Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) ("Master Sun") is an honorific title bestowed upon Sun Wu (c. 544 BC – 496 BC), the author of The Art of War, an immensely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. He is also one of the earliest realists in international relations theory.

In the author's name, Sun Wu, the character wu, meaning "military", is the same as the character in wu shu, or martial art. Sun Wu also has a courtesy name, Chang Qing (Cháng Qing).

As a historical figure


The only surviving source on the life of Sun Tzu is the biography written in the 2nd century BC by the historian Sima Qian, who describes him as a general who lived in the state of Wu in the 6th century BC, and therefore a contemporary of one of the great Chinese thinkers of ancient times—Confucius. According to tradition, Sun Tzu was a member of the shi. The shi were landless Chinese aristocrats who were descendants of nobility who lost their dukedoms during the territorial consolidation of the Spring and Autumn Period. Unlike most shi, who were traveling academics, Sun Tzu worked as a mercenary (similar to a modern military consultant). According to tradition, King Helü of Wu hired Sun Tzu as a general approximately 512 BC after finishing his famous military treatise. What is now known as the The Art of War was titled Sun Tzu; naming a work after the author was common in China prior to the Qin era. After his hiring, the kingdom of Wu - which had previously been considered a semi-barbaric state - went on to become the most powerful state of the period by conquering Chu, one of the most powerful states in the Spring and Autumn Period. Sun Tzu, always wanting a peaceful and quiet life, suddenly disappeared when King Helu finally conquered Chu. As a result, his exact date of death remains unknown.

Fame of treatise

In Chinese Sun Tzu (the original book title) is now commonly called Sunzi bingfa (also transliterated as Sun-tzu ping fa or Sun-tse ping fa). Sunzi is a modern transliteration of Sun Tzu. Bing Fa can be translated as "principle for using forces", "military methods", "army procedures", or "martial arts". Around 298 BC, the historian Zhuang Zi, writing in the state of Zhao, recorded that Sun Tzu’s theory had been incorporated into the martial arts techniques of both offense and defense and of both armed and unarmed combat. His Bing Fa was the philosophical basis of what we now know as the Asian martial arts. Amiot's AD 1722 translation of Sun Tzu into French (the first time it had been translated into a European language) entitled Art Militaire des Chinois is likely to have influenced translations into the English often titled The Art of War.

However, Singaporean writer Wee Chow-Hou argued in his book Sun Zi Binga - Selected Insights and Applications that the direct translation of the title of the writings by Sun Tzu to be somewhat inaccurate, since there doesn't seem to be an advocacy of actual battles; rather a set of philosophies on what to do in times of conflict. Indeed it seems that actual war was never advocated; rather how to strategically avoid war and yet still remain control of a tight situation with an adversary.


The historicity of Sun Tzu is discussed extensively in the introduction to Lionel Giles' 1910 translation of The Art of War available as a Project Gutenberg online text. In Giles' introduction to his translation, he expands on the doubt and confusion which has surrounded the historicity of Sun Tzu.

In 1972 a set of bamboo engraved texts were discovered in a grave near Linyi in Shandong. These have helped to confirm parts of the text which were already known and have also added new sections. This version has been dated to between 134 BC – 118 BC, and so rules out older theories that parts of the text had been written much later.

The two most common historical Chinese versions of the Art of War, (the Complete Specialist Focus and Military Bible versions) were the sources for early translation into English and other languages. It wasn't until the 1970s that these works were compiled with more recent archeological discoveries into a single more complete version in Taipei. The resulting work is known as the Complete Version of Sun Tzu's Art of War for the National Defense Research Investigation Office has been the source for more recent and more complete translations.

The Art of War has been one of the most popular combat collections in history. Ancient Chinese long viewed this book as one of the entrance test materials, and it is one of the most important collections of books in the Chinese literature. It is said that Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin both read this book while in war.

Related text

Sun Bin, also known as (Sun Pin, Sun the Mutilated, or Sun Tzu II), a later military strategist, was allegedly a crippled descendent of Sun Tzu, also wrote a text known as the Art of War. A more accurate title might be the Art of Warfare since this was more directly concerned with the practical matters of warfare, rather than military strategy. At least one translator has used the title The Lost Art of War, referring to the long period of time during which Sun Bin's book was lost. There is, however, no similarity between the content or writing style of Sun Bin and Sun Tzu.

See also

External links

  • The Art of War translated by Lionel Giles (1910), Project Gutenberg edition with considerable (but dated) text on Sun Tzu
  • The Art of War translated by Lionel Giles (1910), Project Gutenberg edition without the translator's annotations, and including an HTML version
  • The Art of War, Chinese original at Project Gutenberg
  • Sun Tzu The Art of War by Sonshi Translation, message board, author interviews

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