The Methods of Ssu-ma

The Methods of Ssu-ma

A Review



 Several weeks ago, Ralph D. Sawyer's and Mei-chün Sawyer's The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China and the text of T'ai Kung's Six Secret Teachings was the selection chosen. This week The Methods of the Ssu-ma is the shorter and strategic text of choice. In the case of strategy, and especially in the case of Chinese strategy, there are times when shorter is better. Shorter texts tend to employ fewer examples and scenarios taking less time to read; however, without these additional helps the text can quickly become enigmatic.

        Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer provide an excellent introduction and notes.  Their knowledge on the subject matter is extensive and any would be enigmas are rapidly broken. As for being merely an "academic" text, this text is associated and plays a part in key moments and movements in Chinese imperial and social history. The Methods original composition date is uncertain though it would appear it was in its basic current form as early as the 4th century B.C.E. "Ssu-ma" means "cavalry/horse master" and is the title long associated with The Methods, and unfortunately the Chinese characters used leave the actual and historical identity of the author unknown.

        Despite the unknown authorship of the text the various methods here once again lend themselves to a wide variety of applications in both society and individual lives.  Some methods that Ssu-ma discusses are familiar ones: counseling orthodox tactics when in possession of an orthodox (large force) army, unorthodox tactics when possessing an unorthodox (or small) force and when to press an advantage in a situation in order to achieve victory and success.

        Introducing and underlying all of these military discussions is a very literary and philosophical theme that finds its echoes in Confucian thought as well as in Taoism.  The presentation of material follows this introduction and salute to the greater ideas of humanity and the relationship of humanity towards those ideas/ideals.  The foundation for success according to The Methods, begins with a proper understanding of ideas and utilizing them in conjunction with the other methods.  A quick read, that repays twice the time invested.