The Art of War by Sun Tzu

An Immortal Blueprint of Military Strategy

The Art of War, a military treatise from the 5th century BCE, remains one of history’s most influential texts. Written by the legendary Chinese military leader Sun Tzu, the work addresses all facets of combat, from preparation to execution, and even how to treat defeated enemies. It has guided military strategists for over two millennia and earned admiration from prominent leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte and Mao Zedong.

A bamboo edition of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” in UC Riverside’s collection

A bamboo edition of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” in UC Riverside’s collection

Generations of scholars have pondered the true identity of Sun Tzu, with some doubting his very existence. Supposedly, he was a military leader during China’s Spring and Autumn Period, a time marked by intense strife as vassal states competed for dominance. In this era of chaos, Sun Tzu’s martial prowess was highly sought after.

According to legend, a king from one of the vassal states tested Sun Tzu’s military genius by tasking him with transforming a group of royal courtesans into a disciplined army. Initially, the courtesans struggled with their military duties. To enforce discipline, Sun Tzu executed two of the king’s favored courtesans in full view of the others. This drastic measure led to the courtesans rigorously following orders, impressing the king to such an extent that he appointed Sun Tzu as the commander of his entire military.

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu’s teachings, originally inscribed on bamboo slats, spread across China in the 5th century BCE, finding their way into the hands of politicians, military leaders, and scholars. By the 8th century CE, its influence expanded to Korea and Japan, where it was deeply studied, notably by Japanese samurai.

For over a millennium, this strategic guide remained a key reference for Asian rulers in their military planning and execution. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that The Art of War made its way to the Western world, thanks to a French translation by a Jesuit missionary. Napoleon was one of the first Western leaders to adopt its strategies. The book’s English translation appeared in 1905, further extending its global reach and impact.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Art of War is structured into thirteen chapters, each addressing a distinct facet of warfare, from strategic planning to deception. The core philosophy of the treatise advocates for avoiding war through diplomacy wherever possible. In cases where conflict is unavoidable, Sun Tzu emphasizes strategic and psychological tactics to reduce damage and conserve resources. He views warfare as a last resort, a consequence of failing to defeat the enemy through other strategies.

Sun Tzu’s approach to dealing with enemies involves a blend of peaceful solutions and assertive military action, reflecting the Taoist concept of yin and yang—the balance of opposing yet complementary forces. He advises leaders to adhere to the Tao, the natural order of the universe, as a crucial element of effective leadership.

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Among its many insights, The Art of War emphasizes extensive preparation as the cornerstone of successful military strategy. This involves meticulous planning around variables like climate and terrain, in-depth analysis of the enemy’s tactics and vulnerabilities, and thorough training of soldiers. It also advocates for adaptability on the battlefield, recognizing its inherent unpredictability.

Sun Tzu advises against siege warfare, citing its tendency to prolong conflict and drain resources. Additionally, he underscores the importance of treating captured troops and defeated soldiers with respect, highlighting the need for ethical conduct even in the midst of war.

The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The treatise’s focus on strategy over specific military technology has contributed to its timelessness. It guided medieval Japanese commanders, inspired Napoleon, influenced Mao Zedong’s triumph in the mid-20th century civil war, and was utilized by Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. As a cornerstone of military strategy, Sun Tzu’s work remains as influential today as it has ever been.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” —Plato

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary nor how justified, is not a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.” —Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

“War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.” —Thomas Mann

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein


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