Sun Tzu

Orfeas Katsoulis | Oct 24, 2023

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Sun Tzu (simplified Chinese: 孙子, traditional Chinese: 孫子, pinyin: Sūnzǐ) was a general, military strategist and philosopher of ancient China. The name by which we know him is actually an honorific title meaning "Master Sun". His birth name was Sun Wu and outside his family he was known by his courtesy name Changqing. He is traditionally regarded as the author of The Art of War, an influential treatise on military strategy. Sun Tzu has had a significant impact on Chinese and Asian history and cultures, both for writing The Art of War and as a legendary historical figure.

Historians have questioned whether or not Sun Tzu was an authentic historical figure. He is traditionally placed in the Chinese Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC) as a military general in the service of King Helü of Wu, who lived c. 544-496 BC. Modern scholars accept his historical place by placing the creation of The Art of War in the period of the Warring Kingdoms (476-221 BC) based on the text's military descriptions and the similarity of his prose to that of other works created at the beginning of the Warring Kingdoms period.

Traditional accounts claim that his descendant, Sun Bin, also wrote a treatise on military tactics, entitled Sun Bin's Art of War. Both Sun Tzu and Sun Bin are referred to as Sun Tzu in classical Chinese writings, and some historians believed the two to be the same person until the latter's treatise was discovered in 1972. During the 20th century, Sun Tzu's The Art of War also became popular in the West and is now of great influence almost everywhere in such disparate fields as politics and warfare.

The oldest available sources disagree on Sun Tzu's place of birth. The Spring and Autumn Annals state that he was born in Qi, while the Historical Memoirs of Sima Qian say that Sun Tzu was a native of Wu. However, both sources agree that the treatise writer was born in the late Spring and Autumn period of China (722-481 B.C.) and that he was active as a general and strategist, serving King Helü of Wu from 512 B.C. His military victories inspired him to write The Art of War, one of the most widely read military treatises in the next stage of the Kingdoms of China. His military victories inspired him to write The Art of War, one of the most widely read military treatises in the following period of the Warring Kingdoms (475-221 B.C.), characterized by the constant struggle between seven nations (Zhao, Qi, Qin, Chu, Han, Wei and Yan) who fought to control the vast expanse of fertile territory in eastern China.

One of the best known stories about Sun Tzu, taken from the Historical Memoirs, illustrates his temperament as follows: before hiring Sun Tzu, the king of Wu tested his skills by having him turn a hougong of 180 concubines into soldiers. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies under the command of the king's two favorite women. When the strategist ordered them to turn right, they laughed. In response, Sun Tzu said that the general, in this case himself, was responsible for ensuring that the soldiers understood the orders given to them. He repeated the order, but the concubines laughed again. At the monarch's protests, Sun Tzu ordered the execution of his two favorite concubines, and explained that if the soldiers understood their general's orders but did not obey them, it was the officers' fault. He also added that once a general was appointed, it was his duty to carry out the mission even in the face of the king's protests. After the execution of the two concubines, new officers were elected to replace them and both companies carried out their maneuvers without problems.

Historical Memoirs state that Sun Tzu later proved on the battlefield that his theories were effective (e.g., at the Battle of Boju), that he had a successful military career, and that he wrote The Art of War on the basis of his proven experience. However, the Zuo Zhuan, an ancient historical text that provides a detailed account of the Battle of Boju, does not mention Sun Tzu at any point. Sun Tzu's descendant, Sun Bin, also became a famous scholar of the military arts.


Some scholars have expressed doubts about Sun Tzu's authentic existence and the traditional dating of The Art of War. Their skepticism is fueled by factors including possible historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in the text, as well as the improbability of the execution of the king's favorite concubines. This skepticism, which has led historians to even deny the existence of a historical figure named Sun Tzu, has also provoked fierce debate between skeptics and traditionalists, especially in China. The attribution of authorship of The Art of War varies among scholars, with names such as the scholar Wu Zixu of Chu, a school of thought of Qi or Wu, Sun Bin or an anonymous author being bandied about.

Traditionalists attribute the authorship of The Art of War to the historical figure of Sun Tzu, who is mentioned in the Historical Memoirs and the Spring and Autumn Annals. In them he is said to have been active in the late 6th century B.C., from 512, and the presence of features of The Art of War in other historical texts is considered a sign of his historicity and authorship. Certain strategic concepts, such as terrain classification, are attributed to Sun Tzu and their reuse in other works, such as The Methods of Sima, only confirms Sun Tzu's historical priority.

Skeptics identify possible anachronisms in The Art of War as problems in the traditionalist view, such as some terms, technology, philosophical ideas, military facts and techniques. They argue that there is disparity between the large-scale wars and sophisticated techniques detailed in the text with the small scales of primitive battles that many believe predominated in the sixth century B.C. However, according to Ralph D. Sawyer, it is very likely that Sun Tzu actually existed, that he was not just a general, and that he wrote the core of the book that bears his name. Sawyer argues that his teachings were probably passed down for generations by his family or by a small school of disciples, including his descendant Sun Bin, and that these were later revised and expanded.

The authorship of The Art of War (simplified Chinese: 孙子兵法, traditional Chinese: 孙子兵法, pinyin: Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ, lit. "Master Sun's Rules for Soldiers") is traditionally attributed to Sun Tzu. It presents a philosophy of warfare for managing conflict and winning battles; it is considered a masterpiece on strategy, so it has been frequently quoted and referred to by generals and theorists since it was first published, translated and distributed internationally.

There are many theories about whether the text was completed, and about the identity of the author(s), but archaeological finds have shown that The Art of War had more or less reached its present form by the beginning of the Han dynasty (206 - 220 AD). Because it is impossible to prove definitively when the treatise was completed before these dates, the various theories about the author(s) of the work and the time of its writing will probably never be resolved. Some recent scholars think that, contrary to traditional belief, the treatise contains not only the writings of the original author, but also commentaries and clarifications by later military philosophers, such as Li Quan and Du Mu.

Of all the military texts written before the unification of China and the burning of books in the 2nd century BC, six major works survived, including The Art of War. During the Song dynasty at the end of the 1st millennium AD, these six works were combined with a Tang dynasty text in a collection called the Seven Military Classics. As a central part of the compilation, The Art of War formed the foundation of orthodox Chinese military theory and was required reading for passing the examinations necessary for imperial appointment to military posts.

According to Alexander and Annellen Simpkins, Sun Tzu's The Art of War uses language that may be unusual in a Western text on war and strategy. For example, its eleventh chapter says that a chief must be "serene and inscrutable" and capable of understanding "unfathomable plans." They claim that the text contains many similar comments that have long confused Western readers who lack an understanding of the East Asian religious context, for such comments are clearer when interpreted in the realm of Taoist thought and practice. Sun Tzu saw the ideal general as an enlightened Taoist master, which has led to The Art of War being considered an excellent example of Taoist strategy.

The book is not only popular among military theorists, but has also gained wide acceptance among political and business management leaders. Despite its title, The Art of War addresses strategy in a broad way, touching on public administration and planning. The text describes theories for battles, but also advocates diplomacy and the cultivation of relations with other nations as essential to the health of a state.

On April 10, 1972, the Yinqueshan Han tombs were unearthed by chance during a construction site in Shandong. Inside were found a collection of ancient texts written on unusually well-preserved bamboo plates, including The Art of War and Sun Bin's Military Methods. Among them were The Art of War and Sun Bin's Military Methods. Although Han dynasty bibliographers knew of the existence of a publication by a descendant of Sun Tzu, it had since been lost. The discovery of Sun Bin's work is considered extremely important, both because of its relationship to Sun Tzu and because of its addition to the corpus of late antique Chinese military thought. Not surprisingly, the discovery has significantly expanded the surviving military theory of the era of the Warring Kingdoms, as it is the only text on military matters from that era discovered in the 20th century and is the closest of all known documents to The Art of War.

Sun Tzu's Art of War has influenced many notable historical figures. Traditional histories claim that Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of unified China, considered the book invaluable as early as the end of the Warring Kingdoms period. The art of war was introduced to Japan around 760 AD and soon became very popular among the Japanese military, thus significantly influencing the unification of the land of the rising sun. The mastery of its teachings was honored among the samurai, and its guidelines were exhorted and exemplified by influential daimyō and shōgun such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Also Tōgō Heihachirō, admiral of the Japanese fleet that defeated the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, was an avid reader of The Art of War.

Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong attributed his victory over Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in 1949 in part to The Art of War, and the treatise profoundly influenced Mao's writings on guerrilla warfare, ideas that in turn permeated Communist insurgencies around the world. In addition, the treatise profoundly influenced Mao's writings on guerrilla warfare, ideas that in turn permeated Communist insurgencies around the world. General Võ Nguyên Giáp, the military mastermind behind the victories over French and American forces in Vietnam, was a passionate student and practitioner of Sun Tzu's ideas. The American defeat in this conflict, more than any other event, brought Sun Tzu to the attention of American military leaders. Hồ Chí Minh translated the military treatise into Vietnamese for his officers to read.

The U.S. Department of the Army, through its Command and General Staff College, directs all its units to maintain libraries in their respective barracks for the continued education of personnel in the art of war. The Art of War is listed as an example of books to be kept by each individual unit, and staff officers are required to prepare short papers to be read at presentations by other officers. The old Chinese treatise appears in the Marine Corps' Professional Marine Corps Reading Program. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, U.S. Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell practiced Sun Tzu's principles of deception, speed, and attacking enemy weaknesses.

Mark McNeilly writes in Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare that a modern interpretation of Sun Tzu and his importance throughout Chinese history is critical to understanding China's push to become a 21st century superpower. Modern Chinese scholars explicitly draw on historical strategic lessons and The Art of War to develop their theories, seeing a direct relationship between modern struggles and those of Sun Tzu's time. They perceive great value in the teachings of Sun Tzu and other traditional Chinese writers, lessons that are applied by the Chinese state and its leaders in the creation of strategies.


  1. Sun Tzu
  2. Sun Tzu
  3. Sawyer, 2007, pp. 421-422.
  4. Scott, Wilson (7 de marzo de 2013). «Obama meets privately with Jewish leaders». The Washington Post (Washington, DC). Archivado desde el original el 24 de julio de 2013. Consultado el 2 de mayo de 2014. .
  5. Sawyer, 2007, p. 151.
  6. Sawyer, 2007, pp. 153.
  7. McNeilly, 2001, pp. 3–4.
  8. Sima Qian, Shiji, chap. 65 – (fr) Disponible sur Wikisource.
  9. Tamosauskas, Thiago (2019). Filosofia Chinesa: Pensadores Chineses de todos os tempos. [S.l.: s.n.] p. 32
  10. Sawyer 2007, pp. 421–422
  11. Sawyer 2007, p. 151
  12. ^ 子 (Zi in Pinyin; "Tzu" in Wade-Giles) era usato come suffisso del cognome di un uomo rispettabile nella antica cultura cinese. In questo caso, "Zi" non è un nome personale. È in sintesi l'equivalente di "Signore" ed è comunemente tradotto in lingue indo-europee come "Master".
  13. ^ Nell'onomastica cinese il cognome precede il nome. "Sun" è il cognome.
  14. ^ Sawyer (2007), p. 151.
  15. ^ Sawyer (2007), p. 153.
  16. ^ Bradford, pp. 134–135.

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