Sun Tzu (also rendered as Sun Zi) was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who lived in the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China. The name he is best known by is actually an honorific which means "Master Sun": His birth name was Sun Wu and he was known outside of his family by his courtesy name Changqing. He is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an extremely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. Sun Tzu has had a significant impact on Chinese and Asian history and culture, both as the author of The Art of War and as a legendary historical figure.
Sun Tzu's historicity is uncertain. Sima Qian and other traditional historians placed him as a minister to King Helü of Wu and dated his lifetime to 544–496 BC. Modern scholars accepting his historicity nonetheless place the existing text of The Art of War in the later Warring States period based upon its style of composition and its descriptions of warfare. Traditional accounts state that the general's descendant Sun Bin also wrote a treatise on military tactics, also titled The Art of War. Since both Sun Wu and Sun Bin were referred to as Sun Tzu in classical Chinese texts, some historians believed them identical prior to the rediscovery of Sun Bin's treatise in 1972.
Sun Tzu's work has been praised and employed throughout East Asia since its composition. During the twentieth century, The Art of War grew in popularity and saw practical use in Western society as well. It continues to influence many competitive endeavors in Asia, Europe, and America including culture, politics, business, and sports, as well as modern warfare.
Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher, who is believed to have written the famous ancient Chinese book on military strategy, “The Art of War”. Through his legends and the influential “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu had a significant impact on Chinese and Asian history and culture. The book drew immense popularity during the 19th and 20th centuries when the Western Society saw its practical use. This work still has continued its impact on both Asian and Western culture and politics. Sun Tzu’s authenticity is still a question of debate, but the traditional Chinese accounts place him in the Spring and Autumn Period of China (722–481 BC), where he was a military general serving under King Helü of Wu. Based on the description of warfare in “The Art of War” and the striking similarity of the text’s prose to other works from Warring States period led the modern scholars to place the completion of “The Art of War” in the Warring States Period (476–221 BC).
Sun Tzu Childhood and Life
The exact birth of Sun Tzu is still uncertain, due to unreliability of the oldest available sources. The official chronicle of the State of Lu, The Spring and Autumn Annals states that Sun Tzu was born in Qi whereas The Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji states that Sun Tzu was a native of Wu. Both sources agrees on the fact that he was born in the late Spring and Autumn Period of China (722–481 BC), where he was a general and strategist, serving under the king of Wu, King Helü. His victories at the wars inspired Sun Tzu to write “The Art of War”. In the subsequent Warring States Period (475-221 BC), “The Art of War” became the most widely read military treatise. Warring States Period was period of constant war fought between seven nations (Zhao, Qi, Qin, Chu, Han, Wei and Yan) to gain control over the vast expanse of fertile territory in Eastern China. Sun Tzu proved his theories were effective on the battlefield as he had a successful military career. Sun Tzu’s descendant, Sun Bin, also became a famous scholar of the military arts.
The Art of War
The famous military treatise, “The Art of War” written by Sun Tzu depicts a philosophy of war for managing conflicts and winning battles. Some modern philosophers believe that apart from the writings of the author, it also contains commentary and clarifications from later military philosophers, such as Li Quan and Du Mu. This masterpiece, since its first publication, has been translated and distributed internationally, and was frequently referred and used by generals and theorists. There are numerous theories concerned with the completion of the text but it has been archeological proved that the Art of War was composed by at least the early Han dynasty. Since it is nearly impossible to predict the correct date of its completion, the differing theories regarding the work's author(s) and date of completion will never resolve. It was one of the six survived major works written before the unification of China in the 2nd century BC. In the late 1st millennium AD, during the Song Dynasty, these six major works were combined with a Tang Dynasty text into a collection also known as the Seven Military Classics. Being the central part of the collection, “The Art of War” formed the bases of orthodox military theory in China. The language used in the book can be distinguishable from a Western text on warfare and strategy. It was said that the text had recurrent mentions such as a leader must be “serene and inscrutable” and capable of comprehending “unfathomable plans”, which was confusing for Western readers who lack the awareness of the East Asian context. These statements will make clear sense if studied with Taoist thought and practice.
According to Sun Tzu, an ideal general was an enlightened Taoist master which led to “The Art of War” to become a prime example of Taoist strategy. It is different from the other Western works, such as Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz's On War on its spiritual dimension. To have well understanding of this text, it is essential to have awareness on Taoism. This book also gained popularity among the political leaders and those in business management. Today, it is also used in public administration and planning. Apart from describing the theories of battles, this text also discusses the diplomacy and developing relationships with other nation’s importance for the sovereignty of a state. It is now listed on the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program and is recommended to be read by all United States Military Intelligence personnel. CIA officers are also required to read this book. Scholars discovered a collection of ancient texts written on unusually well-preserved bamboo slips in early 1970s. These texts included “The Art of War” and Sun Bin's “Military Methods”. Sun Bin's “Military Methods” was written by a descendant of Sun and was lost since then. It is considered very important because of Sun Bin's relationship to Sun Tzu and also due to its addition to the body of military thought in late Chinese antiquity. This discovery led to the significant expansion of the body of surviving Warring States military theory. Sun Bin’s text, apart from being the only surviving military text from the Warring States period discovered in the twentieth century, also contains the closest similarity to “The Art of War” among all surviving texts.
Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” influenced many prominent figures from the history. One of the earliest accounts was of the first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang, who considered the book had ended the Age of Warring States. This text was introduced in Japan around AD 760 and quickly became popular among Japanese generals. This book played a significant role in the unification of Japan. Samurai were known to have honored the teachings of this book. The history states that the French emperor Napoleon studied Sun's military writings and used it effectively in the war against the rest of Europe. His ignorance to the central principles such as attentiveness to temporal conditions led to his defeat in Russia. There were accounts of Admiral of the Fleet Tôgô Heihachirô, who led Japan's forces to victory against Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, being an avid reader of “The Art of War”. Even the communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong partially credited his victory over Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in 1949 to this text. General Vo Nguyen Giap, who was the military mastermind behind victories over French and American forces in Vietnam, was believed to be an avid student and practitioner of Sun Tzu's ideas. It was the American defeat in Vietnam which brought attention of American military leaders to the writings of Sun Tzu. It is now listed on the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program. Its significance was proved again during the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s, where both General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and General Colin Powell used Sun Tzu's principles of deception, speed, and attacking the enemy's weakness.
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"Sun Tzu" (pronounced SOON-zuh) means Master Sun. Thus, Sun was his family name and Tzu is an honorary title. His given name was Wu.
You will also often see "Sunzi." This is a newer transliteration and closer in pronunciation of Sun Tzu using the Pin-yin transcription system implemented by China's government in 1958. "Sun Tzu" is from the Wade-Giles system created by Thomas Wade in 1867.
According to Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Shih chi, also called the Records of the Grand Historian, Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC). The Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yueh confirms this account except it claims he originates from the state of Wu, not Ch'i. Most scholars surmise he lived from 544 BC to 496 BC.
If Sun Tzu were alive today, he might be surprised at how popular he is. His teaching The Art of War now circulates around the world in over 15 languages. You are probably reading this right now because you want to apply The Art of War’s lessons to competition in everyday personal and business life. Indeed, The Art of War is not just some witty tactics or useful tips to success; it is a collection of in-depth knowledge and wisdom produced amid the vigorous political instability in the Spring Autumn Period of Chinese history (770 B.C. – 476 B.C.). But before we jump ahead, let us go back and look at the legendary man’s story and his family background.
Here are four fun facts about Sun Tzu before he wrote The Art of War:
- Sun Tzu was born in a politically unstable era – the Spring Autumn Period. At that time, China was not a unified land. It was broken into main five states, and each state was named after the last name of the political king (or feudalist). Emperor Zhou was not strong enough to concretize the feudalists’ loyalty. In many ways, Emperor Zhou is sort of like Queen Elizabeth, with virtually no legitimacy, but unlike Queen Elizabeth, the soldiers and feudalists have no respect for Emperor Zhou.
- According to mythology, Sun Tzu’s original last name was “Chen,” not “Sun.” There are many controversies in regards to Sun Tzu’s biography, but one of the most widely believed versions states that his grandfather Tianshu Sun took refuge in Qi State due to the civil war in Chen State. The grandfather changed his last name to Tian (meaning agricultural land), but was later anointed the last name “Sun” by King Qi for the outstanding performance in the warfare.
- Military affairs were in his blood. You can tell by now that Sun Tzu was born with military affiliation. Tracing back to several generations, his family had experts in military affairs. With the elite background given to Sun Tzu’s grandfather by King Qi, Sun Tzu received very good education at a very young age. Together with Sun Tzu’s own passion in learning, he read extensively. Since his father was also a soldier on the front line, Sun Tzu heard many stories about warfare.
- The Art of War is not the first book on military affairs in world history. Sun Tzu read The Politics of War and The Journal of War when he was young. These books were unfortunately lost in time, but the books were believed to have recorded King Huang and other ancient Emperors’ philosophies on warfare.