Sun Tzu – History and Major Accomplishments

A Chinese military general, strategist, philosopher, and writer, Sun Tzu credited with writing the book “The Art of War”, an ancient Chinese military treatise that has influenced military thinking across the world. The book highlights various maneuvers and the effect of terrain on the outcome of battles. The book was written about 2,500 years ago but it is still very relevant. Sun Tzu means Master of Sun but his birth name is Sun Wu. This military general is revered in East Asian culture as a legendary historical and military figure.

It must also be noted that the works of Sun Tzu have influenced the rise of many influential figures in history. Image: Qing-era representation of military general and strategist Sun Tzu

Major Events in the Life of Sun Tzu

There are various accounts about Sun Tzu’s birth and childhood but the only accurate report is that he was born in the state of Qi around 544 BC.

Sadly evidence concerning Sun Tzu’s birth would have been destroyed during the destruction of the Qin dynasty. It is believed he served under King Ho-Lu (King Helü)of Wu in the Wu-Chu Wars of 512-506 BC.

Before he was appointed a general, it’s believed that Ho-Lu gave him a task to train 180 concubines into fierce warriors. Sun Tzu divided the concubines into two companies, each with the king’s two favorites as their commanders. He gave the first order to face right, the women laughed, not taking the exercise seriously. He then gave the order again and the concubines giggled some more, he ordered the two leaders to be killed and replaced despite the King’s protest. The concubines, now well aware of the costs of further frivolity, performed their maneuvers flawlessly.

Sun Tzu believed the leaders were responsible for the troops’ behavior and stated that once a general was appointed, it was his duty to carry out his mission, even if the king protested and the king hired Sun Tzu then.

Major Works

The Art of War was written from Sun Tzu’s military experience. It is believed he had a successful career using the strategies in the book.

In a significant battle against the Chu forces, who were numerically superior, Sun Tzu’s strategies played a pivotal role in the Wu’s victory. King Ho-Lu’s brother, Fugai, heeded Sun Tzu’s counsel to deploy spies and glean intelligence on the enemy’s vulnerabilities. Discovering that the opposing general, Nang Wa, was disliked by his troops, Sun Tzu exploited this weakness to secure a win for Wu.

Sun Tzu was known for his distinct approach to warfare. Unlike the prevalent notion of war as a “knightly contest,” Sun Tzu perceived it as a grave matter, not bound by conventional chivalric codes. He believed in adapting to the natural order of things, a principle drawn from Taoism, which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, the underlying principle governing the universe. Sun Tzu was critical of protracted military engagements and emphasized swift and decisive actions.

“The Art of War” is a classic Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu. Image: The beginning of The Art of War in a classical bamboo book from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor

Sun Tzu’s teachings profoundly impacted the subsequent history of China. King Ying Zheng of Qin notably utilized Sun Tzu’s strategies to conquer rival states between 230-221 BC, establishing the Qin Dynasty and unifying China. The abandonment of old chivalric practices in favor of more efficient and ruthless strategies marked a paradigm shift in warfare.

Additionally, the Han Dynasty, influenced by Sun Tzu’s doctrines, experienced significant victories, such as at the Battle of Gaixia in 203 BC. The Han Dynasty is renowned for its contributions to civilization, including the invention of paper and gunpowder, and for fostering international trade.

Sun Tzu’s teachings were used by King Ying Zheng (Qin Shi Huang) who abandoned the old chivalric practices of the past and conquered the other Chinese states between 230-221 BC. He united China under his rule and founded the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China. Image: A posthumous depiction of Qin Shi Huang, painted during the late Qing dynasty

His Philosophy

“The Art of War” is one of the most popular combat collections in history. It is believed the book was hugely popular among political leaders like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. The former credited it for his victory over Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party. Chairman Mao Zedong also referenced the book in his 1976 publication “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung”, the little red book which was influential during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The book, which emphasizes managing and winning wars using Taoism philosophy, can be used in the corporate world and for business planning.

Unbeknownst to many people, the book is the only surviving military text from the Warring States period.

Sun Tzu’s philosophy influenced Japanese generals and samurais during the Sengoku period. Admiral of the Fleet Tōgō Heihachirō, one of the Japanese naval heroes, used this philosophy to lead the Japanese forces to victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

The Vietnam statesman and revolutionary leader used the teachings to train his officers. One of the greatest military strategies of the 20th century, General Võ Nguyên Giáp credited his victories over French and American forces in Vietnam to Sun Tzu.

It comes as no surprise that Sun Tzu’s works are still being taught in various war colleges around the world, including the Department of the Army in the United States.

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is listed on the course for the Marine Corps. It was reported Generals Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. and Colin Powell deployed teachings from the book in their military strategies during the First Gulf War.

Sun Tzu also influenced the Chinese military by making all military personnel memorize his works. The Chinese strategy is based on Sun Tzu’s quote “All warfare is based on deception.” Another famous quote by Sun Tzu is: “As water has no constant form, to win a war, one must be able to adapt like water.”

Sun Tzu’s enduring legacy lies in the continued relevance and universal applicability of his work. “The Art of War” remains a foundational text in the fields of strategy and warfare and continues to inspire new interpretations and adaptations in various cultural, military, and academic contexts around the world.

Did you know…?

There are some historians have maintained Sun Tzu does not exist and they argue if such a general had existed more writings would have been found about him. Regardless, the book “The Art of War” has continued to be consulted in China and around the world.

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers about the Life and Accomplishments of Sun Tzu

Born Sun Wu, this philosopher and brilliant military strategist is best known in the Western world as Sun Tzu, which is his honorific title, Master Sun. The ancient Chinese general is said to have led the Wu forces with King Ho-Lu and defeated the Chu forces. Image: Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer, and philosopher who lived in the ancient Eastern Zhou period of China. He is best known for writing “The Art of War,” a treatise on military strategy and tactics, which has been revered and studied in East Asia and beyond for thousands of years and is still widely read today. It has been adapted to various fields beyond warfare, such as business strategy and leadership. However, the actual details of his life are somewhat shrouded in mystery and legend, and there is some debate among historians about his existence and identity.

Where was Sun Tzu born?

It is believed Sun Tzu lived around the 6th century BC, serving as a military general and advisor to the King of Wu, Ho-Lu. Some historical accounts suggest that Sun Tzu was born in Qi, while others argue he was a native of Wu.

What is Sun Tzu’s most notable accomplishment?

Sun Tzu’s most notable accomplishment is the authorship of “The Art of War,” a comprehensive manual on strategy, warfare, and tactics. The book is renowned for its insights into the nature of conflict, strategic planning, intelligence gathering, and deception.

It consists of 13 chapters, each dedicated to a different aspect of warfare, and it explores strategies, tactical development, and warfare philosophy.

What were some of the military victories Sun Tzu chalked?

Sun Tzu is credited with leading the state of Wu to numerous military victories, utilizing innovative strategies and tactics. He played a crucial role in the defeat of the Chu state by leveraging intelligence gathered through spies and exploiting the weaknesses of the enemy.

What are the key teachings of “The Art of War”?

“The Art of War” emphasizes the importance of strategy, planning, knowledge of the enemy and oneself, the use of spies, deception, flexibility, and the pursuit of victory with the least amount of conflict and resource expenditure.

How can “The Art of War” be applied to business?

In business, “The Art of War” can guide strategic planning, competitive analysis, and organizational development. Its principles of knowing oneself and the enemy, using deception, and adapting to circumstances are particularly relevant to corporate strategy and management.

Can “The Art of War” be applied to personal development?

Yes, many people apply the principles of “The Art of War” to personal development, particularly in areas like strategic thinking, resilience, decision-making, and understanding human behavior.

How did Sun Tzu influence warfare in ancient China?

Sun Tzu’s philosophies and strategies have profoundly impacted military thinking and have been employed by various military leaders and strategists throughout history, including during the unification of China by the Qin Dynasty and the military campaigns of the Han Dynasty.

What is Sun Tzu’s influence beyond China?

Sun Tzu’s work has transcended its original context and has been adopted and adapted by thinkers, leaders, and strategists worldwide. It has influenced not only military strategies but also approaches to leadership, business, sports, and conflict resolution.

The Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu referred to the war as a knightly contest, governed by codes to which both sides generally adhered but Sun Tzu refused to follow the codes because the war was not a contest. He often applied Taoism philosophy which states one must find the natural way of doing things rather than adhering to the conventions of society.

1 Response

  1. douglas laurent says:

    how many battles did he fight? how large of armies he led? DID HE EVER LOSE A BATTLE? i’m comparing him to another general, how old was he when first took command, and died? thx

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