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Sun Tzu: Biography, Quotes & Books

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What could a 2,500-year old strategist possibly teach us about modern warfare? As it turns out, a lot. In this lesson, we'll look at the life and legacy of the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu

How do you win a war? Do you attack an enemy directly? Do you lay siege to their city? Do you hide inside a giant wooden horse? According to at least one strategist, victory doesn't come from attacking an enemy. Instead, ''what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy''.

Sun Tzu
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That quote is from Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese strategist. Despite the fact that Sun Tzu lived about 2,500 years ago, his teachings are required reading in military academies around the world today, not to mention in boardrooms, business classes, and even self-help seminars. With a focus on self-discipline, knowing the enemy, and strategic thought, Sun Tzu's teachings have provided wisdom for centuries. So, how do you achieve victory, whether on the battlefield or in your personal life? ''Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.''

Life of Sun Tzu

So, who was Sun Tzu? When did he live, how did he become so successful, and how did he die? The answer to all of these questions is: we're not sure. Sun Tzu's life is shrouded in mystery, and in fact, some historians don't think he lived at all. There are those who believe Sun Tzu was a fictional character or a pseudonym or simply a myth. This is based on the fact that his name does not appear in some of the most important historical records of the time. However, the fact remains that the works attributed to Sun Tzu were written by somebody, and were already deeply influential by the 5th century BCE.

So, let's assume that Sun Tzu did exist (even if under a different name). What do we know about him? The historians who advocate for Sun Tzu's existence think he may have been born as Sun Wu around 544 BCE. This would put him in the late Spring and Autumn Period, an era when the imperial Chinese state was failing and China was fragmenting into independent, warring states. Out of this chaos came the foundations of Eastern philosophy, including the works of Confucius and Lao-Tzu, the principal figures of Confucianism and Taoism respectively. Sun Tzu would have been a rough contemporary of these figures.

Charioteer figure from the Spring and Autumn period
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Where Sun Tzu first makes a major appearance in history is as a military strategist for King Ho-Lu of the state of Wu. Sun Tzu seems to have served Ho-Lu starting around 512 BCE and may have been responsible for some of Wu's greatest military victories in this time.

The Battle of Boju

In particular, Sun Tzu is often associated with the Battle of Boju and conflict that occurred between the states of Wu and Chu in 506 BCE. In the battle, the Wu forces found themselves outnumbered by the larger Chu army. Ho-Lu ordered his troops not to attack, but the order was disobeyed by the king's younger brother, Fugai. Fugai led his troops to victory, then chased the Chu army and defeated them several more times; once as they were crossing a river and once as they were having dinner. Finally, the Wu army defeated and captured the Chu capital city of Ying.

According to some ancient scholars, Fugai was victorious because of Sun Tzu's teachings. Sun Tzu believed in the power of knowing the enemy and encouraged the use of spies. As Sun Tzu once said, ''Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.'' Fugai's spies informed him that the Chu commander was vicious and hated by his men, so Fugai knew that the Chu soldiers would not be willing to die for their commanders. That's what inspired him to attack the larger force, even as the king hesitated to do so. He knew his enemies, and he knew his own soldiers.

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