The Art of War


The Art of War dates back roughly two thousand five hundred years and is arguably the most famous military treatises even written. The work is most commonly attributed to the master strategist Sun Tzu (alternatively spelled Sunzi), though some scholars attribute the work to other authors or believe the work to be a compilation of various older works.

Some disagreement exists as to the historical facts about Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu is most commonly believed to have been a general, strategist and philosopher born in the year 544 BC. His birth name was Sun Wu, the name Sun Tzu being an honorific title that may be translated as Master Sun, which was only conferred upon him later in life. Sun Tzu was a subject of Wu, one of the Chinese states that existed in ancient China under the Zhou dynasty. Probably he was born in Qi, a rival state of Wu, and only moved to Wu when he was hired by King Helü of Wu, whom he served as a minister and general. As a general, Sun Tzu fought and won many important battles, including the Battle of Boju, in which Wu State captured the capital of Chu State. His many victories are thought to have inspired Sun Tzu to write down his methods. The literal translation of the Chinese title of The Art of War is thus Master Sun's Military Methods.

After Sun Tzu's death, his work became one of the most widely circulated military treatises in ancient China during the so-called Warring States period, which saw near-constant war among the seven ancient Chinese states (Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao). Over time The Art of War came to be the lead text in an anthology of military treatises commonly known as The Seven Military Classics. This anthology was formalized and canonized in 1080 AD by Emperor Shenzong of Song, making The Art of War required reading for imperial officers. The text was first brought to the West in 1772, when French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot translated the work into French. In 1905 the first English translation was attempted by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop, who published a partial translation under the title The Book of War. The first complete English translation was published in 1910 by the British Sinologist Lionel Giles.

Throughout its history, The Art of War has been highly influential. Figures as diverse as Japanese daimyō Takeda Shingen, Chinese communist Mao Tse-Tung, and Finnish field marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim have cited the book as inspirational and/or foundational for their own success in the field of battle. During the Vietnam War the book served as an inspiration and guide for the Vietcong, which brought the book to the attention of the American military.

On Reading The Art of War

Sun Tzu's writing is at times fragmented; this fragmentation is especially pronounced to a modern reader who may not always be able to follow Sun Tzu's train of thought as readily as Sun Tzu's contemporaries might have been. The text can thus appear terse and disjointed, as Sun Tzu offers his readers few explanatory transitions. In this translation, little has been done to remedy this malady of the original text, since the translators have striven not to stray too far from the original meaning of Sun Tzu. In the same vein, the focus of this translation has been to preserve the original intent of Sun Tzu, rather than to translate the original as literally as possible. Modern turns of phrases have been inserted where they are fitting, and explanatory text has been inserted in hard brackets [like so] to facilitate the reader's understanding of Sun Tzu's context.

Concerning Distances

Sun Tzu employs the traditional Chinese unit of distance, the li. The original meaning of a li is thought to have been the length of a village, and it was not until the 1940s that the li came to represent a fixed distance. It is likely that the li Sun Tzu employs represents, not a specific distance, but a specific amount of effort expended. Thus it is likely that in Sun Tzu's writing a li travelled on a straight road is longer (in miles) than a li travelled on a winding mountain road. The modern li is equal to 1640 feet (500 meters). In this rendering, Sun Tzu's li have been translated according to this modern definition. The distances given should therefore not be read as exact numbers. The distance three hundred miles, for instance, mentioned several times in this translation, is roughly equal to a thousand li (1000 modern li equals 311 miles). Most probably this is not important as a specific distance, but is simply meant to denote a great distance.

Concerning "the Realm"

Sun Tzu at various points in his work mentions "the Realm." By this he means the entirety of the ancient Chinese world, which at the time was made up of several feuding feudal states, all of which were nominally vassals of the Zhou dynasty. It is implied throughout the book that the goal of any Chinese sovereign should be the conquest of the entire Realm.