Sun Tzu: The Famed and Influential Author of The Art of War May Not Have Existed
“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”
General Sun Tzu
Centuries ago, someone wrote an influential book called The Art of War . It is generally accepted that the author was the Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher Sun Tzu. His work has had an indescribable amount of impact on tactical practices in both the East and West. Sun Tzu quotes have been used as inspiration and motivation on the battlefield and in the boardroom. But, there’s so much mystery surrounding Sun Tzu’s life that some scholars have questioned his very existence.
Who is Sun Tzu?
The ‘Tzu’ in Sun Tzu can be translated as "sir" or "master," meaning the well-known author may have been called Master Sun. His historical name has been given as Sun Wu. Little is known about Sun Wu’s life, but some details can be discerned from his monumental work and descriptions by others.
Representation of Sun Tzu. (Pol Romeu/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
To understand Sun Tzu, it’s necessary to look at the world he lived in. Official chronicles show that he was born during China’s Spring and Autumn Period (722–481 BC) or immediately before the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). But there are differing accounts on exactly when and where Sun Tzu was born. The Spring and Autumn Annals of the State of Lu assert Sun Tzu was born in Qi, but The Records of the Grand Historian ( Shiji) (written in the 1st century BC) state that his homeland was Wu. If the Lu Kingdom’s Annals are correct, Sun Tzu grew up in a northerly coastal area roughly where the Shandong Province exists today. But if Qian Sima’s Shiji is true, Sun Tzu was born in a different state, one which controlled the mouth of the Yangtze River.
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Some sources give his birth year as 544 BC, but not everyone agrees. If we go with this date, Sun Tzu was in his early 30s while he was the Kingdom of Wu’s army general and strategist. It also means he was a contemporary of Confucius (551 - 479 BC).
However, some scholars place Sun Tzu at a later time period due to his important military position. Army leaders in the Spring and Autumn period were not usually professional generals – it was far more common for kings or their close relatives to hold that role (and there has been no evidence given to show Sun Tzu was either of those). Professional generals began to appear around the Warring States Period.
Regardless of the exact year he was born, Sun Tzu’s life would have been surrounded by war. During the Spring and Autumn period it would have been dukes and marquesses feuding amongst themselves as the royal power of the Zhou Dynasty declined. Or, if Sun Tzu lived in the later Warring States Period, he lived at a time when seven Chinese nations (Zhao, Qi, Qin, Chu, Han, Wei and Yan) were fighting over the fertile lands of Eastern China. During the Warring States Period, The Art of War was a widely read military treatise.
Silk painting featuring a man (a wizard) asking a dragon to go to the sky , dated to 5th century BC (Warring States period). ( Public Domain )
Sima Qian provides an anecdote which demonstrates Sun Tzu’s personality. He writes that the King of Wu decided to test Sun Tzu before hiring him, by having the general turn a harem of 180 concubines into trained soldiers. Sun Tzu split the group into two and placed the king’s favorite two concubines as the head of their companies. He then ordered the concubines to turn right, to which the women laughed.
Sun Tzu turned to the king and said that a general was in charge of making sure his soldiers understood and followed his commands, if they did not understand he was at fault. When Sun Tzu repeated his command to the two concubines leading their companies they giggled again. In response, Sun Tzu ordered their execution. The king protested, but Sun Tzu stressed that if a general’s soldiers understood but disobeyed his commands, the officers were at fault and deserved punishment. The two women who were killed were replaced by others in the harem and both companies were sure to follow general Sun Tzu’s commands exactly from then on. Sun Tzu presented the two new commanders to the king and said they were prepared to do his bidding. That is when the king is said to have seen Sun Tzu’s potential and given him his position as general.
General Sun Tzu
Supporting the idea of a later timeline for Sun Tzu’s life is an analysis of the words used in The Art of War , tactics he provides, and his mentioning of crossbows, but a lack of note on cavalry in the text. Taking these factors into consideration provides Sun Tzu’s lifetime to about 100-150 years later than Qian Sima’s reference to him.
Sources say general Sun Tzu served King Helü of Wu. Although his writing suggests he took part in many battles, the only known example of a battle directly linked to Sun Tzu is the Battle of Boju; however, no record actually mentions Sun Tzu having fought in the battle himself. In fact, there is a historical text called Zuo zhuan which provides a more detailed account of the Battle of Boju than Shiji, but it doesn’t mention Sun Tzu at all.
Chinese Terracotta warriors. ( CC0)
Although the anecdote of the concubines may seem violent, general Sun Tzu was generally not depicted as a violent man who enjoyed killing; the opposite is often argued. As a popular Sun Tzu quote from The Art of War states, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
It is said that Sun Tzu held a Taoist philosophy and did not focus or promote physical force as the best means to win a battle. He was more skilled at and interested in using psychological means to defeat his enemy.
One famous Sun Tzu quote illustrating this point is his suggestion of gaining information on your enemy through the use of double agents, "Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent; of all rewards none more liberal than those given to secret agents; of all matters none is more confidential than those relating to secret operations."
He also argued for a military commander to break his enemies’ alliances, avoid conflict, and practice surprise attacks. As Sun Tzu said, "The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim."
Statue of Sun Tzu in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. (kanegon/ CC BY 2.0 )
Did He Really Exist?
The question of Sun Tzu’s existence has been puzzling researchers since at least the 12th century – Was he a real person? Those who have doubted his existence tend to use the lack of his name in the Zuo zhuan as proof against his life. Zuo zhuan mentions most of the more notable figures from the Spring and Autumn period, so the lack of Sun Tzu’s appearance in the text does raise some eyebrows…unless you consider the abovementioned later date for his lifetime.
It’s also worth considering that Sun Tzu is not the only Master Sun; Sun Bin, a more easily proven historical figure, could have also be referred to by this name. Some say that the military expert Sun Bin may have been the inspiration for a character named Sun Tzu and possibly the real author of The Art of War . Both Sun Tzu and Sun Bin encourage the use of strategy over brute force in battle.
Some scholars claim that the famous book was not actually written by Master Sun, but by his students as a collection of his teachings. However, others assert that the book has a singular voice/style, so it is probably the work of one author and not a compilation.
A compromise claims that Sun Tzu did exist and wrote most of the book, but it was added to and adjusted by his students and followers, who eventually included Sun Bin. This could explain disparities in information, such as the mention of crossbows and lack of cavalry.
Thus there are three main views on Sun Tzu’s existence: Sun Tzu existed and wrote The Art of War in 512 BC, Sun Tzu existed, but lived and wrote in the very end of the Spring and Autumn Period or beginning of the Warring States period, or Sun Tzu didn’t exist as a historical figure and The Art of War was written by someone else (perhaps a few people) in the end of the 5th century BC. Bamboo slips discovered at Yin-ch’ueh-shan in 1972 also provide evidence that the book was completed between 500 and 430 BC.
The Yinqueshan Han Slips unearthed in 1972 include Sun Tzu's Art of War, collection of Shandong Museum. (AlexHe34/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Art of War
The Art of War provides guidelines for military strategy and suggests the reader examines his enemies’ and his own strengths so he can act accordingly, disarm or defeat his enemy through the use of subterfuge and stratagem, and only resort to brute force when all other options fail. The belief is that a political ‘war’ is more effective than a military battle.
Thus the book provides a set of tactics and strategies for leaders and military commanders to out maneuver their enemies and teaches them how to take the terrain into account should fighting occur. There is a heavy stress on gathering as much data as possible about the enemies’ practices, movements, tendencies, and forces. This aspect is immortalized in the Sun Tzu quote, “Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat.”
This copy of The Art of War by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside. It was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor. (vlasta2/ CC BY 2.0 )
Sun Tzu’s Legacy
Sun Tzu had a successful military career and keen students who kept his teachings alive, but undoubtedly, the strongest legacy of Sun Tzu is The Art of War . Political leaders around the world have practiced the teachings in this book.
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For example, Qin Shi Huang , the first emperor of a unified China, used tactics from the book to end the Warring States Period. Much later, Mao Tse-tung also applied the strategies against the Japanese and in the Chinese civil war of the 1930s and 1940s, North Vietnamese commanders Ha Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap drew on Sun Tzu’s work as inspiration in their battles against the French and the United States of America. It has also been said that Napoleon took some of Sun Tzu’s strategic ideas through reading translations of the Chinese military general’s book.
There have also been many calls much more recently for a resurgence in Sun Tzu’s way of thinking about war, as a way to avoid direct conflict and bloodshed as much as possible.
Top Image: Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan. Source: 663highland/ CC BY SA 3.0
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