Ideas that add up #106

The relative absence in the Chinese tradition of Western-style teleology that assumes a given “end” has encouraged the perception among Western historians that the Chinese, with libraries of carefully recorded yet seemingly random detail, are inadequate chroniclers of their own past. There seems to be little concern to recover an intelligible pattern from what seriously threatens to remain formless and meaningless. Jorge Luis Borges captures this Western perception in his well-known citation of “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which the category of “animals” is divided into: 1) belonging to the Emperor, 2) embalmed, 3) tame, 4) suckling pigs, 5) sirens, 6) fabulous, 7) stray dogs, 8) included in the present classification, 9) frenzied, 10) innumerable, 11) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, 12) et cetera, 13) having just broken the water pitcher, and 14) that from a long way off look like flies. 

Roger Ames, Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare

I’ve been trying to avoid reading Ames’s (probably fine) translation or introduction to that translation, while I puzzle over writing my own introduction, but when I opened it to a random page today my eyes fell straight on this.

It’s noticeable that while Western commentators on Sunzi grumble about the erratic sequence of ideas, the repetitions, inconsistencies, redundancies and apparent non-sequiturs in the text, little of this is remarked on by Chinese commentators – for whom the 13 chapters cohere nicely.    

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