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Sun Tzu

Background Information

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Sun Tzu
A statue of Sun Tzu
Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, Japan
Born c. 544 BC (traditional)
Died c. 496 BC (traditional)
Occupation Military General and Tactician
Ethnicity Chinese
Period Warring States
Subjects Military strategy
Notable work(s) The Art of War

Sun Wu ( simplified Chinese: 孙武; traditional Chinese: 孫武; pinyin: Sūn Wǔ), style name Changqing (長卿), better known as Sun Tzu or Sunzi ( simplified Chinese: 孙子; traditional Chinese: 孫子; pinyin: Sūnzǐ; pronounced [swə́n tsɨ̀]), was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher from the Zhou Dynasty. He is traditionally believed to be the author of The Art of War, an extremely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. Sun Tzu has had a significant impact on Chinese and Asian history and culture, both as an author of The Art of War and through legend.

Sun was a historical figure whose authenticity is questioned by historians. Traditional accounts place him from c. 544–496 BC in the Spring and Autumn Period of China (722–481 BC) as a military general serving under King Helü of Wu. Modern scholars accepting his historicity place the completion of The Art of War in the Warring States Period (476–221 BC), based on the descriptions of warfare in the text, and on the similarity of text's prose to other works completed in the early Warring States period.

Traditional accounts state that his descendant, Sun Bin, also wrote a treatise on military tactics, titled Sun Bin's Art of War. Both Sun Wu and Sun Bin were referred to as Sun Tzu in classical Chinese writings, and some historians believed that Sun Wu was in fact Sun Bin until Sun Bin's own treatise was discovered in 1972. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Sun Tzu's The Art of War grew in popularity and saw practical use in Western society. His work continues to influence both Asian and Western culture and politics.


The oldest available sources disagree as to where Sun Tzu was born. The Spring and Autumn Annals states that Sun Tzu was born in Qi, while the later Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) states that Sun Tzu was a native of Wu.

Both sources agree that Sun Tzu was born in the late Spring and Autumn Period of China (722–481 BC), and that he was active as a general and strategist, serving the king of Wu, King Helü, in the late sixth century BC, beginning around 512 BC. Sun Tzu's victories then inspired him to write The Art of War. The Art of War is one of the most widely read military treatises in the subsequent Warring States Period (475–221 BC), a time of constant war among seven nations ( Zhao, Qi, Qin, Chu, Han, Wei and Yan) who fought to control the vast expanse of fertile territory in Eastern China.

One of the more well-known stories about Sun Tzu, taken from Shiji, illustrates Sun Tzu's temperament as follows: Before hiring Sun Tzu, the King of Wu tested Sun Tzu's skills by commanding him to train a harem of 180 concubines into soldiers. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, appointing the two concubines most favored by the king as the company commanders. When Sun Tzu first ordered the concubines to face right, they giggled. In response, Sun Tzu said that the general, in this case himself, was responsible for ensuring that soldiers understood the commands given to them. Then, he reiterated the command, and again the concubines giggled. Sun Tzu then ordered the execution of the king's two favored concubines, to the king's protests. He explained that if the general's soldiers understood their commands but did not obey, it was the fault of the officers. Sun Tzu also said that, once a general was appointed, it was his duty to carry out his mission, even if the king protested. After both concubines were killed, new officers were chosen to replace them. Afterwards, both companies, now well aware of the costs of further frivolity, performed their maneuvers flawlessly.

Shiji claims that Sun Tzu later proved on the battlefield that his theories were effective (for example, in the Battle of Boju), that he had a successful military career, and that he wrote The Art of War based on his tested expertise. However, Zuo Zhuan, an earlier historical text which provides a much more detailed account of the Battle of Boju, does not mention Sun Tzu at all.

The Art of War

A bamboo book
A bamboo version of The Art of War

The Art of War ( simplified Chinese: 孙子兵法; traditional Chinese: 孫子兵法; pinyin: Sūnzǐ Bīng Fǎ) is attributed to Sun Tzu. It presents a philosophy of war for managing conflicts and winning battles. It is accepted as a masterpiece on strategy and is frequently cited and referred to by generals and theorists since it was first published, translated, and distributed internationally.

There are numerous theories concerning when the text was completed, and concerning the identity of the author or authors, but archeological recoveries have proven that the Art of War had roughly achieved its current form by at least the early Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). Because it is impossible to prove definitively when the Art of War was completed before this date, the differing theories concerning the work's author(s) and date of completion are unlikely to ever be completely resolved. Some modern scholars believe that, contrary to popular belief, it contains not only the writings of the original author, but also commentary and clarifications from later military philosophers, such as Li Quan and Du Mu.

Of the military texts written before the unification of China in the 2nd century BC, six major works survived, including The Art of War. During the Song Dynasty in the late 1st millennium AD, these six works were combined with a Tang Dynasty text into a collection called the Seven Military Classics. As a central part of that compilation, The Art of War formed the foundations of orthodox military theory in China. Illustrating this point, the book was required reading to pass the tests needed for imperial appointment to military positions.

According to Simpkins & Simpkins, Sun Tzu's Art of War uses language that may be unusual in a Western text on warfare and strategy. For example, the 11th chapter states that a leader must be "serene and inscrutable" and capable of comprehending "unfathomable plans". They state that the text contains many similar remarks that have long confused Western readers lacking an awareness of the East Asian context. The meaning of such statements are clearer when interpreted in the context of Taoist thought and practice. Sun Tzu viewed the ideal general as an enlightened Taoist master, which has led to The Art of War being considered a prime example of Taoist strategy.

The book is not only popular among military theorists, but has also become increasingly popular among political leaders and those in business management. Despite its title, The Art of War addresses strategy in a broad fashion, touching upon public administration and planning. The text outlines theories of battle but also advocates diplomacy and cultivating relationships with other nations as essential to the health of a state.

In 1972, scholars uncovered a collection of ancient texts written on unusually well-preserved bamboo slips. Among them were the Art of War and Sun Bin's Military Methods. Although Han Dynasty bibliographies noted the latter publication as extant and written by a descendant of Sun, it had since been lost. The finding of Sun Bin's work is considered to be extremely important, both because of Sun Bin's relationship to Sun Tzu, and because of the work's addition to the body of military thought in late Chinese antiquity. The discovery as a whole significantly expanded the body of surviving Warring States military theory. Sun Bin's treatise is the only known military text surviving from the Warring States period discovered in the twentieth century, and bears the closest similarity to the Art of War of all surviving texts.


Some scholars have expressed doubt in Sun Tzu's historicity and the traditional dating of the Art of War. Skeptics cite possible historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in the text, as well as the likelihood of the execution of the king's favorite concubines. This skepticism, which sometimes cause scholars to completely deny the existence of a historical figure named Sun Wu (Sun Tzu), has led to acrimonious debate between skeptics and traditionalists, especially in China. Attribution of the Art of War's authorship varies among scholars, and have included people and movements including Sun; Chu scholar Wu Zixu; an unknown author; a school of thought in Qi or Wu; Sun Bin, and others.

Traditionalists attribute the authorship of The Art of War to the historical figure Sun Wu, who is chronicled in the Records of the Grand Historian and the Spring and Autumn Annals. He was reputedly active in the late 6th century BC, beginning c. 512 BC. The appearance of features from the Art of War in other historical texts is considered to be proof of his historicity and authorship. Certain strategic concepts, such as terrain classification, are attributed to Sun Tzu. Their use in other works, such as by the compilers of the Methods of the Sima, is considered proof of Sun Tzu's historical priority.

Skeptics that identify issues with the traditionalist view point to possible anachronisms in the Art of War that include terms, technology, philosophical ideas, events, and military techniques. They argue that there is a disparity between the large scale wars and sophisticated techniques detailed in the text, and the more primitive small scale battles that many believe predominated the 6th century BC. However, according to Ralph D. Sawyer, it is very likely Sun Tzu did actually exist and not only served as a general, but also wrote the core of the book that bears his name. Sawyer argues that the teachings were probably taught to the succeeding generations in the family or a small school of disciples, including Sun-Tzu's descendant, Sun Bin, and were revised and expanded upon.


Sun Tzu's Art of War has influenced many notable figures. Traditional histories recount that the first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang, considered the book invaluable in ending the Age of Warring States. The Art of War was introduced in Japan, c. AD 760, and the book quickly became popular among Japanese generals. The work also significantly influenced the unification of Japan. Mastery of its teachings was honored among the samurai, and its teachings were both exhorted and exemplified by influential daimyo and shogun, such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Admiral of the Fleet Tōgō Heihachirō, who led Japan's forces to victory against Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, was an avid reader of The Art of War.

Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong partially credited his victory over Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in 1949 to The Art of War. The work strongly influenced Mao's writings about guerrilla warfare, which further influenced communist insurgencies around the world.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, the military mastermind behind victories over French and American forces in Vietnam, was an avid student and practitioner of Sun Tzu's ideas. America's defeat here, more than any other event, brought Sun Tzu to the attention of American military leaders. Ho Chi Minh translated the work for his Vietnamese officers to study.

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.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War is listed on the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program (formerly known as the Commandant's Reading List). During the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s, both General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and General Colin Powell practiced Sun Tzu's principles of deception, speed, and attacking the enemy's weakness.

Mark McNeilly writes in Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare that a modern interpretation of Sun and his importance throughout Chinese history is critical in understanding China's push to becoming a superpower in the 21st century. Modern Chinese scholars explicitly rely on historical strategic lessons and The Art of War in developing their theories, seeing a direct relationship between their modern struggles and those of China in Sun Tzu's time. There is a great perceived value in Sun Tzu's teachings and other traditional Chinese writers, which are used regularly in developing the strategies of the Chinese state and its leaders.

Popular culture

In 1996, a 13-episode TV series titled The Art of War – Legend of Sun Wu the Master of War (孫子兵法 – 孫武兵聖傳奇) was produced, starring Sun Yanjun as Sun Tzu.

In 2008, producer Zhang Jizhong adapted Sun Tzu's life story into a 40-episode historical drama TV series titled Bing Sheng (兵聖; also called The Ultimate Master of War: Sun Tzu), starring Zhu Yawen as Sun Tzu.

In 2010, Sun Tzu was featured in the 10th episode of season 2 of Deadliest Warrior, going up against Vlad the Impaler (Dracula).

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