Sunzi (Master Sun, ‘Sun Tzu’ in the old Wade-Giles), also known as Sun Wu, is the great ancient master of strategy and the philosophy of warfare.  Based on the types of warfare described in his Art of War, he is thought to have lived during the late Spring and Autumn period or early Warring States period around 500 BCE, but his dates are unknown and his life made into legend.  It is also possible that Sunzi’s descendant Sun Bin, himself a military strategist, may have been mixed together with the life and legend of Sunzi.

One story often told, which modern historians consider to be pure legend, goes that the King of Wu decided to test Sunzi before accepting him as general of his armies, asking him to train his concubines in military drill with spears to show his efficiency.  Sunzi appointed the king’s two most favorite concubines as officers, and gave them all the order to face right.  The concubines all giggled.  Sunzi told the king that the officers were at fault, and ordered them executed.  The king protested, but Sunzi argued that this was the only way in war to ensure complete discipline.  After that, the concubines learned with remarkable speed and skill.

Yitasha Japanese Fortress

During the Warring States/Hundred Philosophers period, The Art of War became the most widely read work on military strategy in the seven states who sought control of what is today Eastern China.  The Qin considered the work critical in the ending of the Warring States period and the unification of China.  As with the Confucian and Daoist classics, the book had reached its final form by the time of the Han dynasty.  The Art of War covers not simply just maneuvers in war, but also methods of propaganda, deceit, and political control.  Like Confucius’ four books and the later Neo-Confucian classics, it was required reading for obtaining a government position, particularly for a position in the military.

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The Art of War has had a wide influence on warfare, both ancient and modern.  Introduced in Japan in 760 CE, it was a favorite of shoguns and samurai long before the unification of Japan.  Napoleon read and used the work, as did Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh.  It is today required reading for US Military Intelligence and CIA officers.


Some of Sunzi’s central teachings are focused on gathering intelligence and practicing deceit and counter-intelligence, knowing everything about the enemy but preventing the enemy from knowing anything about yourself.  He argues that sheer numbers give no advantage, and it is far better to out-think than to out-fight.  Ho Chi Minh’s use of the Art of War in repelling the far superior numbers of American soldiers and firepower during the Vietnam War brought the book into use by the US military and intelligence services.  One tactic specifically used was staying close and inter-meshed with the enemy when the enemy has superior firepower.  This works just as well against bows and crossbows as it does against cluster bombs and napalm, as the enemy can not fire on you without hitting their own troops as well.

Uncle Sam I Want You Propaganda Poster

In the first verses of the text, Sunzi says that the first rule of warfare, to be at one with the way of warfare, is for the leaders and people to be of one mind.  This has two implications.  First, keeping one’s own troops and civilians believing in the leaders is first and foremost, in times of peace and war through aid and propaganda.  Second, in war one should work thought deceit, propaganda and any other means to disenchant the enemy troops and civilians.  The psychological game is more important than the physical fight.  You should not only know how to boost morale and engage in psychological warfare, you should learn to judge your enemy’s ability to boost morale and engage in psychological warfare, for if they are superior at the psychological game you will likely not withstand a physical fight.

Samurai on horseback Japanese Print

One tactic Sunzi taught to win the psychological game was moving troops after every assault, commonly employed in guerrilla warfare such as that employed by the Southern Confederate army against the Northern Union army, as well as the Vietcong against the United States.  For much of European history, this tactic was considered dishonorable and armies would march in plain sight toward each other, but today it is standard practice across the world.  The change was particularly motivated by the invention of the rifle during the American Civil War and the use of the machine gun in WWI.  If the enemy launches a full assault against a specific area, it is often wise to let them advance, move, and then attack from the sides or from behind.  This is similar to the idea behind Aikido, discussed with Daoism.  If the enemy has superior strength or striking power, you move out of the way to keep them off balance.

battle_of_fei_river china

Not only should you change position, but continuously change tactics as well.  Unconventional tactics that continue to shift situation by situation may make for difficult planning, but they keep the enemy guessing.  Sunzi says, “I never repeat the means whereby I achieve victory, but responsively adjust my positions continuously”.  He employs the Daoist metaphor of being like water, saying that just as water produces currents according to the terrain it crosses, an army must respond fluidly to the enemy to be victorious.

Waterfall in Hidalgo Mexico

Another psychological tactic that meshes well with Daoist teachings is to appear to be the opposite of what you are.  If you are strong, appear weak.  If you are far, appear near.  If you are active, appear to be inactive.  This will not only cause the enemy to put ineffective actions and strategies into play, but in the long run keep them guessing and always confused.  Equally and oppositely, one should encourage the enemy to be as one-sided as possible.  If the enemy is greedy, tempt them so they act on it and are drawn out.  If the enemy is angry, provoke them to make them even angrier.  If the enemy is strong, avoid them and allow them to wear themselves down through continuous advancement.  In the Dao De Jing of Laozi, it says what one wants to defeat one should allow to grow strong.

Waterfall Gushing

Another teaching of Sunzi that fits well with the Daoist teaching of wu-wei(non-action) is that one should always attempt to win with the least amount of fighting possible, and the best way to win is to win without fighting at all.  This boosts morale and spares wasting resources.  If you are more efficient at this than your enemy, you can outlast their strength.


While one should allow one’s enemy to grow strong to wear them down, one should wait for a moment of weakness to attack, and then gain the upper hand as quickly as possible so that strength and resources are not wasted.  A prolonged war wears down your troops as well as the morale of the citizens.  Long periods of warfare lead to poverty among the citizens and inflation for the economy, which can not long endure before rebellions divide one’s lands from within.  Machiavelli similarly wrote that when one needs to be brutal, one should be as brutal as possible and wipe out the enemy as quickly as possible.

Battle of Red Cliffs China

Sunzi says it is wise to eat the enemy’s food and use the enemy’s resources, and that one bushel of the enemy’s grain is equivalent to twenty of one’s own.  One famous example from Chinese warfare is found in the Battle of Red Cliffs at the end of the Han Dynasty.  Zhuge Liang told his superior that he could provide ten thousand arrows in three days, a task that seemed impossible.  He used the three days to attach bundles of straw to a fleet of ships, and then he sailed these ships toward the enemy with a small armored crew.  The enemy, believing the boasts to be full of troops, fired barrage after barrage of arrows at the boats, which were then recalled, along with the arrows stuck in the straw.  These arrows were now used against the enemy themselves, who had far fewer arrows then they had before.  Sunzi argued that using the enemy’s troops was also wise, enticing them to change sides and then treating them well.  It is also wise to defeat the enemy without destroying them, keeping their armies, population and lands intact.  This not only allows for more spoils, but breeds less resentment in the population one has conquered.

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A big fan of using spies, as well as paying the enemy’s spies well to become double agents, Sunzi says that foreknowledge, knowing what will happen before it happens, cannot be learned from ghosts and spirits, but from spies, who are clearly worth their pay given what an army costs and the value of psychology over strength.  Double agents, enemy spies discovered and then used to give false information back to the enemy who does not know the spies have been discovered and turned, should be paid the most, as they are the most valuable.