The Art of War (Sunzi bingfa) is a 5th-century BCE military treatise written by the Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu (aka Sunzi or Sun Wu). Covering all aspects of warfare, it seeks to advise commanders on how to prepare, mobilise, attack, defend, and treat the vanquished. One of the most influential texts in history, it has been used by military strategists for over 2,000 years and admired by leaders from Napoleon to Mao Zedong.
Biographical details concerning Sun-Tzu are scarce. He was said to have lived around 500 BCE, been born in the state of Qi but acted as a commander in the southern state of Wu. Traditionally, his famous work, The Art of War, was thought to have been written in the later stages of the Warring States Period (481-221 BCE), but since the discovery of an older version of the text written on bamboo strips in a tomb at Yinqueshan in southern Shandong, the composition date has been put back to the 5th century BCE. Some of the content also places the text in this period while, at the same time, some scholars differ in opinion and point to the sophisticated language and other matters of military development within the text as evidence it was compiled later. The traditional text version was edited by the 3rd-century CE military dictator Cao Cao. English translations of the text are often included in an anthology titled the Seven Military Classics, which also includes works by other authors such as the Six Secret Strategies and Wei Liaozi.
Structure & Themes
The Art of War is divided into 13 chapters or pian which cover different aspects of warfare from planning to diplomacy. The work is not shy on the use of deception which runs through many of the suggested stratagems. Still, the book is not a glorification of warfare, and an important point, raised several times in the work, is that actual combat only results from the failure of other strategies to defeat the enemy and is always an undesirable waste of men and resources.
As much of the advice relates to deploying troops with imagination and daring based on a good prior knowledge of the terrain and enemy, withdrawals and counter-offensives, and the importance of psychology, The Art of War is often cited as the go-to source for those engaging in guerrilla warfare. For this reason, Sun Tzu’s ideas have continued to be relevant to the conduct of war no matter the developments in technology or increase in the destructive power of weapons. Wherever soldiers come face to face with the enemy Sun-Tzu’s ideas may be applied.
An important concept in the text and those treatises which followed is qi (or shih), which is the 'breath' or essence of life in Chinese thought. Its relevance to warfare is that commanders must energise the qi of their own troops while at the same time drain it from the enemy. Thus, the psychology of warfare is recognised as a vital factor in the overall success of campaigns.
The Art of War was not admired by all. Followers of Confucianism took exception to the use of deception which they considered as contrary to gentlemanly conduct. Another critic was Han Fei Tzu, an influential philosopher and advisor to King Cheng of the Ch’in state during the Warring States Period. Fei Tzu thought that the work neglected discipline as an important element in an army’s success and was not convinced by the argument that the limitation of war’s destructive consequences should always be in the thoughts of a commander.
Chapter 1: Initial Estimations
The book opens with the following statement: "Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way [Tao] to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analysed" (Sawyer, 2007, 157). Next, we are told a commander who seeks victory must consider five principles or areas: Tao thought, yin and yang, terrain, wise and courageous generals, and the laws of warfare and discipline.
Chapter 2: Waging War
The importance of supplies and logistics to an army are expressed. Weapons will dull, food will run out and soldiers tire so that, "No country has ever profited from protracted warfare" (ibid, 159). If possible, provisions should be acquired from the enemy. Captured soldiers should be treated well and encouraged to join the army of their victors.
Chapter 3: Planning Offensives
A commander should limit the destruction inflicted on the enemy: "The highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities" (ibid, 161). Siege warfare is costly and time-consuming and so should be a last resort. Five factors will influence victory: knowing when to fight or retreat, knowing how to deploy both small and large armies, knowing how to motivate all levels of troops, preparation (even for the unexpected), and having a ruler who does not interfere with a talented commander. The importance of knowing one’s enemy is stressed.
Chapter 4: Military Disposition
Planning and preparation are again stressed. Commanders must know when to attack and when to defend. They must always measure, estimate, calculate, and weigh the strength of their enemy, then victory will be assured.
Chapter 5: Strategic Military Power
Here Sun-Tzu discusses the necessity of managing one’s troops in all situations:
…in battle one engages with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox…One who employs strategic power [shih] commands men in battle as if he were rolling logs and stones…Thus the strategic power [shih] of one who excels at employing men in warfare is comparable to rolling round boulders down a thousand-fathom mountain. (ibid, 165)
Chapter 6: Vacuity & Substance
The enemy should be forced to react or be provoked into reaction, always following the initiative of the eventual victor. One should occupy the battlefield first, becoming familiar with it and the dispositions of the enemy. A commander should not make it obvious where he is attacking but probe and find the enemy’s weakness, monitoring and assessing their ability to respond to attacks in various places: "Thus the pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless. If it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it or the wise make plans against it" (ibid, 168).
Chapter 7: Military Combat
On the difficulties of moving an army in the field and ensuring troops are kept together and not separated from each other or their supplies:
Thus the army is established by deceit, moves for advantage, and changes through segmenting and reuniting. Thus its speed is like the wind, its slowness like the forest; its invasion and plundering like a fire; unmoving, it is like the mountains. It is as difficult to know as the darkness; in movement it is like thunder. (ibid, 169)
The army can be made more cohesive by ensuring all are motivated to fight and will receive their rewards. It can also be better managed as a unit on the battlefield by the use of fires, flags, and drums.
Chapter 8: Nine Changes
Sun-Tzu identifies nine action points that a commander should follow, which include using the terrain to one’s advantage, not pressing the enemy or attacking their cities in all situations. The commander must always weigh the advantages of gain and the dangers of losses with every action he takes.
Chapter 9: Manoeuvring the Army
A commander should occupy high ground when he can and he should not remain near rivers, gorges, forests or marshlands. Such places are prime locations for ambush. There then follows a list of points on how to spot what the enemy is up to, from troop movements to their level of hunger.
Chapter 10: Configurations of Terrain
Sun-Tzu identifies the most common forms of terrain: accessible (allowing freedom of troop movement), suspended (where retreat is difficult), stalemated (where movement by both sides brings no particular advantage), constricted (troops must occupy all of the terrain in order to defend it), precipitous (the high ground must be occupied for success), and expansive (where engagement is not desirable for either side). Weaknesses of armies are identified such as militarily poor officers, generals who do not apply discipline, and insubordinate junior officers.
A commander must know his army and its capabilities very well. In addition,
When the general regards his troops as young children, they will advance into the deepest valleys with him. When he regards the troops as his beloved children, they will be willing to die with him. (ibid, 177)
Chapter 11: Nine Terrains
Another nine types of terrain are identified which will determine a general’s actions: dispersive (when feudal lords are on their own ground), light (when a commander enters only a short way into enemy territory), contentious (where either side can gain the advantage), traversable (both sides can easily manoeuvre), focal (terrain bordered by potential allies), heavy (where one can attack deep into enemy territory), entrapping (terrain with difficulties like swamps and ravines), encircled (terrain with a limited access point), and fatal (where a decisive win or loss might occur).
Chapter 12: Incendiary Attacks
Sun-Tzu identifies the different targets for incendiary attacks: men, provisions, supply trains, armouries, and formations. Again, preparation, timing, and weather conditions must all be considered to maximise the effectiveness of the attack.
Chapter 13: Employing Spies
The negative effects of warfare on the local population are considered. The importance of knowing the enemy is repeated, and this can be acquired through the use of spies. There are several types of spies that can be usefully employed: locals, expendable, those with a high position in the enemy government, double agents, and those who return after performing their duty. Spies must be rewarded generously, one should be wary and prepared to be spied upon oneself, and a good commander can use spies to misinform the enemy.
In general, as for the armies you want to strike, the cities you want to attack, and the men you want to assassinate, you must first know the names of the defensive commander, his assistants, staff, door guards, and attendants. You must have our spies search out and learn them all. (ibid, 186)
The Art of War not only influenced other similar Chinese works on military strategy during the Warring States Period when such manuals became common and officers could recite passages by heart but also later writers and commanders. Medieval Japanese commanders consulted it, Napoleon was said to have employed many principles expounded in the book, and the Chinese leader Mao Zedong was a great fan of the work and cited it as a contributing factor in his victory over Chiang Kai-shek in the civil war of the mid-20th century CE. Ho Chi Minh also employed many of Sun Tzu’s principles during the Vietnam War later in the same century. As the most famous military treatise in Asian history, the work continues to be as popular as ever and is often included as essential reading on curriculums worldwide for courses in history and political science.