Despite his fame as the reputed author of The Art of War and an extensive biography in China's first comprehensive history, Sun Tzu (the Shiji, Sunzi, or Master (zi) Sun of the late 2nd century BCE) remains an enigma. Moreover, the absence of his name in any of the records that chronicle the late Spring and Autumn Periods (722–481 BCE) has not only stimulated doubts about his activities and achievements but also prompted questions about his very existence.
A contemporary of Confucius, Sunzi apparently numbered among the early itinerant political advisors and military strategists who sought employment with the era's increasingly despotic monarchs. When he suddenly appeared in the troubled southeastern state of Wu about 512 BCE, Holu, the usurper, retained him as part of his efforts to revitalize the state and prevent its annihilation by its nemesis, the powerful state of Chu to the west. The key factor in his appointment was a highly melodramatic (and no doubt apocryphal) demonstration of improved organizational methods that promised to magnify the army's power.
Pressed for proof, Sunzi arrayed the palace's female attendants into a drill formation before appointing the king's two favorite concubines as group captains. When, despite repeated instruction, the women continued to laugh rather than implement his orders, he had the captains executed, instilling the terror necessary to parade the other attendants about at will. Despite being enraged, the king perceived the potential of draconian military discipline and refrained from beheading him.
Judging from The Art of War's contents, Sunzi directed his efforts toward core concepts, organization, operational tactics, and fundamental strategic issues rather than the formulation of national strategy. Living at the end of a period of increasingly lethal internecine strife that saw dozens of protostates extinguished and the gradual emergence of 12 strong entities that coexisted in an unremitting state of enmity, Sunzi was acutely aware of the need to consciously examine the patterns of warfare. Survival depended on insightful leadership, economic prosperity, increasing the populace, and sound military measures. Furthermore, because of the multiparty nature of the threat, any engagement, whether successful or not, might fatally weaken the state. Thus, The Art of War commences by proclaiming, “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Dao to survival or extinction.”
Rather than being a discursive treatise, China's oldest surviving military writing was created by compiling hundreds of laconic pronouncements written on individual bamboo strips, the media of the era, into thematic chapters under general rubrics such as strategic power, maneuver, and configurations of terrain. It remains unknown whether it was largely composed by Sunzi, compiled by his disciples in the century after his death, written by Sun Pin, one of his distant descendants, or written by other unknown persons. Already noticeably influential late in the Warring States period (403–221 BCE), it soon acquired numerous commentaries, including the earliest known by the obstreperous Cao Cao, and underwent centuries of editing.
The Art of War reflects evolving concerns inherent to increasingly lethal Spring and Autumn warfare: mobility resulting from chariot multiplication, segmentation and deployment, battlefield control, escalating infantry forces, martial professionalization, and extended campaigns resulting in clashes between tens of thousands. Nevertheless, the concepts, principles, and tactics have generally transcended historical limitations.
Within China's lengthy tradition of military science, The Art of War initiated rational speculation on martial principles and concepts, transforming combat into an art or proto-science rather than a mere exercise in force and brutality. It not only became the progenitor for all subsequent Chinese military thought but also remains a key resource in the People's Republic of China's quest to develop military science with unique Chinese characteristics. The book's teachings continue to affect every realm of modern endeavor; its concepts and pronouncements, such as “Know the enemy and know yourself,” pervade contemporary Chinese life and media.
Despite its pastiche nature, the book embodies a primary vision that might be summarized as the practice of efficient warfare. Thus, in accord with the behest that “subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the pinnacle of excellence,” Sunzi believed that “the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy's plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest to attack their fortified cities.” However, whenever an enemy must be engaged in battle, every action should be devoted to achieving victory.
In accord with the fundamental tenet that victory must be achieved before initiating combat, extensive intelligence must be gathered to accurately assess the prospects for success. Opponents should then be manipulated through lures and enticements, and deceit and deception to weaken, dispirit, and enervate them. Their forces should be dispersed and the battlefield structured so as to produce the localized but significant tactical superiority that will ensure an “easy” victory.
Several significant concepts underlie The Art of War, including configurations of terrain, deception, strategic power, and the highly complex idea of the unorthodox. Commonly recurring physical features need to be recognized, their constraints observed, and their limitations exploited. Tactics need to be constantly varied, the army needs to be formless, and the general should be unfathomable to compel the enemy to plan for every contingency. But it is deception that is the very “Dao of warfare” as well as a crucial factor in implementing unorthodox (qi) measures that, in conjunction with wisdom and planning, provide the means to unexpectedly vanquish significantly stronger foes.
However, ultimately shi—the “strategic configuration of power”—must be employed to defeat the enemy. A concept that entails not just simple might but instead integrates positional advantage, weapons, leadership, training, and combat spirit (qi), it is imagined as a “millstone crushing an egg” or a roiling river carrying stones before it.
The Art of War also contains two focused chapters, the infamous “Employing Spies,” on the nascent practice of spycraft, and “Incendiary Attacks,” on the principles and tactics of incendiary warfare. The first theoretical manuals on these subjects, their inclusion clearly stemmed from the importance of spies in acquiring intelligence and spreading disinformation and from incendiaries being the only vehicle for inflicting extensive damage in an era of singular combat.
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