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Sun Tzu | Biography

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What Is Known about the Author Sun Tzu's Life

Sun Tzu (also Sun-tzu or Sunzi) was a Chinese military leader who served the state of Wu in China. He was reputed to have been a general for Ho Lu, king of Wu, during which time he presumably acquired the expertise on which he based his treatise The Art of War. As General Samuel Griffith notes in his 1963 commentaries and translation of The Art of War, several Chinese historians doubt Sun Tzu was an actual historical personage. The name Sun Tzu is more like a title, as Tzu means "master," yielding the description Master Sun. Very little is known about Sun Tzu, except that it is likely he lived sometime around the end of the Spring and Autumn Annals period (an era in Chinese history; 772–476 BCE) or the beginning of the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) of China's Zhou (also known as Chou) dynasty (1046–256 BCE). China was ruled by a series of dynasties, meaning that ruling successors within a given period, often centuries, all came from the same family. Each dynasty is denoted by the family name, as in Zhou.

Appendix I of Griffith's translation includes a brief biography of Wu Ch'i (or Wu Qi; c. 440–381 BCE) who served as a general for the state of Wu under the title of Wu Tzu (Wu Master), and he is credited with having written his own book of military advice to "the Marquis of Wu." This book is a dialogue between Wu Tzu and the Marquis, and it bears a resemblance to Sun Tzu's The Art of War in a way that suggests it might have been a precursor. In Chapter 2, Section 1, Wu Tzu states, "Naturally in an army there are certain to be some officers as brave as tigers and strong enough to lift a bronze tripod with ease." In contrast, Sun Tzu's advice about officers relies on much more than an estimation of their physical strength. He says in Chapter 10, "When the officers are valiant and the troops ineffective the army is in distress." The similarities between Wu Tzu and Sun Tzu suggest the former may have contributed to the latter.

The fragmentation of larger states into multiple smaller ones that characterized the Warring States period began about 25 years after the death of the famed Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE). A contemporary and likely pupil of Confucius was Tso Ch'iu-ming, who is credited with having written a detailed description of events in the Spring and Autumn period, but he did not mention Sun Tzu.

Reliable accounts of Sun Tzu's life and activities are equally confusing. Griffith states there is no mention of Sun Tzu in Tso Ch'iu-ming's (c. 5th century BCE) detailed commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals period, despite the fact that some later biographers place Sun Tzu in this era. Griffith gives several examples of anachronisms—or statements in the text referring to weaponry that was not in use until over a century later—in the text that support the idea that Sun Tzu probably lived after the Spring and Autumn Annals period.

However, Griffith suggests the strongest evidence that Sun Tzu must have been a general for the Wu Empire in the Warring States period is supported by the observation that "not until the period of the Warring States were they [armies] commanded by professional generals." This was not the case during the Spring and Autumn Annals period, when wars were planned and carried out by members of aristocratic families, almost like a competitive sporting event.

The Translator's Biography of Sun Tzu

Griffith's translation of The Art of War includes a biography of Sun Tzu written by the Grand Historiographer Sima Qian (also Ssu-ma Ch'ien; 145–87 BCE) entitled Sun Tzu Wu Ch'i Lieh Chuan. This was part of a larger historical work by Ssu-ma Ch'ien titled Shih-chi (100 BCE), and in it, two examples are given to support the enduring force of both Sun Tzu and his principles. The first account states that Sun Tzu first presented The Thirteen Chapters (alternate title for The Art of War) to the king of Wu and demonstrated its principles of troop discipline by training over a hundred court women in a basic drill exercise. At first, the women laughed at his instructions, whereupon Sun Tzu blamed himself for not being clear. However, when the women did not obey for the third time, Sun Tzu had two of them executed despite the king's objections, saying that "when the commander is at the head of the army he need not accept all the sovereign's orders." This implacable focus on principle produced the desired results, and the terrified women went through their drills in silence and with serious intent as if their lives depended on it. The account ends with the king making Sun Tzu general of his armies and the resulting supremacy of Wu over its enemies.

The second account in the biography of Sun Tzu deals with Sun Pin. Sun Pin was a descendant of Sun Tzu. Sun Pin applied the principles of The Art of War to not only overcome the false charges of a jealous rival that had left him branded a criminal but to become chief of staff to the armies of a rival state. In this role, Sun Pin wisely advised his patron to employ deception and false information to overcome an enemy. His approach was very much in accord with the statement made by his ancestor that, in order to overcome an adversary, a wise general must "pretend inferiority and encourage his ignorance." The ruse worked, and not only was the opposing force defeated in an ambush, but Sun Pin's treacherous rival who led those forces realized imminent defeat and took his own life.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War has remained an important guide on how to conduct oneself, not only in times of war but in the competitive fields of business and sports in the 21st century as well.

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