'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu

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Chinese characters holding spears.
The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected.

Who was Sun Tzu?

He was a general who lived around the 5th Century BC in either the Kingdom of Wu or the Kingdom of Qi, which is roughly the modern Shandong province in Eastern China.

During his lifetime, China was being torn apart by a series of wars as lesser states fought for dominance, none of which recognised the central authority of the Zhou Imperial dynasty. This was a similar state of affairs to the Sengoku period in Japan.

According to legend, Sun Tzu was employed by Ho-lú, the King of Wu during 514-496 BC. Ho-lú ruled part of the lower Yangtze Valley and was locked in constant warfare with the rival kingdom of Ch'u. Other than that, very little is known about Sun Tzu's life. Biographies from as little as 300 years after he was alive don't include much more definite information, other than repeating the tale of how Sun Tzu convinced his king that he knew how to train soldiers.

According to this legend, Sun-Tzu was already an accomplished military scholar when he was interviewed by King Ho-lú. Asked to give a demonstration of his theories, Sun-Tzu created two company formations out of 300 of the king's concubines, appointing two of the king's favourites as company commanders. He equipped them with weapons and armour, explained and demonstrated a set of drill movements, and ordered them to perform the drill. The concubines laughed at the order. Patiently, Sun-Tzu repeated his explanation and demonstration, and again gave the order. Again, the concubines laughed.

Sun-Tzu remarked:

If the instructions are not clear, if the orders are not obeyed, it is the fault of the general. But if the instructions are clear and the soldiers still do not obey, it is the fault of their officers.

He then summoned the king's executioner and, despite the king's protests, had the two concubine commanders beheaded. New commanders were appointed from the ranks, and this time when Sun-Tzu gave the order, the concubines performed the required drill movements perfectly. (When asked why he did not heed the king's request to spare his favourites, Sun-Tzu replied, 'Once a general is directing his troops, he should reject further interference from his sovereign.') While shocked by the loss of his favourites, the king was nonetheless impressed by Sun-Tzu's character and understanding of warfare, and appointed him as a general.

The History of The Art of War

Sun-Tzu's treatise on warfare, known popularly in English as The Art of War, was supposedly written in the last half of the 5th Century BC, though modern Chinese scholars still debate the exact decade. It is nonetheless one of the oldest textbooks on military warfare known to man, and also one of the best preserved. It was one of the Seven Military Classics assembled for study by military and senior imperial officials during the Sung period (A.D. 1078). Copies of the book were disseminated throughout Japan and Korea; certainly it was compulsory study for the higher ranks of the Samurai class.

The text was first translated into French in 1782 by a Jesuit named Amiot (it has been claimed that Napoleon studied the book and incorporated its principles in his campaigns). An English edition did not appear until 1905, and since then numerous editions (in various languages and including comic books) have been published. One of the best known editions is the 1910 translation by Lionel Giles; in 1983 his text was dusted off and re-edited by popular author James Clavell (Shogun, Noble House, Gai-Jin, King Rat).

Part of the reason for Sun-Tzu's popularity in the West is the growing appreciation of the Asian region as an economic power; businessmen read Sun-Tzu in order to gain insight into Chinese and Japanese management and business strategies. Another reason is its accessibility: The Art of War is much shorter and has a less specialised vocabulary than that other classic on warfare, Clausewitz's On War.

A Brief Outline

The Art of War is divided into 13 chapters of varying length. Chapter headings and quotations listed here are based on the Giles/Clavell edition.

  1. Laying Plans - This identifies five factors which govern the conduct of warfare: Moral Law (relationship of the government and the populace), Heaven (weather and environment), Earth (ground and terrain), The Commander (the character of the general in charge), and Method (the army infrastructure and level of discipline). One of the most widely-quoted sentences in this chapter: All warfare is based on deception.

  2. On Waging War - This chapter places a strong emphasis on logistics, and the need for thorough planning in this area. This chapter also advocates plundering enemy resources in order to sustain one's own troops.

  3. The Sheathed Sword - 'The Sheathed Sword' opens with another well-known quote: Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. This chapter contains some of the best known quotations from Sun-Tzu's text:

    • He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

    • 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 suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

    Sun-Tzu here outlines the roles of both the army commander and his sovereign: the sovereign must not interfere with the conduct of warfare, and the commander must be skilled and knowledgeable about his assets, his adversaries and his circumstances.

  4. Tactics - This chapter emphasises the need for secrecy when planning both offensive and defensive operations.

  5. Energy - 'Energy' discusses the disposition and placement of troops for movements and manoeuvres, the purpose of which is to get the enemy to respond in ways of one's own choosing.

  6. Weak Points and Strong - This chapter highlights the principles of exploiting the enemy's weak points, while forcing the enemy to attack strong ones. The chapter also emphasises secrecy in manoeuvring troops, to keep the enemy confused.

  7. Manoeuvring - A chapter that discusses troop coordination and the need to understand terrain. In this chapter, Sun-Tzu advises against driving the foe to desperation: desperate people can upset the best-laid plans by throwing all caution to the winds.

  8. Variation of Tactics - This chapter cautions against conventional reactions to unfavourable circumstances. It also advises preparing for the enemy based on one's own advantage, rather than predicting what the enemy will do.

  9. The Army on the March - This contains general information about movement and encamping on various types of terrain. It also points out various details to look for when trying to identify enemy movements.

  10. Terrain - 'Terrain' describes the environments in which a general can find battle. It also discusses problems in army discipline which the general is responsible for, and which can cause an army to lose a battle.

  11. The Nine Situations (also known as The Nine Types of Ground) - This chapter describes situations corresponding to the stages of a battle campaign:

    • Dispersive ground - fighting in one's own territory

    • Facile ground - shallow penetration into hostile territory

    • Contentious ground - of great advantage to either side

    • Open ground - both sides can move freely

    • Ground of intersecting highways - natural junctions or roads to three or more areas of interest

    • Serious ground - deep into enemy territory, cities in rear are captured and fortified

    • Difficult ground - natural terrain that is difficult to cross (i.e. forests, swamps)

    • Hemmed-in ground - narrow gorges, requiring army to break up into smaller units to cross

    • Desperate ground - the only way to escape is to fight and win

    The chapter gives advice on how to exploit each situation, and highlights the need for proper management to take advantage of each situation.

  12. Attack by Fire - This describes the use of an unconventional technique of warfare. The modern application would be any unconventional tactic or stratagem; again, Sun-Tzu emphasises the need for careful planning when employing such a move.

  13. The Use of Spies - This chapter devotes a great deal of attention to the value of foreknowledge of the enemy. This is one of the rare passages that Sun-Tzu highlights: 'To remain in ignorance of the enemy's condition, simply because one grudges the outlay of [money], is the height of inhumanity.' The chapter describes the establishment, structure and proper use of an intelligence network, including military scouts and what we know today as 'double agents'. Sun-Tzu's emphasis on the value of espionage is certainly a factor in the establishment, by the Japanese, of the Shinobi or ninja class of spies and assassins.

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