Gnomicon 059

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  059
Tuesday 22 May 2012

知 己 知 彼  百 戰 百 勝

zhī zhī bǐ bǎi zhàn bǎi shèng

If you know yourself and your enemy,
in a hundred battles you’ll have a hundred victories.

孫 子          兵 法
Sūnzĭ         
bīng fǎ

Sun Tzu          The Art of War
(~5th century BCE)

Although ostensibly relevant to the tactical conduct of military operations, this aphorism from the famous military treatise, The Art of War, has in fact wide applicability to many fields – business, relationships, strategic planning.  Given its date and its opening phrase — 知 己zhī  ‘know yourself’ – one cannot help but recall and invoke the identical phrasing in ancient Greek that was reputedly affixed to Apollo’s temple at the Delphic oracle: γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnōthi seauton ‘know thyself’.  I’d say the Chinese injunction does have a faintly Delphic tinge – or is it the Delphic injunction that has a faintly Chinese tinge?

It is indeed tempting to see – or want to see – some kind of possible intellectual connection between the two cultures, one influencing the other, but isn’t it equally plausible that two so different cultures independently came up with the generically not unreasonable notion that it is a worthwhile thing in numerous contexts to have a solid sense of one’s own strengths as well as weaknesses in order to deal with a hostile world?  At least to my knowledge there is no record of any physical linkage (e.g., travel by land or sea) between China and Greece some 2500 or 2600 years ago.

As an ancillary fillip to these highly speculative walk-abouts of the mind I am further intrigued by the idea among the ancient Greeks that Delphi was deemed to be the site of the navel – or ὀμφαλόϛ omphalos — of the earth at its center, and, similarly, among the Chinese that China calls itself 中國(zhōng guó  ‘middle nation/country), the ‘country in the middle, at the center’.  Like Delphi at the center of ancient Greece and thus at the center of that universe, China too sees itself as in the middle of things (the term 中國 (zhōng guó) appears to have come about first during the Zhou Dynasty [1046-256 BCE]).  Again, any kind of positing of physical linkage as responsible for any such confluence is, as far as I know, entirely hypothetical, and no less reasonable an explanation would seem to be that groups of people, like individuals, not surprisingly like to think of themselves as centrally significant and map that significance semantically for all to hear – a kind of national narcissism as it were.

But … getting back to the epigraph, let me conclude on two brief notes: esthetic and notional.

Notionally, knowledge is power, is influence, is sway and – in the military realm – victory:  after all, why do nations expend vast sums of money on their various ‘intelligence’ operations, and we (you and I) much effort on trying to find out all we can about that other person for whatever reason?

I definitely like the sentiment, and I certainly like the elegant language expressing it.

Esthetically, the two tetramerous halves of the aphorism cohere internally as well as with each other through lexical balance and acoustic linkages: the anaphora of 知 zhī  ‘know’ … 知 zhī  ‘know’ and the identity of tone (third) in the direct objects  己 jǐ  ‘self’ and 彼  ‘enemy’ — as well as their echo rhyme — bind the first half;  the second half similarly uses anaphora (百bǎi ‘hundred’ … 百bǎi ‘hundred’) and identity of tone (fourth) in 戰 zhàn ‘battles’ and 勝 shèng ‘victory’ to glue the second half into a unit.  Finally, between the two halves, connection is underscored by the alliterative trio 知 … 知 …戰 (zhī ‘know’ … zhī ‘know’ … zhàn ‘battles’) and the phonic contiguity (and alliteration) of 彼 百 … 百(bǐ ‘enemy’ bǎi  ‘hundred’ bǎi ‘hundred’).  Along with other rhetorical strategies, the kinds of balances and antitheses and parallelisms of phonics (tones) and semantics (characters) that one finds here are part of a highly formalized system – not entirely unlike, yet totally different from, the complex prescriptions that obtain in the poetic meters of ancient Greek (and Latin) poetry (cf. here).

Full disclosure:

Am I fluent in Chinese?

No, alas, faaaar from it!

I do know some (as I think of it) ‘kitchen’ Chinese, and continue my Sisyphean attempts at learning to read and write Chinese – a project that I am convinced can be entirely successful only for the person who began practicing the stroke orders of characters and recognition of their radicals a month or two before emerging from the maternal womb.  But it is a linguistically fascinating and esthetically beautiful language, as difficult for a foreigner to learn as ancient Greek – though for entirely different reasons.  All I know are Indo-European languages, and Chinese (at home in the Sino-Tibetan family) is an entirely novel linguistic experience for me – and hence utterly intriguing!

Now you know!

If you are interested in matters broached here, I can highly recommend a not wholly inaccessible discussion in How to Read a Chinese Poem: a Bilingual Anthology of Tang Poetry [2007] by Edward C. Chang, available at Amazon-dot-com here.

For the current gnomicon I had the gracious help of very patient Chinese friends, in particular two beautiful ladies — 李 賢 (Li Xian) and 楼 依 月(Lou Yiyue).  [Needless to say, I alone am responsible for what appears in this posting.]

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