Imagine an era, with little states battling other states to increase their land, power and prestige. Bear in mind, that all these states are inhabited by people of the same race – Chinese, in this case – who later form the most populous country in the world. But that was much, much later, in BC 221.
Before that, the land that is today’s China was immersed into countless wars, in the period we now call the Spring and Autumn Period period (春秋时代 ChūnQiū ShíDài). In those days philosophers, military leaders, strategists and other thinkers were highly sought after and they often sold their services to different masters during the course of their life. One of such figures was the legendary general and military strategist SūnZǐ – notice the character ‘master’ 子.
Sun Zi said:
The art of war is of vital important to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road to safety or to ruin. Therefore, it is a subject that must be thoroughly studied.
And studied it he did.
He collected his ideas in a book called 孙子兵法 SūnZǐ BīngFǎ) . Which to English-speaking nations is known as Sun Tzu the Art of War.
Not much is known about Sun Zi, what we do know can be summarized from the works of the great Chinese historian Sima Qian (司马迁 SĪMǎ Qiān). Sun Zi was born with the name Wu and is otherwise also known as Sun Wu. It is unclear whether he was born in Qi or Wu state, but he was to serve under the King of Wu.
The King was not to be impressed by his work at first, but after he appointed Sun Zi as his general, he was not to be disappointed. In 30 years, Sun Zi went on to win numerous wars for his king. In the most famous of his battles, he defeated 300,000 troops with just a 30,000 troops army. For such and similar victories he was soon recognized as a genius of military strategy.
The Art of War consists of many principles some originating from the Daoist philosophy, some from other aspects of Chinese philosophy. Sun Zi suggested that before going to war, one should consider these five aspects that would help deciding the outcome:
1. Political leadership of the Ruler 道 (Dào)
2. The weather 天 (Tiān)
3. The terrain 地 (Dì)
4. Leadership 将 (Jiāng)
5. Army organization and structure 法 (Fǎ)
The Art of War was virtually unknown in Europe until the 18. century, when a French jesuit acquired a copy during his stay in China and translated it into French. A very poor translation though it was, it still received a lot of attention. The first English translation, still very ‘freestyle’ in the interpretation, was published in 1905 in Tokyo. The translations improved with editions and time and the Art of War remains a widely read classic to this day. The study of the Art of War was introduced to American military academies after the Vietnam War. It was also obligatory reading material in Russian academies.
Recently, numerous business and law schools around the world also added the study of this book to their curricula and SunZi’s ideas are getting increasingly popular in strategic management circles.