The Riddle of the Nine Variables
In the original Chinese, Sun-tzu ping-fa (Sun Tzu’s Art of War) is extremely rich, poetic and in many ways very simple. So simple that it leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, it almost requires a kind of creative interaction with the text. There are many repeated patterns and formulas. These patterns are sometimes lost or obscured in translation but they are obvious in the Chinese. They are simple in structure; often only three characters and usually two of the three characters are repeated making a very recognizable formula. Also, some things that seem mysterious or puzzling in English translations are much less confusing in Chinese. “The Nine Variables” from chapter eight is a case in point.
We are not the first to puzzle over “The Nine Variables.” Several translators, as viewed from their notes, seem to have pondered the mystery as well. What are they? Which nine? It is not clear. In the Chinese text the character used is jiu. The character itself means something like approaching ten and the most common translation of jiu is “nine.” However, it also can mean “a large amount,” “several” or “many.” In this case, a better translation would have been “The Many Variables” which does in fact describe the content of the chapter.
Chapter eleven presents a similar case. Most translations refer to the nine kinds of ground or terrain. The Chinese characters are jiu and biàn. The character biàn is related to soil or earth and is usually translated as “ground” but it can also mean “circumstance” or “situation.” In the context of the chapter a better translation would be “The Many Situations.”
Typically when Sun Tzu uses a phrase with a number in it, for example “The Five Constant Factors,” he will follow it with a list. The list will include each item as well as the number. In the case of “The Many Variables” or “The Many Situations” there are no numbered lists (although many translators have tried to add them).