Composition of Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sunzi’s writing of The Art of War established the foundation of Chinese and East Asian military thought.

Summary of Event

Sunzi Bingfa (The Art of War, 1910) is a Chinese treatise, divided into thirteen pian, that provides detailed advice on the conduct of war. Written in terse classical Chinese, its thirteen basic divisions were sometimes grouped into three zhuan and accompanied by numerous and widely varied commentaries written over the succeeding two millennia. Sunzi

The writing of The Art of War is the beginning of the intellectual tradition of Chinese considerations of war. Considerable controversy surrounds the authorship of the text, whether the work is a departure from past practice or the inheritor of a long tradition of writing about war, and when it was actually written. Very little consensus exists on any of these questions, and archaeological finds have resolved very few of the problems. The core of the disputes is whether The Art of War can be used as a description of warfare in early Chinese history and, if so, in which period. Given the broader controversies over early Chinese history and society and the often ambiguous archaeological record, much is at stake for scholars of early China.

Sunzi (Master Sun), or Sun Wu, was active from the late sixth to the early fifth century b.c.e. according to Sima Qian’s biography of him in the Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993). The Art of War has traditionally been attributed entirely to Sunzi, with any discrepancies of language or style brushed aside as transmission errors. As Sunzi was a near contemporary of Confucius, and a successful general, the text’s pedigree as a classic would therefore be quite impeccable. Later scholars called this attribution into question, arguing that no such person existed, that the writing style was not compatible with Sunzi’s time, that the ideas expressed were not available until several centuries later, or that the description of warfare was consistent with a later period.

Moreover, the text appears to be a compilation of the works of different writers rather than the work of a single author. The most obvious reason to deny Sunzi’s direct authorship is the repeated use of the preamble “Master Sun said.” This leaves open the possibility that The Art of War could be attributed to Sunzi in the same way that the Lunyu (later sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861) is attributed to Confucius. None of these issues has been conclusively proven or disproved, but it does seem likely that the text was compiled over time, possibly as the received wisdom of a school of thought associated with, if not originating from, Sunzi, and that its core contents were stable by the second century b.c.e.

There are three ranges of dates for The Art of War, but general agreement has proven impossible because each of these ranges has its own problems. The first possibility is that the text was actually composed by Sunzi shortly before his death in the early fifth century b.c.e. This position assumes that the attribution of the text to Sunzi is correct, and therefore, the work must have been written during his lifetime. The two other proposed ranges, both based on internal evidence (such as writing styles and content), are the last half of the fifth century b.c.e. and the fourth to third centuries b.c.e. These latter two datings obviously deny Sunzi’s authorship and attempt to situate the text within a particular literary and intellectual milieu. Without an unambiguous archaeological find to clarify these issues, however, they will remain unresolved.

The sophistication of the understanding of war represented in the text, the simplicity of its language, and the comprehensiveness of its consideration has convinced many modern scholars that The Art of War must be the inheritor of a long and well-developed tradition of discussions of war rather than the originator of a tradition. It is probably true that the writer or writers of the text had a profound understanding of war, extending from its relationship to the ruler and state all the way down to tactical issues. This does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author or authors were the first to write these understandings down and to shift an oral tradition to a written one. Regardless, either because of the loss of any earlier texts or because The Art of War was actually the beginning of the tradition of Chinese military thought, the work effectively became the starting point of all subsequent Chinese writing on war.

Significance

Sunzi’s The Art of War has been the most important treatise on military strategy in East Asia for more than two thousand years. The 1972 archaeological discovery of an early version of The Art of War at Yinqueshan (Linch’üehshan) has confirmed the mostly faithful transmission of the work from its early form in the second century b.c.e. to the eleventh century edition, which is the basis of the current version. It is the second most frequently translated Chinese work, after Laozi’s Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing), and is now widely recognized within Western culture, demonstrating a remarkable staying power and attraction for a text squarely focused on military strategy.

The concepts in The Art of War developed during a time of intense, prolonged interstate warfare and assume the presence of professional generals, large infantry armies, and organized logistical support systems. These were newer military developments that conflicted with an earlier feudal aristocratic practice based on chariot warfare and precampaign divination. Both traditions are represented in the text, with Sunzi consistently arguing for professionalism and rational calculation over aristocratic honor and superstitious practice. War was too important a matter to be left to the untrained or ignorant because the existence of the state itself was at stake. Sunzi is concerned only with the continued existence of the state and assumes that it can be maintained or expanded only through skill at war.

As is characteristic of a composite text assembled over time with much of the material derived from oral tradition, the organization is haphazard and unsystematic. Perhaps as a result of its oral origins or because of its target audience, much of the information and advice is given in the form of lists. These lists provide convenient memory devices for systematically responding to the different concerns of a field commander, such as what to do in various kinds of terrain. In general, much of what The Art of War says seems to be common sense, but that is precisely why the book has been so valuable over the centuries.

The Art of War’s relationship with actual strategic, operational, or tactical events is uncertain. Most generals were illiterate, and there are extremely few documented instances in which The Art of War was specifically cited in policy or strategy discussions in support of a particular proposal. However, the continued reproduction of the book and its frequent prohibitions from private ownership indicate that its utility in military affairs was well accepted.

The Art of War’s most direct influence was probably as the intellectual counterbalance to the more utopian strains of Chinese political thought. Unlike Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism, The Art of War takes a purely pragmatic approach to war, accepting it as intrinsic to the continued existence of the state and arguing that it must be waged ruthlessly. No higher ideals inform the text, though its warnings about the dangers of war and its ideal of defeating the enemy’s plans without engaging in battle have led many to erroneously conclude that it is antiwar. Rather, the book opens by pointing out how crucial war is and that it cannot be ignored. Given that war is going to take place, The Art of War points out that the goal is not to win battles but to win the war, that is, to achieve the state’s objectives. It is to one’s own advantage to achieve those objectives with a minimum of violence, because battles are uncertain and destruction benefits no one. This ideal cannot always, or even ever, be achieved, so the text suggests the other possibilities in descending order of desirability, from attacking alliances to attempting to capture a city by escalade.

Sunzi’s The Art of War is more widely read now than it ever was in the past and, with the rise in the general education level of armies, is more widely read in many militaries and therefore more influential than before. Moreover, the many translations of the work have spread its influence across the world. Its earlier, erroneous reading as the diametric opposite of the Western way in warfare, the indirect versus the direct method of fighting, is beginning to fade, and a more accurate, nuanced understanding of the text is beginning to emerge. The work is now read not as an exotic or quaint piece of ancient Chinese wisdom but as a valuable contribution to the general understanding of war whose precepts were precociously written down two millennia ago and have thus stood the test of time. More than two thousand years after it was written, The Art of War is not only still read and used by commanders and statesmen but appears to be growing in influence.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graff, David. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900. New York: Routledge, 2002. An outstanding military history of China’s medieval period that places battlefield results in the larger context of strategic thought, social change, and political struggle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graff, David, and Robin Higham, eds. A Military History of China. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2002. A wide-ranging collection of articles written for the lay reader covering aspects of both ancient and modern Chinese military history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kierman, Frank, and John K. Fairbank, eds. Chinese Ways in Warfare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Somewhat dated but still solid scholarship on a variety of Chinese military topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnston, Alastair Iain. Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. A worthwhile attempt to describe Chinese strategic culture, which is occasionally overwhelmed by a perplexing theoretical framework.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sawyer, Ralph, trans. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1993. A complete English translation of China’s seven military classics; includes useful introductions to the works and current scholarship on them.
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