This text is not yet proofread and forms part of my forthcoming text edition of the Chinese original text with study aids for students.
Introduction to Sunzi
In this section, we will introduce some basic information on the author of this ancient Chinese text, Sunzi. We will also provide some information on the text itself in this book. These will help us to understand some of the background, the cultural and historical settings current at the time when writing this interesting text.
1. On the Author
Sunzi (孫子) or “Master Sun” must have lived around 534-453 B.C. and was born as a son of an aristocratic family in the empire of Qi in Lè'ān (乐安) that corresponds to the present-day District of Huimin in Shandong province (North Eastern China). Other sources claim that he was born in the State of Wu. “Master” (子, zi) is a honorific title assigned to him much later. His real full name was Sūn Wŭ (孫武). One of his descendants was Sun Bin (孫臏) who was a military strategist in the period of the Warring States (481-403 B.C., [戰國時代 Zhànguó shídài]) and who is known for his treatise Sun Bin bingfa (孫臏兵法) or “Sun Bing’s Art of War”.
Sunzi’s life time was in a period of Chinese history known as the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 B.C.,
[ 春秋時代 Chūnqiū Shídài]) that was characterized by a decline of the central Zhou government’s power over various feudal states that leading to war among themselves. It was a period of political and social instability that was regarded later by the Confucianists as a state of disorder to be avoided under all circumstances in the interest of a stable nation, government rule and the fate of its citizens. Confucius (孔子 Kǒngzi “Master Kong”, 551 B.C. – 479 B. C.) and his followers were vehemently opposed to the decline of the central govern- ment in a feudal state and society as this was likely to lead to chaos and instability. Instead, a well-knit network of social relationships with rites and mutual obligations, based on social in- equality, for all parties involved would guarantee political and social stability.
Later, when ancient China was ruled by Emperors under various dynasties and Confucianists assumed a leading role as (Mandarin officials) at the imperial courts, armies, soldiers and their generals were looked at in social disgrace because they were considered “uneducated” while the Confucianist officials would consider themselves as scholars and viewing themselves in their leading role as officials by merits of their scholarly (Confucianist) education and their studies in that subject area and their successful passing of the various state examination for these position of officials. To primarily rely on maintaining order by armed forces was not a real option according to Confucian social philosophy; it was primarily following a set of moral values (“virtue”(德 , Dé) like obedience to superiors and filial piety, a set of mutual social obli- gations defined, the rites and social etiquette taught by Confucius that were able to maintain social peace and political and social stability.
Evidently, Sunzi and his work are of pre-Confucianist origin and date back to an era of several thousand years of Chinese history long before the followers of Confucius assumed power as a leading elite in rule of Imperial China.
Exact historical data on Sunzi’s life are scarce, even according to Chinese sources that have come down to us. One of the very few available are the Historical Annals or Records of the Historian (史記 Shǐjì) by Sima Qian (司馬遷, 145 or 135-86 B.C.). He has the following to say on Sun Zi:
Sun Tzu Wu was a native of the Ch’i State. His ART OF WAR brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, King of Wu. Ho Lu said to him: "I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?" Sun Tzu replied: "You may." Ho Lu asked: "May the test be applied to women?" The answer was again in the affirmative, so arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, and placed one of the King's favorite concubines at the head of each. He then bade them all take spears in their hands, and addressed them thus: "I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?" The girls replied: Yes. Sun Tzu went on: "When I say "Eyes front," you must look straight ahead. When I say "Left turn," you must face towards your left hand. When I say "Right turn," you must face towards your right hand. When I say "About turn," you must face right round towards your back." Again the girls assented. The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order "Right turn." But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame." So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order "Left turn," whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu: "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers." So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded. Now the king of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion; and when he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurriedly sent down the following message: "We are now quite satisfied as to our general's ability to handle troops. If We are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savor. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded." Sun Tzu replied: "Having once received His Majesty's commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept." Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway installed the pair next in order as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more; and the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound. Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King saying: "Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty's inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey." But the King replied: "Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, We have no wish to come down and inspect the troops." Thereupon Sun Tzu said: "The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds." After that, Ho Lu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army, and finally appointed him general. In the west, he defeated the Ch’u State and forced his way into Ying, the capital; to the north he put fear into the States of Ch'i and Chin, and spread his fame abroad amongst the feudal princes. And Sun Tzu shared in the might of the King.”
With this background information in mind, the reader may well form an educated opinion about the historical figure of Sunzi on his own.
2. The Author’s Work on The Art of War(兵法)
The text is traditionally divided into 13 chapters, and here is a brief chapter content summary for each of the chapters:
Chapter 1: Detail Assessment and Planning (Chinese: 始計) explores the five fundamental factors (the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership, and management) and seven elements that determine the outcomes of military engagements. By thinking, assessing and comparing these points, a commander can calculate his chances of victory. Habitual deviation from these calculations will ensure failure via improper action. The text stresses that war is a very grave matter for the state and must not be commenced without due consideration.
Chapter 2: Waging War (Chinese: 作戰) explains how to understand the economy of warfare and how success requires winning decisive engagements quickly. This section advises that successful military campaigns require limiting the cost of competition and conflict.
Chapter 3: Strategic Attack (Chinese: 謀攻) defines the source of strength as unity, not size, and discusses the five factors thatare needed to succeed in any war. In order of importance, these critical factors are:
Attack, Strategy, Alliances, Army and Cities.
Chapter 4: Disposition of the Army (Chinese: 軍形) explains the importance of defending existing positions until a commander is capable of advancing from those positions in safety. It teaches commanders the importance of recognizing strategic opportunities, and teaches not to create opportunities for the enemy.
Chapter 5: Forces (Chinese: 兵勢) explainsthe use of creativity and timing in building an army's momentum.
Chapter 6: Weaknesses and Strengths (Chinese: 虛實) explains how an army's opportunities come from the openings in the environment caused by the relative weakness of the enemy and how to respond to changes in the fluid battlefield over a given area.
Chapter 7: Military Maneuvers (Chinese: 軍爭) explains the dangers of direct conflict and how to win those confrontations when they are forced upon the commander.
Chapter 8: Variations and Adaptability (Chinese: 九變) focuses on the need for flexibility in an army's responses. It explains how to respond to shifting circumstances successfully.
Chapter 9: Movement and Development of Troops (Chinese: 行軍) describes the different situations in which an army finds itself as it moves through new enemy territories, and how to respond to these situations. Much of this section focuses on evaluating the intentions of others.
Chapter 10: Terrain (Chinese: 地形) looks at the three general areas of resistance (distance, dangers and barriers) and the six types of ground positions that arise from them. Each of these six field positions offers certain advantages and disadvantages.
Chapter 11: The Nine Battlegrounds (Chinese: 九地) describes the nine common situations (or stages) in a campaign, from scattering to deadly, and the specific focus that a commander will need in order to successfully navigate them.
Chapter 12: Attacking with Fire (Chinese: 火攻) explains the general use of weapons and the specific use of the environment as a weapon. This section examines the five targets for attack, the five types of environmental attack and the appropriate responses to such attacks.
Chapter 13: Intelligence and Espionage (Chinese: 用間) focuses on the importance of developing good information sources, and specifies the five types of intelligence sources and how to best manage each of them.
Sunzi’s text begins with the following statement:
Sūnzi yuē: bīng zhě, guó zhī dà shì, sǐ shēng zhī dì, cúnwáng zhī dào, bùkěbù chá yě.
LIONEL GILES translates this passage as follows:
“Sun Tzu said: 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”.
My own translation of this short passage would be this:
“Sunzi says: As far as warfare is concerned, it is a nation’s primary concern. For (its) position, it could mean either death or life, a way to either existence or destruction. It is a topic that in no way can be ignored”.
The next passage outlines the perspective from which, according to the author, one is to look at this question of life or death for a nation:
Gù jīng zhī yǐ wǔ shì, xiào zhī yǐ jì, ér suǒ qí qíng: yī yuē dào, èr yuē tiān, sān yuē dì, sì yuē jiāng, wǔ yuē fǎ.
GILES tranlates this second passage as follows:
“The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are:
(1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.”
Again, my own translation of this passage would be this:
“Therefore, there are five principles that determine the guiding lines for an army officer to take into account (or to consider) when analysing the situation (on the battlefield): First, there is the principle of moral; second, there is Heaven; third, there is Earth; fourth, there is the leadership of troops; fifth, there is method”.
Hence, the overall “spirit” of the work, if one wants to assign such to it, is more holistic in ap- proach and does not rely on “technocratic” aspects of warfare alone. It is what may be consid- ered to be the “philosophical” part contained in this remarkable text. Its exact date and loca- tion of authorship is unknown; the only thing certain is that it must date back to some point of time in the Spring and Autumn period during Sunzi’s lifetime. Many centuries later, it was seen as the text with potentials of practical application in life inside and outside military.
The reception of this work outside China was one to last for many centuries, both in Far East of Asia and in the West. In the Far East, it was a classic text to be studied at military academies for military examinations in several nations; in the 16th century A.D. , for example, Japanese rulers like Takeda Shingen ( 1521-1573) was known for winning battles by studying and relying on Sunzi’s Art of War. Mao Zedong was inspired by the same text in his treatises on Guerilla warfare, and also the Vietcong army leaders in their resistance struggle to French rule in Vietnam and later in the Vietnam War with the USA involved relied heavily on the strate- gems discussed in Sunzi’s Art of War. In the Western part of the World, generals like Mannerheim during the Finnish war (January 27 - May 15, 1918) were inspired by this text. Military libraries in the USA keep this text available for their special reading audience, and even the KGB in the Soviet era is said to have closely studied “the strategy of deception” introduced in Sunzi’s text.
Outside the military realm, the Art of War has also received some attention as much of the warfare “psychology” introduced in Sunzi’s text is also applicable in civil life with its manifold conflicts and potentials for the same even without any official state of warfare at national or international level. Strategies and tactics of how to deal with opponents, for example in political or business life, marketing strategies and dealing with competitors, business management and even in sports are only some of the examples of such application outside the military realm.
Some of the ideas and expressions of this ancient text have also found their way into modern languages like today’s Chinese or even to some extent also into English. Here is an example:
At the end of chapter 3 in Sunzi’s work, the text originally reads:
Gù yuē: zhībǐzhījǐ, bǎizhànbùdài; bù zhī bǐ ér zhījǐ, yī shèng yī fù; bù zhī bǐ, bù zhī jǐ, měi zhàn bì dài.
English translation of this passage:
So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.
My own translation:
Therefore it is said: Knowing the other side and yourself, hundred(s of) battles can be fought without the risk of being defeated.
Not knowing the other side and only yourself,you may either win or fail (lose the battle, be defeated).
Not knowing the other side nor yourself, every battle will essentially be a of a high risk.
A proverb in contemporary Chinese based on the previous passage cited from Sunzi’s text is:
Zhī jǐ zhī bǐ, bǎi zhàn bù dài
English translation of this passage:
If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win numerous (literally, "a hundred") battles without jeopardy.
My own translation of this passage is:
Knowing yourself and (knowing) the other side (means) hundred(s of) battles (can be fought) without any risk whatsoever.
It easily follows from the content of this strategem that any practical application of this principle is not only confined to military activities and actual situations of warfare but may well be applied in certain situations of contemporary business, political or other situations of life where you have to cope with opponents or competitors.
These are only a few examples with quotations from Sunzi’s original text to indicate that its contents, regardless of its antiquity, is still meaningful to a multi-faceted reading audience of our time, not only for purposes of actual warfare but also in the smaller and more trivial battles of daily life. This text, in its essence, would not be what it is and would not mean what it actually means if it had not that “philosophical” or “psychological” spirit reaching far beyond the mechanisms of technocratic warfare alone. It helps people survive and stand the test of challenge in almost all critical situations of their lives.
- Sunzi - "Art of War"-Introduction -- Another Willie -- 2018-03-29
- Re Sunzi - "Art of War"-Introduction -- caring -- 2018-03-29