Sun Tzu and the Art of War

(Soldiers from the Ming Dynasty Departure Herald, from the Jiajing reign period in China (1522-1566), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

A Violent Golden Age

The centuries spanning the Spring and Autumn Period (8th-6th century BCE) and the Warring States Period (6th-3rd century BCE) saw the onset of an incredible amount of human innovation and thought. On one hand there were military advancements in China, such as the crossbow (introduced around the 5th-4th century BCE) and cavalry (made professional in China soon after the crossbow). On the other hand, texts of philosophy, religion and strategy were written that are still widely admired to this day. The number of great minds that operated during the Warring States Period is simply baffling. There was Confucius and his philosophical successors, notably Mencius and Hsün Tzu. Also prevalent were the major Daoist (or Taoist) intellectuals like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Later, there were the philosophers of authoritarianism and legalism, such as Lord Shang and Han Fei Tzu. Also present was the religious wildcard, Mo Tzu, who preached universal love and told of a personified Heaven that punished evil and rewarded good. Nevertheless, during this highly congested time period filled with so many geniuses, there lived a military strategist who would surpass all others in popularity and fame (except, perhaps, Confucius and Lao Tzu)—he was Master Sun, better known as Sun Tzu.

The famous work that is attributed to Sun Tzu is The Art of War. It was one of several collections of sayings, proverbs and advice on war and life that was produced by the ancient Chinese. Along with The Art of War, other notable scrolls dealing with war were The Book of Changes, The Thirty-Six Stratagems and The Hundred Unusual Strategies. The Art of War can be read both as a war manual and as a handbook for general use in daily life.

Sun Tzu had a unique philosophy on war. He was utterly ruthless, and yet, he would go above and beyond in his attempts to avoid unnecessary confrontation. For Sun Tzu, if a conflict could be won without a fight, then no fight was necessary. Nevertheless, avoiding did not mean abandoning victory. No, Sun Tzu’s ideal victory would involve deploying spies to discover an enemy’s vulnerabilities, followed by using espionage, sabotage and diplomacy to exploit these weaknesses, forcing the enemy into submission without raising a single weapon. If war happened to be unavoidable, then Sun Tzu would rely on an adaptable system of military moves and countermoves along with rigorous premeditated preparation and training to ensure victory in battle. Sun Tzu seemed to be heavily influenced by Daoism and believed that the Way (Dao) always provided a general with a path to survival and victory.

The Obscure Sun Tzu

  (Cavalry from the Ming Dynasty Departure Herald, from the Jiajing reign period in China (1522-1566 AD), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Much like the poet Homer, historical records about Sun Tzu remain remarkably vague. There are very few historical accounts that detail the life of Sun Tzu, and almost every obscure aspect of Master Sun’s life is continuously debated by those who deny or defend the position of Sun Tzu as a real person from history.

Most of what is perceived to be known about Sun Tzu primarily comes from two sources: the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145-85 BCE) and The Spring and Autumn Annals detailing events that occurred between 722-481 BCE, in the Zhou Dynasty. With sources such as these, Sun Tzu can be loosely placed in a time period and pinpointed to a general area of ancient China.

Broadly speaking, Sun Tzu’s life, death and the recording of his sayings into The Art of War occurred during the long period of time between the 6th and 3rd century BCE. If, however, you follow sources such as Sima Qian, Sun Tzu is thought to have been a contemporary of Confucius, who likely lived around 551-479 BCE.

Sun Tzu’s supposed place of birth, and his kingdom of employment, fit the assumption that Master Sun lived mainly in the 6th and 5th century BCE. According to the scant information about Sun Tzu, the master strategist was born in Ch’i (or Qi), which is in the modern Shandong Province, but he eventually found employment in the court of King Ho-Lu (or He Lü) of Wu, who is believed to have reigned from 514-496 BCE. The Kingdom of Wu was located in modern Zhejiang. If Sun Tzu truly did work for King Ho-Lu, then he would, indeed, have been a contemporary of Confucius.

A popular and amusing story—which most historians believe to be fictional—occurred when Sun Tzu first was introduced to King Ho-Lu of Wu. According to the tale, King Ho-Lu was impressed by Sun Tzu’s military philosophy, but wanted to see the strategist demonstrate his skill. This demonstration, however, would not be an average exhibition, and the troops involved in the display would not be typical soldiers. No, King Ho-Lu wanted to see if Sun Tzu could whip the women in his palace into a capable fighting force. Therefore, the king’s concubines were marched out and Sun Tzu was tasked with transforming them into an army. Under the right conditions and experiences, almost anyone can be made into a more than competent fighter regardless of strength, size or sex—nevertheless, these ancient pampered concubines likely had little experience with the military.

Sun Tzu called the concubines together, organized them like an army, and instructed them on how to complete some simple drills. When he ordered the women to undertake the drills just as he had shown them, the concubines suffered a burst of sudden laughs and giggles. At this point, Sun Tzu chastised himself—he decided that he must not have given the instructions and orders with adequate clarity. Nevertheless, when he ordered the women to complete their drills a second time, the concubines, again, broke into uncontrollable giggles.

This breach of discipline was too much for Sun Tzu—he had two of his ‘officer’ concubines detained and scheduled for execution. After this decision was made public, Sun Tzu quickly received an urgent notice that the two condemned women were King Ho-Lu’s favorite concubines, and the king wanted the women pardoned. Sun Tzu responded bluntly, simply saying that because he was the general appointed by the king, he had the duty and the power to ensure that the military acted properly in order to ensure the country’s security. Suffice it to say, the two women were executed and the rest of the concubines no longer had any disciplinary troubles.

On a more solid historical note, the Kingdom of Wu was a major participant of the Warring States Period, and King Ho-Lu (r. 514-496 BCE) is widely believed to have been an actual king of the Kingdom of Wu. Sun Tzu is often mentioned in commentary on the Wu-Chu Wars that occurred between 512-506 BCE. In particular, Master Sun supposedly played a major role in Wu’s victory over Chu in the Battle of Boju (506 BCE), when the strategist commanded Wu’s forces, along with King Ho-Lu and the king’s brother, Fugai.

Even though Sun Tzu’s life, philosophy and exploits were included in various ancient accounts, it remains historically suspicious that Master Sun’s name is absent from one of the major prime sources describing King Ho-Lu’s time period—TheZou Commentary. Nevertheless, by the time of the Han Dynasty (around 206 BCE-220 CE), The Art of War, and its supposed author, Sun Tzu, were widely known household names in China.

The unknowable truth about the history of Sun Tzu does not change the monumental influence brought about by The Art of War for multiple millennia. From ancient times to the present day, people of all walks of life have found inspiration and guidance from the writings of Sun Tzu. The Art of War is one of the few books that can claim to be cherished and embraced universally by soldiers, philosophers, capitalist businessmen and communist revolutionaries, alike.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


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