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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

Sun Tzu's Art of War

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Charles Tilly once remarked that “war made the state, and the state made war”. Although this statement may not hold universally, it certainly finds ample evidence in ancient China. Specifically, during the Eastern Zhou era, the warring state period, and even the subsequent interregnums between dynasties, wars were often the impetus for the creation of stronger states. For instance, the shift in social dynamics during the Eastern Zhou period led to the collapse of the prevailing polity, which in turn generated fierce conflicts among rulers during the autumn and spring period. These wars ultimately led to the formation of the first empire in China, the Qin state. The subsequent interregnums between dynasties also generated wars, which played a key role in the emergence of more robust states.

The Battle of Boju, fought between the Wu state and Chu state in 506 BC, was the first major battle in the ancient world to produce a significant number of casualties, reportedly around 100,000. Although this figure may be an exaggeration recorded in ancient books, subsequent battles, such as the Battle of Changping between the states of Zhou and Qin during 262-260 BC, produced even more significant casualties, exceeding 600,000. This rate of casualties would certainly have raised alarm, given that the total population of the time was only around 20 million. Moreover, the order by Bai Qi, one of the four greatest generals of the late Warring States period, along with Lian Po, Wang Jian and Li Mu, to execute the 400,000 surrendered Zhao soldiers after the war is beyond comprehension.

The two battles marked significant events in ancient Chinese history. The Battle of Boju paved the way from the Spring and Autumn period to the Warring States period, marked the rise of the southern states as major powers in China, and led to the decline of the northern states that had dominated during the Spring and Autumn period. The Battle of Shangping similarly facilitated the transition from the Warring States period to the Qin era and played a crucial role in the eventual victory of the Qin state over the other states.

The Battle of Boju, led by Sun Tzu according to Sima Qian, inspired him to write a treatise in 13 chapters on the science of war, known as The Art of War (孫子兵法). Today, this treatise serves as a standard text and guide for waging war around the world. However, a good military strategist should not rely solely on the book's contents. Instead, they should draw from their own experiences and fluently connect and adapt the core principles laid out in the book with the emerging realities of the battlefield.

During the Battle of Changping, it became evident that Zhao She, having recognized his son Zhao Kuo's ambitious and ignorant nature, had cautioned against his involvement in war. This was due to Zhao Kuo's tendency to simply quote knowledge from war treatises without fully comprehending the true difficulties and ongoing dynamics present in real battles, as he lacked any actual war experience. Zhao She also warned his wife and Zhao Kuo's mother to prevent him from engaging in the war. However, King Xiaocheng of Zhao was impressed by Zhao Kuo's persuasion and wrongly replaced the capable army leader Lien Po with him. Lien Po had patiently utilized Fabian strategy to weaken the army of Qin, but the dissatisfied King Xiaocheng of Zhao misjudged the situation and chose to use Zhao Kuo to lead the army. This ultimately led to a devastating defeat. Since then, the state of Zhao has not regained its strength as an equal state prior to the Battle of Changping.

The magnitude of casualties in both battles far exceeded any wars in the Western states. The war process eliminated a number of states, from 3,000 during Xia to 170 during Western Zhou, to 23 during the Spring and Autumn era, to 7 during the Warring States period, ultimately consolidated into a single empire during the Qin era. More than 1,211 wars were fought between and among states during the Spring and Autumn period, underscoring the need for innovative military tactics. Moreover, the sheer number of soldiers waging war for several years required the innovation of a systemic and stronger state administration, the bureaucracy, which is truly impersonal and merit based.

Qin was the first state in the world to invent an effective bureaucracy to do census, collect taxes, and finance the war. This concept did not start to be introduced into Europe until the reign of King Louis XIV. While the Eastern Zhou was considered weak and the Qin state was considered strong, the Han dynasty seemed to strike a balance. However, the perfection of the Chinese bureaucracy did not mature until the late Tang and Song eras.

The Treatise's Authenticity

During the Qin era, in order to stabilize the post-war state, Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of many valuable books and literatures, and buried hundreds of scholars alive. It is known that the surviving literature from the Qin era mostly consists of historical annals and poems. Philosophical and military treatises were considered dangerous and did not survive, but they were recited by memory without being written in any books or bamboo strips. The treatise was translated into French and published in 1772 (re-published in 1782) by the French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot. It is not known which version of the treatise Amiot used in his translation work, but the standard treatise was Sunzi shijia jizhu 孫子十家注 (Collected Commentaries by Ten Masters for the Sunzi), with thirteen chapters, first published by Ji Tianbao (late Northern Song).

However, in 1972, Shandong archaeologists excavated two Western Han tombs, M1 and M2, at Yinqueshan 銀雀山, Linyi 臨沂. Both tombs contained Han period strips, most of which were in fragments, and many contained only one or two characters. In total, over 7,500 unique serial numbers were assigned to these various strip pieces. The texts from M1 are classified as ancient treatises (gushu 古書) and contain several military texts, including the Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法, Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法, Wei Liaozi 尉繚子, Yanzi 晏子, and Liu tao 六韜. In addition, there are also many yin-yang and divination texts. The other tomb, M2, yielded a calendar for the first year of the Yuanguang 元光 era, from the reign of Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝, in thirty-two bamboo strips.

The finding of the Art of War at Yinqueshan, or what we will refer to as the Yinqueshan Han version, is considered the more authentic version than the Tianbao version since it was sealed in the M1 tomb around 140 BC - 134 BC.

The first 13 chapters of the Yinqueshan Han version and the Tianbao version are similar, with slight differences. However, the former contains an additional five chapters, which are in a dialogue format and cover the following topics:

  • Chapter 1: The Question of Wu

  • Chapter 2: The Four Contingencies

  • Chapter 3: The Yellow Emperor Attacks the Red Emperor

  • Chapter 4: The Disposition [of the Terrain] II

  • Chapter 5: An Interview with the King of Wu, which tells the story of Sun Tzu

The last chapter is the famous story of Sun Tzu training the King of Wu's concubines.

However, we must remain cautious in considering the Yingqueshan Han version as the authentic version, despite its age being as old as the Han era. As we mentioned earlier, the writings on bamboo strips from the pre-Qin era could be considered more authentic. The Zuo Zhuan, which are bamboo and silk manuscripts excavated from late Warring States period (c. 300 BC) tombs, could meet this criterion. However, despite the fact that the Zuo Zhuan provides detailed accounts of the Battle of Boju in Book XI of Duke Ding, it does not mention Sun Tzu's role in the war at all. Therefore, Sima Qian's mention of Sun Tzu as the general who led Wu's army to defeat Chu contradicts the Zuo Zhuan, despite Sima Qian's confirmation of the existence of the Zuo Zhuan and his attribution of the writer to "Zuo Qiuming" (or possibly "Zuoqiu Ming") in his Shiji.

It should be noted that the Analects of Confucius and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching are considered authentic, as we have recently discovered in the Shangshu (or Book of Documents) from the Tsinghua Bamboo Strips (TBS) acquired by Tsinghua University in 2008. The TBS was found in a tomb from the mid-to-late Warring States Period (480–221 BC) in the region of China culturally dominated at that time by the Chu state. Therefore, the TBS could also pass our pre-Qin criteria like the Zuo Zhuan. However, to our knowledge, there is no pre-Qin version of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and the existence of Sun Tzu himself is still in doubt. Nevertheless, several ideas in The Art of War are genuine, as we have found that they conform to several root ideas from the Science of Change in the I-Ching and the Science of Life in Chinese medical treatises. Therefore, we will elaborate on these facts and the earlier mentioned authenticity constraints.

It is crucial that we acknowledge the first step in applying the Art of War: recognizing its true principles and not just the detailed techniques, and then applying them to the emerging contemporary realities on the battlefield. As Musashi said, "These things cannot be explained in detail. From one thing, know ten thousand things. When you attain the Way of strategy there will not be one thing you cannot see. You must study hard."

When reading any book, it's important to distinguish between the timeless general principles and the time-dependent, detailed techniques that may have been effective in the past but could be outdated in the current context, in order to adapt the underlying principles to the present circumstances and improve their effectiveness. Furthermore, new realities have emerged due to the dynamic interactions between various actors involved in events, including our own. These emerging realities have implications for our understanding of the situation at hand and for how we approach it going forward.

Strategic ambiguity by nature compels us to prioritize the unknowns while securing the knowns, but our ability to acquire knowledge, adapt to emerging realities, and achieve faster transitions or transient strategy is what propels us ahead of the curve.

See more on various contemporary applications at 1, 2, 3, 4.


1. Introduction

The I-Ching, also known as the Book of Changes, is a text of divination and philosophy that has been used in China for over 3,000 years. It is believed to contain the wisdom of the ancient sages and offers insights into the nature of change and the universe. The concept of Qi (氣) is also an essential component of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts, and it is closely related to the principles of the I-Ching. Apart of Qi, there is a concept of Wuxing (五行), a concept in traditional Chinese philosophy and culture that describes the five basic elements: wood (木, mù), fire (火, huǒ), earth (土, tǔ), metal (金, jīn), and water (水, shuǐ), that make up the universe. This conversation will explore the relationship between these two concepts and how they relate to Sun Tzu's Art of War and the game of Go.

Sun Tzu's Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise that has influenced military strategy around the world. The book is based on the principle of using strategic thinking and intelligence to overcome an opponent, rather than brute force. The concept of Qi is also mentioned in the book, where it is referred to as the "spirit" or "energy" of an army. We will examine how the idea of Qi is applied in the Art of War and how it relates to the principles of the I-Ching and traditional Chinese medicine.

2. Sun Tzu and the Concept of Change and Qi

When one observes Sun Tzu's Art of War, the best strategy is to win the war without waging war written in chapter 3, "to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." (夫戰勝而不力者,天下之至將也;不戰而屈人之兵,天下之至強也。) Nevertheless, the Yinqueshan Han version was written: "Therefore, the expert in using the military subdues the enemy's forces Without going to battle, takes the enemy's walled cities without launching an attack, and crushes the enemy's state without a protracted war. He must use the principle of keeping himself intact to compete in the world. Thus, his weapons will not be blunted and he can keep his edge intact. This then is the art of planning the attack." In the following passage, the Yingqueshan Han version states, "Therefore, the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers; and the worst to assault walled .. Cities." While the commentary by Cao Cao seems to say only if the enemy has a set plan, it can be attacked.

However, this overlooks the hidden message in Chapter 2, which outlines the massive expenses required to raise and maintain an army of 100,000 soldiers. War is costly, and engaging in battle requires 10 times the logistics and staff to manage provisions. Therefore, the Art of War is not any magician's unnatural thing, but a scientific treatise regarding the science of war. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the costs, logistics, and strategy required to win a war, rather than relying solely on brute force.

Sun Tzu's "Art of War" is widely regarded as one of the most influential military treatises in history. It is said that Sun Tzu's concepts of warfare are rooted in the ancient Chinese divination text, the "I-Ching" or "Book of Changes." In "Art of War," Sun Tzu uses the concept of change, which he derives from the I-Ching, to discuss strategies for winning battles.

Since the key idea of I-Ching is to observe the change, but one must "first grasp the situation at hand with an open and unbiased mind, which requires tireless practice. This is achieved not through using the I-Ching as a fortune-telling tool since it's dangerous by oversimplifying the complex nature of the book and reducing it to a binary 'yes' or 'no' answer, but through one's own capability of self-assessment and assessment of the surrounding environment. This approach can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the guidance that the I-Ching is trying to provide. Only by seeing things as they truly are, without the distortions of personal bias or preconceptions, can we hope to navigate the complexities of life with clarity and insight." Therefore, a key theme in Sun Tzu's Art of War is the importance of intelligence, both in terms of gathering information about the enemy and using deception to mislead and confuse them. Thinking about his famous quote: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles" (知己知彼,百战不殆。) Sun Tzu emphasizes that warfare is not just about physical strength and tactics, but also about psychological warfare and understanding the enemy's mindset.

Sun Tzu also stresses the importance of counterintelligence and protecting one's own information and plans from being discovered by the enemy. In Chapter 13 of the Art of War, titled "The Use of Spies," Sun Tzu writes that "Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive sagacity" (间谍不可不慧眼识素质), compared to the Yinqueshan Han version, "Only the most sagacious ruler is able to employ spies; only the most humane and just commander is able to put them into service; only the most sensitive and alert person can get the truth out of spies." Thus, it suggests that successful intelligence operations require not only skilled spies, but also commanders who possess the intuition and wisdom necessary to interpret and act on the information they receive.

In modern military terms, the principles of intelligence and counterintelligence are still considered crucial for success on the battlefield. Gathering information about the enemy's capabilities, intentions, and vulnerabilities can help military commanders to make informed decisions about strategy and tactics. At the same time, protecting one's own information and communications from being intercepted and exploited by the enemy is essential to maintaining operational security and avoiding surprises.

However, Sun Tzu also mentions the concept of Qi, which is a fundamental concept in Chinese medicine and martial arts, and is also applied in the game of Go.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu makes reference to Qi in several passages. For example, in Chapter 7, passage 17, he writes "Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your gentleness that of the forest (故其疾如風,其徐如林)," which refers to maintaining the flow of Qi or life energy. In Chapter 7, passage 18, he writes "In raiding and plundering be like fire, be immovable like a mountain (侵掠如火,不動如山)," which again refers to maintaining Qi to free flow. Similarly, in the game of Go, players seek to maintain their Qi or "shi" while disrupting their opponent's Qi.

While the concept of Qi can be explained in the context of the I-Ching, it is not explicitly mentioned in the text. This suggests that Qi was already a well-established concept in ancient China, and its association with the I-Ching was a later development. Nonetheless, the I-Ching is often used to interpret and understand the flow of Qi, as both concepts are grounded in the principles of change and balance.

3. Exploring the History of I-Ching

I-Ching, also known as the Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese divination text that dates back to the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE). The text is composed of 64 hexagrams, which represent various states of change and transformation. The hexagrams are made up of six lines, either broken or unbroken, which are used to create a complex system of divination.

The original version of I-Ching is called Zhou Yi, which translates to "Changes of Zhou," referring to the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE) during which the text was likely first compiled. The Zhou Yi was initially used as a divination tool, where individuals would ask questions and then use the hexagrams to determine the answer.

Over time, the text evolved into a philosophical and spiritual text, with various interpretations and commentaries written by scholars throughout the centuries. The most famous commentary is the Ten Wings, which was added to the Zhou Yi during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE).

While the Zhou Yi does mention the concept of Qi, it is not explicit. The hexagrams represent different states of change and transformation, but the concept of life force is not specifically addressed. Therefore, to fully understand the concept of Qi, we must explore other areas of ancient Chinese culture.

However, there are several ancient Chinese texts that its importance can be peer within content and philosophy to the Zhouyi/I-Ching. Some of these include:

  • The Book of Rites (Li Ji): This is a collection of texts on ritual, social forms, and music from the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) that were compiled during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). It includes discussions of the principles of Yin and Yang, as well as cosmological and philosophical concepts.

  • The Book of Documents (Shu Jing): This is a collection of documents and speeches from the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) that were compiled during the Han Dynasty. It includes discussions of historical events, political and social institutions, and philosophical concepts.

  • The Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu): This is a collection of sayings and teachings attributed to Confucius (551–479 BCE) and his disciples that were compiled during the Warring States period. It includes discussions of moral and ethical principles, social and political institutions, and philosophical concepts.

  • The Tao Te Ching: This is a text attributed to the legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who is thought to have lived during the 6th century BCE. It includes discussions of the principles of Yin and Yang, the Tao (or Way), and the nature of reality and existence.

4. Observation of Qi in Ancient Chinese Medicine

To further understand the concept of Qi, we can observe its applications in ancient Chinese medicine. In Chinese medicine, Qi is the fundamental life force that flows throughout the body, enabling all bodily functions and activities. It is believed that when Qi flows freely and smoothly, a person is healthy, but when the flow is blocked or weakened, it can result in illness. The oldest Chinese medicine treatise is considered to be the Huangdi Neijing (also known as The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine). It is a collection of writings on medicine, health, and the human body that dates back to the Han dynasty, and is believed to have been written by the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi, while the oldest known Chinese pharmacology treatise is the Shennong Bencao Jing (神農本草經), also known as the Classic of Herbal Medicine or the Divine Farmer's Materia Medica. It is said to have been written by the legendary Chinese emperor Shennong around 2700 BCE, although some scholars believe it was compiled much later, around the 1st century BCE.

There are many different types of Qi in Chinese medicine, each with their own unique functions and properties. For example, Yuan Qi is the Qi that a person is born with, while Wei Qi is the Qi that circulates around the surface of the body and acts as a protective barrier against external pathogens.

In Chinese medicine, the diagnosis and treatment of illness involves assessing and regulating the flow of Qi in the body. This can be achieved through a variety of techniques, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, and Qi Gong exercises, which are designed to restore the balance and flow of Qi.

The application of Qi in Chinese medicine provides a more concrete understanding of the concept, as it is directly related to the body's physiological functions and health. It also highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy flow of Qi in order to maintain overall well-being.

It is worth noting that while the concept of Qi is deeply ingrained in traditional Chinese medicine, it is still debated and questioned by Western medicine and science. However, many Western practitioners have begun to explore and incorporate the principles of Qi into their practices, highlighting its potential benefits for overall health and wellness.

Overall, the concept of Qi is a fundamental aspect of ancient Chinese philosophy and medicine, and its applications can be seen throughout many different areas of Chinese culture. Its incorporation into the science of change, as seen in the I-Ching and art of war, highlights the importance of understanding and working with the fundamental forces that govern the world and our lives.

To further illustrate the concept of Qi and its applications in Chinese medicine, here are some specific examples of how Qi is used in various techniques:

  • Acupuncture: In acupuncture, needles are inserted into specific points on the body to stimulate the flow of Qi and restore balance. According to Chinese medicine, each point corresponds to a different organ or system in the body, and the manipulation of these points can regulate the flow of Qi to promote healing.

  • Herbal medicine: Herbal medicine uses natural substances, such as roots, leaves, and flowers, to treat various health conditions. In Chinese medicine, different herbs are used to target specific imbalances in the body's Qi, such as excess or deficiency.

  • Qi Gong: Qi Gong is a form of exercise that combines movement, breath, and visualization to cultivate and balance Qi in the body. It is often used to promote overall health and well-being, as well as to treat specific health conditions.

Furthermore, the concept of Qi has evolved over time, reflecting changes in Chinese culture and society. For example, in ancient times, Qi was primarily associated with the physical body and its functions, but over time, it came to encompass a broader range of phenomena, including emotions, thoughts, and spiritual energy.

In addition, the relationship between Qi and the I-Ching has also evolved over time. Originally, the I-Ching was primarily concerned with divination and predicting the future, but later interpretations began to emphasize the role of Qi in shaping human destiny and the course of events.

Overall, a deeper understanding of the concept of Qi and its applications in Chinese medicine can provide valuable insights into traditional Chinese culture and philosophy. By exploring the principles of Qi and incorporating them into modern practices, we can potentially unlock new avenues for health and wellness.

5. The Science of Change and the Science of Life

Based on our previous discussion, we can conclude that there are at least two major branches in Chinese philosophy: the science of change and the science of life. The science of change is represented by the I-Ching and the science of life is represented by ancient Chinese medicine, where the concept of Qi is central.

Ancient Chinese medicine sees Qi as the fundamental force that sustains life. It flows through the body in channels called meridians, nourishing and vitalizing every organ and tissue. When Qi is flowing freely and in balance, the body is healthy, and when it is obstructed or imbalanced, illness and disease can occur. Acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other therapies are used to restore balance and harmony to the flow of Qi in the body.

In ancient Chinese culture, the study of both the science of change and the science of life was considered essential to understanding the natural world and achieving harmony with it. The philosophy was that the world is made up of dynamic and interdependent forces, constantly in a state of flux and transformation, and that by understanding these forces, we can adapt to change and maintain balance and harmony in our lives.

This holistic view of the world is reflected in the way that ancient Chinese medicine and the I-Ching approach health and well-being. They recognize that the mind and body are interconnected and that health and balance depend on nurturing both.

The late sage Sun Tzu was a master of both the science of change and the science of life, and his Art of War reflects this integration of both approaches. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu applies the concepts of change and adaptation to the art of war, recognizing that military success depends on the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to understand the dynamic interplay of forces on the battlefield.

At the same time, he also recognizes the importance of maintaining the health and well-being of soldiers, emphasizing the need to provide proper nourishment and rest, and to avoid exposing them to unnecessary risks.

Overall, the integration of the science of change and the science of life is a key aspect of traditional Chinese philosophy and is still relevant today. By understanding the dynamic and interdependent forces that shape our lives and health, we can adapt to change and maintain balance and harmony in all aspects of our lives.

6. Conclusion

The I-Ching or Book of Changes, also known as Zhou Yi, is one of the oldest and most influential works in Chinese philosophy that focuses on the science of change. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is another classic work that applies the concept of change in the context of military strategy, and it also mentions the concept of Qi, which is closely related to the fundamental force of life.

Although the concept of Qi is not explicitly mentioned in I-Ching or Zhou Yi, it can be traced back to the root word of breath or life force, and it has been thoroughly observed and discussed in ancient Chinese medicine. Qi is considered to be the fundamental force that regulates the functions of the body and mind, and it is believed that maintaining the balance and flow of Qi is essential for health and wellbeing.

Therefore, it can be said that there are at least two major branches in ancient Chinese philosophy, one that focuses on the science of change and another that focuses on the science of life. These two branches have been merged together in various fields, including martial arts, medicine, and strategy. The late sage like Sun Tzu applied the concepts of change and Qi in the context of military strategy, and his work continues to be studied and applied today.

In conclusion, the concepts of Qi and the science of change are deeply rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy and continue to be relevant and influential today. Understanding these concepts can provide insights into various fields, including martial arts, medicine, and strategy, and can help us to achieve balance and harmony in our lives.



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