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“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.” So begins The Art of War, a meditation on
the rules of war that was first published in China. Historians don’t know the
exact date of the book’s publication (though they believe it to be in the 4th or
5th century); in fact, they don’t even know who wrote it! Scholars have long
believed that The Art of War’s author was a Chinese military leader named
Sun Tzu, or Sunzi. Today, however, many people think that there was no Sun
Tzu: Instead, they argue, the book is a compilation of generations of Chinese
theories and teachings on military strategy. Whether or not Sun Tzu was a
real person, it’s clear that “he” was very wise: The Art of War still resonates
with readers today.


For generations, scholars have been trying to figure out who Sun Tzu was–if
he existed at all. Legend has it that he was a Chinese military leader in an era
known as the Spring and Autumn Period. This was a time of great turmoil in
China, as many vassal states vied for power and control of the country’s
unpopulated territories. Under these circumstances, Sun Tzu’s skills as a
warrior were much in demand.

Did You Know?

The Art of War became a best-seller in 2001,

when television mobster Tony Soprano told his
therapist that he’d been reading the book. After
that, the book was in such demand that Oxford
University Press had to print 25,000 extra copies.

As the story goes, the king of one of the feuding vassal states challenged
Sun Tzu to prove his military expertise by turning a harem of royal courtesans
into an organized, well-trained fighting force. At first, the courtesans failed to
perform their duties; in response, Sun Tzu beheaded two of the king’s
favorites in front of everyone. After that, the courtesan armies followed orders
perfectly, and the king was so impressed that he put Sun Tzu in charge of his
whole military.


Scholars do not know how The Art of War came to be—and whether or not
“Sun Tzu,” if he existed, had anything to do with its creation. What they do
know is that copies of the book, typically written on sets of sewn-together
bamboo slats, ended up in the hands of politicians, military leaders and
scholars across China. From there, translated copies of “Sun Tzu’s” work
found their way to Korea and Japan. (The oldest Japanese version dates
from the 8th century A.D.)

For more than 1,000 years, rulers and scholars across Asia consulted The Art
of War as they plotted their military maneuvers and imperial conquests.
Japanese samurai, for example, studied it closely. However, it did not reach
the Western world until the end of the 18th century, when a Jesuit missionary
translated the book into French. (Historians say that the French emperor
Napoleon was the first Western leader to follow its teachings.) It was finally
translated into English in 1905.


The Art of War presents the basic principles of warfare and gives military
leaders advice on when and how to fight. Its 13 chapters offer specific battle
strategies–for example, one tells commanders how to move armies through
inhospitable terrain, while another explains how to use and respond to
different types of weapons–but they also give more general advice about
conflicts and their resolution. Rules like “He will win who knows when to fight
and when not to fight;” “He will win who knows how to handle both superior
and inferior forces;” “He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit
throughout all its ranks;” “Victory usually goes to the army who has better
trained officers and men;” and “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a
hundred battles you will never be in peril” can be applied to particular battle
situations as well as to other kinds of disagreements and challenges.


Ever since The Art of War was published, military leaders have been
following its advice. In the twentieth century, the Communist leader Mao
Zedong said that the lessons he learned from The Art of War helped him
defeat Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces during the Chinese Civil War.
Other recent devotees of Sun Tzu’s work include Viet Minh commanders Vo
Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh and American Gulf War generals Norman
Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell.

Meanwhile, executives and lawyers use the teachings of The Art of War to
get the upper hand in negotiations and to win trials. Business-school
professors assign the book to their students and sports coaches use it to win
games. It has even been the subject of a self-help dating guide. Plainly, this
2,500-year-old book still resonates with a 21st-century audience.