Sun Tzu, Author of “The Art of War”
According to Ssu-ma Ch’ien (Sima Qian), a Chinese historian in the second and first centuries B.C., Sun Tzu was born in the Ch’i state of China. Most accounts say he lived during the Spring and Autumn Period of China (722-481 B.C.) and served as a general under King Ho-lu of Wu during the Chou dynasty.
Though studied in Asia for centuries, the book wasn’t discovered in the West until the late 18th century, and wasn’t accurately translated until the 20th century. Eastday.com describes the book as “a prime example of Taoist strategy,” while Waldron explains that rather than focusing on force, Sun Tzu sees war as a matter “of unsettling the enemy psychologically,” through deception and surprise.
According to Ssu-ma Ch’ien, “The Art of War” caught King Ho-lu’s attention. He invited Sun Tzu to his palace and asked if Sun Tzu would test his theories on women. Sun Tzu agreed, and performed an experiment: He ran 180 ladies of the palace through some basic military drills.
When they failed to obey his orders, he ordered that the king’s two favorite concubines be beheaded. The king protested but Sun Tzu replied: “Having once received His Majesty's commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.”
The women were beheaded, and King Ho-lu agreed that Sun Tzu “was one who knew how to handle an army,” Ssu-ma Ch’ien wrote. The king made Sun Tzu a general; he went on to defeat the Ch’u state and invade Ying, the capital. In the north, “he put fear” into the Ch’i and Chin states, “and spread his fame abroad amongst the feudal princes.”
In 2003, Ben Macintyre, writing for The Times of London, analyzed how the United States military had fought the Iraq War “by the book”—using the ideas outlined in “The Art of War.” The book is required reading at U.S. military colleges and has been absorbed into the fighting doctrines of the U.S. Army and Marines. Even business, marketing, human resources and sports texts reflect Sun Tzu’s principles.
“As a Taoist seeking the Way, the ancient Chinese thinker was exploring not just military strategy, but more broadly the application of intelligence to the conduct of human affairs, which is why Sun-Tzu is as popular in the boardroom as the battlefield,” Macintyre writes.
Even mafia boss Tony Soprano, of “The Sopranos” TV series, admits to his therapist that he uses Sun Tzu’s principles, Macintyre points out. “Deception, surprise, secrecy, economy of effort, finding weakness in an enemy’s strength: these are the secrets of all successful competitive activity.”