An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法

Jan 17, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法 "The methods of war by Master Sun" (better known as "The Art of War"), short Sunzi 孫子 "Master Sun", is probably the most important and popular military classic of ancient China. It is also known under the titles Wu Sunzi bingfa 吳孫子兵法 "The art of war by Master Sun from the state of Wu", Sun Wu bingfa 孫武兵法 "The art of war by Sun Wu" or Sun Wu bingshu 孫武兵書 "The book on war by Sun Wu".

During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) it was rated the "ancestor" of all military books. Its fame spread soon to neighbouring countries like Japan where it became known during the Tang period 唐 (618-907), and has been studied hundredfold in the West.

The author of the book was believed to be the historical person Sun Wu 孫武, who originated in the regional state of Qi 齊 during the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). He wrote 13 chapters on military strategy which he presented to King Helü 闔閭 (r. 514-496) from the state of Wu 吳, a state located at the southeast coast. Together with Wu Zixu 伍子胥, Sun Wu was able to defeat the powerful state of Chu 楚 in central China and to conquer its capital (see also Zhou military).

In his discussions with King Helü, Sun Wu explained the advantages and disadvantages of the land and tax reform by the various noble houses in the state of Jin 晉 and the downfall of the houses of Fan 范, Zhonghang 中行, and Zhi 知. When King Fucha 夫差 (r. 495-473) of Wu killed Wu Zixu and replaced him with Bo Pi 伯嚭, Sun Wu decided to retire.

The book Sunzi was traditionally ascribed to Sun Wu. During the Song period, Mei Yaochen 梅堯臣 (1002-1060) and Ye Shi 葉適 (1150-1223) brought forward some doubts about such an early date of composition. It was rather, they argued, written during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). It might even be that the author was Sun Bin 孫臏, who had written the military treatise known as Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法. This book was lost at that time and was only rediscovered in a Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) tomb in 1972. Doubts about the authorship of Sun Wu were also raised by Japanese scholars and the Chinese historian Qi Sihe 齊思和 (1907-1980) in the 1930s. Modern scholars are of the opinion that the Sunzi bingfa was composed, as a draft, during the 5th century and then later, probably by Sun Bin, revised according to contemporary tactics and strategy. The received version is thus a product from the Warring States period.

The Sunzi consists of 13 chapters. It main concept is that campaigns have to be carefully planned before setting out. Although many chapters talk about practical things the language is in many passages short, enigmatic and somewhat philosophical, which makes it difficult to interpret certain phrases.

The Sunzi had always attracted the interest of military strategists, and although the original number of chapters is identical to that of the received version, there seem to have been changes to the text over time. Particularly during the Han period, strategists enlarged the book and attached illustrations. Ren Hong's 任宏 revision, for example, made a 82-chapter book of it, with 9 illustrations. Therefore the oldest commentaries to the Sunzi, like that of Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220) from the 3rd century CE, had to go back to the original version. Han-period additions were consequently avoided in early commentaries and were therefore lost as early as the Tang period which some persons thought was a pity. Cao Cao was even charged of having forged the received Sunzi version.

In 1972 some bamboo texts in a Han period tomb were excavated in Yinqueshan 銀雀山, Shandong, among them the Sunzi bingfa and Sun Bin bingfa. This proves that at the beginning of the Han period there was a tradition of a Master Sun from Wu (the Sunzi bingfa), and one from a Master Sun from the state of Qi (the Sun Bin bingfa). The text of the Yinqueshan Sunzi is somewhat differing from the received version, but identical to quotations in Han and Tang period sources. The tomb library also contained wooden slips (mudu 木牘) inscribed with chapter titles of the Sunzi, with six chapters of a first part (shangbian 上編), and seven chapters, the so-called Qishi 七勢 "Seven conditions", as second part (xiabian 下編). The Han-period original also included five full chapters which are not found in the received version of the Sunzi.

The Sunzi stresses that warfare is essential for the survival of a state, and is therefore a field which is necessarily to be paid attention to. Once defeated in war a country would never rise again. The enlightened ruler therefore had to care for war, and good generals to study it in detail in order to be prepared in advance.

Master Sun explains the five factors (wu shi 五事) influenced victory and defeat. Government conduct (dao 道), weather (tian 天), territory (di 地), generals (jiang 將), and tactics (fa 法) were the main themes covered by Sun Wu. A ruler had to be enlightened about strategy; weather and territory had to be observed and selected, generals had to be competent, commands and tactics to be clear, the army to be strong, the troops to be trained, and rewards and punishments to be clarified (the seven plans, qiji 七計).

The ruler had to see to it that his people were willing to fight for him and the state, and eventually to sacrifice themselves. He had thus to exert a virtous government which was attractive enough for the population, he had to nourish a proper conduct of governemt (xiu dao 修道) and to care for the observation of laws (bao fa 保法).

The Sunzi bingfa emphasizes the importance of capable generals that represented the state on the battlefield. Wisdom, trust, humanity, courage, and strictness were the most importance requirements for an able commander. The commander had to know himself as well as he knew the enemy (zhi bi zhi ji 知彼知己), his army as well as the strategy of the inimical state. Generals should be able to give the army a certain appearance (shi xing 示形) to deceive the enemy, for instance, feigning weakness, distance, or incapability, and general had to apply his strengths (ren shi 任勢) in the right situation, but also to take over responsibility for false decisions (bu bi zui 不避罪).

A general had to use the appropriate method of reward and punishment, he must neither be too lenient nor too harsh, but a general had to be able to have both military (wu 武) spirit and a civilized (wen 文) mind. A military spirit would make the troops obedient, and a civilized mind would make them loyal. Inimical troops expressing their willingness to submit were to be treated well and be integrated into the army, if they wished to do so.

In order to achieve complete victory five points were to be observed: to know whether one is able to fight or not; to know how to use which type of troops; to unify the spirit of all units of the army; to have the anxious ones encouraged by the brave ones; and that a capable generals also acts without royal command. Generals who were not clear about the abilities of the enemy and the own troops, nor of the territorial conditions, would only achieve half a victory. A quick victory was the best result an army could achieve, but it was necessary to be well prepared for battle, in other words, triumphing before going into battle (xian sheng er hou qiu zhan 先勝而後求戰). The best method of warfare was to achieve victory by avoiding battle (bu zhan er qu ren zhi bing, shan zhi shan zhe 不戰而屈人之兵,善之善者).

The general advice of Sun Wu is therefore also to avoid siege warfare and to prefer quick battles in the field. On the battlefield the enemy had to be forced to follow what the own army dictates him. The inimical general had to be forced to be passive, while the initiative stayed with oneself. An enemy hiding behind his fortifications had to be lured out, and his week points to be attacked. While the own troops had to be concentrated to achieve full fighting power it was necessary to have the inimical troops scattered and weakened.

A very common tactic to obtain victory was to attack the enemy first with the main phalanx (zheng 正 "orthodox" formations), which he expects mostly, and then to make victory sure by surprise attacks with spontaneously arranged units (qi 奇 "unorthodox" formations). The number of the troops also played a role in Sunzi's considerations (massed against dispersed, fenshu 分數), true strength (shi 實) against seeming seeming strength (xu 虛), battle formations (xing 形) and command structures (ming 名), as well as the character of the enemy. An arrogant enemy had to be lured by submissive comportment and displaying weakness. Most importanly, a general would have to be patient enough to wait until he would be sure of victory (dai di zhi ke sheng 待敵可勝).

In his instructions on territory, Master Sun admonished to avoid eight types of attacks (ba jie 八戒), namely attacking an enemy having the high ground, an enemy having his back to a hill, pursuing feigned retreats, attacking elite troops, swallowing the enemy's bait, thwarting an enemy retreating home, leaving no outlet for a surrounded enemy, and pressing an enemy which is cornered.

The position of a general is highly emphasized in the Sunzi bingfa. He is seen as the most important element in warfare and even seen as the one who decides over security and danger of a country.

As a text from the Zhou period, the Sunzi was influenced by contemporary philosophy and metaphysical beliefs (see Zhou philosophy). This can be seen in the many dualistic concepts used in the book or hits at the Five Agents.

There are ten (eleven) commentaries to the Sunzi, the so-called Shiyi jia zhu Sunzi 十一家注孫子. The commentators are Cao Cao (posthumous title Wei Wudi 魏武帝), Master Meng 孟氏 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557), the Tang period scholars Li Quan 李荃 (c. 760), Du Mei 杜枚 (803-852), Chen Hao 陳皡, Jia Lin 賈林, and the Song-period scholars Mei Yaochen, Wang Xi 王皙 (early 11th cent.), He Yanxi 何延錫 (d. 956), and Zhang Yu 張預. The eleventh commentary are comments by Du You 杜佑 (735-812) in his encyclopedia Tongdian 通典 from the Tang period.

Some additional comments have been collected by the Song-period scholar Zheng Youxian 鄭友賢 (Sunzi yishuo 孫子遺說).

The most important editions of the Sunzi plus commentaries are the Song-period print of the Wei Wudi zhu Sunzi 魏武帝注孫子 in the reprint series Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書, the Sunzi in the Song-period canon Wujing qishu 武經七書 "Seven Military Classics", contained in the reprint series Xu yigu congshu 續逸古叢書, and the Song print of the ten commentaries Shijia Sunzi hui zhu 十家孫子會注.

There are a lot of scholars who studied the Sunzi, like Lu Daje 陸達節 (1895-1968: Sunzi kao 孫子考, Sunzi bingfa shumu huibian 孫子兵法書目彙編), Sun Xingyan 孫星衍 (1753-1818: edition of the commentaries, with discussion of fragments), Bi Yixun 畢以珣 (Sunzi xulu 孫子敍錄), Yan Kejun 嚴可均 (1762—1843: complete literature of ancient times), Ma Guohan 馬國翰 (1794-1857: adds fragments in his Yuhan shanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書), as well as Wang Renjun 王仁俊 (1866-1913: collection of fragments Jingji yiwen 經籍佚文).

Table 1. Chapters of the Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法
1. 始計 (計) Shiji (Ji) Laying plans
2. 作戰 Zuozhan Waging war
3. 謀攻 Mougong Attack by stratagem
4. 軍形 (形) Junxing (Xing) Tactical dispositions
5. 兵勢 (勢) Bingshi (Shi) Energy
6. 虛實 (實虛) Xushi (Shixu) Weak points and strong
7. 軍爭 Junzheng Manoeuvring
8. 九變 Jiubian Nine variations in tactics
9. 行軍 Xingjun The army on the march
10. 地形 (below) Dixing Terrain
11. 九地 Jiudi The nine situations
12. 火攻 Huogong The attack by fire
13. 用間 (用閒) Yongjian (Yongxian) The use of spies
(吳問) (Wuwen) The questions of [the King of] Wu
(四變) (Sibian) The four variations
(黃帝伐赤帝) (Huang Di fa Chi di) The Yellow Emperor attacked the Red Emperor
(見吳王) (Jian Wu wang) Audience with the King of Wu
Names in brackets are those of the "original" Yunqueshan version. The chapter Xing 形 exists in two versions. The chapter Dixing 地形 is in the Yinqueshan version the second-last, before Jian Wu wang 見吳王.
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Guo Huaruo 郭化若 (1989). "Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Junshi 軍事 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 977-979.
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