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 provides war tactics 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 suggests the book was written after 500 BC, another claims Sun Tzu lived sometime around 770 to 475 BC. Regardless of the era, war was an important topic due to 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 for 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 gave him notoriety but also created a legend.

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, 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. 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 provides strategies that can be used 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). Walking this thin line, Sun Tzu created a text useful genres and fields. This is due to 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 how distance, leadership, and discipline are 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 to 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. In this way, “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. 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. <;.
  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. <;.
  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>.
  1. Ni Fhloinn, Bairbre. “From Medieval Literature to Missles.”Fabula. 51. (2010): 187-200. Print. <;.
  1. Porter, Patrick. “Good anthropology, bad history: The Cultural turn in studying War .” Paraeters. 37.2 (2007): 45-58. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. < – 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. < art of war sun tzu&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TwgRU87BOYfG0AHVvYH4BQ&ved=0CCwQ6wEwAA

About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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