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‘The Art of War’: Sun Tzu’s Book Only One of Many China Strategy Classics

A statue of Sun Tzu stands tall in Japan. (Image: 663highland via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)
A statue of Sun Tzu stands tall in Japan. (Image: 663highland via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)

The Art of War is still a book held close to the heart by people in the military, in business, in sports, and in other areas of life that require planning and management in countries across the world. Even dating and relationship guides find wisdom to draw upon in Sun Tzu’s classic.

The book has had an unprecedented impact on the way the world looks at preparation and execution in many fields. The book contains a concise 6,000 word package of military wisdom as practiced by Sun Tzu.

After a historic recovery of a couple of ancient copies of The Art of War in China, it is believed that the book may have been written by both a father and son with the surname Sun. The son possibly expanded upon the writings that the father initiated, leading to the current book’s size.

Though the book was held in high regards throughout Asia for centuries, including by samurai who roamed Japan with a copy always nearby, the book has only since last century become popular in the English-speaking world.

The Art of War‘s first author started writing the treatise around 500 B.C. in the midst of China’s Spring and Autumn Period. The Spring and Autumn Period would soon turn into the Warring States Period, but before that, Sun Tzu would demonstrate his military prowess in the Battle of Boju.

There are conflicting claims to Sun Tzu’s existence. In ancient historian Sima Qian’s work Records of the Grand Historian, Sun Tzu indeed helped the state of Wu defeat the state of Chu. In other historic works, Sun Tzu’s name is not mentioned in accounts of the battle.

The second likely author of The Art of War, either Sun Tzu’s son or relative of some kind, lived during the Warring States Period, where the need for keen military strategists was huge. He likely added the additional wisdom that made the book complete enough to survive so many generations into the future, ultimately also enriching the knowledge of the West in its pursuits.

What many in the West have yet to explore is the set of books by ancient Chinese military strategists of which The Art of War is only one of seven. The Seven Military Classics are a set of books written about China’s most famous historic military figures and their tactics.

The set of books was only made into a collection in the Song Dynasty, which ran from 960 to 1279 A.D. The rest of the books included in the collection are as follows:

Six Secret Teachings
The Methods of the Sima
Wuzi
Wei Liaozi
Three Strategies of Huang Shigong
Questions and Replies Between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong

There are of course more military manuals to emerge from ancient China, but these are the ones the Song Dynasty empire chose to pass down through history. If you are looking for even more knowledge and a broader overview of China’s ancient military strategy secrets, these are among the finest texts.

None of these have yet gained the international attention that The Art of War has, and therefore don’t have as many sources of translations to choose from.

There is another notable book that demonstrates the strategy and tactics used by ancient China’s military masters, but it is contained in a different famous collection from ancient China. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a somewhat fictionalized historical account of the war between the people that vied for power in the midst of the collapsing Han Dynasty.

These people would later hold their own kingdoms, and an account of their rise and fall contains some of the most vivid recollections of genius tacticians in all of historical fiction. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is considered part of another famous set of books, China’s Four Great Classical Novels.

An earlier telling of the Three Kingdoms Period with less drama is Records of the Three Kingdoms, part of a larger collection of history books known in Chinese history as the Twenty-Four Histories. It is also the first historical document to mention Japan.

The Art of War is indeed an amazing text, yet its small size should serve as an introduction into the larger world of ancient Chinese literature.

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