Masters on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

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Table of Contents
Chapter1 Making Assessments
Chapter 2 Waging War
Chapter 3 Attacking by Stratagem
Chapter 4 Disposition
Chapter 5 Disposition
Chapter 6 Weaknesses and Strengths
Chapter 7 Contest to Gain the Initiative
Chapter 8 Varying the Tactics
Chapter 9 Deploying the Troops
Chapter 10 The Terrain
Chapter 11 Nine Regions
Chapter 12 Attacking by Fire
Chapter 13 Using Spies
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Chapter1 Making Assessments The chapter of Making Assessments discussed the top-level strategic planning before war. Sun Tzu believed that war is a question of vital importance to the state. It requires careful research, deliberate planning and discreet decision-making. Making Assessments discussed two major issues related to war: the decisive factor of the outcome of war and the guiding principle of commanding in war. These are the basic questions of any military theory and also the foundation of other issues related to war. Sun Tzu’s answers to the questions embody his basic understanding of war and the guiding principles of commanding in war. They are the standing points of his military theory. How to Plot A War: Decision-making in the Imperial Court In ancient China, the place where kings worshipped their ancestors was called “imperial ancestral temple”. It also referred to the imperial court where all military and political events were discussed and decided. This kind of discussions and decisions are called “decision-making in the court”. In the ancestral temples with memorial tablets of past generations displaying, the decisionmakers plotted strategies for wars in solemn and respectful atmosphere. This embodies the prudence and discretion of ancient Chinese toward war. According to Sun Tzu, war is a question of vital importance to the survival of a state and a matter of life and death. Hence, the decisionmakers must make deliberate and meticulous strategies and correct decisions in the court before taking any actions. Sun Tzu’s contrivance of decisions in the court include several sections such as the military strengths on both sides of the war, result forecasts of the war, and strategy-making during war. These decisions are similar to strategic decisions in modern warfare. Besides, Sun Tzu also discussed the issue of the implementation of strategic decisions. He argues that once the decision-making in the court is over the leader should appoint generals who can carry out these decisions and dismiss and replace those who cannot in order to ensure that correct military decisions will turn into successful military actions. Based on this expounding of “decision-making in the court”, we infer that in the court decision-makers held a calculation tool called “counting rods” in their hands to compare and calculate in meticulous details the strong points, weak points, advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the war. The results may be classified into three including “make full assessments”, “make insufficient assessments” and “make no assessments”. “Making full assessments” ensures favorable conditions or a higher chance or probability of winning. “Making insufficient assessments” means a few favorable situations or a small probability of winning. When “making no assessments”, the leader has no condition to win or his probability of winning the war is nil. In this discussion, the outcome of the war becomes self-evident. Decision-makers should accord with this principle t o discuss and decide strategic issues such as whether to and how to wage a war. This is the basic process of decision-making in the court. It is sometimes carried out in the temporary commanding post in barracks in the wilderness. Still, prudent attitude and reasonable assessments cannot be compromised. These are no etiquette or formality, but the integral process of determining the process and outcome of the war. According to ancient Chinese, this is called “devise strategies within a command tent and win a victory thousands miles away”. Sun Tzu’s idea of “decision-making in the court” lays a foundation for the formation and development of ancient Chinese theory of decision-making during the war. The relatively complete and systematic theory of decision-making in war originated over 2,000 years ago in China has exerted a great impact on Chinese and even the world history of military thoughts. Guided by the theory, decision-making in war is more scientific, instructive and normative. War thus becomes a more reasonable and controllable action. The Korean War during the 1950s is the largest local war in scale since WWII. Before sending Chinese troops to enter the war, the leaders of the newly founded China made thorough military strategies and full preparations which well inherited Sun Tzu’s idea of “decision-making in the court”. Sun Tzu’s idea of “decision-making in the court” raised the importance of prewar strategic planning and decision-making . However, there have been some exaggerations of the importance of decision-making in the court during Chinese history. Some held that prewar decision-making is a cure-all and blindly pursue the zerorisk decision. They thought that a comprehensive prewar decision-making ensures victory in every fight and ignored the complicated nature of war and the ever-changing battlefield. During the Song Dynasty in ancient China (960 AD-1279 AD), the Emperor Taizong of Song (Zhao Guangyi) preferred to inform the generals who were going out to war of the general strategies and system of battle formations (formations and array) that he pre-designed. He ordered these generals to strictly carry out these plans in the battlefield. This deprived the generals of their rights to tackle with the actual situations in the battlefield as the occasion requires and squelched their talent as a field commander. It is not in line with Sun Tzu’s original intention. In his theory, Sun Tzu explicitly set forth that kings should not randomly intervene in the generals’command (The ruler who does not interfere with capable generals shall win the war) and encourage them to adopt flexible and maneuverable methods of warfare according to specific situations of the enemy (Defeating enemy basis on their situations). He held that despite its importance, decision-making in the court is only a part of directing a war. It is self-evident that decision-making in the court cannot replace other guiding principles in war.


Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a masterpiece on military theories compiled 2,500 years ago. It is also the world’s first work on military strategy that can be found today. It is a classical work on Chinese strategic theory and a crystallization of the strategic thinking and the art of stratagem of the Chinese people. It can be said that it is impossible to understand Chinese strategic culture and military tradition without knowing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
The Art of War is written by Sun Wu who is regarded as “Sun Tzu” by the later generations. As a contemporary of the famous thinker Confucius,Sun Tzu lived in the 6th century BC during the Spring and Autumn period in ancient China. He was born into the noble family of Tian in the major Zhou Dynasty State of Qi lying in the east of the North China Plain.In the late Spring and Autumn period, China underwent profound social reform. The state of Qi was in a state of political upheaval. Major families including the family of Tian were in fierce political struggle. Civil strife was frequent. To avoid getting involved in the disputes, Sun Tzu trekked thousands of miles to the state of Wu in Yangtze River valley in Southern China. Although a small state in the south of the Yangtze River, Wu was on the upswing with full of vitality. King Helv of Wu forged ahead with determination and exerted himself to make the state prosperous. He sought out able men and received them with courteous reception and tried to emerge as a hegemon.Sun Tzu believed that the state of Wu was just the place where he could perform exploits and realize his ambitions.
Soon after arriving in Wu, Sun Tzu presented his 13 chapters of The Art of War to King Helv around 512 BC. Greatly appreciating this military work, the latter summoned Sun Tzu to the court and tested his competence face-to-face. In the Records of the Grand Historian , the great historian of Han Dynasty Sima Qian vividly described the stories after Sun Tzu entered the court of Wu.
Unfortunately, there are only fragmented written records about this legendary figure of Sun Tzu. Luckily, history left us with a complete book of The Art of War . Written in about 6,000 words, it is composed of 13 chapters. With respective themes, each chapter is independent. Meanwhile, there are certain internal logic relations among these chapters which together form the author’s profound military theory. Generally speaking, Chapter One to Chapter Three discussed the issue of overall war plan and strategic guide. In Chapter Four to Six, Sun Tzu proposed a series of strategic views and basic principles. Chapter Seven to Twelve discussed various kinds of issues the troops may encounter in the battlefields and the methods of disposal. Chapter Thirteen elaborated on Sun Tzu’s thoughts on using spies to acquire intelligence.
An overview of the theoretical system of The Art of War reveals that its structure and contents cover the whole process of the war from the macro policy to the micro implementation, from the abstract to the concrete. It covers from preparations for war and decision-making to waging wars as well as treatment of postwar issues. The
author’s discussions were ingenious and penetrating. He put forward unique ideas in elegant and terse language. The profound wisdom and philosophy contained in the
book incisively reveal the nature of ancient wars and the basic principles of commanding wars. It is still an enormous inspiration to modern warfare and can be
called the classic masterpiece of military thought andstrategic theory. Compared to western classical works on military theory such as Vom Kriege (On War) by Carl
Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu put forward a distinctive understanding and perception of certain issues in the war. For instance, with respect to target strike,
western classical military works attach great importance to win by annihilating the enemy’s military strength. But Sun Tzu stressed that it is better to force the enemy
to surrender and achieve tactical purposes by attacking its political, diplomatic and psychological factors . With respect to combat means, western classical military works
propose to solve problems by direct violence while Sun Tzu promoted to use nonviolent means such as political, diplomatic and strategic means. With respect to striking
methods and strategies, western classical military works borrowed from a principle of physics and emphasized “focus” to “focus” which means to attack with the strongest
and most concentrated firing point on the enemy’s strong points and to win victory with large-scale decisive wars. In contrast, Sun Tzu, inspired by the natural course of water that runs away from high places and hastens downwards, thought it is wiser to circumvent the mighty and strike the weak in time and space. All these contrasts embody the
differences between oriental and western strategic cultures.
Forming the basic framework and ideas of Chinese traditional military thoughts, The Art of War exerted great influence on Chinese militarists and military works.Such influence also went beyond Chinese border and spread to other countries. Around 7th century, The Art of War was spread to Korea and Japan by diplomatic envoys and foreign students and held in high esteem there. In 1772, the French Jesuit missionary and famous Sinologist Jean Joseph Marie Amiot translated The Art of War and two other books on Chinese art of war into French and named it les sciences et les arts des Chinois . With its publication in Paris, The Art of War was introduced to the western world. Up to now, this book has been translated into over 20 languages including Korean, Japanese, Thai, Burmese, Malay, French, English, Russian, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Czech, Greek, Spanish, Romanian, Armenian, Arabic, and Hebrew. It has become a common treasure house and cultural heritage of all mankind. During the peacetime since mid 20th century, The Art of War has always been favored by people from political, industrial, diplomatic and sports circles. Some world famous universities and colleges even use it as a required book. Many important figures have benefited from this book and gained insights into strategic thoughts and the art of strategy.
In order for Chinese and foreign readers to enhance their understanding on The Art of War and traditional Chinese strategic culture, we compiled this book. With illustrations, we combined vivid examples of foreign and Chinese wars in both ancient and modern times together and tried to make an accurate and profound interpretation on the original text of The Art of War and Sun Tzu’s thoughts. The original text of this book is the most famous edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with annotations of Eleven Masters in Song Dynasty. The members of our compiling committee are all senior scholars from the Chinese Research Association of The Art of War.

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Masters on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War