The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

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The Art of War (Sun Tzu)? Meaning.

Sun Zi Bing Fa (The art of War) by Sun  Tzu (Sun Tzi)


Sun Tzu wrote the book The Art of War (孙子兵法 - Sun Zi Bing Fa) in 490 BC, more than 2,600 years ago.

The title by which it is known in the west is “The Art of War”, but actually this is an unfortunate mistranslation. It is better translated as Sun Tzu’s “Competitive Mastery”. Because it was first translated in 1782 in France, it was compared with and given the same name as a contemporary tactical treatise written by Niccolo Machiavelli “Art de la guerre”. This was later translated into English as the “Art of War”.


The west would probably never be exposed to this powerful book, if it hadn’t fallen into the hands of a minor officer in the French revolutionary army by the name of Napolean Bonaparte. He reportedly carried the Jesuit missionary Father Amiot’s translation of the Bing Fa with him everywhere, but kept its contents secret.

It is reported that when another great strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz, was captured by Napoleon’s army he learned their methods. Clausewitz went on to write arguably the greatest treatise of western military strategy “On War” in which he stated a very Sun Tzu-like axiom defining military strategy as “the employment of battles to gain the end of war”.

The Meaning of The Art of War for Contemporary Leadership and Strategy


So, how does this apparent military officer’s manual relate to modern management and leadership? Simple, despite the book’s name, there is very little in the way of specifically outlining the conduct of fighting battles. The aim of the Bing Fa was not to teach men how to fight; it was to “Make Victory Pay” by teaching his leaders to become strategic thinkers. The goal of the Bing Fa wasn’t to pass along doctrine; it was intended to develop the greatest asset in any competitive system, the human mind. Sun Tzu wanted his men’s minds to be a fine sharp edge where decision making for victory became a reflex. It has become a business best-seller with adaptations for specific audiences ranging from “The Art of War for Sales” to “The Art of War for Finding a Mate”. This speaks to the versatility and power of mastering and deploying the strategic mindset found in Sun Tzu’s Art of War (Bing Fa).

Sun Tzu suggested the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions.
Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.


Specific Lessons for Modern Managers


  • All of management is the shaping of perceptions (leadership through inspiration being one example)
  • All strategic positions are known by comparison and are constantly changing
  • Know your competitors, yourself (organization), the trends and the marketplace and victory is assured
  • Success means making victory pay for itself (projects should be self-sustaining)
  • A leader should be caring, trustworthy, intelligent, disciplined, and courageous. This is the first record of a trait-theory of leadership (2,400 years before modern models)
  • Learn to compete, but never lose emotional control.
  • Plan properly and do things right.
  • Make sure you know the facts, and only rely on first-hand knowledge if possible.
  • Expect and be prepared for the worst, and have some resources to counter any setback.
  • Speed and innovation are powerful weapons to stay ahead
  • The aim of a supreme leader isn’t engaging the competition in direct action/ competition. He invented the “Blue Ocean” concept by saying “lead your men, but not into the enemy…A detour is often the fastest route.”
  • Strategy involves taking the planning conducted through analysis and dynamic implementation through recursive experimentation with knowledge flowing back from front lines. Engage to compete, adapt to win.


More About the Book The Art of War


Sun Tzu's Bing Fa. Is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare or competition. It was deliberately concise and written in poetic language simulating mathematical equations. This Chinese military treatise still stands today as the pre-eminent work on military strategy, the most brilliant exposition of strategic thinking in armed conflict ever composed.
It is one of a handful of books to survive several periods of mass book-burnings including the emperor Chi in 200BC. It was largely held in secret and passed down through rulers. For almost 2000 years, it was held figuratively and literally underground in China. During the 20th century, archeologists unearthed many copies in China. There were many versions, two major and around 12 minor, that each were titled the Bing Fa and claimed to be the authentic article. There wasn’t a “complete” Chinese version until the 1970’s, when the project in Taiwan sought to authenticate and compile the various editions. The result was "The Complete Version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War." Sometimes referred to simply as the “Taipei version”. This version was then translated directly into English, which revealed discrepancies with earlier versions adapted from the French or incomplete Chinese versions.
Leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Bill Belichick, Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, Colin Powell, George Steinbrenner, Bruce Lee, Akira Kurisawa, Ronald Reagan, and General Douglas MacArthur have claimed to have drawn inspiration from the work.

About the Life of Sun Tzu. Biography

Sun Tzu (Mandarin: Sun Zi) was a Chinese general and philosopher who lived between 544 and 496 BC. He wrote the book The Art of War (孙子兵法 - Sun Zi Bing Fa) around 510 BC. This was during the tumultuous “Spring and Autumn” period of China’s history when it was composed of over 100 warring city states. He was hired by the King of Wu, a minor city state, to lead his army of 30,000 against a nearby enemy ten times as large. This ability to decimate a larger and stronger opponent was the first in a long line of victories using the ideas and strategic concepts outlined in Sun Tzu’s Art of War to bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom of Wu.

Scholars debate whether the Bing Fa was written by a single author, Sun Wu, or if it was the product of collaboration with a descendent of his, Sun Ping. Sun Ping’s role in unifying the city states into the Chi Empire was no doubt due to mastering the Bing Fa himself, but he was most likely not the author. Most agree that the earliest finds and the Taipei version in use today was solely the work of Sun Wu, who later became Sun Tzu. Tzu, is simply an honorific that means “master”. Sun Tzu means “Master Sun”.

Little is known about his life after serving the King Ho Lu and his death. The only record following the war is contained in Yueh Chueh Shu “The end of Yueh” which indicates that “Outside the city gate of Wu lies a large tomb. – The tomb of the King of Wu’s foreign official, Sun Tzu. He was an expert of military strategy.”

Because the Greek root of the English word Strategy is “Strategos”, which means “the thinking and actions of Generals”, it is safe to say that General Sun Tzu was the greatest strategist ever to live. His Bing Fa held secrets that would become great “discoveries” in the fields of western organizational psychology and strategic management 2,500 years later. From his grave, Sun Tzu would go on to influence every field of endeavor from sport to stock trading through his masterpiece, the Art of War / Bing Fa.

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