Sun Tzu Essay - Critical Essays

Sun Tzu


Sun Tzu c. 4th century b.c.-

(Also known as Sun Wu and Master Sun) Chinese treatise writer.

Sun Tzu's only known work is The Art of War, also referred to as the Sun Tzu, the oldest existing military treatise in the world and often considered the finest. Its penetrating principles of human behavior and rules of conduct for military leaders are set forth in a relatively short book of approximately 6000 Chinese characters. It is divided into thirteen chapters, with each chapter treating a different topic, such as calculating the strength of the enemy's forces, planning attacks, the nature of force, and the use of spies. The Art of War, has been prized for thousands of years by the Chinese and was, and continues to be, enormously influential on Chinese and Japanese military thought; it was the source for Mao Tse-tung's strategies and tactics. Since the early twentieth century The Art of War has been popular in the West as well, with the publication of many studies that apply its principles to areas other than warfare, particularly to business.

Biographical Information

Scholars believe that Sun Tzu probably lived in the fourth century b.c. They also have some indications tha he was born in the state of Ch'i, that he prospered in Wu, where he became a general, and that he led his troops to major victories against the Ch'i, Ch'u, and Ch'in. If these facts are accurate, Sun Tzu lived during the Warring States period, which spanned the years 403 b.c. to 221 b.c. Other claims have been made that Sun Tzu lived during the closing years of the Spring and Autumn period, which lasted from 722 b.c. to 481 b.c. Also, there has long been controversy concerning whether Sun Tzu was the sole author of The Art of War or whether it was a joint effort of some kind, possibly the work of a school, perhaps spanning many generations. Some scholars have even contended that Sun Tzu is a mythical character who never existed as an individual.

Textual History

Scholars do not know when The Art of War was first set down in writing, although the most accepted time span is between 400 b.c. and 320 b.c. The text, for the most part, has been well preserved. It was first introduced to Western readers in 1772 through J. J. M. Amiot's French translation. Lionel Giles was the first to translate the work into a wide-circulation English edition in 1910. Its popularity rose considerably with the critically acclaimed 1963 translation by Samuel B. Griffith. In 1972 scholars were rewarded with a major discovery when archeologists unearthing a tomb dating from the Han dynasty also turned up a copy of The Art of War on bamboo strips more than a thousand years older than any previously known copy. This text, known as the Yin Chueh Shan text, dates from between 140 b.c. and 118 b.c. Although it is essentially the same text as the later version, its discovery helped to clarify certain contested manuscript questions.

Major Themes

The main theme of The Art of War is effective military strategy. The author, therefore, stresses the importance of analyzing all aspects of the situation at hand before engaging in warfare, for the outcome of the war will be either the survival or the destruction of the nation. The work also asserts the idea that all warfare is based on deception; the necessity of adapting to existing conditions; the adage that a good general is prudent but not hesitant; and the notion that to be victorious you must thoroughly know yourself and your enemy. Although specific wartime situations are sometimes mentioned in the text, they are treated somewhat broadly. For instance, the author discusses tactics for fighting on mountainous terrain rather than techniques used in a particular mountain battle. Because The Art of War emphasizes general principles over specifics, it is adaptable to many different situations.

Critical Reception

In his foreword to Griffith's celebrated translation, the British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart highly praises Sun Tzu; this evaluation is representative of the critical acclaim Sun Tzu typically garners. Liddell Hart writes: “Sun Tzu's essays on ‘The Art of War’ form the earliest of known treatises on the subject, but have never been surpassed in comprehensiveness and depth of understanding. They might well be termed the concentrated essence of wisdom on the conduct of war.” Scholars including Griffith, Ralph D. Sawyer, and Mei-Chün Sawyer provide background on the Warring States period and describe how warfare changed in Sun Tzu's age, when the feudal social structure was being replaced by a different type of society—one that offered more opportunity for the talented individual. Roger T. Ames discusses the textual history of The Art of War and the controversy over its authorship, a matter also investigated by Griffith and the Sawyers. Some scholars suggest that the text as we know it today may be the result of the labors of several writers, not necessarily a single author. Other critics have countered that the work could have been written only by someone who understood warfare thoroughly and practiced the outlined tenets, and that the text reads as if it is the work of a single author. Ames offers a comprehensive analysis on the concept of strategic advantage and of the ways that Sun Tzu's understanding of it differed from the views of later authors. Dennis and Ching Ping Bloodworth compare and contrast Sun Tzu's philosophy with the philosophies of Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian political theorist who wrote The Prince, and Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian army officer and military theorist who, in his On War proposed the doctrines of total war and war as an instrument of policy. Ronald Glasberg also compares and contrasts The Art of War to The Prince. Griffith and the Bloodworths explain how Sun Tzu's guidelines for military strategy are still being used in modern China, for example in their interactions with the United States government. In recent years editions of The Art of War have also proliferated in the business world, with volumes tailored for use in the fields of management, marketing, career guidance, corporate politics, investing, and negotiating.

Principal Works

Sun Tzu [The Art of War] (treatise) c. 400 B.C.-c. 320 B.C.

Sun Tzu on the Art of War: The Oldest Military Treatise in the World [translated by Lionel Giles] 1910

The Art of War [translated by Samuel B. Griffith] 1963

The Art of Strategy [translated by R. L. Wing] 1988

The Art of War [translated by Thomas Cleary] 1988

The Art of Warfare [translated by Roger T. Ames] 1993

Sun Tzu: The New Translation [translated by J. H. Huang] 1993

The Complete Art of War [translated by Ralph D. Sawyer] 1996

The Art of War: In Sun Tzu's Own Words [translated by Gary Gagliardi] 1999

The Art of War: The Denma Translation [translated by The Denma Translation Group] 2001

The Art of War: Sun Tzu: In Plain English [translated by D. E. Tarver] 2002


Samuel B. Griffith (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Griffith, Samuel B. Introduction to The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, translated by Samuel B. Griffith, pp. 1-56. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

[In the following essay, Griffith discusses problems with determining the authorship of The Art of War, discrepancies in the size of the work, the nature of warfare in Sun Tzu's time, and Sun Tzu's influence on Mao Tse-Tung.]



Over the centuries countless Chinese critics have devoted a great deal of attention to examination of literary works ascribed to the ‘classical’ period, an era usually defined as extending from 551 b.c., the probable birth...

(The entire section is 19539 words.)

Dennis and Ching Ping Bloodworth (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Bloodworth, Dennis and Ching Ping. “Western Approaches” and “From the Top.” In The Chinese Machiavelli: 3,000 Years of Chinese Statecraft, pp. 306-21. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Bloodworth and Bloodworth compare and contrast Sun-Tzu's philosophy with those of Machiavelli and Clausewitz and contend that the roots of modern Chinese military policy can be found in Sun-Tzu's instructions.]

The Italian world of Machiavelli was a distorted miniature of the Chinese world of Han Fei and Sun Tzu—a jigsaw puzzle of warring states that formed a single culture rather than a single realm, within which all foreigners were...

(The entire section is 5507 words.)

Ronald Glasberg (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Glasberg, Ronald. “Toward a Cross-Cultural Language of Power: Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Machiavelli's The Prince as Exemplary Texts.” Comparative Civilizations Review no. 27 (fall 1992): 31-50.

[In the following essay, Glasberg outlines the profound philosophical differences that exist between The Art of War and Machiavelli's The Prince.]

In attempting to grasp the fundamental assumptions of any civilization, one has to go beyond the purely theoretical sphere associated with philosophy, religion, science and the arts and turn to what might be called the practical-theoretical sphere associated with a civilization's understanding of...

(The entire section is 7490 words.)

Roger T. Ames (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ames, Roger T. Introduction to The Art of Warfare: The First English Translation Incorporating the Recently Discovered Yin-Ch'üeh-Shan Texts, translated by Roger T. Ames, pp. 3-35. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Ames traces the complex manuscript history of The Art of War.]


The Sun-tzu, or “Master Sun,” is the longest existing and most widely studied military classic in human history. Quite appropriately, it dates back to the Warring States period (c. 403-221 b.c.), a formative phase in Chinese civilization when contributions in literature and philosophy were...

(The entire section is 8819 words.)

Ralph D. Sawyer and Mei-Chün Sawyer (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Sawyer, Ralph D. and Mei-Chün Sawyer. “General Introduction and Historical Background of the Classics.” In The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer and Mei-Chün Sawyer, pp. 1-18. Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Sawyer and Sawyer provide historical background to Chinese warfare and the evolution of weapons.]

Military thought, the complex product of both violent war and intellectual analysis, suffered from disparagement and disrepute during almost all the past two millennia in Imperial China. Ignoring the original teachings of Confucius, self-styled Confucians eschewed—whether sincerely or...

(The entire section is 13376 words.)

Roger T. Ames (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Ames, Roger T. “Shih (Strategic Advantage/Political Purchase).” In The “Art of Rulership”: A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought, pp. 65-107. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Ames analyzes the concept of strategic advantage as described in The Art of War and traces how the concept changes in later works.]

The next concept to be analyzed in this exploration of the political philosophy of The Art of Rulership [Book Nine of the Huai Nan Tzu] is shih, “strategic advantage.” This concept has long been associated with the rise of the Legalist school as one of its three cardinal...

(The entire section is 23755 words.)

Ralph D. Sawyer and Mei-Chün Lee Sawyer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Sawyer, Ralph D. and Mei-Chün Lee Sawyer. Introduction to The Complete Art of War, by Sun Tzu and Sun Pin, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer and Mei-Chün Lee Sawyer, pp. 1-36. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Sawyer and Sawyer offer historical background to Sun-Tzu's era and discuss the fundamentals of his writings.]



The state of Chou, which had righteously overthrown the debauched Shang to found its own dynasty in 1045 b.c. upon an avowed foundation of moral virtue and benevolence, established its authority by dispatching royal clan...

(The entire section is 14547 words.)

Further Reading


Cleary, Thomas. “Translator's Preface.” In The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, pp. vii-viii. Boston: Shambhala, 1988.

Emphasizes the importance of understanding the Taoist aspects of The Art of War.

———. “Translator's Introduction: The Art of War and the I Ching: Strategy and Change.” In Mastering the Art of War, by Zhuge Liang and Liu Ji, pp. 10-29. Boston: Shambhala, 1989.

Provides parallels between the I Ching and The Art of War on the topics of contention and army management.

(The entire section is 78 words.)