The Art of War

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The Art of War
Traditional Chinese孫子兵法
Simplified Chinese孙子兵法
Hanyu PinyinSūnzĭ Bīngfǎ
Literal meaningSun Tzu's Military Principles
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Inscribed bamboo slips of The Art of War, unearthed in Yinque Mountain, Linyi, Shandong in 1972, dated back to the 2nd century BC.
The Art of War
Traditional Chinese孫子兵法
Simplified Chinese孙子兵法
Hanyu PinyinSūnzĭ Bīngfǎ
Literal meaningSun Tzu's Military Principles

The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu (also referred to as "Sun Wu" and "Sunzi"),[1] a high-ranking military general, strategist and tactician, and it was believed to have been compiled during the late Spring and Autumn period or early Warring States period.[2] The text is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare. It is commonly known to be the definitive work on military strategy and tactics of its time. It has been the most famous and influential of China's Seven Military Classics, and: "for the last two thousand years it remained the most important military treatise in Asia, where even the common people knew it by name."[3] It has had an influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, legal strategy and beyond.

The book was first translated into the French language in 1772 by French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot and a partial translation into English was attempted by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905. The first annotated English language translation was completed and published by Lionel Giles in 1910.[4] Leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, General Douglas MacArthur and leaders of Imperial Japan have drawn inspiration from the work.



Sun Tzu considered war as a necessary evil that must be avoided whenever possible. He notes, "war is like fire; people who do not lay down their arms will die by their arms".[5] The war should be fought swiftly to avoid economic losses: "No long war ever profited any country: 100 victories in 100 battles is simply ridiculous. Anyone who excels in defeating his enemies triumphs before his enemy's threat become real". According to the book, one must avoid massacres and atrocities because this can provoke resistance and possibly allow enemy to turn the war in his favor.[5] For the victor, "the best policy is to capture the state intact; it should be destroyed only if no other options are available".[5]

Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of positioning in military strategy. The decision to position an army must be based on both objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective beliefs of other, competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment; but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.

The 13 chapters

The Art of War is divided into 13 chapters (or piān); the collection is referred to as being one zhuàn ("whole" or alternatively "chronicle"). Because different translations have used different titles for each chapter, a selection appears below.

ChapterLionel Giles (1910)R.L. Wing (1988)Ralph D. Sawyer (1996)Chow-Hou Wee (2003)
ILaying PlansThe CalculationsInitial EstimationsDetail Assessment and Planning
(Chinese: 始計,始计)
IIWaging WarThe ChallengeWaging WarWaging War
(Chinese: 作戰,作战)
IIIAttack by StratagemThe Plan of AttackPlanning OffensivesStrategic Attack
(Chinese: 謀攻,谋攻)
IVTactical DispositionsPositioningMilitary DispositionDisposition of the Army
(Chinese: 軍形,军形)
VEnergyDirectingStrategic Military PowerForces
(Chinese: 兵勢,兵势)
VIWeak Points and StrongIllusion and RealityVacuity and SubstanceWeaknesses and Strengths
(Chinese: 虛實,虚实)
VIIManeuveringEngaging The ForceMilitary CombatMilitary Maneuvers
(Chinese: 軍爭,军争)
VIIIVariation of TacticsThe Nine VariationsNine ChangesVariations and Adaptability
(Chinese: 九變,九变)
IXThe Army on the MarchMoving The ForceManeuvering the ArmyMovement and Development of Troops
(Chinese: 行軍,行军)
XTerrainSituational PositioningConfigurations of TerrainTerrain
(Chinese: 地形)
XIThe Nine SituationsThe Nine SituationsNine TerrainsThe Nine Battlegrounds
(Chinese: 九地)
XIIThe Attack by FireThe Fiery AttackIncendiary AttacksAttacking with Fire
(Chinese: 火攻)
XIIIThe Use of SpiesThe Use of IntelligenceEmploying SpiesIntelligence and Espionage
(Chinese: 用間,用间)

Chapter summary

The beginning of The Art of War in a classical bamboo book from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor
  1. Laying Plans/The Calculations explores the five fundamental factors (the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership and management) and seven elements that determine the outcomes of military engagements. By thinking, assessing and comparing these points, a commander can calculate his chances of victory. Habitual deviation from these calculations will ensure failure via improper action. The text stresses that war is a very grave matter for the state and must not be commenced without due consideration.
  2. Waging War/The Challenge explains how to understand the economy of warfare and how success requires winning decisive engagements quickly. This section advises that successful military campaigns require limiting the cost of competition and conflict.
  3. Attack by Stratagem/The Plan of Attack defines the source of strength as unity, not size, and discusses the five factors that are needed to succeed in any war. In order of importance, these critical factors are: Attack, Strategy, Alliances, Army and Cities.
  4. Tactical Dispositions/Positioning explains the importance of defending existing positions until a commander is capable of advancing from those positions in safety. It teaches commanders the importance of recognizing strategic opportunities, and teaches not to create opportunities for the enemy.
  5. Energy/Directing explains the use of creativity and timing in building an army's momentum.
  6. Weak Points & Strong/Illusion and Reality explains how an army's opportunities come from the openings in the environment caused by the relative weakness of the enemy in a given area.
  7. Maneuvering/Engaging The Force explains the dangers of direct conflict and how to win those confrontations when they are forced upon the commander.
  8. Variation in Tactics/The Nine Variations focuses on the need for flexibility in an army's responses. It explains how to respond to shifting circumstances successfully.
  9. The Army on the March/Moving The Force describes the different situations in which an army finds itself as it moves through new enemy territories, and how to respond to these situations. Much of this section focuses on evaluating the intentions of others.
  10. Terrain/Situational Positioning looks at the three general areas of resistance (distance, dangers and barriers) and the six types of ground positions that arise from them. Each of these six field positions offer certain advantages and disadvantages.
  11. The Nine Situations/Nine Terrains describes the nine common situations (or stages) in a campaign, from scattering to deadly, and the specific focus that a commander will need in order to successfully navigate them.
  12. The Attack by Fire/Fiery Attack explains the general use of weapons and the specific use of the environment as a weapon. This section examines the five targets for attack, the five types of environmental attack and the appropriate responses to such attacks.
  13. The Use of Spies/The Use of Intelligence focuses on the importance of developing good information sources, and specifies the five types of intelligence sources and how to best manage each of them.


Traditionalist viewpoint

Traditionalist scholars attribute the writings of "Sun Tzu" to the historical Sun Wu, who is recorded in both the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) and the Spring and Autumn Annals as having been active in Wu around the end of the sixth century BC, beginning in 512 BC. The traditional interpretation concludes that the text should therefore date from this period, and should directly reflect the tactics and strategies used and created by Sun Wu. The traditionalist approach assumes that only very minor revisions may have occurred shortly after Sun Wu's death, in the early fifth century BC, as the body of his writings may have needed to be compiled in order to form the complete, modern text.[6]

The textual support for the traditionalist view is that several of the oldest of the Seven Military Classics share a focus on specific literary concepts (such as terrain classifications) which traditionalist scholars assume were created by Sun Tzu. The Art of War also shares several entire phrases in common with the other Military Classics, implying that other texts borrowed from the Art of War, and/or that The Art of War borrowed from other texts. According to traditionalist scholars, the fact that The Art of War was the most widely reproduced and circulated military text of the Warring States period indicates that any textual borrowing between military texts must have been exclusively from The Art of War to other texts and not vice versa.[7] The classical texts which most similarly reflect Sun Tzu's terms and phraseology are the Wei Liaozi and Sun Bin's Art of War.[8]

Later criticism

Skeptics to the traditionalist view within China have abounded since at least the time of the Song dynasty. Some, following Du Mu, accused The Art of War's first commentator, Cao Cao, of butchering the text. The criticisms of Cao Cao were based on a Book of Han bibliographical notation of a work composed of eighty-two sections that was attributed to Sun Tzu. The description of a work by Sun Tzu composed of eighty-two sections contrasts with the description of the Art of War from the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), in which the Art of War is described as having thirteen sections (the current number). Others doubted Sun Tzu's historical existence and claimed that the work must be a later forgery. Much of The Art of War's historical condemnation within China has been due to its realistic approach to warcraft: it advocates utilizing spies and deception. The advocacy of dishonest methods contradicted perceived Confucian values, making it a target of Confucian literati throughout later Chinese history. According to later Confucian scholars, Sun Tzu's historical existence was accordingly a late fabrication, unworthy of consideration except by the morally reprehensible.[9]

If the modern text of The Art of War reflects contrasting interpretations of the value in chivalry in warfare, the existence of these differing interpretations within the text supports the theory that the core of The Art of War was created by a figure (i.e. the historical Sun Tzu) who existed at a time when chivalry was more highly valued (i.e., the Spring and Autumn period), and that the text was amended by his followers to reflect the realities of warfare in a subsequent, distinctly un-chivalric period (i.e., the Warring States period).[9]

Modern archaeological findings

The 1972 discovery in a tomb of a nearly complete Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) copy of The Art of War, known as the Yinqueshan Han Slips, which is almost completely identical to modern editions, lends support that The Art of War had achieved its current form by at least the early Han dynasty, and findings of less-complete copies dated earlier support the view that it existed in roughly its current form by at least the time of the mid-late Warring States. Because the archaeological evidence proves that The Art of War existed in its present form by the early Han dynasty, the Han dynasty record of a work of eighty-two sections attributed to Sun Tzu is assumed by modern historians to be either a mistake, or a lost work combining the existing The Art of War with biographical and dialectical material. Some modern scholars suggest that The Art of War must have existed in thirteen sections before Sun Tzu met the King of Wu, since the king mentions the number thirteen in the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) description of their meeting.[9]

Alternative viewpoints of origin

Some modern historians[which?] challenge the traditionalist interpretation of the text's history. Even if the possibility of later revisions is disregarded, the traditionalist interpretation that Sun Tzu created The Art of War himself (ex nihilo), and that all other military scholars must have copied and borrowed from him, disregards the likelihood of any previous formal or literary tradition of tactical studies, despite the historical existence of over 2,000 years of Chinese warfare and tactical development before 500 BC. Because it is unlikely that Sun Tzu effectively created China's entire body of tactical studies, "basic concepts and common passages seem to argue in favor of a comprehensive military tradition and evolving expertise, rather than creation ex nihilo."[7]

One modern alternative to the traditionalist theory states that The Art of War achieved its current form by the mid-to-late Warring States (the fourth-to-third century BC), centuries after the historical Sun Tzu's death. This interpretation relies on disparities between The Art of War's tactics and the historical conditions of warfare in the late Spring and Autumn period (the late sixth century BC). Examples of warfare described in The Art of War which did not occur until the Warring States period include:

Because the conditions and tactics advocated in The Art of War are historically anachronistic to the historical Sun Tzu's time, it is possible that The Art of War was created in the mid-to-late Warring States period.[10]

A view that mediates between the traditionalist interpretation that the historical Sun Tzu was the only creator of The Art of War in the Spring and Autumn Period and the opposite view, that The Art of War was created in the mid-late Warring States Period centuries after Sun Tzu's death, suggests that the core of the text was created by Sun Tzu and underwent a period of revision before achieving roughly its current form within a century of Sun Tzu's death (in the last half of the fifth-century BC).

It seems likely that the historical figure (of Sun Tzu) existed, and that he not only served as a strategist and possibly a general, but also composed the core of the book that bears his name. Thereafter, the essential teachings were probably transmitted within the family or a close-knit school of disciples, being improved and revised with the passing decades while gradually gaining wider dissemination.[11]

The view that The Art of War achieved roughly its current form by the late fifth-century BC is supported by the recovery of the oldest existing fragments of The Art of War and by the analysis of the prose of The Art of War, which is similar to other texts dated more definitively to the late fifth-century BC (i.e. Mozi), but dissimilar either to earlier (i.e. The Analects) or later (i.e. Xunzi) literature from roughly the same period.[8] This theory accounts both for the historical record attributing The Art of War to Sun Tzu and for the description of tactics anachronistic to Sun Tzu's time within The Art of War.

Historical annotations

A portion of The Art of War in Tangut script

Before the bamboo scroll version was discovered by archaeologists in April 1972, a commonly cited version of The Art of War was the Annotation of Sun Tzu's Strategies by Cao Cao, the founder of the Kingdom of Wei.[4] In the preface, he wrote that previous annotations were not focused on the essential ideas.

After the movable type printer was invented, The Art of War (with Cao Cao's annotations) was published in a military textbook along with six other strategy books, collectively known as the Seven Military Classics (武經七書 / 武经七书). As required reading in military textbooks since the Song Dynasty, more than 30 differently annotated versions of these books exist today.

The Book of Sui documented seven books named after Sun Tzu. An annotation by Du Mu also includes Cao Cao's annotation. Li Jing's The Art of War is said to be a revision of Master Sun's strategies. Annotations by Cao Cao, Du Mu and Li Quan were translated into the Tangut language before year 1040. Other annotations cited in official history books include Shen You's (176-204) Sun Tzu's Military Strategy, Jia Xu's Copy of Sun Tzu's Military Strategy, and Cao Cao and Wang Ling's Sun Tzu's Military Strategy.



Verses from the book occur in modern daily Chinese idioms and phrases, such as the last verse of Chapter 3:

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

This has been more tersely interpreted and condensed into the Chinese modern proverb:

If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win numerous (literally, "a hundred") battles without jeopardy.


Common examples can also be found in English use, such as verse 18 in Chapter 1:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

This has been abbreviated to its most basic form and condensed into the English modern proverb:

All warfare is based on deception.

Military and intelligence applications

In many East Asian countries, The Art of War was part of the syllabus for potential candidates of military service examinations. Various translations are available.

During the Sengoku era in Japan, a daimyo named Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) is said to have become almost invincible in all battles without relying on guns, because he studied The Art of War.[2] The book even gave him the inspiration for his famous battle standard "Fūrinkazan" (Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain), meaning fast as the wind, silent as a forest, ferocious as fire and immovable as a mountain.

The translator Samuel B. Griffith offers a chapter on "Sun Tzu and Mao Tse-Tung" where The Art of War is cited as influencing Mao's On Guerrilla Warfare, On the Protracted War and Strategic Problems of China's Revolutionary War, and includes Mao's quote: "We must not belittle the saying in the book of Sun Wu Tzu, the great military expert of ancient China, 'Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a thousand battles without disaster.'"[2]

During the Vietnam War, some Vietcong officers studied The Art of War and reportedly could recite entire passages from memory.

General Vo Nguyen Giap successfully implemented tactics described in The Art of War during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu ending major French involvement in Indochina and leading to the accords which partitioned Vietnam into North and South. General Vo, later the main PVA military commander in the Vietnam War, was an avid student and practitioner of Sun Tzu’s ideas. America's defeat there, more than any other event, brought Sun Tzu to the attention of leaders of American military theory.[12][13][14]

Finnish Field Marshal Mannerheim and general Aksel Airo were avid readers of Art of War. They both read it in French; Airo kept the French translation of the book on his bedside table in his quarters.

The Department of the Army in the United States, through its Command and General Staff College, has directed all units to maintain libraries within their respective headquarters for the continuing education of personnel in the art of war. The Art of War is mentioned as an example of works to be maintained at each individual unit and staff duty officers are obliged to prepare short papers for presentation to other officers on their readings.[15]

The Art of War is listed on the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program (formerly known as the Commandant's Reading List). It is recommended reading for all United States Military Intelligence personnel and is required reading for all CIA officers.[16]

According to some authors, the strategy of deception from The Art of War was studied and widely used by the KGB: "I will force the enemy to take our strength for weakness, and our weakness for strength, and thus will turn his strength into weakness".[17] The book is widely cited by KGB officers in charge of disinformation operations in Vladimir Volkoff's novel Le Montage.

Application outside the military

The Art of War has been applied to many fields well outside of the military. Much of the text is about how to fight wars without actually having to do battle: it gives tips on how to outsmart one's opponent so that physical battle is not necessary. As such, it has found application as a training guide for many competitive endeavors that do not involve actual combat.

There are business books applying its lessons to office politics and corporate strategy.[18][19][20] Many Japanese companies make the book required reading for their key executives.[21] The book is also popular among Western business management, who have turned to it for inspiration and advice on how to succeed in competitive business situations. It has also been applied to the field of education.[22]

The Art of War has been the subject of law books[23] and legal articles on the trial process, including negotiation tactics and trial strategy.[24][25][26][27]

The Art of War has also been applied in the world of sports. NFL coach Bill Belichick is known to have read the book and used its lessons to gain insights in preparing for games.[28] Australian cricket as well as Brazilian association football coaches Luis Felipe Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira are known to have embraced the text. Scolari made the Brazilian World Cup squad of 2002 study the ancient work during their successful campaign.[29]

On the 15th season of the popular U.S. television show Survivor, each tribe received a copy of The Art of War. As stated by host Jeff Probst: "Survivor is a war. The book deals with leadership and how you defeat the other tribe. It's interesting how much it plays into the game all the way through."

Sources and translations

Running Press miniature edition of the 1994 Ralph D. Sawyer translation, printed in 2003

See also


  1. ^ "Zi" (子; "Tzu" in Wade-Giles transliteration) was used as a suffix for the family name of a respectable man in ancient Chinese culture. It is a rough equivalent to "Sir" and is commonly translated into English as "Master".
  2. ^ a b c Griffith, Samuel B. The Illustrated Art of War. 2005. Oxford University Press. p. 17, 141-143.
  3. ^ Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. p. 149.
  4. ^ a b Giles, Lionel The Art of War by Sun Tzu - Special Edition. Special Edition Books. 2007. p. 62.
  5. ^ a b c Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0-674-07608-7, page 467.
  6. ^ Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. pp. 149–150.
  7. ^ a b Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. p. 150.
  8. ^ a b Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. p. 422.
  9. ^ a b c Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. p. 423.
  10. ^ Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. p. 421.
  11. ^ Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books. 2007. pp. 150–151.
  12. ^ Interview with Dr. William Duiker, Conversation with Sonshi
  13. ^ McCready, Douglas. Learning from Sun Tzu, Military Review, May–June 2003.[1]
  14. ^ Forbes, Andrew ; Henley, David (2012). The Illustrated Art of War: Sun Tzu. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. ASIN: B00B91XX8U
  15. ^ Army, U. S. (1985). Military History and Professional Development. U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute. 85-CSI-21 85.
  16. ^ Marine Corps Professional Reading Program
  17. ^ Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia--Past, Present, and Future. 1994. ISBN 0-374-52738-5, chapter Who was behind perestroika?
  18. ^ Michaelson, Gerald. "Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers; 50 Strategic Rules." Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2001
  19. ^ McNeilly, Mark. "Sun Tzu and the Art of Business : Six Strategic Principles for Managers. New York:Oxford University Press, 1996.
  20. ^ Krause, Donald G. "The Art of War for Executives: Ancient Knowledge for Today's Business Professional." New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1995.
  21. ^ Kammerer, Peter. "The Art of Negotiation." South China Morning Post (April 21, 2006) pg. 15
  22. ^ Jeffrey, D. "A Teacher Diary Study to Apply Ancient Art of War Strategies to Professional Development" in The International Journal of Learning: Common Ground Publishing, USA, 2010. Volume 7, Issue 3, pp. 21–36
  23. ^ Barnhizer, David. The Warrior Lawyer: Powerful Strategies for Winning Legal Battles Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Bridge Street Books, 1997.
  24. ^ Balch, Christopher D., “The Art of War and the Art of Trial Advocacy: Is There Common Ground?” (1991), 42 Mercer L. Rev. 861-873
  25. ^ Beirne, Martin D. and Scott D. Marrs, The Art of War and Public Relations: Strategies for Successful Litigation [2]
  26. ^ Pribetic, Antonin I., "The Trial Warrior: Applying Sun Tzu's The Art of War to Trial Advocacy" April 21, 2007, [3]
  27. ^ Solomon, Samuel H., “The Art of War: Pursuing Electronic Evidence as Your Corporate Opportunity” [4]
  28. ^ "Put crafty Belichick's patriot games down to the fine art of war". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2005-02-04.
  29. ^ Winter, Henry (June 29, 2006). "Mind games reach new high as Scolari studies art of war". Irish Independent.

External links

Media related to Sunzi at Wikimedia Commons