What Is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War About?: A Short Introduction

After wars in Japan and Viet­nam, the U.S. mil­i­tary became quite keen on a slim vol­ume of ancient Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture known as The Art of War by a sup­pos­ed­ly his­tor­i­cal gen­er­al named Sun Tzu. This book became required read­ing at mil­i­tary acad­e­mies and a favorite of law enforce­ment, and has formed a basis for strat­e­gy in mod­ern wartime — as in the so-called “Shock and Awe” cam­paigns in Iraq. But some have argued that the West­ern adop­tion of this text — wide­ly read across East Asia for cen­turies — neglects the cru­cial con­text of the cul­ture that pro­duced it.

Despite his­tor­i­cal claims that Sun Tzu served as a gen­er­al dur­ing the Spring and Autumn peri­od, schol­ars have most­ly doubt­ed this his­to­ry and date the com­po­si­tion of the book to the War­ring States peri­od (cir­ca 475–221 B.C.E.) that pre­ced­ed the first empire, a time in which a few rapa­cious states gob­bled up their small­er neigh­bors and con­stant­ly fought each oth­er.

“Occa­sion­al­ly the rulers man­aged to arrange recess­es from the endem­ic wars,” trans­la­tor Samuel B. Grif­fith notes. Nonethe­less, “it is extreme­ly unlike­ly that many gen­er­als died in bed dur­ing the hun­dred and fifty years between 450 and 300 B.C.”

The author of The Art of War was pos­si­bly a gen­er­al, or one of the many mil­i­tary strate­gists for hire at the time, or as some schol­ars believe, a com­pil­er of an old­er oral tra­di­tion. In any case, con­stant war­fare was the norm at the time of the book’s com­po­si­tion. This tac­ti­cal guide dif­fers from oth­er such guides, and from those that came before it. Rather than coun­sel­ing div­ina­tion or the study of ancient author­i­ties, Sun Tzu’s advice is pure­ly prac­ti­cal and of-the-moment, requir­ing a thor­ough knowl­edge of the sit­u­a­tion, the ene­my, and one­self. Such knowl­edge is not eas­i­ly acquired. With­out it, defeat or dis­as­ter are near­ly cer­tain:

If you know the ene­my and know your­self, you need not fear the result of a hun­dred bat­tles. If you know your­self but not the ene­my, for every vic­to­ry gained you will also suf­fer a defeat. If you know nei­ther the ene­my nor your­self, you will suc­cumb in every bat­tle.

The kind of knowl­edge Sun Tzu rec­om­mends is prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence about troop deploy­ments, food sup­plies, etcetera. It is also knowl­edge of the Tao — in this case, the gen­er­al moral prin­ci­ple and its real­iza­tion through the sov­er­eign. In a time of War­ring States, Sun Tzu rec­og­nized that knowl­edge of war­fare was “a mat­ter of vital impor­tance”; and that states should under­take it as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.

“To sub­due the ene­my with­out fight­ing is the acme of skill,” The Art of War famous­ly advis­es. Diplo­ma­cy, decep­tion, and indi­rec­tion are all prefer­able to the mate­r­i­al waste and loss of life in war, not to men­tion the high odds of defeat if one goes into bat­tle unpre­pared. “The ide­al strat­e­gy of restraint, of win­ning with­out fight­ing… is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Tao­ism,” writes Rochelle Kaplan. “Both The Art of War and the Tao Te Ching were designed to help rulers and their assis­tants achieve vic­to­ry and clar­i­ty,” and “each of them may be viewed as anti-war tracts.”

Read a full trans­la­tion of The Art of War by Lionel Giles, in sev­er­al for­mats online here, and just above, hear the same trans­la­tion read aloud.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Life-Chang­ing Books: Your Picks

“The Phi­los­o­phy of “Flow”: A Brief Intro­duc­tion to Tao­ism

When Sci-Fi Leg­end Ursu­la K. Le Guin Trans­lat­ed the Chi­nese Clas­sic, the Tao Te Ching

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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