The art of illustrating the “Art of War”
When more than thirty years ago Tsai (Tsai Chih Chung) decided to adapt Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” into a more modern format, he wanted to breathe new life into the 2500-year-old text. “When interpreting the need to pass on the classics to new generations, people often mean classics that are extremely sterile, monotonous and, in truth, tedious,” Tsai explained. Having studied several editions of the treatise and secondary sources, he realized that he was able to rethink The Art of War (which to this day remains one of the most important literary works about war and strategy) and present it to the world as an illustrated story. In 1990, Tsai created a comic version for a Chinese audience, and in 1994 an English version. Since then, millions of copies of his expanded, Illustrated Chinese Classics Library series (which included, among others, the book) have been sold.
Tsai’s adaptation revived the millennial treatise The Art of War. The artist cut out repeating, narrative-dragging elements until the ancient lessons of the war came to life on the pages. But it was drawings that became the defining element of Tsai’s work. His style, somewhat reminiscent of Disney cartoons, brings comic and spontaneity to the text, and Sun Tzu himself in the stories acts as the wise and fearless commander of the naive-eyed, kid-like soldier who pays tribute to the enemy trying to stand in his way. The humiliated foes are indignant and cockerel, while Sun Tzu and his people roll with laughter. A special charm is anthropomorphic cattle, like the horse that surrenders, standing on its hind legs, and raises its hooves, copying the actions of its rider. Tsai’s characters attract the attention of both comic fans and military strategists. In June 2018, Princeton University Press released a new edition of Tsai’s adaptation with a preface from Lawrence Friedman, Emeritus Professor of Military Studies at King’s College London. Friedman notes that Tsai Sun-Tzu is a brilliant military commander in the drawings, but he is equally immoral, “extolling ruthlessness and cunning.” According to Friedman, this is why Sun Tzu is so often associated with the villains of Western culture, such as Gordon Gekko (from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street movie) and Tony Soprano. In Sun Tzu, you can spot a skilled master manipulator, who always controls his pieces (moreover, in some of Tsai’s images, literally on a chessboard) to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Tsai received me at his home in Hangzhou, China, and talked about Sun Tzu, his military service and how readers often misunderstand The Art of War.
Presenting such text in a comic book format is far from a traditional solution. How did you come to the choice of style that you used for this book? When I was just starting to think about how to present the Chinese classics to a modern audience, I noted two main tasks. One of them is to fully understand the work, and the second is to find for the reader a door leading to an area unknown to him. I should have used a humorous narrative to clearly articulate ideas, make the reader relax and accept these ideas in a simple and understandable format. And, as for me, it was the comic book format that handled this best. I read that you have developed 20 different drawing styles. How did you choose the same style for The Art of War? And what would you call him? I use many styles, and if you happen to see them without my signature, you will never understand that the author is me. When I worked on the series, which included The Art of War, the collection of Confucius and others, almost always used one style, but looking more closely, you can notice that the design style of The Art of War, though fancy, is more serious than , say, in the Taoist book, illustrated in a more extravagant and anecdotal manner. In The Art of War, I used very simple lines, and excluded those that did not require visualization. The pages have a lot of white space, as you can see. But I filled every element drawn with many details. Pay attention to any tiny horse (or a person, or a roof), and you can appreciate the detail. I do not invent a name for each particular style, but I always try to adapt the style to the content. As I understand it, you first read The Art of War in your early youth. Perhaps reading it in adulthood, you learned something new? Yes. When I tried to realize the main ideas and the spirit of the text, it turned out that some thoughts stand out especially against the others, such as the idea that you need to win before you enter the war. And what if the war is lost, it is only due to insufficient preparation. In addition, you should not fight without clear goals, there must be a reason for starting a war. Moreover, when it comes to war, you need to be careful with such a thing as anger. It should not be an excuse for war.