Born: 544 BC
Born In: Qi, China
Born: 544 BC
Born In: Qi, China
Sun Tzu (also known as Sunzi, personal name Sun Wu) was a Chinese military strategist, philosopher, and writer best known as the author of the classic work The Art of War (also known as The Thirteen Chapters), the earliest known treatise on war and military science. He lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. His magnum opus has had a deep influence on both Western and East Asian philosophy when it comes to matters regarding military strategy. His strategies often focused on alternatives to battle, including the use of spies, building alliances with allies, using deceit, stratagem, and a willingness to temporarily submit to powerful foes. He is regarded as a legendary figure in the world history of the military, especially more so in Chinese and East Asian culture. Popular since the time it was first published, The Art of War saw a resurgence in popularity during the 20th century. Besides military strategy, the tactics mentioned in the book have now found practical use in varied competitive fields, such as politics, business, and sports. Despite the resounding fame of the book, not much is known about the personal life of the author. Traditional Chinese historians, including Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, stated he was probably a minister to King Helü of Wu and lived during 544-496 BC.
Sun Tzu was born in 544 BC (according to traditional accounts) in Qi or Wu, Zhou Kingdom. There is disagreement regarding his birthplace in different historical documents. However, the consensus is that he was born in the late Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history. Nothing is known about his childhood.
As a young man, he joined the military and was raised to the position of a general and strategist. He is believed to have served under King Helü of Wu in the late 6th century BC. He probably began his service around 512 BC.
According to historical sources, Sun Tzu was an excellent military strategist and helped his army win multiple wars. Inspired by his success, he proceeded to write The Art of War.
A well-known story about him, as given in Chinese historian Sima Qian’s works, illustrates his dedication to discipline. Before employing Sun Tzu as the general, the King of Wu gave him a test.
Sun Tzu was asked by the king to train a harem of 180 concubines into soldiers. Sun Tzu divided the women into two groups and appointed two of the king’s favourite concubines as the leader of each group. He then ordered the women to face right. Instead of obeying, the women started giggling. He reinstated the order, and the women once again failed to comply.
A stickler for discipline, he ordered that both the leaders be executed. The king was aghast at this and tried to intervene. But Sun Tzu was adamant and had the two women executed. He then chose two other women to be the leaders of the two factions. When he gave them the order to turn right, all the women promptly obliged.
Impressed by his adherence to discipline, the king employed him. Sun Tzu’s strategies proved to be effective on the battlefield, and he guided the army to victory in several major wars, including the Battle of Boju.
The Battle of Boju was fought in 506 BC between Wu and Chu, two major kingdoms in ancient China. Sun Tzu was a main commander of the Wu army that emerged victoriously. The Wu army captured the Chu capital, Ying, and destroyed it.
Sun Tzu died around 496 BC, aged 47 or 48, in Gusu, Wu, Zhou Kingdom.
Sun Tzu is best known as the author of the military strategy and war manifesto, The Art of War. It is composed of 13 chapters with each one devoted to a specific “art” of military strategy.
The book was the lead text in the anthology the Seven Military Classics curated by Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1080. An influential strategy text in East Asian warfare, The Art of War contains a detailed explanation of the 5th-century BC Chinese military warfare and strategy.
Besides other commonly adopted means of warfare, the book also talks about the significance of intelligence operatives and espionage to the war effort. It is regarded as one of history’s finest treatises on military strategy and tactics.
The Art of War has been translated into many other languages, including French and English. Major political figures like Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, Vietnamese general Võ Nguyên Giáp, Japanese daimyō Takeda Shingen, and American military general Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. have drawn inspiration from the text. In the present era, the book is also popular in the field of business management.
Doubts regarding the historical existence of Sun Tzu began to emerge in the 12th century AD. Some Chinese scholars doubted his existence since Sun Tzu hasn’t been mentioned in the historical classic Zuo Zhuan, in which most notable figures of the Spring and Autumn period have been mentioned.
Skeptics argue that The Art of War is actually a compilation of texts by different military strategists and not just one person.