statue depicting sun tzu

Sun Tzu: The Art of War and Its Impact on Ancient Imperialism

The Art of War is one of the oldest books ever to be written on military matters and strategy. It was written in Ancient China by a man named Sun Tzu. Since it was written, the art of war has proved to be one of the most influential texts in history. Not only in antiquity, but two thousand years later, in the present day as well. Its philosophy is, after all, applicable to all aspects of life, not just warfare.

In today’s post, we will learn about the life and philosophy of the legendary Sun Tzu. We will look closely at his book, The Art of War, and understand how the text influenced the ancient and modern world. Finally, we’ll briefly discuss some of Sun Tzu’s other works, as well as those inspired by The Art of War.

Who was Sun Tzu?

painting of Sun Tzu from qing dynasty
Portrait of the mythical Sun Tzu from the Qing Dynasty. Image Credit: Aki Ranin via Medium

Throughout history, Sun Tzu, or Sunzi, has been known as an Ancient Chinese military general, tactician, philosopher and author. Unfortunately, not much is known about Sun Tzu or his life.

Historians who believe Sun Tzu was a real person, estimate his year of birth to be around 544 BC. This coincides with the Spring and Autumn period (722 – 481 BC), during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty in China. This would suggest that he lived around the same time as the famous philosophers Laozi and Confucius. Some, however, believe he may have been born during the Warring States Period in China (481- 221 BC).

Very little information survives from his lifetime. Much of this limited information comes from traditional historians of antiquity, like Sima Qian. Sima Qian was a Han Dynasty historian who wrote about Sun Tzu around the 2nd century BC. A collection of these sources provide some insight into Sun Tzu’s family and life, however, their credibility is often doubted. Keeping that in mind, Sun Tzu’s life is discussed below, in brief.

It is understood that Sun Tzu was born as Sun Wu, into a family of Shih. Shih were Chinese aristocrats and academics, who, by the time of Sun Wu’s birth, had lost their assets and wealth. They would, therefore, become wanderers and travel around the various states in China at the time. Sun Wu’s family was not only educated but were experts in political and military matters. 

Where he was born is, however, disputed. For instance, the Spring and Autumn Annals is the state of Lu, and the historian Sima Qian suggests he was born in the state of Qi. But, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue suggest he was born in the state of Wu. After all, that is where he was appointed general.

Journey to the Kingdom of Wu

Drawing from the information provided by traditional and modern-day historians, Sun Wu was an educated man. Using his inherited political and military knowledge, he lived as a wandering mercenary and academic.

During one of his travels, sometime in the late Spring and Autumn period, he reached the kingdom of Wu. The king of Wu, King Helu, around the same time, was searching for a military advisor to lead his army.

During this time, the ruling Zhou Dynasty had already entered the Eastern Zhou Period. They had moved the Chinese capital from the western region to the east. During the Spring and Autumn period, this region saw increased decentralization of power. The vassal states were increasingly gaining power by absorbing smaller kingdoms under their control. The Zhou Dynasty could no longer maintain their control over them.

As the states grew in size and power, they began fighting with each other. They fought with the intention of unifying the territories, installing themselves as rulers and gaining supremacy. Thus, marking the beginning of the Warring States Period in China.

When Sun Wu reached Wu, it was a small kingdom with a smaller population compared to other states. Political conflicts around them meant they needed to be prepared for war. Going to war was an expensive affair, meaning they couldn’t afford to lose their battles. For this, they needed a way to find how to battle efficiently. Explaining why King Helu was in search of a general.

Writing the Art of War and Becoming a General

This period also saw an increase in freedom of thought, literacy, philosophical thinking and advancements in technology. It was during this time that Sun Wu had written The Art of War. By the time Sun Wu reached the kingdom of Wu, he had already authored the book.

From here, there are three trains of thought. The first is that Sun Wu himself presented The Art of War to King Helu. The second is that King Helu invited Sun Wu to his kingdom after reading the Art of War. The third is that Sun Wu specially wrote the Art of War for King Helu.

Regardless, King Helu read the book and appointed Sun Wu to lead his army into war. According to traditional historians like Sima Qian, he became minister to King Helu. As per other historians, he was appointed as the position of key military strategist and commander of the army. 

Sun Wu’s Test

In some accounts, after King Helu read The Art of War, he wished to test Sun Wu’s skills. So, he challenged Sun Wu to train a group of his concubines. Knowing his theory would work on all armies, he agreed. 180 concubines were gathered in front of him, which he divided into two groups. Then, he appointed two of the king’s favourite concubines as the leaders of both groups.

painting sun tzu training the concubines
Painting showing Sun Tzu training the concubine army. Image Credit: Ben Garrido

He then began instructing them on how to hold their weapons and explaining his orders. He repeated himself a few times and made sure everyone understood him. However, when he gave out his command to follow the order, the concubines began giggling and laughing. Sun Wu said, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.” So, he repeated his instructions and orders and demanded if the women understood. They acknowledged him once again, so, he gave out his command to follow his order. Yet again, the women burst into laughter. Then Sun Wu said, “If orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” He then gave the order to behead the two concubines leading the groups.

Hearing this, the king pleaded with him to spare his favourite concubines. To this Sun Tzu replied, “Your servant received your appointment as commander, and when the commander is at the head of the army he need not accept all the sovereign’s orders.” He then beheaded the women and continued the exercise with the other concubines.

Though furious initially, King Helu realized Sun Wu had just proven himself to be a competent leader for his army. 

After he became the key military strategist and general, Sun Wu, he gained the title Sun Tzu, meaning ‘Master Sun’. Sun Tzu is believed to have died in 496 BC for reasons unknown.

Did Sun Tzu Really Exist?

As mentioned earlier, there is very little information about Sun Tzu and his life. As such, some historians and scholars doubt he even existed. They believe he was a mythical figure and did not exist in reality. Sinologists like Victor Mair, even believed that Sun Wu was a character created using two historical people. One was a well-known warrior of the Spring and Autumn Period, called Wu Zixu. The other was an author from the Warring States Period called Sun Bin, who had written a book of his own titled ‘Military Methods’. Suggesting Sun Bin was in fact the one to hold the title Sun Tzu. Scholars who don’t believe Sun Tzu existed, suggest The Art of War is a collection of texts written by various authors.

The Art of War

bamboo book of the art of war
Sun Tzu’s Art of War written in a bamboo book. This version was written during the reign of the fifth Qing Emperor. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Whether Sun Tzu was a real person or a mythical character isn’t known. What is real, however, is his book, The Art of War. Originally known as the Sun Tzu Ping Fa, it is one of the oldest military treatises in the world. Most scholars believe the book was published in the early 5th century, around 475 BC. This date, however, doesn’t coincide with Sun Tzu’s estimated lifetime.

The book contains 13 chapters offering important strategic advice to kings, generals, leaders, etc. It presents various tactics to apply during battle to successfully achieve victory. According to the Han Dynasty historian and politician Ban Gu, there were originally 82 chapters in the Art of War. He mentions this in the Book of Han, a historical record of the Han Dynasty. Today, over 2000 years later, only 13 chapters remain.

Over the centuries, amendments were made to the book by Chinese scholars. These changes included adding their version of Sun Tzu’s biography at the beginning of the book.

From ancient China, the Art of War soon reached other parts of East Asia. It became especially popular in Japan and Korea. The book was introduced to the western world much later, in the late 18th century. This was when the book was translated into a European language for the first time.

The Art of War presents a philosophical side to winning a battle. This is why, despite being an ancient text, its valuable teachings remain relevant and applicable today. Its teachings are applicable to everyday modern battles in all areas of life, such as politics, sports, finance, etc.

Key Principles of the Art of War

The Art of War serves as a guide for leaders, more specifically, military leaders. First of all, it guides them to decide whether strategically it makes sense to wage war. Then, it presents various tactics to follow that would ensure victory. These tactics guide the reader on how to deal with the enemy.

The core principle of this book is that the objective of engaging in war is to win, and to win efficiently. It emphasizes winning a war without fighting and provides strategies to achieve this. Sun Tzu mentions that fighting and aggressive tactics must be used only as a last resort. The philosophy is maintained consistently throughout the book.

It discourages generals and leaders from engaging in violent warfare as it prolongs the conflict. Lengthy wars also create a massive wastage of resources. In war, numerous people lose their lives and people suffer for long periods of time due to the conflict. Large amounts of money are spent on supplies, equipment and weapons, and infrastructure is also destroyed. Moreover, in lengthy wars, one side with depleted resources is prone to being attacked by other powers in a region. They can be taken advantage of during their moment of weakness.

Conflict is inevitable but what can be avoided are the loss of lives and wastage of resources. The ideal result of a battle is to keep these losses at a minimum or to win without even fighting. This can happen when conflict is resolved through diplomacy. But, if it is absolutely necessary, only fight knowing victory is guaranteed and ensuring the battle ends quickly. If not, it will once again result in unnecessary losses. Sun Tzu, therefore, advises the reader to pick and choose their battles wisely.

How to Deal with the Enemy?

Warfare should be avoided at all costs and should be the very last option to resolve a conflict. It should be fought strategically to mitigate damage and losses. This makes winning without fighting a true form of art.

Sun Tzu advises the general to approach the enemy in stages. He says to first attack the enemy’s strategy. This causes the least amount of casualties and losses. If that doesn’t work then, to break their allies or break their alliances. If there is no success in that, then the opposing army must be attacked. In case that also doesn’t work, then as a last resort, enemy cities should be attacked. Attacking cities causes the most amount of casualties, damages and losses. The war must be over as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Winning a War with Minimum Wastage

To rely on just military power isn’t enough. To win a war, a leader must use their perceptiveness and intelligence. The most crucial part of fighting a battle is to plan well for it, ahead of time. Fighting a war without any planning will result in certain defeat.

Fighting a battle requires not just a trained army, but an obedient one too. To achieve this, a leader must treat their soldiers well. They must be treated with respect, humility and compassion. Generals must also care about their wellbeing. Mistreating them could lead to defeat.

Secondly, keeping emotions under control during a war has its benefits. Sun Tzu discourages recklessness, carelessness and thoughtlessness. Making rash decisions and attacking when emotions are high, limits strategic thinking. Being easily provoked into battle without any strategic planning and relying solely on brute strength increase the chances of defeat. He, therefore, teaches the importance of finding inner peace and balance.

Overestimating one’s own abilities, being dishonest about own strengths and weaknesses can also result in defeat. An ideal leader must know when to retreat if it is necessary. They understand that the ultimate goal is to win efficiently. Sun Tzu, therefore, advises leaders to be self-aware and honest about themselves. Knowing oneself becomes important

Researching before War

army officials studying the territory
Image Credit: Financial Times

It is imperative to gather information about the battle, terrain, geographical features and climate. Knowing the environment and terrain beforehand may provide surprising information that could be useful during the battle. For instance, there may be an unknown narrow path in the area that could obstruct a large army to pass through. By knowing the terrain, the land can even be used to one’s advantage.

Skilled generals are usually the ones to select the battlefield and bring their enemies there, not the other way round. Moreover, being the first one to arrive at the battlefield allows time to be more comfortable with the space. Those arriving later are usually more unsettled.

It is pivotal to learn about the enemies, their resources, strengths, weaknesses, movements, location and behaviour. Additionally, it is useful to know the strength of their army and how much training they have. Such information can be gathered by engaging a network of spies. Using this knowledge, the leader must assess, measure, calculate and estimate the chances of winning. Sun Tzu advises not to fight if defeat is certain.

He says that the result of the war is already determined before the battle even begins.

It is equally important to leave room for flexibility. There should be space to adapt according to the circumstances on the battlefield. War is ever-changing and nothing is constant. The enemy may be unpredictable too. Despite carefully studying their behavioural patterns, they may act completely differently while fighting or, they may change their strategy. The climate or even the terrain may change. Therefore, leaders must brace themselves for such unpredictable situations.

Deceiving and Stressing the Enemy Out

Attacking the enemy’s strategy involves confusing, supplying them with misinformation and deceiving them. 

The opponent must be deceived by restricting knowledge to them. Spreading false information about one’s own plans is one way to deceive them. It is quite possible that the enemy may change their strategy based on this false information. Therefore, increasing the chances of victory.

Based on misinformation, the enemy could expect the war to take place on a day different than the one anticipated. So, they refrain from attacking. Taking advantage of this situation, the general and his army will attack them, catching them off guard.

Another way to deceive the enemy is to pretend to behave differently in front of them. For example, pretending to be inferior or weak can make the enemy feel arrogant about their abilities. Due to this, it is likely they will end up making mistakes. To the skilled general, the enemy’s mistakes are seen as opportunities for victory.

Being unpredictable and concealing one’s own strategies is another way to restrict knowledge. This makes it challenging for the enemy to study our side and they won’t know what to expect.

Sun Tzu also advises provoking the enemy or to make them tired. Making them highly emotional will increase their chances of defeat.

Such tactics are bound to confuse and disturb the enemy, leaving them powerless and unable to attack. It is advised not to repeat the same tactics in future battles.

Summary of Sun Tzu’s Teachings over 13 Chapters

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu provides the appropriate strategies for varying levels and stages of conflicts in each chapter. He guides how his tactics can be applied as well as when and in which situation they’re applicable. The following section summarizes the thirteen chapters in the Art of War. This is only one interpretation of the book. It may be interpreted in more ways.

Chapter 1: Laying Plans

image showing soldiers obeying their commander
Image Credit: Bharat Shakti

The first chapter in the book emphasizes the significance of war to a nation. It should be taken seriously as it is a matter of survival and national security. Sun Tzu identifies 5 key elements that influence war and discusses them. The first element is the moral law, otherwise known as, The Way. This refers to the fact that the soldiers, officers and people will follow their leader no matter what the situation.

The second element is weather, referring to the time of day, temperature, season, climate, etc.

The next element is terrain, referring to the land, its narrow passes, open spaces and geographical features. Knowledge of the terrain can determine the distance between danger and safety. Not only that, the land can even be used to one’s advantage.

The fourth element is the commander, referring to the qualities of an ideal leader. An ideal leader must be benevolent, enlightened, wise, trustworthy, courageous and strict.

Lastly, the final element is discipline and management. This involves the organization of an army, the promotion of officers to their appropriate ranks. It also discusses managing logistics and expenses required for the army and its operations, etc. Keeping these factors in mind while preparing for war increases the chances of winning.

In addition to these factors, the general must evaluate their chances of victory by comparing themselves to the enemy. They must ask themselves: which leader is more capable, wise or skilled? Which army makes use of the weather and terrain to their advantage? Which army is more disciplined? Whose troops are stronger? And finally, which army is better organized and has more trained personnel than the other?

In this chapter, Sun Tzu states that all warfare is based on deception. The enemy must be deceived, misled and misinformed. For instance, able-bodied people must appear weak in front of them. Or, if the army is nearby, one must appear to be far away, to the enemy. He also advises attacking the enemy when they’re unprepared and when they least expect it.

The side that plans effectively before the battle is likely to win. If there is a lack of preparation, then defeat is certain.

Chapter 2: Waging War

painting showing soldiers plundering a village
Painting by Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot titled ‘Soldiers plundering a village’. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The second chapter in the book discusses the link between war and the economy. It points out that war is disastrous for the economy as it brings losses. To prepare for war, a country needs to spend a large portion of its finances and labour. These resources will be exhausted during the war, resulting in the loss of lives, labour and money. To support the war, a nation’s economy will face issues such as increased taxes, inflation, lower incomes, lower productivity, etc.

Sun Tzu says the objective of war is to end as soon as possible by gaining victory. A lengthy war not only exhausts resources, such as weapons and soldiers, it also reduces morale. Such a moment of weakness will give the enemy the right opportunity to attack.

Generals skilled in warfare rely on plundering the enemy to acquire provisions, instead of carrying their own from distant lands. They carry military equipment and weapons. But, resources such as trained men, food, transportation and other provisions, can be plundered from enemy territory. This ensures there is a sustained supply of resources for the duration of the war. It also results in less financial burden for the home nation.

Upon plundering from the enemy, prisoners of war must be treated well. The general must also reward their own soldiers for their achievements. Sun Tzu then reminds the reader again that the purpose of war is to win and to maintain peace. The general is responsible for assuring this.

Chapter 3: Attack by strategy

In this chapter, Sun Tzu begins by saying that it is always better to keep the enemy state and its people intact. Nothing great will come out of destroying them. He says the greatest form of victory is to win without even fighting. This form of fighting is truly an art.

He, therefore, advises to first attack the opponent’s strategy. This would be the best form of attack as it doesn’t involve warfare. Then, the next best option would be to attack their alliances through diplomacy. Or, to turn the enemy’s allies against them, by spreading false information. If attacking alliances doesn’t work, the next best option would be to attack their army. However, it is important for a general to assess when or if it is appropriate to fight.

Finally, the worse form of battle would involve attacking enemy cities. Siege if absolutely necessary and there is no other option. It takes months to prepare to attack and siege a city, and its consequences are disastrous. This form of war is most wasteful as there are more casualties and financial losses. The general is held accountable for such losses. Their poor leadership skills are to be blamed for resorting to such drastic measures.

19th century
19th-century painting by Émile Signol titled ‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’. The artwork shows the clear disastrous consequences of besieging a city. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Skilled generals get the enemy to surrender without a fight. They gain control of enemy territory by keeping their people and cities intact. Thus, highlighting the efficacy and importance of strategic measures.

Knowing when to Attack

Sun Tzu then advises how and when to attack the enemy. He says if our own forces outnumber them by 10:1, they must be surrounded. Attack when our forces outnumber them 5:1. Divide the enemy at 2:1. If the numbers are even, fight head-on. If the enemy outnumbers us or is stronger than us, it is best not to fight, or else it will lead to captivity.

The general is responsible for their country’s security and survival. The country’s strength is a reflection of the general’s leadership. The ruler of a nation must therefore trust them and their decisions. Their interference in the general’s decisions may not be in the favour of the country. This may lead to confusion and restlessness among soldiers because of, which the enemy may take advantage of.

Finally, Sun Tzu mentions the five ways to win a battle. These five methods aren’t really based on being stronger, larger, or owning better weapons. They are purely strategic. These methods decide the outcome of the war before it even begins.

The first of these is to know when it is or isn’t appropriate to fight. Second, the general must know how to handle an army of any size or strength. Third, soldiers and officials of all ranks must be equally motivated. Fourth is to be prepared for any unexpected situation and be well prepared overall. Fifth is to have a general who is able to make decisions without being interfered with by the nation’s ruler.

Sun Tzu ends the chapter by saying, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Chapter 4: Disposition of the Army

soldier in a foxhole ready to fight
Image Credit: Trevor Nagle

This chapter begins by saying that one can feel invincible in their skills in war, but this doesn’t guarantee victory. The enemy cannot forcefully be made vulnerable, neither can they directly be weakened. So, the best that can be done is to look out for their weaknesses and seize the opportunity when they are spotted.

Sun Tzu describes war as complementing opposing forces. He says when a general defends themselves, they are making themselves less vulnerable. But, when they attack the enemy, they are causing them to be more vulnerable. He says, when one defends themselves, it means they do not have enough strength compared to the opponent. However, when they attack, it means they have sufficient strength. Those skilled in defence, defend themselves so well, it’s as if they’re underground. Those skilled in attack do so as if they’re rapidly charging down from the heavens. In both cases, one is capable enough of protecting themselves and winning the war.

He says that a general’s skills aren’t shown when they gain victory over an inferior force. However, not everything may appear to be as clear as it seems. What may seem like an inferior force, in reality, may not be inferior at all. Sun Tzu, for example, says “to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear”. Generals must therefore be perceptive and wise to outthink the enemy. They must be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity. By doing so, the enemy is already defeated and victory is inevitable. This is why skilled generals often do not gain any fame because they win before the fight even begins.

The Five Elements of War

Sun Tzu then discusses the five elements of war. They are, the measurement of space, estimation of quantities, then calculating, comparing and finally the probability of victory. Studying, gathering information about the terrain, the enemy, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. contribute to victory. A general with this knowledge as well as the knowledge of the characteristics of their own army can prepare accordingly. For example, with good knowledge of the terrain, a general can decide how to use the army’s strengths, by choosing a suitable place for battle. That way, the army can fight to their full potential.

Chapter 5: Energy

a river flowing downwards
Sun Tzu says, when one skillfully uses indirect methods, they can be as infinite as the flow of water in rivers. Image Credit: Nadine Marfurt via Unsplash

According to Sun Tzu, managing a small troop is the same as managing a large troop. It is the organization that matters the most. An army that is well organized will only need one order for every soldier to act in synchrony. A combined force of a group of well-managed soldiers will certainly overpower an opponent with a poorly organized army.

He then says that in all forms of war there are two methods of fighting. The first is direct and the second is indirect. A combination of these methods is used in every battle. Direct action involves facing the enemy and fighting with them directly. This requires more energy. Indirect actions require less energy. The application of clever tactics against the opponent is an example of indirect action.

The direct method may be used for fighting a battle, but indirect action is required to actually win a battle.

When one skillfully uses indirect methods, they can be, as Sun Tzu says, infinite, like heaven and earth and the flow of rivers. Indirect methods can easily be replenished. One tactic can be used after the other to surprise, confuse and mislead the enemy to attack them. Leading to victory. It is, therefore, compared to the cyclic behaviour of the sun and moon, and the four seasons.

Sun Tzu says that there may only be two methods of fighting but their combinations are infinite. He compares these combinations to music, colour and flavours. There may be five musical notes and five primary colours (in Ancient Chinese culture). But, each of their combinations is endless. Similarly, there may be 5 flavours but, when combined, there are infinite flavours.

Making Good Decisions and Maintaining Order in Disorder

He continues to draw instances from nature to describe the force of an army and the characteristics of a good decision. Grabbing an opportunity requires momentum but at the precise time. In a war, for instance, one must keep momentum while fighting but attack only at a precise time. This is a characteristic of a good decision.

During a war, everything may seem disordered and chaotic, but it may not be so at all. The real disorder presents itself when there is a lack of control. Maintaining control during this chaos requires skill and prior planning. A skilled general is able to make use even of this apparent disorder. This opportunity can be used to deceive the enemy. They’re likely to make mistakes if they believe their opponent has lost control, giving them the perfect opportunity to take advantage. A skilled general seeks opportunity in a situation. They combine the individual abilities of soldiers to make the best out of a situation.

An ideal general does not blame their soldiers for a certain outcome but takes responsibility for it as it was his plan.

Chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong

a small group of soldiers
Image Credit: National Army Museum

Sun Tzu begins this chapter by saying that whichever side arrives at the battlefield first, is more alert, energetic and settled. Those who arrive later will be more unsettled and are likely to get tired quickly. Skilled generals tend to choose the battlefield and lure the enemy out. They do not allow the enemy to force them to move according to the enemy’s will.

With these advantages, he can keep the enemy from coming too near. If an enemy tries to settle down, the general can strategize to tire them out. Or even deplete their supplies if they’re well-stocked. Or simply make them uncomfortable as they’re trying to settle down and make camp.

Sun Tzu advises making unexpected appearances, especially in places that the enemy are adamant about defending. The enemy should, all in all, be stressed out. By driving the enemy away and clearing the path, it is easier for an army to march through the land. Without having to spend time looking out for obstacles. Attacking undefended places after all does constitute victory.

By creating difficulties for the enemy, the general assures their own strength.

A skilled and wise general’s influence is such that it decides the enemy’s fate. The enemy will not be able to withstand his attacks, neither can they catch him because he withdraws so quickly. When the general wishes to fight, he is inevitable as he usually proceeds to what the enemy wishes to defend. This draws the enemy out from hiding. However, when the general doesn’t wish to fight, the enemy can be kept out by distracting them.

Influencing the Enemy

The general influences the enemy troops to split and spread to various sites. Meanwhile, his own army is kept whole and united. With its full might, the army then goes and attacks the divided enemy troops. Dividing the enemy is bound to weaken them. This is only possible if the general is wise and perceptive. Or else, the enemy may apply these same tactics and end up dividing his own army.

Sun Tzu then emphasizes knowing the enemy. If the enemy army is larger, it doesn’t always mean they can win. They may have more soldiers, but perhaps not all are useful. For example, in narrower terrains, having more soldiers isn’t necessarily an advantage. It is, therefore, crucial to study the enemy, their intentions, their plans, their strengths, weaknesses and values. In this process, however, the generals mustn’t expose themselves, even by accident, else the enemy may change their plans.

Once a certain tactic is applied or a strategy is used towards victory, it cannot be used again. Sun Tzu says these tactics are like water. For example, he says water naturally avoids heights and quickly flows down. Similarly, an army must attack what is weak and avoid the strong. Water also has no definitive shape, it is always changing. Similarly, the nature of war is also constantly changing. Therefore, tactics and strategies must be devised accordingly.

Chapter 7: Manoeuvring an Army

The ruler of a nation is ultimately the one to give commands to the general. The general then works towards achieving the goals of the sovereign. They gather an army, organize and position them strategically. Once their plans are put in place, the real work begins, which is the execution of those plans. This is the most difficult part of the process as it involves making the best out of a challenging situation. This is done to gain an advantage and ease the path to victory.

There is both risk and gain in trying to achieve this advantageous position. The army must be disciplined for this to work. Speed and efficiency are immensely important for exploiting an opportunity, meaning it requires planning and practice. Sun Tzu, however, advises not to push the soldiers too far in the process. It will only result in not gaining the desired advantage.

He then discusses some important aspects to consider in war, neglecting which can only weaken the army.

Important Factors to be Considered in War

soliders carrying boxes of food supplies
It is important to make sure the army has sufficient supplies to survive. Image Credit:

He says that an army is able to sustain itself and stay motivated because of food and supplies. It is, therefore, crucial to make sure that enough supplies are available.

Secondly, alliances can only be formed with knowledge of the enemy’s plans and intentions. It is equally important to understand a potential ally’s intentions and goals. The deciding factor would be to find out what the allies would gain from such an alliance. This will also determine whether or not to trust them.

Then, he says, the army cannot march in unknown terrain. Local guidance is required to gain knowledge of the terrain. He tells the reader that war is all about deception. The general must therefore assess the situation and divide or unite their troops as needed.

Sun Tzu talks about plundering from the enemy again and advises generals to share the loot with the soldiers. This is to avoid greed among them.

He guides generals on how to communicate with their army and give orders, especially when it isn’t possible to communicate directly. He proposes the use of gongs, drums and torches at night time. And to use flags and banners during the day.

Mood and Timing

Sun Tzu then discusses mood and psychology. He says spirits are highest in the morning, decline by afternoon and lowest at night. This spirit is what motivates soldiers to fight. The general must take note of this and attack the enemy when their spirits are at the lowest. While ensuring their own army’s spirits are high at the time of the attack.

Lastly, generals are advised to avoid weaknesses like exhaustion or hunger. They must also avoid an enemy with a strong, organized army. He cautions them to keep their calm, sensibility to assess the best time to avoid falling for the enemy’s tricks. Finally, when the enemy is overpowered, they shouldn’t be punished or slaughtered unnecessarily. This will only lead to further fighting and therefore a loss of valuable resources.

Chapter 8: Variation in Tactics

In this chapter, Sun Tzu advises not to stay in difficult or dangerous terrain for prolonged periods. Avoid situations where one can find themselves isolated. Generals must use strategies to get the army out of a position where the enemy is nearing. And when necessary, they must resort to fighting the enemy. Finding oneself vulnerable in a place for too long is only an advantage for the opponent.

He says that some battles aren’t worth fighting, especially when it is certain that the enemy is stronger. It will only prevent unnecessary damage and conflict. In these cases, sometimes it may also be best not to follow the sovereign’s orders. In such situations, it is wiser for the general to be perceptive and act accordingly. Sometimes it is better to be patient till the right opportunity is identified.

soldier observing the situation
Image Credit: Sgt. Nicolas Morales via Wikimedia Commons

Knowing when to make use of certain tactics according to the situation requires skill and insight. If the general possesses such skill and insight, they can use their army to its maximum potential.

He tells generals that every decision or situation will have its pros and cons. Leaders must take both sides into account while planning or moving forward. Such awareness can help them identify hidden opportunities from these events.

Lastly, he identifies the five ways in which a general can fail. Being too reckless will lead to destruction. Being cowardly will lead to being captured. Being too emotional, specifically angry in this case, will allow the enemy to lure him into fighting. Valuing honour excessively will cause them embarrassment. And finally, worrying or caring in excess for his soldiers’ wellbeing will lead to making mistakes. Sun Tzu says that one of these five factors is generally the cause of defeat. They must therefore be avoided.

Chapter 9: The Army of the March

The chapter begins with Sun Tzu discussing how to fight and navigate through different types of terrain. He says one must keep close to valleys while crossing mountains. Valleys allow more space to move and avoid exposure. In higher places, it is possible to find oneself in a vulnerable position. It is also harder to conceal one’s position at greater heights.

He advises keeping away from rivers after crossing them as they form boundaries that are challenging to cross. If the enemy forces move forward to cross a river, it is best not to meet them as they’re crossing. Instead, it is wise to wait for them to cross the river halfway and then to attack them.

The river is therefore used as an advantage to defeat the enemy while they struggle to cross. This is an example of using the terrain to one’s advantage.

Then, he talks about salt marshes. He says to cross them as quickly as possible. If the enemy forces a fight in marshes, it is best to stay near water, grass and trees. These provide some coverage. If possible, the general must overall avoid such challenging terrain.

The best terrain to navigate through is dry plains. In this case, moving uphill is advantageous as it provides a good vantage point. Sun Tzu says that armies love high ground and avoid the low. This is because higher ground is safer and it is more difficult for the enemy to attack from such heights.

When setting up camp, one must choose a site that is comfortable and where diseases cannot spread easily. Dryland is always ideal for setting up camp. Damp, insect-infested marshes are the least desirable option.

Decoding Enemy Behaviour

flock of crows flying away together
A flock of birds suddenly flying away indicates a sudden attack by a large force. Image Credit: NPR

Then, Sun Tzu advises refraining from crossing places that are too difficult or risky to go through at a certain time. For example, he says if a river is flooded and is flowing rapidly because of heavy rains, it is wise to wait till it recedes. Otherwise, it will only result in the loss of troops, a situation that can easily be avoided.

If a general has to cross such challenging terrain, they must have detailed knowledge of the area. Or else, they risk being ambushed by the enemy.

From this point on, Sun Tzu provides numerous indicators to decode the enemy’s true position and intent. These are based on natural phenomena and the enemy’s behaviour. Decoding these can prevent a general from seeing past their deception and knowing what the enemy is really up to. For example, he says if it is known that the enemy is close and they neither attack nor retreat. It is likely they have a strong position, meaning the general should be cautious. Another example is, if a large flock of birds quickly start taking flight, it indicates the arrival of a sudden attack by a large force.

Other indicators can be used to detect weaknesses in the enemy. For instance, if the enemy’s water bearers start drinking as soon as they find water, before even carrying it back to their camp. It indicates their army is thirsty. If the enemy seems to have a chance to attack but refrains from doing so, it is likely they’re exhausted. These are the enemy’s moments of weakness, meaning they’re the right opportunity to attack and defeat them.

The General’s Responsibilities

Sun Tzu says that if the number of troops is equal, victory is still possible. Fighting head-on may result in unnecessary losses. However, relying on the use of tactics, knowledge about the enemy and having a loyal army can ensure victory.

One must never underestimate the enemy. It is best to plan ahead and approach them with caution to avoid getting captured.

The general is responsible for building a loyal and disciplined army. By giving out reasonable, rational orders, persistently, they can earn their soldiers’ trust and loyalty. While benevolence is one of the qualities of a good leader, so is strictness. Just being benevolent will earn the soldiers’ loyalty, but it won’t prepare them for war. This is why it is important to balance benevolence with strictness. However, if soldiers are disciplined before the general earns their loyalty, they will have a hard time managing them.

Generals must also ensure their orders are taken seriously. Or else, soldiers may believe they have an option not to follow the order.

Chapter 10: Terrain

Narrow passage through the mountains
A narrow passage through the mountains. Image Credit: Videohive

In this chapter, Sun Tzu identifies six types of terrain and defines them. The first is called accessible terrain. This is a type of land that can be crossed from both sides. Being accessible means that this land can be accessed both by the enemy and one’s own forces. This sort of terrain is open and therefore can be attacked from all directions.

The second type of terrain is known as entangling ground. This refers to a type of ground that is easy to approach but difficult to withdraw from. If a general is unaware of such terrain, they may find it challenging to retreat from such an area. Entangling terrain could include hills, forests and other landscapes that are able to provide some amount of cover.

The third type of terrain is temporizing ground. Such terrain leaves no side in the position to attack or advance first. It is generally difficult to navigate through such terrain. The enemy may try to lure the army to advance, but that will only lead to losing an advantageous position. Instead, Sun Tzu advises retreating. This will get the enemy out of such terrain and when a portion of them come out, strike them.

The next type is known as narrow passes. If one reaches first in these areas, it is easy to occupy it with minimal resources to defend the group. The passage, being narrow, can easily be blocked, restricting the enemy from passing through. The group that arrives later will find it difficult to attack their opponent in this terrain. If the enemy manages to occupy these passes, Sun Tzu advises them to only attack if their defences are weak.

The fifth type of terrain is called precipitous heights. These are high altitude places with sufficient warmth and sun. Reaching these places first, one should occupy the sunniest spot and wait for the enemy to arrive. If the enemy reaches first, various tactics may be used to lure them out of their advantageous position.

Finally, the last type involves positions at a great distance from the enemy. If the enemy is too far away, the general must assess the pros and cons of fighting. If the number of soldiers is equal in both troops, it is wasteful to approach the enemy to fight. Covering that distance will exhaust the soldiers, possibly leading to defeat.

Consequences of a General’s Mistakes

Then, Sun Tzu discusses the six types of events that may occur because of the general’s mistakes. They are:

Flight: This is the result of attacking an army that has equal strength as a general’s own army. But, the opponent’s army has a larger number of soldiers. If they aren’t tackled without using stratagem, it only leads to a wastage of resources.

Insubordination: This happens when common soldiers disobey higher officials because they’re superior and too strong.

Collapse: This is the result when high ranking officials are excessively stronger than the common soldiers.

Ruin: When high ranking army officials are disobedient to the general, it leads to ruin. They tend to act as they please, jeopardizing all plans and eventually leading to defeat. In all these cases – insubordination, collapse and ruin, there is a clear lack of coordination between the soldiers and the general.

Disorganization: This results from a general having no authority over his subordinates. They fail to give out clear orders and responsibilities. The chain of command in this case becomes faulty, leading to disorganization.

Rout: This is a result of the general not being able to accurately estimate the enemy’s strength. They also failed to select the right soldiers to place on the front line, creating a weak barrier.

Making the Right Decisions at the Right Time

Sun Tzu then encourages generals to make the right decision to achieve victory. If victory is the certain outcome of a battle, they must fight, even if it goes against the sovereign’s command. If, according to their calculations, they are bound to lose, then they mustn’t fight, even if the ruler demands a battle.

Resources and the strength of an army are finite. A general must calculate the probability of winning before fighting. Even if they don’t estimate the probability of winning, they must assess its possible aftermath. If going to war can result in an improvement of the situation of a nation, then there is a purpose in fighting. In case the situation is likely to worsen after the war, it is better not to fight. If the assessment indicates that losses are likely to outweigh the benefits, there’s still a desire to fight. It is likely due to one’s emotions. Not logic or reasoning.

A good leader will know that it is their responsibility to protect the nation, the sovereign, the citizens and soldiers. Not to seek fame or glory.

He ends the chapter by saying that victory is assured when one knows themselves; their enemies and their surroundings. The factors will help with decision making and implementation of the strategy.

Chapter 11: The Nine Situations

armies facing each other
Opposing sides face each other and fighting. Image Credit: British Battles

In this chapter, Sun Tzu identifies nine types of battlegrounds. They share similarities with the six terrains in the previous chapter but they’re not the same. This chapter discusses the different situations one can find themselves in, in different places. Here Sun Tzu also shares a tactic to gain the upper hand in each situation.

The nine grounds are briefly explained below:

  1. Dispersive Ground: When a battle takes place in the general’s home territory, it is known as dispersive ground. This is where the general and their troops are strongest, as they’re well versed with the area. This proves to be a disadvantage for the opponent. Here, Sun Tzu advises not to fight.
  2. Facile Ground: This is when the general enters enemy territory but not far enough to be in a risky position. It is easily possible to retreat if necessary. With the element of surprise, one can gain an advantage against the enemy. Although, it is possible the enemy may be prepared to wage a full-scale attack, even on this ground. It is best not to stop and continue moving forward on such ground.
  3. Contentious Ground: This type of ground places both sides in an advantageous position. They must therefore fight to attain such a position. These are usually strategic locations like hills, cities, etc. The fiercest battles are fought on the contentious ground. It is best not to attack such ground.
  4. Open Ground: This place allows both sides to move and communicate freely. In such places, it is best to move quickly. The enemy should be influenced to be positioned in spots where it is possible to overpower them. Sun Tzu says not to block the enemy’s way here.
  5. Ground of Intersecting Highways: Three types of territories join here – one’s own territory, the enemy’s territory and a third territory. There are many directions to go from here. Such ground presents the opportunity to take over multiple territories at once. Here, it is best to form alliances with those sharing similar interests.
  6. Serious Ground: This is when an army enters the centre of enemy territory and holds many enemy towns under their control. On such grounds, it is wise to be cautious. If the enemy approaches from behind, plunder the land and keep moving forward.
  7. Difficult Ground: This is a naturally challenging ground to navigate through. Here, Sun Tzu advises keeping going at a steady pace and to avoid a fight as it is dangerous.
  8. Hemmed-in Ground: This refers to complex and narrow terrain. An army can only navigate through narrow passes. One finds themselves in a vulnerable position on such ground as it is easier for the enemy to attack. In this case, one should rely on applying strategy.
  9. Desperate Ground: Here, one must do what one can to survive. Therefore, fighting is the only option.

Chapter 12: The Attack by Fire

soldiers walking in front og an explosion
Image Credit: Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay

This chapter shows the five ways to attack using fire. Fire is an effective weapon against the enemy as it is destructive. It has the ability to destroy all of the enemy’s valuable resources. Knowing how to control such a weapon puts one in an advantageous position.

The first way to attack with fire is to burn enemy troops inside their camps. This will not only brutally incinerate the soldiers but also burn their tents and equipment. The second method is to burn their supplies. Depriving basic supplies from them would be a major inconvenience to the enemy. Without their supplies, it will be difficult for them to survive, because of which they may even decide to retreat. The third way to attack is to burn their supplies in transit, which is another way to deprive them of necessities. The fourth method would be to burn their armoury, depriving them of their weapons. Finally, the fifth would be to destroy their lines of communication.

It is important to make sure the right materials are always kept ready for use at any given moment. Only then can this weapon be used as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Sun Tzu says there are certain times of the year when it is ideal to attack with fire. Such as when the climate is hot and dry. Or when the moon is in Sagittarius, Pegasus, Crater and Corvus – days of the four constellations of the rising wind.

The Five Situations to Consider when attacking with Fire

When attacking with fire, Sun Tzu tells the reader to be wary of five possible situations. He also details how to deal with them should these situations arise. The following are the five possibilities discussed briefly:

  1. If there is a fire in one’s own camp, it is a distraction, which, therefore, puts one in a vulnerable position. The enemy may use this moment of distraction to attack.
  2. If a fire breaks out at the enemy’s side but they seem unaffected, it may be one of their tactics. If the enemy acts suspiciously in any way, one must exercise caution. In such a situation, it is best not to attack them.
  3. Attack the enemy when the flames reach their peak height. This is when they experience the most chaos. Their chaos can prove to be an advantage. It is, however, unwise to attack once the fire subsides, as that is when the enemy has settled down again. And be prepared to fight.
  4. It isn’t always necessary to go into the enemy’s camp to attack with fire. At the right timing, it is possible to strike them with fire from afar.
  5. Finally, smoke from fire travels in the direction of the wind. Therefore, it is best to attack when the wind is behind. If the direction of the wind is unclear or unpredictable, avoid attacking with fire. It could be dangerous for oneself.

Assessing the need to Attack

Like fire, water can also be used to attack the enemy. However, it is less destructive than fire but nevertheless, can cause sufficient damage. A general must have the capacity to innovate, be creative and encourage their subordinates to share their ideas. By doing so, resources found around a person can be used to their own benefit.

Sun Tzu says it is wasteful to attack an opponent if there is nothing to gain from it. He says to fight when it is absolutely necessary. Attacking without assessing the advantages of engaging in battle results only in great disadvantage.

He then highlights the importance of remaining calm and not letting pride take over during the war. Such emotions are temporary and they only increase the chances of defeat. Defeat is destructive to the whole nation and its citizens. Recovering from the repercussions of such destruction is impossible.

Chapter 13: The Use of Spies

Sun Tzu begins the final chapter of his military treatise by discussing the many consequences of war. War is expensive and quickly depletes the valuable resources of a state. The daily costs of sending an army into war are very high. Back home, the social and economic impacts are serious. The common people are unable to work, there is a shortage of income, there is a shortage of labour, etc. There is total chaos everywhere.

A prolonged war multiplies these losses. In order to end the conflict quickly, a lot of knowledge about the enemy is required. It is, therefore, in the best interest of the nation for leaders to engage spies. Spies are able to quickly and discreetly gather important information about the opponent and the terrain.

Types of Spies

stereotypical depiction of a spy
Image Credit: Times of Israel

Sun Tzu says there are 5 types of spies – local, inward, converted, doomed and surviving spies.

Local spies are common people from enemy territory. They may dislike their own people or leaders and therefore agree to spy for the general. They may also spy in exchange for some monetary or other types of rewards.

An inward spy is an official of the enemy’s side. They are trusted by their leaders, they have access to the enemy’s plan of attack and other crucial information. Their motivation to spy for the general may be that they’ve been mistreated by their colleagues. They may also spy in exchange for monetary rewards.

Converted spies are essentially double agents. They work for the enemy but can be convinced to switch sides. They can not only provide important information but also send false information to the enemy. The downside is that there is no way to fully trust them. They could, after all, be working as triple agents.

A doomed spy is already comprised. But, they’re used for spreading false information to the enemy and for deceiving them.

Lastly, there are surviving spies who manage to gather information from enemy territory or camp and return.

Dealing with Spies

Only a few personnel in the nation’s top ranks should have access to such confidential information. If another person is told secret information before the leader, both the spy and the listener have to be executed.

Close relations must be maintained with them. Additionally, they must be better paid than everyone else. Spies are the most important part of warfare as planning for a battle is based on the information they bring.

When there are big plans to defeat an opponent, any information about them is valuable. People who are often ignored, or considered ‘insignificant’ may have important information as they overhear ‘important’ people talking. These are usually the servants and staff. By knowing their names and giving them some rewards, valuable information can be extracted from them.

It is important to note that the information that spies bring may not always be accurate. They may either gather false information or deliberately present false information. The general must therefore be wise enough to assess the accuracy and credibility of the information they bring.

Taoist Influences in the Art of War

When the Art of War was written, philosophies such as Taoism and Confucianism were prevalent in society at the time. Taoism and Confucianism, together with Legalism, were the philosophies that inspired ancient Chinese thinking. Particularly, during the Warring States Period. They formed the backbone of not only Chinese culture and social structure but of military thinking as well.

Taoism, especially, seems to have had the largest influence on Sun Tzu’s work. This is because the Art of War is filled with Taoist undertones. The Art of War is a practical guide to war, but strategies proposed by Sun Tzu have clear Taoist references.

Taoism Explained

To better understand these references, let us first briefly understand the key Taoist principles.

Taoism is based on the concept of the Tao, or ‘the way of the cosmos’. It is the universal force of nature that is the source of reality. It is also what maintains cosmic order and ensures harmony between the two. As per Taoist philosophy, the Tao constantly creates and transforms its creations. Meaning that the universe is always changing.

Taoists believe in the concept of Qi or Chi. It is a force that all living beings possess. It is essentially the energy that allows things to move and exist. Chi guides all actions in the universe. This force is constantly flowing, to keep the Tao in balance.

Taoist philosophy was developed by the philosopher Lao Tzu, or Old Master. Lao Tzu is also the author of the Tao Te Ching, which is the most important text of Taoism. It was written around the same time as Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

The purpose of writing both the Art of War and the Tao Te Ching was to assist ancient Chinese rulers. To help them win their wars and restore harmony during a very unstable time.

Taoism teaches simplicity, moderation, compassion, authenticity, detachment and living in harmony with nature. 

Taoist Idea of War in the Art of War

yin and yang symbol of taoism
Symbol of the yin and yang. Image Credit: Asian Inspirations

The Tao Te Ching expresses a distaste for war and talks about how unnecessary and wasteful it is. Additionally, achieving peace and harmony is a key part of Taoism. So how does the Art of War, a book about warfare, embody these principles?

For Sun Tzu, the purpose of engaging in war is to achieve peace. According to him, there is no peace without war.  Most importantly, the core philosophy in the Art of War is to engage in war only as a last resort. Only if it is the very last option in trying to protect a country and ensure its survival. Otherwise, it should be avoided as best as possible.

However, if a war is to be fought, one should gain a rapid victory with minimal losses. As we discussed earlier, for Sun Tzu, the best form of victory, is defeating the enemy without a war. Suggesting, Sun Tzu doesn’t actually encourage war. His book serves as a guide to win a war, should it happen, and in the least wasteful way possible.

One example from the Art of War with Taoist undertones can be seen in the very first chapter. Here, one of the five elements influencing war is moral law. The moral law is also known as The Way or Tao. In this context is used as a strategic instrument to prepare for war. It is The Way that allows soldiers to share the same goals as their leader. Therefore, they will follow their leader no matter the situation.

The Concept of Wu Wei in the Art of War

In Taoist philosophy, there is a concept called Wu Wei, meaning ‘without action’. It refers to the act of performing a task so effortlessly that it seems like non-action. Non-action does not refer to not doing anything. Instead, it refers to doing something so naturally, that it doesn’t look like any action is being performed. In reality, action is being performed, but in accordance with nature. It refers to going with the flow of the natural order of the universe.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says that a skilled general will be able to win a battle without needing to fight the enemy or capture their cities. To him, achieving victory without necessarily fighting physically through the use of intellect is more significant than achieving glory associated with fighting. The concept of achieving the ultimate goal by conserving one’s energy, or, through the least amount of action, reflects the concept of Wu Wei.

Another example referring to this concept is Sun Tzu’s advice of being flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. For instance, generals must be flexible in their planning as they may end up in an unexpected terrain. Or experience a sudden change in weather, etc.

A good example of this concept in this context comes from the tenth chapter in the Art of War. Sun Tzu says that if victory is the certain outcome of a battle, one must fight, even if it goes against the sovereign’s command. However, if according to the general’s calculations, they are bound to lose, then they mustn’t fight.  Even if the sovereign demands a battle. Making decisions according to a certain situation is a way of acting according to the spontaneity of nature. After all, in war no two situations are alike. Therefore abiding by a rule book or set of standards may not always be the right decision.

Examples of Yin and Yang in the Art of War

Another concept in Taoist philosophy is the famous yin and yang. They refer to opposing forces found in nature that balance each other out. They are also interconnected and, depend on each other to work.

Sun Tzu sees war as contradicting forces that drive each other to exist. An example of this concept can be found in the statement, ‘all warfare is based on deception. Deception disturbs the balance of power between the two sides at war. It leads one side to gain an advantageous position, improving their chances of winning. At the same time, it puts the other side in a disadvantageous position and increases their chances of defeat.

Similarly, in chapter four, he says, when the general is skilled in defence, they defend themselves, making themselves less vulnerable. When they’re skilled in attacking, they attack the enemy, causing them to be more vulnerable.

Another example would be to, gather information about the enemy while keeping oneself hidden. There are many other examples of such paradoxes throughout the Art of War.

Impact of the Art of War Throughout History

Since the Art of War was written, around 2000 years ago, it has inspired numerous military leaders around the world throughout history. It has particularly inspired politics and warfare in China, medieval Japan and other Asian countries. However, its influence isn’t limited to the eastern world. It has been influential in the west as well. The book’s principles have also not only been applied to military matters but also in business, legal matters and lifestyle.

Influence on Ancient and Imperial China

map of ununified china
Map of China’s warring states during the Warring States Period. Image Credit: Thoughco

Strategies from the Art of War were perhaps best applied during the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC). By the late Spring and Autumn period, eastern China was divided into seven powerful states. Each state was fighting with the other to extend its control into other states. This was with the intention of consolidating all states and territories under one monarch. The rulers of these divided states, all wished to be the supreme ruler. So, they would target the smaller and weaker states to bring under their power. In doing so, over time, their powers grew and so did their armies. Over the years, technological advancements were also made, leading to improved warfare equipment and technologies. It was essential to manage and organize these large armies, and to utilize their strength in the best way possible. Hence, by the Warring States Period, a military treatise like the Art of War became a valuable resource during this time.

The Art of War wasn’t the only military text to emerge from the Warring States Period. However, it was the most popular and it served as the foundation for future texts on strategy and military matters.

Sun Tzu’s Contribution

When the mythical Sun Tzu reached the kingdom of Wu, the king, King Helu had read the Art of War. He then employed Sun Tzu as his military strategist and general. In this position, he seemingly brought many successes to the state of Wu. The coastal state rapidly expanded towards the southwest, all the way to the state of Chu. However, these successes didn’t last long as the Chu expanded its border, eventually absorbing Wu into their territory.

Following the Warring States Period, in 221 BC, China was unified. A new Chinese Empire, the Qin Dynasty, was established. It is believed that Qin Shi Huang, used the Art of War as a strategic guide in his conquests to unify the warring states. Qin Shi Huang was the founder of the Qin Dynasty and the first emperor of unified China,

Apart from war and politics, the Art of War had been applied by businessmen of ancient China since 400 BC. There is even a saying in Chinese that translates to “the marketplace is a battlefield”. Explaining why the Art of War was a treasured guide in this domain.

Influence on East Asia in the Middle Ages

From China, the Art of War spread all over Eastern Asia, particularly to Japan and Korea. In Japan, for instance, the treatise is known to have influenced Japanese leaders since the 8th century AD. This was when some Chinese officials escaped to Japan during the An Lushan Rebellion, a rebellion against the ruling Tang Dynasty between 755 and 763 AD. In Japan, Sun Tzu became known as Sonshi and his book guided many important historical figures in Japan. Some believe that the Art of War may have influenced samurai warfare. According to their code of honour, the Samurai had to refrain from using deception as a tactic. Instead, the samurai hired ninjas or shinobis to spy, deceive and attack their enemies or targets unexpectedly.

The daimyo or lords, responsible for the unification of Japan – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu were believed to have studied the Art of War in the 16th century. 

Over the centuries, Chinese culture had spread to other parts of Eastern and Southeast Asia. The Art of War being a classical text, therefore, also spread in these areas. Military personnel and leaders studied Sun Tzu’s philosophy and drew inspiration from it.

Influence of the Art of War in Modern Warfare in the East

Sun Tzu’s military treatise impacted various military and political leaders even in modern history.

Mao Zedong, the former chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China is one example. Mao Zedong credited Sun Tzu’s Art of War as one of the factors contributing to his victory in the Chinese Civil War, fought between 1927 and 1949.

portrait of Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong. Image Credit: ABC News Australia

Another example is of Marshal Admiral Togo Heihachiro. He led the Japanese troops in the Russo-Japanese War fought between 1904 and1905. The war was fought between the Russian and Japanese Empire as both asserted their claim over Manchuria and the Korean Empire. Japan emerged victoriously, and as it turns out, Togo Heihachiro had studied Sun Tzu’s Art of War. 

Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communist revolutionary, and the former president of North Vietnam is another example. He had translated the Art of War to Vietnamese. He had also applied many tactics and principles from the book during the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975)

General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese military commander was also known to have studied and applied principles from the Art of War. He was the main military strategist behind defeating the French occupiers in 1954 at the Battle of Dien Bien Phut. This subsequently led to the end of French colonialism in its Southeast Asian territories.

Influence of the Art of War in the Western World

It is possible that the Art of War influenced western leaders and generals such as Napoleon. Some scholars believe that Napoleon had studied Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He seemingly used advice from the book to execute his military operations across Europe.

The Art of War has also inspired several American military generals, commanders and politicians. Such as General Douglas MacArthur, General Colin Powell, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. and General Tommy Franks.

Importance of the Book Today

Even after two millennia, Sun Tzu’s Art of War still remains a popular text in the modern world. Even though technology and weapons have evolved over the centuries, his strategies are still applicable today. War tactics and advice in his book take a more philosophical approach. Which is exactly what makes it relevant and applicable even after all this time.

The book is considered a classic and is often recommended for reading in schools, universities, the military and in some companies. 

Primarily being a military text, it is undoubtedly used as a military guide, particularly during training, in many countries in the world.

Today the Art of War is studied for its perspectives on leadership, strength, application of intelligence and of course, war. He highlights the perks and use of logic and intelligence over strength to win battles.

War is inevitable, most living creatures have the need to fight opponents, defeat them and rule over them. This is the case not only in war but also in business, politics, sports, gaming, education, etc. The book is therefore popular among politicians, business people, military personnel, athletes, coaches, etc.

The Art of War Outside the Military Domain

image of a boss leading his team
The art of war is a popular book among businesspeople. Image Credit: INC.

In business, the contents of the Art of War have been applied to areas such as strategic management, project management, security management, innovation management, quality control, organizational behaviour, marketing, leadership, international business, etc.

Common people also enjoy the book as its principles can be used to win everyday battles and the general struggles of life. Some say that, if we’re not fighting with others we’re usually fighting with ourselves.

In addition, its influences are cultural as well, particularly in China. According to one study, the teachings in the Art of War are engrained within the people of China. People learn early on principles like, warfare is based on deception, or that it is imperative to know the enemy and to know oneself. Children grow up learning these valuable lessons which are instilled either by their parents, media or society.

Translations, Adaptations and Similar Works

Translations of the Art of War

cover of The art of war
The Art of War translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Image Credit: Amazon

The Western world did not become aware of the Art of War before the 18th century. That is when the book was first translated into a European language. It was translated into French by the French Jesuit missionary named Jean Joseph Marie Amiot in 1782. He was one of the first Jesuits in China. Since then, it has been translated and published in numerous other languages.

The first time The Art of War was translated into English was in 1905 by a British officer named Captain E.F. Calthrop. Then, in 1910, British scholar and curator of the British Museum, Lionel Giles, translated the book again. According to Giles, in previous translations of the book many passages were simply not translated because they were too difficult to translate. He, therefore, intended to close these gaps and provided a clearer and complete translation.

In 1963, Samuel Griffith provided an even better translation of the Art of War was published. Griffith’s version of the book is still in print.

Many other translations were made by various scholars over the years, but Giles’ and Griffith’s versions are the most comprehensive.

Various adaptations of the Art of War

Many authors from around the world have expressed their own take on the Art of War. Others have applied its principles to various situations and shared those outcomes in their own published works. The following works are examples of these adaptations or versions of the book. Sun Tzu has been credited as co-author of each of these books.

The Art of War for Women: Sun Tzu’s Ancient Strategies and Wisdom for Winning at Work

book cover of The Art of War for Women: Sun Tzu's Ancient Strategies and Wisdom for Winning at Work
Cover of The Art of War for Women: Sun Tzu’s Ancient Strategies and Wisdom for Winning at Work. Image Credit: Kobo

Published in 2002, the book is an adaptation of the Art of War targeted specifically towards women. It aims to guide women on how to apply Sun Tzu’s principles to gain victories in life. It is a self-help book to help women better understand themselves. The book was written by author and speaker Chin-Ning Chu. She is the descendent of Chu Yuan Zhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. 

The Art of War: Spirituality for Conflict: Annotated and Explained

book cover of The Art of War: Spirituality for Conflict: Annotated and Explained
Cover of The Art of War: Spirituality for Conflict: Annotated and Explained. Image Credit: Reddit

This book, published in 2008, is a translation of Sun Tzu’s military treatise by author Thomas Cuong Huynh. He provides a commentary to explain his interpretation of the Art of War. In this commentary, he highlights those principles in particular that provide a spiritual perspective to dealing with conflict. Such a perspective will allow the reader to calmly resolve issues, prevent any issues, turn possible opponents or competitors into friends, etc.

Art of War: the Illustrated Edition (The Art of Wisdom)

book cover of the Art of War: the Illustrated Edition (The Art of Wisdom)
Cover of the Art of War: the Illustrated Edition (The Art of Wisdom). Image Credit: Amazon

This is as the name suggested, the illustrated version of the Art of War. Along with illustrations, it also contains an introduction providing the reader with the book’s historical and philosophical context.  It additionally contains commentary and analysis of the original text. The book uses Samuel Griffith’s translations. The illustrated edition was published in 2005 and again in 2012.

The Art of War & Other Classics of Eastern Philosophy

book cover of The Art of War & Other Classics of Eastern Philosophy
Cover of The Art of War & Other Classics of Eastern Philosophy. Image Credit: Simon and Schuster

This book isn’t an adaptation of the Art of War or another version of the treatise. It is instead a collection of seven classical texts of eastern philosophy. Along with the Art of War, it includes the works of Lao Tzu, Confucius and Mencius. The book was published in 2016. In 2017, this book won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Award.

Works Similar to the Art of War

Sun Tzu’s Art of War was one of the earliest texts on warfare and military matters. However, it certainly wasn’t the last. Over time, authors around the world wrote their own military treatises. Some were even inspired by Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Here are three books that have either been based on, or inspired by the Art of War. Or they are unrelated but are of a similar genre to the Art of War.

Book of Five Rings

book cover of the book of five rings
Cover of the Book of Five Rings. Image Credit: Kobo

The Book of Five Rings is a military treatise written by Miyamoto Musashi, a Japanese swordsman in the mid-17th century. The book focuses on the successful use of martial arts but overall it guides the reader on how to overcome conflicts found in every interaction with people. All this is based on his own experiences and reasoning. The five books in the title refer to the various elements in battle. Much like the different physical elements such as earth, water, fire, wind and void.

On War

book cover of On War
Cover of On War. Image Credit: Reddit

On War was written by the Prussian military strategist and general Carl von Clausewitz. The book was published posthumously in 1932. It is a book on wars between two or more states and provides a comprehensive view of how war proceeds. In his book, he also analyses the ongoing conflicts of his time and divides them into 3 groups. Purpose, goal and means, which he explains further.

Clausewitz was inspired to write On War after Napolean defeated the Prussian forces in 1806 in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt.

This book is considered one of the greatest military texts of all time. It is even believed to have shaped European military thinking before the First World War.

Today, the book is still studied by military personnel and its principles are taught during military training.

Napoleon on the Art of War

book cover of Napoleon on the Art of War
Cover of Napoleon on the Art of War. Image Credit: Amazon

Napoleon on the Art of War is a book written by Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by Jay Luvaas and published in 1993. We discussed earlier that Napoleon had studied Sun Tzu’s Art of War. However, it most likely did not inspire him to write his own book.

This book presents Napoleon’s perspective on all aspects pertaining to war. This includes planning and preparation, organization and execution of his war plans. Napoleon has long been considered one of the world’s greatest military strategists. In his lifetime he didn’t compile his military thinking and philosophy into one text. Instead, they were spread over 32 volumes of various pieces of writings authored by Napoleon. Historian Jay Luvaas spent decades going through these pieces of text to compile them in one place – in the book Napoleon on the Art of War.

Unlike what the title of the book may suggest, the book is about Napoleon’s perspective and methods of war. Not his views on Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Sun Tzu’s Legacy

statue of sun tzu holding the art of war
Statue of Sun Tzu located in Japan. Image Credit: Entrepreneur

Whether or not Sun Tzu was real will continue to be debated. However, what is known for sure is that his masterpiece – the Art of War, is certainly an influential document. One that has stood the test of time. It has influenced numerous people, from ancient Chinese generals and rulers to modern-day business executives. People from around the world continue to be inspired by valuable lessons and principles every single day. They are managing to overcome a wide range of conflicts in all walks of life. It has truly earned its title of being the most popular military treatise in the world. The mythical Sun Tzu’s legacy lives on as the world continues to consult the Art of War.


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