by Joshua J. Mark
published on 04 January 2013

Sun Tzu is known as a Chinese military strategist, Taoist philosopher, and general in the 6th century BCE who is widely recognized for his work The Art of War, a treatise on military strategy (also known as The Thirteen Chapters). Whether an individual by the name of `Sun-Tzu’ existed at all has been disputed (in the same way scholars and historians debate the existence of an actual man named Lao-Tzu) but the existence of The Art of War and its profound influence on military campaigns, clearly proves that someone existed to produce said work and that the work is attributed to one Sun-Tzu.  The historian Griffith writes:

War, an integral part of the power politics of the age, had become `a matter of vital importance to the state, the province of life and death, the road to survival or ruin’. To be waged successfully, it required a coherent strategic and tactical theory and a practical doctrine governing intelligence, planning, command, operational, and administrative procedures. The author of `The Thirteen Chapters’ was the first man to provide such a theory and such a doctrine. (Griffith, 44).

The difficulty in ascertaining Sun-Tzu’s historicity comes from the early works which mention him, The Spring and Autumn Annals (the state records of the Zhou Dynasty from 722-481 BCE) and the Records of the Grand Historian (known as the Shiji) written between 109-91 BCE by Szuma Chien (Sima Qian). Scholars have criticized both works for inaccuracies and possible conflations of events. The argument against Sun-Tzu’s historicity claims that, had such a great military mind existed, more would have been written of him than just passing references. Still, there are many entries in both works, accepted as historically accurate, which are given the same brief treatment. The scholar Eno writes, “The Spring and Autumn Annals… is brief, not very informative, and inconsistent in its choice of events to note. A typical entry might read, `Autumn; eighth month; locusts’.”  The work by Szuma Chien was criticized as largely fanciful concerning his descriptions of the Xia and Shang dynasties until archaeological excavations of the 20th century CE uncovered physical evidence supporting his claims. It is, therefore, possible that a man named Sun-Tzu did exist and is the author of the book which bears his name. This name, however, is a title translated as `The Master’ and is not a personal name. Further, as The Art of War repeatedly uses the phrase, “Sun-Tzu said…” in introducing the precepts, it has been argued that some great military genius, name unknown, wrote the work which was then copied, re-written, edited, or compiled at some point in the Warring States Period in China. It has also been suggested that some student of a man named `Sun-Tzu’ could have written the work based upon his master’s teachings. Scholars who maintain the historicity of Sun-Tzu point to his role in the victory at the Battle of Boju (506 BCE) while scholars who deny said historicity argue that, again, had he been there, he would have played a larger role in the narrative of the battle. Until further evidence comes to light, the debate cannot be resolved; however, whether an individual called `Sun-Tzu’ existed in history is not as important as the work which has made that name famous.

Both early sources claim that Sun-Tzu served King Ho-Lu of Wu in the Wu-Chu Wars of 512-506 BCE. The famous story of Sun-Tzu executing Ho-Lu’s favorite concubines in order to demonstrate the importance of military discipline has been considered fiction since at least the 11th century CE when the Sung Dynasty scholar Yeh Cheng-Tse first questioned Sun-Tzu’s existence (though that has not stopped the story from being repeated as fact up to the present day). According to Szuma Chien, however, Sun-Tzu was a powerful enough asset that the account should be considered reliable. If Sun-Tzu really did serve Ho-Lu, as is commonly accepted, then the Wu victory at Boju would confirm his importance to Ho-Lu and, perhaps, the authenticity of the concubine story (or at least some version of it). At the decisive Battle of Boju, Sun-Tzu is said to have led the Wu forces with King Ho-Lu, along with Ho-Lu’s brother Fugai, and defeated the Chu forces through use of his tactics. In The Art of War, Sun-Tzu writes:

Though according to my estimate the soldiers of Chu exceed our own in number, that shall advantage them nothing in the matter of victory. I say then that victory can be achieved. Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting. Scheme so as to discover his plans and the likelihood of their success. Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots. Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient. In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them; conceal your dispositions, and you will be safe from the prying of the subtlest spies, from the machinations of the wisest brains. How victory may be produced for them out of the enemy's own tactics--that is what the multitude cannot comprehend. (Sun-Tzu, 6.21-26).

At Boju, the Chu forces were numerically superior to the Wu and King Ho-Lu hesitated to attack, though both armies were martialed on the field. Fugai requested that orders be given to sound the charge but Ho-Lu refused. Fugai then chose to act on his own in accordance with Sun-Tzu’s strategic advice and drove the enemy from the field. He then pursued the fleeing opponents, defeating them repeatedly in five further engagements, and capturing the Chu capital of Ying.

Fugai’s success in the Wu-Chu wars was due entirely to his own courage and his belief in the precepts of Sun-Tzu. Through intelligence brought by spies, Fugai knew that the opposing general, Nang Wa, was despised by his troops and that they had no will to fight (following Sun-Tzu’s “force him to reveal himself…find out his vulnerable spots”), he compared his army with that of Nang Wa’s and found it sufficient to his ends and he won victory from the enemy’s own tactics by refusing to adhere to the standard rules of war as understood at that time. He did not let the enemy retreat to safety, did not allow them to cross en masse the Qingfa River (but cut the forces in half mid-stream), prevented their mobilization and formation of lines, and even later attacked them at their dinner.

Warfare in China was considered a kind of sport of the noble gentry in which chivalry prevailed and rules were not to be bent or broken. Prior to Boju (and for many years following) these rules were observed by the noble generals who led the armies of the various states of China. Griffith writes:

In ancient China war had been regarded as a knightly contest. As such, it had been governed by a code to which both sides generally adhered. Many illustrations of this are found…For example, in 632 BC the Chin commander, after defeating Ch’u at Ch’eng P’u, gave the vanquished enemy three days’ supply of food. This courtesy was later reciprocated by a Ch’u army victorious at Pi. By the time The Art of War was written this code had been long abandoned. (Griffith, 23).

Sun-Tzu changed the rules by applying Taoist principles to warfare and by refusing to consider war a sport. He wrote, “In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns. Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people's fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril” (2.19-20). Sun-Tzu had no patience with the protracted games generals seemed to enjoy playing with each other. Once hostilities had erupted, one’s priority was to defeat the enemy, not indulge oneself in chivalry which could only prolong the conflict and cost more lives.

The one historian writes:

Taoism finds [the] way for living well in doing what is natural, rather than in adhering to the conventions of society. Consequently, instead of emphasizing the cultivation of virtue and the development of human relationships as Confucianism does, Taoism emphasizes the spontaneous ease of living attained by acting in accord with the natural way of things. (Koller, 243).

This “spontaneous ease of living” is exemplified in Sun-Tzu’s writings in that he consistently emphasizes the natural path to victory while ignoring the conventional wisdom of the time concerning military engagements. Koller further writes that the great Taoist work, the Tao-Te-Ching, “reflects a horror of war and a deep-felt yearning for peace” (244) and Sun-Tzu’s work reflects this in that the best way to achieve peace is by a swift victory or, better yet, by defeating an enemy before war is even begun. Sun-Tzu writes, “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting” (2.2). His foundational strategy, throughout his writings, can be found in the lines from the Tao-Te-Ching: “Yield and overcome, empty and become full, bend and become straight” in that, by adapting oneself to one’s situation, rather than rigidly holding fast to how one thinks things should be, one is able to recognize the fluidity of conditions and act upon them decisively.

During The Warring States Period in China (476-221 BCE) the independent states under the weakening Zhou Dynasty fought each other for supremacy and control of the land. The states of Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao contended repeatedly but none could gain advantage over the others. Although Sun-Tzu’s work seems to have been known during this period (or, according to some, composed at that time by someone else), his precepts were not made use of until the reforms of the Qin statesman Shang Yang who advocated total war instead of adherence to chivalric practices of the past. Shang Yang’s reforms were implemented fully by the Qin King Ying Zheng who, in conquering the other states between 230-221 BCE, united China under his rule as Shi Huangti, First Emperor of China, and founded the Qin Dynasty.

Following the collapse of Shi Huangti’s dynasty in 206 BCE, the leading contenders for rule of China, Liu-Bang of Han and Xiang-Yu of Chu, made further use of Sun-Tzu’s principles in fighting each other. The strategies leading to the decisive victory of the Han at The Battle of Gaixia (202 BCE) follow the ideology of The Art of War in many respects but, most notably, in the Han general Han Xin relentlessly attacking Xiang-Yu without regard to the former rules of warfare and the singing of the native songs of Chu, by the Han army, to demoralize the Chu forces. The Battle of Gaixia led to the rise of the Han Dynasty which went on to rule China from 202 BCE to 220 CE and, during which, enormous cultural progress was made such as the invention of paper, the refinement of gunpowder, written history, and, in 130 BCE, the opening of the Silk Road and the beginning of world-wide trade.

Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War has been used effectively in military engagements from The Warring States Period to (intermittently) the present day and is considered a classic philosophical work on military strategy. Sun-Tzu’s dictum that, “All warfare is based on deception” (1.18) has been cited as an essential component of any military campaign and, as his work has grown in popularity through many different translations, has also been made use of by the business community in their pursuit of success in commerce.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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Visual Timeline
  • 512 BCE - 506 BCE
    The Wu Chu wars in China between the States of Wu and Chu.
  • 506 BCE
    The Battle of Boju at which the Wu forces under Sun-Tzu defeated the Chu.
  • c. 500 BCE
    Probable life of Sun-Tzu, Military Strategist, author of The Art of War.
  • 476 BCE - 221 BCE
    The Warring States Period in China, suggested time-period for composition of The Art of War.
  • 202 BCE
    The Battle of Gaixia.
  • 202 BCE - 220 CE
    The Han Dynasty in China.
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