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:

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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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