Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

-"sun-tzu," she said. "gesundheit," he said.

sun-tzu's art of war, a notorious military classic, is most interesting to me not because of the book itself, but because of the dozens of introductory and historical materials that get folded into the pages.

the notes and notations spill in iterations of excessive scholarship over 2500 years of active study.

the great controversy of the man: he was not mentioned in the annals of his time. was he real? was he a literary conceit? was he the son of the great general?

the famous story told of sun tzu, when the king brought him to the palace to test the general's ability, is also probably as mythical as george washington's cherry tree.

the emperor, upon meeting sun tzu, wished to test the leadership of the man who urged action when the emperor desired peace. jokingly, the emperor amassed his concubines and handed military equipment among them. he gave sun tzu command of these delicate, amused flowers. the emperor's favored concubines were given command as officers.

sun tzu ordered the troops into formation and ordered them into military manuevers.

the women descended into amused giggles, too busy playing soldier to pay attention to their commands.

the great general called down the wrath of heaven. he barked and howled with fury at his disobediant troops. he ordered executioners forth with their giant axes.

"the officers are responsible for the discipline of the troops. when troops disobey orders, officers are held responsible. by law, they are executed."

the concubines that had been chosen as officers were lined up below the executioner's axes.

the emperor, sensing no bluff from the great general, descended from his high throne. he urged sun-tzu to reconsider for this was merely a mild game, and to lose the favored concubines in such a matter would cause the emperor's food to lose flavor.

sun tzu turned his wrath to the emperor. "the general is always in command of the army, separate from the emperor. once an army is amassed, it would offend heaven not to use it appropriately."

the general ordered the executioners to cut off the heads of the concubine officers. the executioners obeyed the command.

afterward, new officers were chosen among the concubines.

military orders were issued. the concubines obeyed. this army of delicate flowers had hardened into thorns.

sun tzu turned to the emperor and showed him this new army. sun tzu declared that this army could march into any war, now.

the emperor, horrified, sought to disband the army of concubines.

sun tzu, again, called the emperor's attention to the laws of heaven, "to amass an army only to disband it is contrary to the true nature of the universe. now that we have an army, we must use it against our enemies."

thus, sun tzu had convinced an emperor of the necessity of action. the full army of the emperor from chariot to archer to cavalry to infantry was called to war, under sun tzu's command.

sun-tzu's army marched to victory.

afterward, sun tzu denied all rewards and all political posts. he retired to a mountain top, to meditate.

this story is part of the myth of the man that may not have existed. it appears, in one form or another in thousands of versions over the last two-thousand years.

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