This book is the latest offering from Ralph D. Sawyer, the distinguished translator of the Seven Military Classics and several other Chinese military treatises of the ancient and imperial periods. It is primarily a translation of Essential Explanations of the Tao Te Ching's Martial Discussions (Tao Te Ching lun ping yao i shu), a work by an obscure early ninth-century civil official named Wang Chen that takes the form of a commentary on the Tao Te Ching (traditionally attributed to the legendary Taoist sage Lao Tzu). To this are added Sawyer's analytical introduction, a complete translation of the Tao Te Ching according to Wang Chen's idiosyncratic interpretation, and the translator's own running commentary on both Wang's ideas and the contents of the ancient Taoist classic itself.
Unlike some of Sawyer's earlier translations, this volume includes no scholarly apparatus. Hence, it will be frustrating for sinologists but readily accessible to the general reader.
The substance of Wang Chen's work is quite different from the military texts translated by Sawyer in the past. Instead of offering pragmatic advice on how to defeat one's enemies, Wang drives home the point that rulers should not initiate aggressive, expansive warfare, which will surely lead to disaster--a point that he insists on drawing out of almost every one of the Tao Te Ching's 81 chapters.
Wang is not, however, a complete pacifist, for he admits the need to maintain armed forces for defense and deterrence. As Sawyer points out, Wang's understanding of the Taoist classic is strongly colored by Confucian concepts and categories; he maintains, for example, that Lao Tzu's attacks on the Confucian virtue of benevolence are really aimed at an insincere or debased benevolence, and expresses the quintessentially Confucian notion (actually deriving from Mencius) that the truly virtuous and sage ruler will have no need to fight because his opponents, recognizing his superior virtue, will submit voluntarily.
In his introduction and commentary, Sawyer--no great fan of Mencius--disagrees with Wang's Confucian take on the Tao Te Ching so often as to make one wonder why he even bothered to devote his impressive talent to this particular text. In the opinion of this reviewer, however, his effort was not wasted: Wang Chen's ostensibly Taoist work provides a fascinating glimpse of the syncretic element in medieval Chinese thought.