Sun Tzu

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Who was Sun Tzu?

And why was a Chinese writer whod been dead for centuries so important to the samurai?

"In ancient times skilful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu was a contemporary of the great philosopher Confucius, and lived around 500 B.C. in the kingdom of Qi, which is roughly the modern Shandong province in Eastern China. During his life, China was being torn apart by a series of wars as lesser states fought for dominance. None of these states recognised the central authority of the Zhou Imperial dynasty any more. This is a similar state of affairs to the Sengoku period in Japan.
Sun Tzu was therefore quite familiar with warfare in all its forms. He is supposed to have written his book for Hel├╝, the King of Wu during 514-496 B.C. He ruled part of the lower Yangtze Valley and was locked in constant warfare with the rival kingdom of Yue. Other than that, little is known about Sun Tzus life. Biographies from as little as 300 years after he was alive dont include much more definite information than that, other than repeating the tale of how Sun Tzu convinced his king that he knew how to train soldiers.
The story goes that Sun Tzu claimed he could train anyone to obey military orders, and so the King challenged him to turn the court concubines into soldiers. Naturally, the women were far from being any kind of soldiers (much less good ones) and disobeyed all of Sun Tzus orders. He explained his instructions carefully and patiently and tried again, with equally disastrous results. Having done all that he could as a commander, he ordered that the leading concubines should be put to death, as once orders have been clearly explained it is the duty of the soldiers to obey! The King wasnt very happy about the idea his two favourite concubines being executed, and told Sun Tzu that he really did believe he could train troops using his methods. Sun Tzu replied that once a general is directing his troops, he should reject further interference from his sovereign. Its the rulers job to find the best general, and then let him get on with winning a war. The women were put to death!
All at once the rest of the concubines suddenly discovered that they could, oddly enough, obey any orders to the letter. And although he was rather put out by the death of his favourite courtesans, the King of Wu recognised that Sun Tzu knew what he was talking about.
What is known for certain about Sun Tzu comes from his key work on the theory and practice of warfare, The Art of War. He was obviously a clever man, a clear thinker and someone with practical military experience. Sun Tzu took his accumulated knowledge of how to fight wars and applied careful thought to the problems that he had found. The product of all his thought was the earliest book in the whole world on what might be termed the philosophy and practice of warfare.
His book, however, is more than just a "how to win" strategy and tactics handbook on Chinese warfare. Although a study of warfare, The Art of War applies to situations on every level from the interpersonal to the international. Its aims are invincibility, victory without battle and unassailable strength through understanding every aspect of conflict. This is a remarkable set of claims for any book. What is even more remarkable is that The Art of War achieves all it sets out to do! It lays out strategy in such a clear and wise fashion that at times it almost seems too straightforward and obvious, almost too simple, to be right.

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the controllers of your opponents fate:
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Over the centuries, the Japanese have had a long tradition of taking the best and most useful ideas from Chinese culture while managing to keep their independence. The Art of War was one of the many books that arrived from the mainland and was seized upon by the Japanese for its good sense and usefulness. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the Sengoku period was as violent as it became. Had only one of the great daimyo warlords read and learned from Sun Tzu, the wars would have been over very quickly. However, they had all learned from reading the same master of strategy.
The samurai took Sun Tzus book and used its wisdom in their many wars, but they also brought their own unique Japanese perspective to the principles of warfare. In the process they gave warfare a character all their own:

"Cutting down the enemy is the Way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it."
Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, The Wind Book

Sun Tzu would not necessarily have approved of Musashis apparently simplistic attitude at all!
Although times and weaponry have changed over the centuries, the problems confronting military commanders have not, and Sun Tzu remains as relevant today as he was when he first formulated his thoughts, and when he was read assiduously by the samurai. It is still considered essential reading by modern military strategists. Even today, The Art of War remains one of the definitive guides to warfare, and has been read by great commanders the world over.

Some of his most famous quotes from Sun Tzu, The Art of War:


"Military action is important to the nation it is the ground of death and life, the path of survival and destruction, so it is imperative to examine it."


"In ancient times skilful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents."

"A good army should be like a swift snake that counters with its tail when someone strikes at its head, counters with its head when its tail is struck, and counters with both when someone strikes it in the middle. Can an army be made like this swift snake? It can. Even people who dislike one another will help the others out of trouble if they are in the same boat."

"Confront your troops with annihilation and then they will survive; plunge them into a deadly situation and then they will live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory."

"Using order to deal with the disorderly, using calm to deal with the clamorous, is mastering the heart."

"The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life, without fear of danger."

"Act after having made calculations. The one who first knows the measure of far and near wins this is the rule of armed struggle."

"When you are going to attack nearby, make it look as if you are going to go a long way; when you are going to attack far away, make it look as if you are going just a short distance. Draw them in with the prospect of gain, take them by confusion."

"Use humility to make the enemy haughty. Tire them by flight. Cause division among them. When they are unprepared, attack and make your move when they do not expect it."

"When you want to attack an army, besiege a city or kill a person, first you must know about their defending generals, their visitors, their gatekeepers and their servants. Have your spies find all this out."

"The general changes his actions and revises his plans so that people will not recognise them. He changes his abode and goes by circuitous routes so that people cannot anticipate him."

"When the laws of war indicate certain victory it is surely appropriate to do battle, even if the ruler says there is to be no battle. If the laws of war indicate defeat it is appropriate not to fight, even if the ruler wants war."

"The individual without a strategy who takes his enemies lightly will inevitably end up as a captive of another."

"Those who come seeking peace without a treaty are plotting."

"Those whose words are humble while they increase war preparations are going to attack. Those whose words are strong and who advance aggressively are going to retreat."

"When the terrain has impassable ravines, natural enclosures, prisons, pitfalls and clefts, you should leave quickly and not get near them. For myself, I keep away from them, so that the enemy is near them. I keep my face to these so that the enemy has his back to them."

"Those who are first on the battlefield and await their enemies are at ease. Those who are last on the field and head into battle become worn out. Therefore, wise warriors cause the enemy to come to them and do not go to others."

"If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperilled by a hundred battles. If you do not know the others but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one. If you do not know the enemy and do not know yourselves you will be in danger in every battle."

"Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, justice, courage and authority."

"If you do not know the plans of your competitors, you cannot make informed alliances."


"Look upon your soldiers as beloved children and they willingly die with you. If you are so nice to them that you cannot employ them in battle, so kind to them that you cannot command them, so casual that you cannot establish order, then they are useless, like spoiled children."

"Foreknowledge cannot be had from ghosts or spirits, cannot be had from astrology, and cannot be found by calculation. It must be obtained from people who know the condition of the enemy.
"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 among the inhabitants of a place. Inside spies are hired from among enemy officers. Reverse spies are hired from enemy spies. Dead spies give false information to the enemy. Living spies come back to make their reports.
"Therefore, no one in the army is treated as well as spies, no one is given rewards as rich as those given to spies, and no matter is more secret than the work of spies."

"An army perishes if it has no equipment, it perishes if it has no food and it perishes if it has no money."

"Good warriors make their stand on ground where they cannot lose and do not overlook anything that makes the enemy prone to defeat."

"Nothing is harder than armed struggle."

"Defence is for times of insufficiency. Attack is for times of surplus."

"Avoiding confrontation with orderly ranks and not attacking great formations is mastering adaptation. The rule for military operations is not to face a high hill and not to oppose those with their backs to a hill."

"When the enemy presents openings, penetrate immediately. Get what they want, subtly anticipate them. Maintain discipline and adapt to the enemy to determine the wars outcome. At first you are like a maiden so that the enemy opens his door; then you are like a rabbit on the loose, so the enemy cannot keep you out."

"When generals cannot assess opponents, clash with much greater numbers or more powerful forces and do not understand the level of skill of their own soldiers, they are beaten."

"On level ground take up positions where it is easy to manoeuvre, keeping the higher land to your right rear, with low ground in front and high ground behind."

"The victorious general gets his troops to go into battle as if he was directing a massive flood of water into a deep canyon. This is a matter of formation."

"The consummation of forming an army is to arrive at formlessness. When you have no form, spies cannot find anything out and the enemy cannot produce a strategy."

"Those who use an army skilfully do not raise troops twice and do not provide food three times."

"Getting soldiers to fight by letting the force of momentum work is like rolling rocks or logs. When troops are skilfully led into battle the momentum is like that of round rocks rolling down a high mountain. This is force."

"Standing your ground to wait for the enemy who is far away, waiting for the weary in comfort, waiting for the hungry with full stomachs, is mastering strength."

"A victorious army first wins and then seeks battle. A defeated army first battles and then seeks victory."

"Terrain is to be assessed in terms of distance, difficulty or ease of travel, dimension and safety."

"A wise general strives to feed off the enemys land. Each bushel of food taken from the enemy is equivalent to twenty carried from home."

"Those skilled at the unorthodox are infinite as heaven and earth, and as inexhaustible as great rivers. When they come to an end, they begin again, like days and months. They die and are reborn, like the four seasons."

"There are routes not to be followed, armies not to be attacked, citadels not be besieged, territory not to be fought over, civilian instructions not to be obeyed

"The important thing in war is victory, not persistence."

"When you know sky and earth, victory is inexhaustible."

"Fight going down hill, not climbing up."

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