Capable Men of History: Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu [544 BC–496 BC] was a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher who lived in ancient China during the Spring and Autumn period. This was a period of great apprehension as the power balance within China was crumbling under various feudal states defying the king’s court. It was during these uncertain times, that the world-famous treatise The Art of War was written. A philosophical masterpiece of war and strategy that approaches conflict and winning battles that is still universally employed today.

Little is known about Sun Tzu, and most of his deeds are heavily disputed among scholars. So why does this ambiguous figure feature in our history series? For what may remain doubtful about this man and perhaps lost to the ages, can surely be overlooked for the profound effect that his works have had and still have upon the world today. The Art of War is undoubtedly the most influential treatise on war ever written. The generalization of the text and its heuristic nature allows the principals to be considered within human conflict scenarios or where you find people in direct competition with one another.

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 it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.


Capable Men of History Series: A bite-sized motivational collection of the thoughts and lessons of a selected assortment of capable men throughout history.

Episode I: Aristotle
Episode II: Marcus Aurelius
Episode III: Socrates
Episode IV: Sun Tzu
Episode V: [Coming Soon]


Before we begin to probe into the illustrious The Art of War, I believe it’s essential to grasp the underlying perspective of this book and its Eastern background. The Art of War presents the individual with numerous different solutions to understanding the quintessential nature of human conflict and triumphing within it. The Art of War does this through the lens of the spiritual tradition of Taoism—a great philosophy that formed the basis of thinking within the Eastern world that enabled its people to embark upon the great journey of scientific exploration. For anyone unfamiliar with Taoism, its importance on how it has shaped Eastern thinking cannot be overstated. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism has provided a way of understanding the forces of nature and how human thought and action relates to these complex interacting forces. The Art of War forged from within this Taoistic domain, took a humanistic, rational approach to traversing human conflict—a feat which explains why it’s still able to provide value to this day.

In more recent times, you’ll see that The Art of War has been interpreted into popular business guides and countless leadership works as a result of the book’s simple & heuristic approach. To its worth in such areas, I am certainly not the man to say. I prefer to keep this book’s essence within the area of expertise it proclaims to explain—human conflict.

So what value can you aim to extract from an ancient book of conflict you ask? For me, The Art of War is a psychological piece. It provides the reader with a valid collection of generalisations to the particular ways humans think and adapt to specific tactics in a conflict environment. It offers the reader the chance to form theoretical mental models of thinking about vastly forces of immense complexity that are in direct competition with one another. It challenges you to think about the psychological forces in-play and why the outcomes typically play out the way they’re proclaimed to. One can even test the principles of The Art of War by looking at history to see if particular events have honoured the ideas presented in this ancient treatise. However you choose to look at these works, know that they have provided a timeless perspective on human triumph, by calling upon its readers to win without fighting—to attain victory without battle, by understanding the physics, politics, and psychology of human conflict. The Art of War is an ancient masterpiece that provides man with the basis to assume that his brain is a far more effective weapon than that of his strength.


We have an interesting biographical tale of Sun Tzu that was written by a prominent Chinese historian of the early Han dynasty known as Sima Qian. This story that I’m about to introduce, must have taken place sometime after The Art of War was formed. This short tale, begins with the king of Wu, Ho Lu, summoning the distinguished Sun Tzu after hearing of his military success and his fierce reputation of strategic proficiency.

King Ho Lu: “I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing
soldiers to a slight test?”

Sun Tzu: “You may.”

King Ho Lu: “May the test be applied to women?”

Sun Tzu: “Yes.”

Arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace and into the presence of Sun Tzu—challenging the renowned strategist to bring order to this cohort of women and prove his proficiency of command to the king. Sun Tzu immediately divides the 180 ladies into two companies and placed one of the King’s favourite concubines at the head of each. He then made them all take spears in their hands—Before addressing the women as follows:

Sun Tzu: “I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?”

The cohort of girls confirmed they did.

Sun Tzu: “When I say Eyes front, you must look straight ahead. When I say Left turn, you must face towards your left hand. When I say Right turn, you must face towards your right hand. When I say About turn, you must face right round towards your back.”

The girls confirmed their understanding of the orders. With his orders explained, he set up the halberds (A two-handed pole weapon) and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the following order:

Sun Tzu: “Right turn!”

Suddenly, all the girls burst out laughing. Sun Tzu turns and addresses the King.

Sun Tzu: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

Turning back towards the girls, Sun Tzu proceeded to drill them once again, only this time he gave the following order:

Sun Tzu: “Left turn!”

Once again, the girls collectively burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu, turns and readdresses the King.

Sun Tzu: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

Sun Tzu turns away from the king and immediately orders the women who were at the head of the two companies to be beheaded. The King, watching from a raised pavilion and taken back by this unexpected event, comprehended the reality that he was about to see the death of his two favourite concubines and intervened accordingly:

King Ho Lu: “We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If we are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savour. It is the King’s wish that they not be beheaded.”

Sun Tzu: “Having received the sovereign’s commission to take charge and direct these troops, there are certain orders I cannot accept.”

Sun Tzu turns and follows through with the order, resulting in the two concubines being beheaded. Following this scene, Sun Tzu then appoints the two next girls in line as the respective new leaders of the companies. With the commotion over, the drum was sounded for the drill to begin once more, and the girls went through all the evolutions order, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a single sound.

Sun Tzu then sends a messenger to the king, saying:

Appointed Messenger: “Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.”

King Ho Lu: “Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, we have no wish to come down and inspect the troops.”

Thereupon Sun Tzu said:

Sun Tzu: “The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds.”


To sense and comprehend after action is not worthy of being called comprehension. To accomplish after striving is not worthy of being called accomplishment. To know after seeing is not worthy of being called knowing. These three are far from the way of sensing and response.

Indeed, to be able to do something before it exists, sense something before it becomes active, see something before it sprouts, are three abilities that develop interdependently. Then nothing is sensed but is comprehended, nothing is undertaken without response, nowhere does one go without benefit.

– The Book of Balance and Harmony, a Taoist anthology

Chapter I – Strategic Assessments

The survival or destruction of a nation and the life or death of its citizens may depend on warfare, so it is necessary to examine it carefully. Whether you live or die depends on the configuration of the battleground; whether you survive or perish depends on the way you choose to do battle. Therefore it is said to be imperative to examine it. Five things are to be assessed before military action—Moral (people’s faith in the leadership), the weather, the lay of the land, command (capabilities of the general) and discipline (organisation and operations). These are to be assessed at headquarters—first assess yourself and your opponent in terms of these five things, deciding who is superior. Then you can determine who is likely to prevail. Having determined this, only then should you mobilise your forces.

Warfare is based on the art of deception. When strong, appear weak. Brave, appear cowardly. Orderly, appear chaotic. Wise, appear foolish. Many, appear to be few. Advancing, appear to retreat. Moving quickly, appear to be slow. In one place, appear to be in another.

The one who figures on victory at headquarters before even doing battle is the one who has the most strategic factors on his side. The one with many strategic factors in his favour wins, the one with few strategic factors in his favour loses—It is by attention to this point that I can see who will win and who will lose.

Chapter II – Waging War

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. War is like a fire—if you do not put it out, it will burn itself out. War drains a nation’s wealth, therefore, victory must be attained at a supernatural speed. Try to capture and use enemy’s resources as soon as possible, that is, by winning the battle and feeding off the enemy. Each pound of food taken from the enemy is equivalent to twenty pounds you provide by yourself.

Chapter III – Offensive Stratagem

It is better to keep a nation intact than to destroy it. This means that killing is not the important thing. Therefore those who render others’ armies helpless without fighting are the best of all. This calls for the assault of the enemy’s plans (rather than the enemy directly). The superior militarist strikes while schemes are being laid—failing this, the next best action is to attack his alliances. Use tactics to overcome your opponents by dispiriting them rather than by battling with them; take their cities by strategy. Destroy their countries artfully, do not die in protracted warfare.

So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be harmed in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be harmed in every single battle.


Chapter IV – Tactical Dispositions

It is said that in ancient times skilful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents. Hide your form, be orderly within, and watch for gaps and slack. superior militarist defeats the enemy easily because they create the appropriate conditions for ensuring victory.

When we are on the defensive, it is because there is some lack in terms of a way to seize victory. So we hide in the deepest depths of the earth by taking advantage of the mountains, rivers, and hills. When we are on the offensive, it is because we’re strong—so our movement is swift and our battle cry is shattering, fast as thunder and lightning, as though coming from the sky, impossible to prepare for.

Chapter V – Energy

Skillful warriors are able to allow the force of momentum to seize victory for them without exerting their strength. This is the principle of emptiness and fullness. When you impel opponents to come to you, then their force is always empty; as long as you do not go to them, your force is always full. Attacking emptiness with fullness is like throwing stones on eggs—the eggs are sure to break.

A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it from individuals within his ranks. He creates situations which can be easily exploited by his men. It is easy to get people to act by means of the force of momentum, whereas it is hard to demand power in individual people.

Chapter VI – Weaknesses and Strengths

Those who are first on the battlefield and await the opponents are at ease; those who are last on the battlefield and head into battle get worn out. Therefore, always bring the enemy to war rather than being brought in by him. To bring them to you, lure them with the prospect of gain. What discourages opponents from coming to you is the prospect of ensured harm.

It is easy to take over from those who have not thought ahead. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defence if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked. Be extremely mysterious in your tactics, elusive to the enemy’s senses. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.

Chapter VII – Manoeuvring

Tactical manoeuvring, there is nothing more difficult. The difficulties of tactical manoeuvring consists in turning complex forces into the direct, and misfortune into gain. Obedience takes precedence over talent. Words are seldom heard, so flags and drums are made to focus and unify people’s ears and eyes. Once people are unified, the brave cannot proceed alone, the fragile cannot retreat alone—this is the rule for employing a group.

Unless you know the mountains and forests and the lay of the swamps and marshes, you can’t hope to manoeuvre with an armed force successfully. Use of local guides is essential to learn about the terrain. The morning energy is keen, midday energy fades, evening energy recedes—therefore those skilled in combat avoid the keen energy and strike the fading and receding. These are the men who master energy. To stand your ground and await the weary in comfort from far away is wise—awaiting the hungry with full stomachs is mastering strength. Avoiding confrontation with orderly ranks and not assaulting great formations is mastering adaptation.

If the enemy suddenly flees before their energy has depleted, there are surely ambushes lying in wait for you. Do not follow a feigned retreat, pay careful attention to your opponent’s energy.

And finally, always provide an army with a way out. To enclose even the timidest and exhausted men without an out—is giving them no option, but to fight. Even an exhausted animal will fight, it’s a matter of natural law.

Chapter VIII – Adaptations

There is no constant structure in war. If you’re capable of changing with the momentum of changing forces, then one’s advantage does not perish. This means things like avoiding a beneficial path, when it projects features of ambush or not taking easy territory—when it is realised that it would be hard to keep and protect. Therefore the considerations of the intelligent must always include the pros and the cons before being delicately resolved.


Chapter IX – The Army of the March

Encamp on high grounds facing the sun. Fight downhill, never ascend to attack. Generally, an army favours high places and dislikes the lower ground, it values light and dislikes darkness. To earn an advantage in combat is to work in harmony with the land that you’ll fight upon.

When the trees move, the enemy is surely coming. Rising birds are signs of an enemy lying in ambush. Frightened beasts indicate an imminent attack. If the dust rises high and sharp, chariots are coming. If it’s low and wide, it’s infantry.

On the enemies tactics, If half their force is seen advancing and half retreats, they are trying to lure you. Armies typically advance and retreat in unison, unless the majority flee and leave a few suicidally brave warriors behind. When your enemy sees an advantage but does not advance upon it, they are wary. If they lean upon their weapons, they are hungry. If there is much noise in the night, they are afraid. If the army appears unsettled, it means the general is not taken seriously. When soldiers gather in groups. murmuring, and engaging in prolonged conversations, the moral of the army is low.

Chapter X – Terrain

We may distinguish six kinds of terrain for our military operations:

  1. Accessible ground — Terrain that can be freely traversed by both sides easily. With terrain of this nature, one should be swift to occupy the raised and sunny spots with a thought to carefully protecting your line of supplies. This is your advantage here.
  2. Entangling ground — Terrain that can be easily abandoned, but hard to reoccupy. (Forests, hills etc) With terrain of this nature, going on the offensive against an unprepared enemy is advised. But if your enemy lies in wait, prepared for such aggression here, this will likely end unfavourably.
  3. Temporising ground — Terrain that neither side will gain from by making the first move. With terrain of this nature, the enemy is likely to bait us to push forward. It’s advisable not to stir forth, but move sideways or backwards in an effort to pull their forces into the open ground.
  4. Narrow passes — Terrain that once occupied, provides a strongly garrisoned natural position. (Think of the Spartans at Thermopylae) Terrain of this nature can be dangerous if the ground above can be taken, leaving the men below highly compromised. If your enemy holds such a position first, attacking such a position directly is likely reckless and futile.
  5. Precipitous heights — Terrain that is elevated and warm. Terrain of this nature allows one to wait for the enemy and fire down upon these natural strongholds. If the enemy is motivated enough to attack, they’re forced to fight upwards giving you the advantage.
  6. Positions of great distance —The ground that stands between two forces, when they’re both a great distance from one another. If your enemy is far away, spending a considerable amount of effort to close the distance might tire your troops against a force that has delayed their approach.

The contour of the terrain is a great aid to an army; weighing up your opponents to determine victory, assessing variables, risks and distances is the proper course of action for military leaders. Those who do battle knowing these will win, those who choose to do battle without knowing these will lose. Therefore, when the laws of war show the path to victory, it is surely fitting to do battle, even if the government says there is not to be any. If the laws of war indicate defeat, it is surely appropriate to not engage in war, even if the government orders it. Thus one advances without seeking triumph, retreats without avoiding blame, only manoeuvring in the interests of its people, to the benefit of the government also—ensuring the most valuable service to its nation.

Chapter XI – The Nine Situations

The Art of War recognises nine situational varieties:

  1. Dispersive ground — Where one’s forces are in their own territory, so close to home that they’re even likely to retreat to it.
  2. Light ground — The shallow penetration into enemy’s territory.
  3. Contentious ground — Land that would be advantageous to you if you got it and to your enemies if they got it. (High grounds, resources, strategic passes) Likely to bear witness to the most fierce battles.
  4. Open ground — Land where each side has complete liberty of movement.
  5. Intersecting ground — Land that is surrounded on three sides by different states, so that he who occupies it first, takes the advantage.
  6. Serious ground — When an army has advanced into deep enemy territory, leaving many cities, towns and fortifications in its rear, one has entered into territory that is difficult to return from.
  7. Difficult ground — Mountains, forests, marshes and other difficult terrain that makes it tiresome and troublesome to traverse.
  8. Surrounded ground — Land that is narrow on the way in and out, meaning a small force can strike you, even if your numbers are great.
  9. Dying ground — Land in which the only option is to fight, or else perish.


Chapter XII – Attack by Fire

There are five types of fire attack:

  1. Burning people
  2. Burning supplies
  3. Burning equipment
  4. Burning storehouses
  5. Burning weapons.

The use of fire must have an objective and there are appropriate times for setting fires. It is imperative to follow up on the crises caused by the fires. One must be swift and aggressive. If the enemy is calm when the fire breaks, wait—do not attack. We’re looking to exploit their confusion, rather than looking to destroy the enemy with fire.

Chapter XIII – The Use of Spies

A wise military leadership is able to overcome others and achieve extraordinary accomplishments via foreknowledge. Foreknowledge cannot be obtained from ghosts and spirits, cannot be attained by analogy, or be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy in real-time. This is achieved via the use of spies and intelligence gathering.

There are five kinds of spy: The local spy, the inside spy, the reverse spy, the dead spy, and the living spy.

Local spies are hired from the natives of the enemy. Inside spies are hired from within the enemies ranks. Reverse spies are hired from among the enemy spies. Dead spies are transmitting false intelligence to the enemy. Living agents are those trusted to report back to HQ with accurate intelligence.

No one in the armed forces is treated as familiarly as are spies—no one is rewarded as amply as the spies, and in no other business should greater secrecy be preserved. Without subtle ingenuity of the mind, one cannot be certain of the truth of spices. Handling spies is a tricky business. Seek ways to verify the intelligence provided.


Where can I download The Art of War?

The book is entirely free via the Gutenberg Project. You can find this version here: The Art of War: Translation by Lionel Giles. Other translations are available to purchase that have advanced upon this original translation by introducing more research into the works of Sun Tzu. Some of these translations are more suited for those without previous military expertise or philosophic understanding.

I’m particularly fond of the Thomas Cleary translation which I used to assist me with this very write-up. I would say that I value this translation the most, due to its immensely valuable introduction towards Taoist thinking—a crucial component to the understanding of these works in my opinion. Click the image below to take you to this version on Amazon.