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Sun Tzu, Author of “The Art of War”

April 20, 2011
by Colleen Brondou
Little is known about Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist, general and philosopher, believed to have lived in the sixth or fifth century B.C. But much has been written about the book attributed to him, “The Art of War,” the earliest and perhaps the most influential book ever written on the topic.

Sun Tzu’s Early Life

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Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”) was also known as Sunzi, Sun Tzi and Sun Wu. Whether he actually existed is “vigorously debated by historians,” writes Shanghai news portal Eastday.com.

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.

Sun Tzu and “The Art of War”

Sun Tzu is the reputed author of “The Art of War,” a highly influential book on military strategy. Based on the type of warfare described in the book, it’s believed that it was written during the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.). Excavations of Sun Tzu’s ancient manuscripts “have confirmed the great antiquity of the text attributed to him,” writes the Naval War College’s Arthur Waldron in “The Reader's Companion to Military History.”

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.”

Sun Tzu’s Legacy

Rather than the man and his exploits, “The Art of War” stands as Sun Tzu’s enduring legacy. In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made reference to “The Art of War during the Vietnam War. The book has become “something of a manual for U.S. military strategists” ever since, Infoplease reports.

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.”

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