Sun Tzu Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.