Sun (Wu) Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC) was a Chinese military general and strategist, philosopher, and writer who lived during the Eastern Zhou period of 771 to 256 BC. Sun Tzu is best known in the West as the author of Bing-fa (translated: “Art of War”), an influential work of East Asian philosophy and military thinking.
Sun Tzu was born Sun Wu, and typically known outside of his family by his courtesy name of Changquing (a courtesy name is given at adulthood in several East Asian cultures in addition to one’s given name.) The name Sun Tzu by which he is more commonly known is an honorific which means “Master Sun”. He is thought to have served as a military general and strategist to King Helü of Wu beginning in about 512 BC.
In the context of military conflict, Sun Tzu developed and taught a complete and powerful framework for quickly analyzing any situation, and for quickly making sound decisions for driving action and systematically advancing your position to one of greater advantage.
Sun Tzu however did not write The Art of War as a training text to educate the uninitiated. In ancient China like ancient Greece, books were not written as how-to manuals. Students learned directly from their teachers, who were masters of their areas of expertise.
“The Art of War” was originally written as an abbreviated series of concepts, with the intent of preserving knowledge and to remind students of what they had previously learned.
Painting of Sun Tzu
By modern standards, Sun Tzu’s original text is very complex, with a minimum of explanation. Students of Sun Tzu were either already familiar with the meanings and cultural context of metaphorical references, or they had already been extensively explained including with examples.
“The Art of War” then might be better understood as a book of crib notes, or memonic reminders.
Unfortunately, the formulaic nature of ancient Chinese does not translate easily into English sentences. In many cases there are concepts for which the words in English simply do not exist, or are woefully inadequate. Accurate translation requires both understanding and fluency in the ancient Chinese in which “Art of War” is written, a deep historical understanding of the cultural context at the time of Sun Tzu, and an understanding as well as how the cultural context may have evolved over centuries in ways that may distort the original meanings.
It is for this reason that much of the Art of War’s great depth and nuance is simply lost in the translation, and different translations thus have widely divergent interpretations regarding the principles of strategy Sun Tzu taught.
For the modern student of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, the best and most accurate translation and instructional materials available are by Gary Gagliardi.