The Art of War

The Art of War Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sun-tzu's The Art of War. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sun-tzu

Modern scholars dispute Sun-Tzu’s existence, but classical historians place him during the Spring and Autumn period, around the sixth century BC. Even his given name creates suspicions, as Wu translates as “warrior.” In an era of continual conflict between rival nations striving for total control of the empire, desperate rulers paid well for skilled generals. According to ancient historian Sima Qian (c. 145 to 85 B.C.), Sun was contracted by King He Lu of the Qi state after reading The Art of War. The historian narrates Sun’s interview process, during which he has two of the king’s unruly concubines beheaded, though many commenters doubt the accuracy of this account. Yet, Sun is absent in other influential historical accounts from the period, leaving much about his life, work, and death unknown. Nevertheless, his military treatise has been connected with his name—Sun-Tzu, an honorific meaning simply Master Sun—since antiquity.
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Historical Context of The Art of War

The Spring and Autumn period, and the Warring States period—when Sun-Tzu is believed to have lived, fought, and written—were characterized by a continual struggle for domination among the largest Chinese states of the time. Centuries of conflict led to military progress and innovation, such as the crossbow, but also fundamental social instability. These times of turmoil saw many philosophers and teachers travel from state to state, offering their wisdom and counsel. Among them, Confucius was arguably the most prominent, and his regimented doctrine of civilized society remains influential in China to this day. Taoism, a creed that promotes seeking harmony with all things, also emerged in this period and still offers an important philosophical perspective in modern-day China.

Other Books Related to The Art of War

Sun-Tzu’s approach to warfare bears similarities to Taoism’s belief in the possibility of achieving perfection in and harmony with all aspects of life, as well as its distaste for unnecessary bloodshed. Taoism is often dated back to Laozi’s seminal script The Way and its Power, which guides the true gentleman along the path to moral righteousness. Sun-Tzu is also mentioned by name in Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (c. 145 to 85 BC), although even ancient historians doubt the accuracy of his portrayal. Nevertheless, the records offer insight into contemporary names, places, and events, as well as a significant chunk of history both before and after the author’s time. Purportedly a descendent, Sun Bin’s Art of War (c. 380-316 BC) was rediscovered in the 1970s and draws from his ancestor’s military classic. Later texts that similarly discuss military strategy include Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz’s widely influential On War, written in the mid 19th-century following the Napoleonic wars; and English soldier B. H. Liddell Hart’s 1954 Strategy, often deemed a companion piece to Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz’s work.
Key Facts about The Art of War
  • Full Title: The Art of War
  • When Written: Possibly late Spring and Autumn period (c. 722–481 BC) or Warring States period (c. 481–221 BC).
  • Where Written: Qi state (modern-day Shandong province), China
  • Genre: Military treatise, handbook
  • Antagonist: The enemy army
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Art of War

Sun Bin. A documented historical figure, Sun Bin is believed to be a descendent of Sun-Tzu. “Bin” means to be amputated at the knee, a fate Sun Bin was subjected to by arch-nemesis Pang Juan. He also has a military treatise to his name, which was unearthed in Shandong province, China, in 1972.

Bamboo strips. Early Chinese writers wrote their thoughts and sayings onto bamboo strips, which were then bound together into rolls. The earliest manuscripts of The Art of War are such rolls, leading scholars to debate the original order of the work.