Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ is an unusual book that has been a source of inspiration for leaders since its creation. From businessmen to politicians, its advice has been utilised by a much broader audience than the military commanders it was originally written for.
A key part of the book’s appeal is the intrigue that surrounds it, and its creator. It is clear that it was first published in what is now China, and although an exact date for the publication has not been determined, it is generally believed to have been written some time between 722 and 481 BCE, a time in Chinese history referred to as the Autumn Period.
Sun Tzu was a military general, strategist and philosopher, according to many accounts. The Annals from the Autumn Period claim he was born in Qi, whereas records of the Grand Historian from this period claim Sun Tzu was born in Wu. According to the text, Sun Tzu served in the court of King Helü of Wu. Sun Tzu was a highly successful military leader, serving at a time when the vassal states were embroiled in intense competition to gain access to the resources of the uncharted regions of Asia.
Some historians however, claim that Sun Tzu never actually existed, or if he did, he had no part in the creation of the Art of War. These historians argue that the book was actually a compilation of centuries of Chinese military theories and advice, a kind of handbook written for military leaders.
Copies of the book, written on bamboo slats, were distributed throughout China and then further afield across Asia. The earliest Japanese translation of the book has been dated to the eighth century CE. It remained a significant text for political and military leaders in Asia for centuries, and a French translation in the eighteenth century brought the book to a European audience.
Superficially, the Art of War’s thirteen chapters provide battle strategies to be deployed in specific combat situations, alongside more generalised military advice. For instance, the twelfth chapter provides guidelines on combat with fire weapons, while another chapter explains the nine different types of terrain one may encounter in combat.
Such advice is of course useful for anyone who finds himself leading an army, but it is the processes the book advocates for assessing a situation that have lead to its continued relevance. The key theme in the book is rational assessment. This is explained though various pieces of tactical advice; managing one’s own resources and assessing a rival’s, gathering as much information as possible and eliminating emotional considerations from negotiations and conflict.
The list of famous fans of the book is extensive, from Napoleon, to Mao Zedong, to Colin Powell. It has been put on reading lists for business degrees and is used by lawyers for advice on negotiations. Articles have even been written applying its ideas to fields as detached from war as risk assessment. The Art of War may have been written for warring states of ancient China, but Sun Tzu’s work has taken on a much broader series of applications.
Sun Tzu on the Art of War
The Oldest Military Treatise in the World; Translated from the Chinese With Introduction, and Critical Notes
by Lionel Giles