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The Art of War | Study Guide

Sun Tzu

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The Art of War | Context


China at War in the Time of Sun Tzu

The history of China is divided into a series of consecutive dynasties. The Zhou dynasty—the period in which Sun Tzu lived—was one of the longest, and lasted from 1046 to 256 BCE. The Zhou dynasty includes both the Spring and Autumn Annals period (772–476 BCE) and the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). The two periods were marked by very different approaches to military campaigns. Battles conducted during the Spring and Autumn period were arranged almost like a leisure-time sport to settle differences between aristocratic houses. War-making took a much more serious turn during the Warring States period, such that battles decided the survival or ruin of each state. The integrity of the state depended on the ability of the sovereign to appoint the best professional strategists and commanding generals available—one of whom was Sun Tzu.

The Spring and Autumn Annals Period

Warfare in the Spring and Autumn Annals period was based on the idea that spring and autumn were two seasons of the year in which war could not be conducted—activities in spring included sowing and planting; in autumn, the harvesting was done. Warfare was an activity conducted by the aristocracy who followed gentlemanly rules of engagement, which included the prohibition of aggressive attacks before an opposing army had a chance to collect itself, or the use of deceit. During this period, war was more of a sporting event. Forces were commanded by the sons or ministers of the royal family. Armies were small and generally lacked either discipline or skill.

The Art of War reflects an entirely different attitude toward military campaigns. War is not a game. It is serious business, and "the province of life or death." Sun Tzu clearly states that a wise sovereign must appoint a seasoned general well ahead of time, then grant him sweeping authority to structure his army, plan strategy, appoint all levels of officers to serve under his command, and secure secret agents to conduct campaigns. Under these conditions, war is no longer a pastime but a matter of survival. Sun Tzu states in Chapter 1 that his advice marks the difference between victory and defeat: "Those who master them win; those who do not are defeated."

The description of a lengthy siege in 594 BCE is given in Griffith's account of this period. A very polite exchange takes place between two representatives of both sides suffering exhaustion and starvation. In the end, they mutually agree to call the whole thing off. Under Sun Tzu's direction, however, such a polite exchange would never have occurred. His advice to the besieger would have been to plan and prepare well ahead of time so the siege could be performed quickly. Furthermore, a general acting on behalf of the state does not have the luxury of being either humane or polite with the enemy. Such traits in a warring general are, according to Sun Tzu, a weakness that an acute opponent can exploit.

The Warring States Period

The Warring States period was a particularly violent period in China's history and it presented the need for a very serious practical approach to armed conflict. Sun Tzu's The Art of War provided an effective blueprint to meet this need. The Zhou Empire broke into approximately 20 minor feudal holdings, seven of which were sufficiently strong enough to swallow their smaller competitors. The resulting breakdown of centralized law and order also left the countryside vulnerable to attack by "escaped criminals, deserters from the army, and disgraced officials." Although this didn't happen suddenly, The Warring States period can be said to have started when three of the strongest clans joined forces to attack and kill the ruler of China, dividing its territories among them in 453 BCE. By that time, the Chou family dynastic line had become so feeble that the "Son of Heaven"—the sacred imperial title of a Chinese ruler—was primarily allowed only ceremonial duties, while the powerful feudal lords surrounding him fought among themselves to seize absolute control of what is now Eastern China.

Although war was their primary occupation, Chinese princes enjoyed many luxuries and—perhaps more importantly—kept commerce and trade going. These warlords employed skilled fighters from the lower ranks of the crumbling aristocracy to enforce civil law and order among their people, and command troops in battle. In order to succeed and survive in this highly competitive environment, they also employed seasoned strategists to act as advisers during campaigns. This need gave rise to a class of wandering scholars eager to secure patronage who were, as Griffith describes them, "intellectual gamblers." Success led to being elevated to an exalted position, but failure resulted in being "unceremoniously pickled, sawn in half, boiled, minced, or torn apart by chariots."

Philosophy in The Art of War

Sun Tzu makes several references to the main Chinese philosophies of the I-Ching (also known as Yijing) or Book of Changes, Taoism (also Daoism), and Confucianism.


The I-Ching (Book of Changes) text is a Chinese system of divination still in use today. During the Zhou dynasty, wizards used the I-Ching to predict future events. A hexagram (or diagram with six components) is drawn from the bottom up using combinations of solid (masculine) and broken (feminine) lines. These hexagrams are then read individually and in combination, using phrases from the I-Ching, which are general enough to apply to a wide variety of conditions to make predictions. During the Spring and Autumn period, divinations were conducted at various stages of a battle. But war in the Warring States period compelled Sun Tzu to charge a general to dispel any and all superstitions. In Chapter 11 he refers to an effective general, claiming, "He prohibits superstitious practices and so rids the army of doubts." This likely refers to the practice of individual troops using charms to protect themselves from harm.


The Art of War directly and indirectly draws upon the philosophic principles of Taoism to enable a commanding general to design tactics in accord with the "play of opposites." This philosophy—based upon observations of natural processes and phenomena—has influenced Chinese thought for over 2,000 years and refers to cycles of change. The symbol of the cosmic force Tao is the yin (feminine principle in black) and yang (male principle in white) entwined. It is important to note, however, that a small "seed" of the feminine is at the core of the masculine and vice versa. Sun Tzu specifically refers to Tao in Chapter 4, saying, "Those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies." An indirect reference to Taoism involves the resources available in normal and extraordinary forces, which, according to the wisdom of the general in Chapter 5, can be engaged in turn because they "end and recommence; cyclical, as are the movements of the sun and moon. They die away and are reborn; recurrent as are the passing seasons."


The I-Ching is included in Confucianism, even though the Chinese philosopher Confucius did not directly mention it in his writings. He believed self-examination and cultivation was the goal of every individual, and as such, he is revered as the consummate educator. However, his efforts to bring these ideas into government were met with indifference, a fact he acknowledged without ceasing his efforts. Sun Tzu has a limited response to these ideas. He urges a general to know both himself and his enemy, but in Chapter 10 he warns that compassionate or humane self-examination is a weakness that can be exploited by an enemy, rather than a strength: "If he [the general] has too delicate a sense of honor you can calumniate him." The main function of ordinary troops in a military structure is to obey orders without doubt.

The Art of War as a Classic

The Art of War belongs to a body of Chinese literature and culture generated during the Zhou Dynasty. This literature included histories mixed with philosophy and legends; how-to manuals on crafts, arts, and etiquette; temple rituals; and essays by scholars and sovereigns. This literature was created from 1046 BCE—the year Confucius was believed to have been born—to 256 BCE—the year the Zhou Dynasty was destroyed. The Art of War was included in the category of military strategy and studied by military officer candidates in their training for service. Over the years, several versions of The Art of War appeared, as later Chinese scholars added their own interpretations of Sun Tzu's advice without distinguishing between what Sun Tzu said and what a later commentator had to say about it. When China was finally unified in 221 BCE, the first emperor, Shi Huangdi (also known as Qin Shi Huang, Qin Shih Huandi, Shi Huangti, or Shih Huan-ti), ordered a general book-burning aimed at destroying mainly the teachings and writings of Confucius. The purging of these texts in 213 BCE was prompted by the emperor's adviser Li Siu, on the grounds that the ideas expressed in them would gradually undermine the authority of the martial state Shi Huangdi had forged. However, as Griffith notes in his Introduction about the text of Sun Tzu's work, the edict was not strictly enforced, and writings on "technical subjects" such as The Art of War were not banned.

Impact of The Art of War

Strategy—or the organization and preparation for battle—is probably Sun Tzu's most significant contribution to military action. As a philosophy of strategy involving meticulous attention to every detail prior to engaging the enemy, Sun Tzu's The Art of War has been poorly understood or ignored in the West until fairly recently. Soldier and military historian Captain B.H. Liddell Hart points out in his Foreword to Griffith's translation that the tactics of war-making in Europe had been dominated by a very different approach, advocated by the Prussian general Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780–1831) in his book, On War. Although this book influenced Western military decision-making from the Napoleonic Wars (c. 1799–1815, where France, led by Napoleon, fought several countries in Europe) to World War I (1914–18), Hart points out that "Clausewitz's tendency to emphasize the logical ideal and 'the absolute' ... [led to] the practice of 'total war' beyond all bounds of sense." This approach is in direct opposition to Sun Tzu's overriding dictum that "to capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it." Despite the fact that the first translation of The Art of War was available in Europe in 1772, it was largely ignored except as a curiosity.

However, The Art of War has had considerable influence over military strategy in both China and Japan. Griffith mentions, "Over one hundred separate editions of the Sun Tzu have been published in Japan." But Mao Zedong, or Mao Tse-tung , (1893–1976), a communist revolutionary and leader of the Chinese Communist Party (also known as Chairman Mao, founding father of the People's Republic of China), noted in 1938 that the Japanese did not follow Sun Tzu's advice during World War II (1939–45), which meant their defeat was inevitable. The Japanese military hierarchy proved inflexible to changing conditions and failed to follow one of Sun Tzu's most important points outlined in Chapter 6: "Therefore, when I have won a victory I do not repeat my tactics but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways."

The Art of War has had a considerable influence on Chinese battle tactics over the centuries. Appendix I of Griffith's translation details an account of discussions between the "Duke" (or "Marquise") of Wen and his general, Wu Ch'i (also Wu Tzu). Wu Ch'i had made a thorough study of Sun Tzu's treatise and recommended an expanded application of these principles to the duke. Wu Ch'i particularly emphasized details of sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of an opposing force by claiming that a successful attack can be made when the enemy "has already been encamped for a long time and is out of grain and food." This advice reflects Sun Tzu's statement in Chapter 2: "While we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not seen a clever operation that was prolonged." Sun Tzu devotes Chapter 13 of The Art of War to pre-conflict subversions of the enemy using secret agents. In a corresponding explanation, Wu Ch'i advises the duke to be well-informed on the character of the opposing general and, if possible, undermine his authority by dividing and separating him from his officers and troops.

The Chinese conflict following World War II between the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) and the communists bears witness to the enduring relevancy of The Art of War. While officers led by Chiang Kai-shek looked to Western military tactics for guidance, and even believed the old classics of Chinese strategy such as The Art of War were out of date or irrelevant, revolutionary Mao Zedong was attracted to ancient Chinese literature from an early age. While he never directly credited Sun Tzu for any guidance, Mao nevertheless forged an army out of impoverished peasants by insisting they be treated with consistent moral discipline, training, and a chance for advancement in the ranks. This approach gained Mao their unwavering loyalty, much as Sun Tzu had predicted in Chapter 10: "Because such a general ... treats [his men] as his own beloved sons ... they will die for him."

This alone would not have brought success, but Mao had the knack of getting those he vanquished to join him: "Many of the captured officers and men immediately joined the Red Army." Sun Tzu approved of this attitude, as he instructed in Chapter 2: "Treat the captives well, and care for them." Mao was also capable of following Sun Tzu's dictums of changing tactics and the art of deception reiterated in nearly every chapter of The Art of War. When Mao wrote slogans, he was hardly able to do so without paraphrasing Sun Tzu. One of his slogans read, "When the enemy halts, we harass!" Sun Tzu would agree, for he says in Chapter 6: "When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him; when well fed, to starve him; when at rest, to make him move."

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