Art of War Background
The Art of War was written during China's Spring and Autumn period. This period could be likened to the pre-World War II Europe. Small dukedoms and kingdoms had been consolidated in previous conflicts. Only a few, large kingdoms remained in a state of tension with one another. There was peace, but everyone knew it wouldn't last. It didn't. Eventually wars broke out that lasted hundreds of years for what came to be called the Warring States Period.
Nevertheless, for the time being there was peace and prosperity. Around this time, several philosophies were developed that later greatly influenced China and the world. Confucius was travelling around, not very far from Sun Tzu. His ideas eventually came to dominated Chinese Rulers' methods as 'Confucianism'. Lao Tzu's philosophy was transcribed into the Tao Te Ching, eventually becoming Taoism. The Buddha was teaching in India. His teachings came to China where they were China-ized into Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. Sun Tzu's book developed a life of its own, finding its way into the hands of Chinese General centuries after his death.
These ideas were much discussed during the Spring and Autumn Period, but really came into their own during the following Warring States Period. The Rulers knew that the constant killing and war couldn't continue, but lacked the means to stop it. Eventually Confucianism and Sun Tzu came to the fore. It was a great combination because Confucius generally refused to speak on the issue of war claiming ignorance of it. Sun Tzu filled the gap. Importantly, Confucius did not deny the occasional necessity of war, although, like Sun Tzu, he felt it was extremely, undesirable.
If you are talking to a western person about Sun Tzu the most common pronunciation is "Sun Sue" like the Sun in the sky plus a boy named Sue. This is nothing like the correct Chinese pronunciation which is "Sun Tzzz" Sun rhymes with un in the German word "unter" or the Spanish-English word (Military) "junta" plus Tzzz like the last sound you make when you say "words".
The legend goes that Sun Tzu was born into minor nobility in what is now Shan Dong, a part of China north of Shanghai that became famous for Confucius and the really tasty Shandong Chicken. Born "Sun Wu", he was given a good education and like Machiavelli, he wrote a military treatise in order to get noticed and hired by royalty. Unlike Machiavelli, it worked.
Sun Wu expanded his 13 chapter Art of War into 82 chapters and trained the army. Eventually he broke the peace by invading the southern state of Yue. Other conflicts ensured but although his troops were once outnumbered 30,000 to 200,000 he was always victorious. Many successes followed and continued after his death. Some considered his death to be another of his deceptions.
Finally though, the kingdom was defeated several years after his reported death. Just over 100 years later his descendant, Sun Bing, lead troops to victory again and wrote his own treatise. Sun Wu's name was changed to Sun Tzu on the Art of War as a sign of his status a master of philosophy. The "Tzu - " is similarly shared with Lao Tzu - , and Confucius (whose Chinese name is Kon Tzu - ).
The place and time of the creation of the Art of War are quite certain and supported by numerous historical records and evidences. On the other hand there is no information on Sun Tzu that isn't contradicted by other sources.
If there was a single person behind the Art of War, we can assume that they would have wanted to remain in safe obscurity as recommended in the book itself. This may be further evidence of the brilliance of its writer.
There are several instances in Asian history of people that created fake personas complete with homes, families and documents so that they could carry on their government or military work without showing the enemy their true identities. This made them invulnerable to attack.
Probably some parts of the legend are true, but at this late stage there is no way to tell which parts.
Around 500 BC the Art of War was written to educate and impress the nobility. It works.
The book is expanded, possibly to 82 chapters.
The original, 13 chapter version becomes a popular classic with Chinese leaders from the Waring States Period to Chairman Mao. It influences military and government policy. As recently as 1999, the Jiangsu Province Army Division built an Art of War park!
In 1772, a French Jesuit discovers and translates the text. It it said to have become a favourite of Napoleon.
In 1972 a large quantity of previously lost Art of War text is discovered in a tomb at Yin Chueh Shan, China.
1980's onwards: The Art of War gets mainstream exposure in movies like "Wall Street", "The Art of War", "Las Vegas" and "The Sopranos".
Have you heard the expression: "Long time, no see". I bet it confused you the first time you heard it. Its meaning is in the words, but you need to think about the situation and implications to work out its common English meaning, which would be "I haven't seen you in a long time." The reason the expression is so cryptic is it originates from a literal, character by character translation of the Chinese expression - . The expression. like the Art of War, is written in an old fashioned, poetic style that is hard to translate into modern English without interpretation. This is the problem for translators.
The cultural context makes the translator's job difficult too. If the text refers to an ancient kind of military equipment or a distance in old Chinese measures, do you convert or retain the original meaning. If you exactly translate Lao Tzu's famous saying for example, it would become: "Even a 2,440 mile journey begins with a single step." It loses some of the magic, but gains in accuracy.
I have made my own translation of some sections of the book in the Quotes Section. My translation replaces the old, poetic style of writing with modern English aimed at people with no special knowledge of ancient Chinese culture.
The original Chinese text is available here. The Giles translation is available here.
More than war, the book is all about victory. How to get what you want without conflict. How to win if conflict arises. To describe his strategy, in the first chapter, Sun Tzu describes its five elements:
|Chinese Character||Direct translation||Meaning in the Art of War||Examples|
|- dao||path||mutual philosophy & purpose of the group||patriotism, team sprit, shared values|
|- tian||heaven||environmental factors||time, seasons, light, darkness|
|- di||earth||situation||distance from opponent, even or uneven ground|
|- jiang||leader||leadership||intelligence, credibility, compassion, courage, discipline|
|- fa||law||art, as in "Art of War"||the ability to perceive and implement the strategic concept|
Even enemies will help each other if they are together on a boat that is in trouble. Similarly shared ideas and identification bind people together into a useful, cohesive team.
Business examples: Team spirit, employees identification with the brand, mission statement (in the rare case that the staff actually believe in it), mutual trust amongst staff and management.
The prevailing conditions determine what plans you can undertake. These conditions are to big and general to be controlled by people, hence the use of the Chinese character for heaven (). You need to understand them and take them into account.
Business examples: Economic cycle, election cycle, financial reporting cycle, shopping season, zeitgeist.
This is similar in effect to environment but on a smaller scale that you and your opponent can control, if you know how.
Leadership allows you to make good plans because of your perception, foresight, emotional intelligence and objectivity. It allows you to implement your plans because of your control of your troops.
This is the skill and ability to implement your strategy. Preparation and coordination are essential here.
Sun Tzu explains several times that you should make yourself well defended, but that victory comes from taking advantage of your opponents' actions.
Straightforward attacks are hard to win.
Having a conflict is bad. Having a long conflict is always a disaster, even if you are victorious in the end.
Here are a few of the more popular quotes from the Art of War:
Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, recently quoted Sun Tzu when speaking about terrorism:
"If we are to win the war against terrorism, we must, as Sun Tzu in "The Art of War" says, "Understand the enemy." And we must, all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans, Europeans, Arabs, and Asians, unite against it. But we must create the conditions that will make this essential unity possible.
"When the enemy is relaxed, make them toil. When full, starve them. When settled, make them move."
"In conflict, straightforward actions generally lead to engagement, surprising actions generally lead to victory."
“Thus those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle ... . They conquer by strategy."
“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril."
“In war, numbers alone confer no advantage."
“To ... not prepare is the greatest of crimes; to be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues."
“What is of the greatest importance in war is extraordinary speed: One cannot afford to neglect opportunity."
“The general must be first in the toils and fatigues of the army. In the heat of summer he does not spread his parasol, nor in the cold of winter don thick clothing ... . He waits until the army's wells have been dug and only then drinks; until the army's food is cooked before he eats; until the army's fortifications have been completed, to shelter himself."
“A sovereign of high character and intelligence must be able to know the right man, should place the responsibility on him, and expect results."
“If an enemy has alliances, the problem is grave and the enemy's position strong; if he has no alliances, the problem is minor and the enemy's position weak."
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