Sun Tzu Biography: The Art of War

‘The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence, it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected’


These are the first sentences of the Sunzi Bingfa, known in the West as The Art of War, one of the oldest treatises on strategy and warfare and for sure, the most quoted across the Globe. Its 13 chapters offer high level strategic advice to rulers and generals, focusing on a series of key principles which should always be kept in mind, lest one takes the road to ruin. Some of its commandments are very specific to warfare in the ancient world, for example chapter 12 is entirely dedicated to Attack by Fire. But most of its teachings can be extrapolated to a variety of situations outside of the military environment, including politics, finance, marketing or even sports.

But what do we know about its author, the legendary Sun Tzu, also known as Sunzi? Surprisingly little, for a man whose work has had such an enduring influence on the politics and History of China at first and then the whole World. But in today’s Biographics we will attempt to clear at least some of the mist shrouding the life of Master Sun.

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan

The Seven Kingdoms

To fully understand the man Sun and the profound legacy of his work, we first need to look at the historical context in which they appeared.

The years between 770BC and 476BC are known as “The Spring and Autumn Period of China”. Over these three centuries, the land was ruled by the Zhou dinasty.

The Zhous applied a feudal-like system, with large swathes of land administered by local lords. If a disagreement broke out, the lords would settle them by means of small scale military engagements, waged using bronze weapons, riding on top of richly decorated chariots. These battles, which actually were more like large duels, were regulated by a code of honour and valour, based on the philosophy of Confucianism, which values strict adherence to a system of traditions and social rules.

Here is an example, narrated by historian Robert Griffiths:

 “In ancient China war had been regarded as a knightly contest. As such, it had been governed by a code to which both sides generally adhered. Many illustrations of this are found…For example, in 632 BC the Chin commander, after defeating Ch’u at Ch’eng P’u, gave the vanquished enemy three days’ supply of food. This courtesy was later reciprocated by a Ch’u army victorious at Pi”

This chivalrous approach to war was made possible by the small size of the armies and the low stakes at play.

But the Zhou dynasty was on the decline until they were removed from power and things changed for the worse. A vacuum at the top normally causes the emergence of regional powers, all vying for supremacy. And this is what happened in China during the so-called Period of the Warring States.

Seven main Kingdoms, Jin, Chu, Qin, Qi, Wei, Yue and Wu, alongside their vassal states, were at war for much of the VIth and Vth century BC. Think Westeros after King Robert’s death. Or Westeros, after King Joffrey’s death. Or Westeros, after King Tonmen’s – you got the idea.

Obviously this constant state of conflict had a massive impact on society. The rulers of the Seven Kingdoms could not afford to go to war on fancy bronze chariots, but most of all they could not afford to lose. And so bronze weapons were replaced by iron, cheaper but deadlier. Chariots were discarded, in favour of cavalry and infantry units. The warriors, aristocrats and heroes who rode into battle during the Spring and Autumn, gave way to large armies of conscripts numbering in the tens, even hundreds of thousands. And large numbers of well-equipped, well-fed men require tons of money. Who’s going to pay? As usual, the peasants, the merchants, ordinary folk, hard hit by taxation that depletes the land and sows dissent.

The Kings of the Warring States need some expert advice: not only on how to overcome their foes, but how to do it efficiently and quickly. But who can provide it?


Enter the Master

Sun Wu, later known as Sun Tzu, or ‘Master Sun’ was born in 544BC in the northern state of Ch’i, modern day province of Shandong. But please don’t take this date too seriously: the exact Century in which the Master live is disputed, let alone the year. But let’s settle for 544.

He was obviously literate, he knew one or two things about war and leadership and he travelled across the Warring States, which leads us to infer that he was a shih, or a member of the landless aristocracy. The shih’s were traditionally travelling academics, but Sun Wu was more likely a travelling mercenary. It was this particular trade that took him to travel from his birth state of Ch’i to the southern kingdom of Wu, sometime around 510BC.

The state of Wu was at that time a sort of ‘underdog’ in the Chinese Game of Thrones. This kingdom is located in what is now the Shanghai province and back at that time it was smaller and less populated then its rivals, especially the large, neighbouring state of Chu.

That is why, the ruler King He-Lu, was looking for a top-notch military advisor to organise and lead his army in war.

According to some accounts, at this stage Master Sun had already written the Art of War, leading to He-Lu summoning him to court.

According to others, Sun Wu was only a low ranking officer in He-Lu’s army at this point, but his skills in unconventional tactics such as ambushes, espionage and counter-espionage, surprise attacks on enemy camps, had raised the attention of the King.

But what everybody agrees on is how he got the General job.

King He-Lu challenged Sun Wu to demonstrate his military skills by organising some war manoeuvres, not with soldiers, but with the court concubines. Sun Wu accepted the challenge, on two conditions: no interference from the King and absolute obedience from the concubines.

Sun then proceeded to created two platoons of 70 or 80 concubines each, appointing as platoon leaders the two favourites of the King. He then instructed the concubines on how to perform a series of marching orders in coordination with a drum beat.

But when the drums sounded, the two lead concubines burst out laughing and the two platoons did not obey the orders.

Sun Wu was like ‘OK, that’s cool, it can happen. If at first the officers and the soldiers do not perform correctly, it is the General’s fault, my fault, for not being clear enough’.

And again Sun gave the marching orders to the concubines, making it very simple and clear what is it they had to do. And again, the drums went off … and again the two favourites just couldn’t stop giggling. How fun, right? Not exactly.

At this point Sun Wu commented that he, the General, had done his duty, it was now the fault of the officers if they were not executing the orders. To show that he meant business he ordered two guardsmen armed with axes to apprehend the two concubines.

He-Lu, watching at a distance with his court, dispatched a message asking him to stop. “Please Sun Wu, do not chop these ladies’ heads off. My life would be so not fun without them”

To which Master Sun replied that when a General is in charge his orders must be carried out. The axemen decapitated the two squad leaders. The deputy-lead concubines were put in charge of the platoons and the manoeuvres were carried out perfectly. I guess threat of decapitation is a powerful incentive.

King He-Lu in the end was kind of cool with all that … so much so that he appointed Master Sun as lead General of his army.

Now a couple of points if I may.

Point one: we all have a lot to learn from Master Sun and his book. But I would not take his advice when it comes to job interviews. Chopping the head off the CEO’s life partners will not get you that dream job.

Point two: I personally find it difficult to believe this to be a true story, and XIth century scholar Yeh Cheng-Tse agrees with me. This sounds more like a parable to illustrate some key lessons which appear again and again in the Art of War. What are the lessons? Absolute obedience to the officers and the Generals. Discipline. Coordination among ranks. Independence of the Military from political power in war time. These are the values that make an army of men into an army of heroes.

One Sun, two Suns, three Suns … ?

But what exactly was so revolutionary about Sun Tzu’s approach to warfare? His main contribution was to apply Taoist principles to the conduct of military campaigns. Unlike the adherence to tradition supported by Confucianism, Taoism emphasizes adaptability to the natural flow of things. Moreover, the Tao-Te-Ching reflects a horror of war and yearning for peace. By combining these two principles, you obtain the foundations of Sun Tzu’s military doctrine:

  • Follow the natural path to victory rather than adhering to contemporary conventional wisdom
  • If possible, avoid war. The greatest victory lies in defeating the enemy even before a war has begun
  • But if a war begins, the best way to achieve peace is through a swift victory.

These precepts of Sun Tzu’s were soon put the test in one of the many conflicts opposing the kingdoms of Wu and Chu. At the decisive Battle of Boju, Sun-Tzu is said to have led the Wu forces along with King He-Lu’s brother Fugai, and defeated the numerically superior Chu army through use of his tactics. In The Art of War, Sun-Tzu writes:

“Though according to my estimate, the soldiers of Chu exceed our own in number, that shall advantage them nothing in the matter of victory. I say then that victory can be achieved. Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting.”

Situation during the Battle of Boju

Situation during the Battle of Boju

In other words: take the initiative; attack first; attack fast; attack where the enemy is weak and prevent him from concentrating his forces. This is exactly what happened at Boju. Despite He-Lu’s protestations, Fugai listened to Sun Tzu’s advice and charged the Chu army, defeating them in a series of five further engagements, which culminated with the capture of the enemy capital, Ying.

Fugai’s success in the Wu-Chu wars was due to his own courage and his belief in the precepts of Sun Tzu.

First, he collected intelligence brought by spies, through which he learned that the opposing general, Nang Wa, was despised by his troops and that they had no will to fight.

Second, he refused to adhere to the standard rules of war as understood at that time. He did not let the enemy retreat to safety, he attacked them while they were crossing the Qing-fa river, prevented their formation of lines, and even later attacked them at their dinner!

You may have noticed something in this account of the Battle of Boju: that the main action was led by Fugai, with Sun Tzu being almost a shadow, in the background. You see, it interesting to note that we do have precise historical records of other Generals at King He-Lu’s court, but nothing so precise about Master Sun Wu himself. It may have been, in fact that Master Sun was exactly that, a mere phantom, an embodiment of a set of values rather than a real person.

Or, if we want to stay more grounded, Master Sun may be a composite character, the result of different historical figures merged into one by inaccurate historical records or oral tradition.

Two characters could plausibly be at the origin of the legend of Sun Tzu: Wu Zixu and Sun Bing.

Wu Zixu

Wu Zixu was born some time at the end of the VIth Century and was a son of a nobleman called Wu She, from the state of Chu. When Wu She was executed for an alleged crime, Wu Zixu fled Chu and after wandering through the Warring States he finally he came to Wu.

Here, he became acquainted with one Prince Guang, to whom he suggested usurping the throne. Guang killed the rightful King Liao and became our now good old friend, King He-lu. Wu Zixu became He-lu’s chief advisor. Advisor to the King, like Sun Tzu? Check!

Wu Zixu then took advantage of his position of power to take revenge for the unjust death of his father, led a campaign against the state of Chu and conquered the rival state in 506. Conquering the capital city of Chu, like Sun Tzu with Fugai? Second Check!

For his military success he was rewarded with the territory of Shen. But with He-Lu’s death, his fortunes started to decline. Wu Zixu did not see eye-to-eye with the new King Fucha, who after defeating the state of Yue and Qi, wanted to go for the full hegemony of the whole of China. Wu Zixu advised against that, as he was aware of the limited power of the kingdom of Wu. Eventually, King Fucha favoured another general, Bo-Pi, over him. Slandered by the new favourite, Wu Zixu accepted a sword presented by the king, with which he killed himself in the year 484BC

Sun Bin

Sun Bin, also known as Sun Ping, was rumoured in life to be a descendant to the legendary Sun Tzu. He lived between the years 380 and 316BC in the state of Wei. He studied military leadership under two great generals of the period, Pang Juan and Master Guiguzi. But the old teacher, Pang Juan, became envious of his pupils and he slandered his reputation. This was quite common at the time, it seems, and always with dire consequences: the King of Wei punished Sun Bin by cutting off his kneecaps. The word ‘Bin’ in fact was not part of his name at birth, it rather indicates this type of punishment and was a nickname given to him later in his life.

Somehow, Sun Bin managed to escape to the northern state of Qi, where he was hired as a general and led successful campaigns against Wei. His preferred tactics are a close match with some of those found in the Art of War, such as encircling the enemy forces and attacking the weaker enemy formations, which require more support from other units.

After his successes with Qi, he retired to the state of Chu, where he probably died. What makes him a candidate to be the “real life” Sun Tzu, or at least one of the characters that inspired his legend, is that Sun Bin authored his own Art of War! This book, titled “The Art of Warfare by Sun Bin” was discovered by archaeologists in 1972 and it reads like an expansion to the original book attributed to Sun Tzu.

But whatever the truth about the identity or existence of Master Sun Wu, the man’s life will always be secondary to his greatest achievement, a short book in thirteen brief chapters, which can be read in little more than an hour, and yet charged with a relevance that has spanned centuries.

The Art of War

A copy of The Art of War written on bamboo

A copy of The Art of War written on bamboo

What we know for certain about this book is that it was first written in the Vth Century BC, later amended in the IInd Century BC. It later spread to most of East Asia, gaining notoriety especially in Japan, around the VIIIth Century AD. We know of at least one Japanese warlord who used as an emblem the four Chinese characters of Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain, which represent a famous maxim from Sun Tzu’s work: Strike like the wind, be as tranquil as a forest, be as devastating as a fire and as firm as a mountain.

The book was finally formalised in its current version in the XIth century AD, but we had to wait until 1772 for it to be introduced to the west, thanks to the translation of a French Jesuit Priest.

The Art of War rests on a few key principles, some of which we have already hinted at. The main point, which is a stern piece of advice to all rulers, is that war should not be taken lightly, it is a matter of life and death for the State and the people living within it. At least, it should be avoided at all costs. If this is not possible, it should be extensively planned and prepared, and concluded as swiftly as possible. No state ever benefited from a prolonged state of war.

If you want to know more about Sun Tzu’s philosophy of warfare, I strongly encourage you to go and read it, you can read it or listen to it for free basically everywhere online. But if you can’t spare one hour of your precious time, I am going to summarize it for you in five minutes. Countdown please.

Chapter 1 – Planning. The five key factors of war are: strategy, weather, terrain, leadership, management. By considering these factors and comparing them to the enemy a commander can calculate chances for victory.

Chapter 2 –  Waging War, or the economy of warfare. Success lies in the ability to win quickly and effectively, thus limiting the cost of military campaigns

Chapter 3 – Strategic Attack, in which the Master tells us that strength comes from unity, not size.

Four – Disposition of the Army. Obvious but true: about the importance of being able to recognize strategic opportunities and to not create opportunities for the enemy.

Five – Forces! About using creativity and timing to build your army’s momentum.

Six – Weaknesses and Strengths. This is Taoism at its best: always adapt your tactics to changes in the environment

Seven – Military Manoeuvres. About the dangers of direct conflict and how to win if you cannot avoid it: use initiative to impose your will on the enemy and fight at your own conditions.

Eight – Variations and Adaptability. Taoism, 2nd round. Adapt your tactics to the enemy army’s responses.

Nine – Movement and development of troops. Or: how to evaluate the intentions of the enemy while moving across their territory.

Ten – Terrain and Eleven – The Nine Battlegrounds. Both chapters discuss how to interact with different types of ground to your advantage, at strategic and tactical level. For example, at strategic level, if positioned at an intersection between two or more factions, or states, always seek an alliance with at least one of them. A tactical example: when encountering high ground, either occupy first and hold it. If you can’t, avoid it at any cost.

Twelve – Attack by fire. There are five ways to do so: burn the soldiers, burn their stores, burn their baggage trains, burn their arsenals, shoot fire missiles from the distance.

Thirteen – Espionage. There are five types of spies: locals spying on the enemy; infiltrated spies; double agents; spies sowing false intelligence on purpose; and surviving spies – basically those who make it back alive to your camp.

Foreknowledge and deception are key to the conduct of war. In fact, one of the most quoted maxims of Master Sun’s is exactly that,

‘All war is based on deception’.

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