Sun Tzu & The Art of Soft Power

With its contemporary culture still lacking global mass appeal, and much of its traditional culture politically inconvenient, China has famously rehabilitated Confucius to serve as its soft power champion. With Western admirers as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Paris Hilton, though, the putative author of The Art of War may offer potent reinforcement. From The Economist:

In the West Sun Tzu’s advice has been adapted for almost every aspect of human interaction from the boardroom to the bedroom. The publishing industry feeds on Sun Tzu spin-offs, churning out motivational works such as “Sun Tzu For Success: How to Use the Art of War to Master Challenges and Accomplish the Important Goals in Your Life” (by Gerald Michaelson and Steven Michaelson, 2003), management advice such as “Sun Tzu for Women: The Art of War for Winning in Business” (Becky Sheetz-Runkle, 2011) and sporting tips such as “Golf and the Art of War: How the Timeless Strategies of Sun Tzu Can Transform Your Game” (Don Wade, 2006). Amazon offers 1,500 titles in paperback alone. Paris Hilton, an American celebrity and author of an aphorism of her own: “Dress cute wherever you go, life is too short to blend in”, has been seen dipping into him (see picture) ….

A Google News search for “Sun Tzu” neatly illustrates the phenomenon. The Economist continues:

Professor [John] Minford says he is mystified by this. “I had to struggle with the book at the coal face, with the actual Chinese, and it’s a very peculiar and particularly unpleasant little book which is extremely disorganised, made up of a series of probably very corrupt bits of text, which is very repetitive and has extremely little to say.” He calls the work (whose authorship is even disputed) “basically a little fascist handbook on how to use plausible ideas in order to totally destroy your fellow man”.

Sam Crane, whom The Economist quotes, further explores Sunzi’s strengths and weaknesses as an alternative face of Chinese soft power at The Useless Tree, and notes the difficulties of soothing wary neighbours while hailing a military master strategist.

Generally, Sunzi is easier to integrate into contemporary modernist and post-modernist political and social practices. Indeed, it has already been so integrated, as evidenced by its invocation in business and military and political and, even, dating books (I haven’t read it – obviously – but I’m sure Confucianism will not produce a title quite like this: The Art of War for Dating: Master Sun Tzu’s Tactics To Win Over Women). This may seem frivolous but I think that “soft power” cultural resources have to be flexible and popular and fun to create the kind of “attractiveness” that the notion implies. And, long story short, that is a big part of the reason why Confucianism is just not working as a source of soft power: it is too serious and demanding.

But Sunzi, as the article suggests, poses a problem for the PRC’s soft power strategy, because it does not project the image of China that Party propagantists want to project …. [It] creates an image of China as a potentially devious, deceptive (remember, for Sunzi, war, and by Clausewitzian extension, politics, is all about deception) and self-interested power, not quite the picture Beijing wants to paint. Better to have the avuncular smile of Confucius than the calculating glare of Sunzi…

See also Crane’s post, ‘Why Confucianism will not provide “soft power” to the PRC‘.

December 16, 2011 4:48 PM
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