations from “The Art of War” by Sunzi. Adapted and illustrated by C. C. Tsai. Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press.
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