Sun Tzu’s Art of War: An Analysis

Sun Tzu created a lyrical masterpiece when he wrote the book, The Art of War. It is a short text describing military tactics and strategies used in war to obtain victory over the enemy. Written before the official recording of China’s history, it remains a classic piece of literature studied and examined across generations. It displays the culture, intelligence, and progression of China during a time of limited technology and resources. Sun Tzu provides useful strategies of war by using philosophical concepts. Applying deep thought and understanding of war “Sun Tzu provides the basis for strategic improvement in many areas” (Graham 44). This includes leadership, business, and human behavior. There are many arguments relating to this text ranging from its morality to its usefulness, and even its authorship. By examining its historical context, craft, and expression, one can generate a better understanding of Sun Tzu and this great literary classic.

The Art of War is a piece of literature that has withstood the tests of time. Written before the recording of Chinese history, information regarding Sun Tzu and this classic text is limited. The time in which Sun Tzu lived is argued amongst scholars. While one researcher indicates that the book was written after 500 BC, another scholar indicates that Sun Tzu lived sometime around 770 to 475 BC. Regardless of the era in which Sun Tzu lived, war was an important topic up for analysis. This is because of the political and social climax of the era. It was “the age of a multistate, unstable world that saw frequent conflicts over control of the land and people”, (Lo 118). Though the social environment was unstable at times, other areas of ancient China thrived and cultivated. Sunzi lived near the era of the Han Dynasty which is also the time in which Chinese history was gathered and recorded by historian and philosopher Sima Qian. Sima Qian lived some “four hundred years after the era of Sunzi” and contains the only documented account of Sunzi in Chinese history (Ni Fhloinn 193).  The account describes Sunzi’s popularity due to his writing The Art of War and his skill in military strategy. In this story, King Helu of Wu put Sunzi’s skills to the test, asking him to train women for military battle. When the women refused to listen and disobeyed his orders to march, he killed 2 of the female commanders. After this, the women obeyed him achieving what Sunzi called “Shock and Awe”; “Shock and awe and hence compliance or capitulation through very selective, utterly brutal and ruthless, and rapid application of force to intimidate” (Ni Fhloinn 194).This event not only helped him gain popularity but also created a legend regarding the Art of War.

The expression and meaning of the text varies from state to state and person to person. However, the meaning produced from reading the Art of War also varies according to time and culture. During the time it was written that the Han Dynasty witnessed the rise of Confucian tradition that stimulated Chinese culture and ideology. This ideology is “centered on considerations of benevolent and wise rule achieved by ordered society that is attentive to correct understanding, relationships, definitions, and rituals” (Hasler 14). By taking words and terms into its original context only, Confucians interpret the writings of Sun Tzu much differently from its intent. While many observed the philosophical grounds of the piece, Confucians took the piece to be literal and did not apply deep thought and understanding. For instance, when Sun Tzu states, “all warfare is based on deception”, many misconstrued this line and its meaning. Confucians thought this encouraged individuals to be deceptive in life and when interacting with others. However, people of other cultures and times observed this differently. When Taoism entered Chinese ideology centuries later they understood the text with additional depth and meaning. This is because “Taoism rejects harsh definitions, certainty, and shallow understanding and has thus always been a philosophical counterpoise to the surface ordered Confucian world” (Haslter 15). It proves to be important to understand the dynamics of the text and how it is used and applied. Applying philosophical concepts given in the Art of War indirectly links the book to a deeper understanding of human nature, behavior, and military tactics. As a result, majority of readers and scholars apply additional thought regarding the piece. “Contemporary Chinese interpreters… characterize Sunzi’s stance on war as shun zhen (i.e exercise great caution and self-restraint in war matters)” (Lo 117). The author argues that Sunzi encouraged strategies that were smart, using as little force and violence as possible to subdue the enemy. While this is stressed throughout the Art of War, it ironically goes against many of the military tactics used today. As a result, the Art of War includes tactics that should be utilized and applied to maintain justice and morality in combat.

“The Art of War is a manual for military success, it does not glorify war, nor does it advocate an aggressive use of military force”, (Lo 118). By walking this thin line, Sun Tzu was able to create a text that can be applied across genres and fields. This is because of the insight and depth that he brings to war and strategy, relating it to a skilled art. Consequently, Sun Tzu utilized various elements to create this piece. He uses theories that, on the surface, do not appear to be related to war, battle, and control. In the first chapter, Sun Tzu states that war is defined 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, and (5) Method and discipline” (Sun Tzu 1). Applying to these themes to the art of war, individuals are able to observe the additional meaning of this text and relate it to real life. Not only do these items dictate the art of war, they also dictate that actions and leadership of others. The components refer to the weather, distance, leadership, and discipline all of which can be applied to different walks of life. Therefore, by substituting war with other words such as sportsmanship or business, many can use these same strategies to other areas. For instance, when Sun Tzu states, “hold out baits to entice the enemy” the theory can be applied to different fields Sun Tzu 20). A manager can “hold out baits to entice” employees which can be used to improve employee satisfaction. Thus, with the use of these elements, Sun Tzu was able to create a book that can have multiple uses and devices that can improve individuals and society.

Sun Tzu states, “warfare is the greatest affair of the state, the basis of life and death, the way to survive or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed” (Sun Tzu 13). Sun Tzu does this throughout the text changing how war is understood and conducted. Much of the “Eastern way of war is rooted in the philosophies of Sun Tzu” (Porter 50). These philosophies are not only observed in Chinese culture but other cultures throughout the East including Russia and India. While Sun Tzu stresses the use of deception to obtain victory over the enemy, intelligence must also be applied. With this, military forces can defeat the enemy with as little force as possible. This addresses the importance of the human life and minimizing destruction. With these philosophies the military can maintain the property, value, and economy of a defeated territory. These are behaviors that are displayed throughout military brigades regarding morality and fairness into strategies of war. It also suggests the thought and philosophies interwoven into war tactics. Although these strategies can be observed in a positive light, others are observed and applied negatively. This can be seen in Sun Tzu’s use of “Shock and Awe”. In his legendary story he used it to establish obedience. Today, however Shock and Awe is used to strike fear and intimidation in others. It is used by suicide bombers in the Middle East and harsh dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to evoke fear and control. As a result, the “lasting popularity of the work is easy to understand, demonstrating as it does a fascinating insight into human psychology and behavior, and into the tactics and strategies of confrontation”, (Ni Fhloinn 192).

China is a unique culture recognized for its intelligence, discipline, and beliefs. Chinese customs and cultures are strongly related to Confucianism to include Taoism and Buddhism which has strong influence on the philosophy and beliefs of the people. As a result, “the most vibrant expanding power and most worrisome potential adversary in the military conflict is clearly the People’s Republic of China” (Hasler 16). Considering the uniqueness of the Chinese culture, there is little to imply that the Art of War was used to encourage malicious and corrupt attitudes and behaviors. Instead, philosophy is applied to the Art of War making it useful and successful throughout the ages. Despite this, Graham found it surprising that some military serviceman do not find this book useful. Instead, some see it as something that most people know if they are familiar with the strategies of war and combat. Many are influenced by the piece weather reading this for enjoyment or academics, reminding them of the quality of the arts and classic literature. The thoughts and philosophy applied to this work, “warns against self-defeating policies and notes that a ruler can misuse his forces”, (Graham 44). This hints to the law and policy observed here in America and in other countries such as Ukraine and Venezuela, forming militias and fighting government against dictatorship. With the words from Sun Tzu, many are encouraged to apply wisdom and strategy to various fields and walks of life. “If I observe it [conflict] from this perspective, victory and defeat will be apparent… one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements” (Sun Tzu 111).

 

Works Cited

 

  1. Graham, Chris. “Book Review The Art of War By Sun Tzu.”Counter Terrorism. 01 Aug 2011: 44-45. Print. <http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=808b63b9-9041-4dc3-844d-ac7f4094d937@sessionmgr4003&vid=1&hid=4206&gt;.
  1. Hasler, Jeffery. “Continuity in the chinese mind for war.”Special Warfar: The Professional Bulletin of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. 01 Jul 2012: 13-17. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=fff1f0c0-3daa-4e24-afb7-7cf773392480@sessionmgr4001&vid=2&hid=4206&gt;.
  1. Lo, Ping-cheung. “Warfare ethics in Sunzi’s art of war? Historical controversies and contemporary perspectives.” Journal of Military Ethics. 11.02 (2012): 114-135. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <Lo, P. (2012). Warfare ethics in sunzi’s art of war? historical controversies and contemporary perspectives. Journal of Military Ethics, 11(02), 114-135. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=6112dbe6-b95f-4b09-b825-b8490b6098dd@sessionmgr4002&vid=2&hid=4206>.
  1. Ni Fhloinn, Bairbre. “From Medieval Literature to Missles.”Fabula. 51. (2010): 187-200. Print. <http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=fb44750a-2497-4005-b5ea-09574ec7ee71@sessionmgr4005&vid=1&hid=4206&gt;.
  1. Porter, Patrick. “Good anthropology, bad history: The Cultural turn in studying War .” Paraeters. 37.2 (2007): 45-58. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://slantchev.ucsd.edu/courses/ps143a/readings/Porter – Good Anthropology, Bad History – The Cultural Turn in Studying War.pdf>.
  1. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Special Edition. El Paso, TX: El Paso Norte Press, 2005. eBook. <http://books.google.com/books?id=T0HQOQVKWz8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=the art of war sun tzu&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TwgRU87BOYfG0AHVvYH4BQ&ved=0CCwQ6wEwAA
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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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