Sunzi (Sun Tzu)

Sunzi (Sun Tzu)

Sunzi means "Master Sun" in Chinese. He was also known as Sun Bin (Pin) or Sun the Cripple because his feet were amputated as punishment for some crime. He was the putative author of a book titled Sunzi Bingfa (Suntzu ping-fa), or the Art of War of Sunzi, which analyzed warfare and strategy. He lived toward the end of the sixth century b.c.e. and led the army of one of China’s warring states to victory. In time Sun became almost a legend.

Several new groups of men gained prominence during the Warring States period (487–221 b.c.e.), when warfare among the Chinese states became intense and large scale. One group was the diplomats, who could negotiate successfully.

Another group was the professional warriors, because valor in battle provided one avenue of upward mobility for the officers and exemption from taxes and labor services and rewards for common soldiers. Strategists and tacticians were also in demand; Sunzi belonged to this group.

The Sunzi Bingfa opens thus: "The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected". The work consists of 13 chapters: Laying Plans, On Waging War, The Sheathed Sword, Tactics, Energy, Weak Points and Strong, Variation of Tactic, The Army on the March, Terrain, The Nine Situations, Attack by Fire, and The Use of Spies. Each chapter is short and succinct.

For example, chapter 3, "The Sheathed Sword", opens this way: "To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it ... Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities".

The Sunzi Bingfa has been an influential book for Chinese generals since the fourth century b.c.e. It was first translated into French in 1782 and was translated into English in 1905. It has been used as a textbook in all Western military academies since the early 20th century and, more recently, in business schools because the strategies it offers are applicable to many endeavors.