Penglai, depiction of one of the mythical islands (Public Domain), and Qin Shi Huang in a 19th century portrait (Public Domain);Deriv.

The King Who Made War Illegal! Challenging the Official History of The Art of War and the First Emperor –Part I

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Had someone picked up a copy of the persuader manual, they would think it a jumble of mixed strategies and tactics and odd, unintelligible stuff about military maneuvers. After all, it talked about armies and battles, storming castles and setting fires. Having had the benefit of training under masters, the persuaders knew that the imagery was an aid to learning and understanding and the instructions largely metaphorical.

The beginning of The Art of War in a classical bamboo book from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.

The beginning of The Art of War in a classical bamboo book from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. ( CC BY 2.0 )

There may have been another reason for the language and imagery: should a persuader be taken prisoner as a spy, the manual would give nothing away about the methods being followed. If ping-fa had been in non-metaphorical, non-military language, Qin's  plans for peaceful conquest would have been visible. And that could not be allowed to happen. It is fascinating that this ruse has been perpetuated into the twenty-first century.

Today, ping-fa is found in the military strategy and history section of bookstores and libraries. The alleged military context has migrated from the military academies to boardrooms, marital advice and fitness clubs; in fact, it’s found in just about every domain where strident command and control are preached. And often, institutions that live by that philosophy have the militarist version on required reading lists.

Today it is not easy to even gain consideration of the possibility that  "Sun Tzu" was a mythical teacher, and that the teachings were metaphorical. That hurdle remains intact despite little or no valid historical verification of the book's authorship, age, or application. The book remains in the military genre even though there is really nothing military about it, and military commentary usually finds it both incomprehensible and impractical for the management of war.


Top Image: Penglai, depiction of one of the mythical islands ( Public Domain ), and Qin Shi Huang in a 19th century portrait ( Public Domain );Deriv.

By David G Jones

David G. Jones B.A., M.A. is a retired government executive and university teacher. Fellow of the University of King's College, he was awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal, and holds an officer's commission in the Canadian Army. He has been studying the origins of the Chinese empire for two decades, and is author of The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War .


Jones, David G. (2012) ‘The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War.’ Published by iUniverse

Giles, Lionel (1910) ‘The Art of War’. Published by Allandale Online Publishing [Online] Available at:

Huang, J.H., ed. (1993) ‘The Art of War: The New Translation’.  Published by HarperCollins Canada / Non-Fiction; 1 edition

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