The Real Sun Tzu: Man, Myth or Legend?

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The Art of War is perhaps the most widely read and celebrated work of China’s Seven Ancient Military Classics. Its impact has been so profound that it has not only influenced the thinking of military leaders from Mao Zedong and Douglas MacArthur, but permeated a range of competitive disciplines from business and politics to sport. Its message has been so timeless because The Art of War is not a long and complex military treatise – it consists of only 13 brief, easily understandable chapters that deal with universal truths about warfare rather than the specifics of strategy for its own age.

Despite the wide renown of his book, very little is known of the man who supposedly wrote it. The book is most commonly attributed to Sun Wu, though he is better known by his honorific title, ‘Master Sun’, or Sun Tzu. Over the years the precise events of his life, and even his very existence, have often been called into question, and to this day these mysteries remain the topic of lively debate amongst historians.

The Art of War was written under the reign of China’s longest lasting dynasty, the Zhou (1046 BC – 256 BC). From the very start, the Zhou were a highly decentralised regime, in which the Zhou kings devolved central power to regional lords in exchange for yearly tribute. In turn, the lords had almost complete power to set laws and taxes on the peasants within their own fiefdoms, in a system that greatly resembled European feudalism.

For the first three centuries of its existence, in the period known as Western Zhou, this system thrived and China experienced a golden age; however, the power of the regional lords accumulated such that by the 8th Century they were so independently powerful that central authority was completely impotent.

This began the second half of the Zhou Dynasty, known as Eastern Zhou, in which the Zhou kings were reduced to little more than figureheads whilst their constituent states openly fought each other for the future of China.

The Eastern Zhou period itself is split into two phases: the Spring and Autumn period (c. 770 – 481 BC), and the Warring States period (c. 475 – 221 BC). Over the course of the Spring and Autumn period, well over 100 states struggled for power and were incorporated by their larger neighbours – an exceptionally bloody and tumultuous period of history.

Out of this extreme violence, however, arose a golden era in Chinese philosophy, searching for answers to the multitudes of problems that plagued their times. Confucius (c. 551–479 BC) developed his theories on morality, governmental integrity and filial piety; Lao Tzu developed the principles of Daoism; and the Legalist school of thought, which emphasised strict rules and harsh punishments for wrongdoers, also came to prominence. For this reason, the Eastern Zhou period is also referred to as the time of the ‘One Hundred Schools of Thought’.

Traditionally, Sun Tzu has been considered one of the great thinkers of this period. The earliest accounts of his life both come from the Han Dynasty, in the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145 – 86 BC) and the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue (written in the 1st or 2nd century AD). Both these sources agree that Sun Tzu was born in around 544 BC in the late Spring and Autumn period, but whilst Sima Qian claims he was born in the state of Qi (roughly corresponding to modern-day Shandong) The Annals of Wu and Yue say he was born in the state of Wu (modern day Jiangsu province).

A map of the Chinese plain and its states in the 5th Century BC. Source:

Whilst very little is said of Sun’s early life, we can infer that he joined the army of the state in which he was born (whichever it was) and gained early success as a military commander.

Eventually, according to Sima Qian, Sun distinguished himself enough to receive an audience with King Helü of Wu. At their meeting, King Helü apparently challenged Sun to drill his court concubines in marching technique. Sun divided the concubines into two companies and elected the King’s two favourite wives as company commanders. Sima Qian recorded, “after the standing orders had been proclaimed … [Sun Tzu] gave the drum beat for a right turn. The women burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said, ‘When the standing orders are not clear … it is the commander’s fault.” Once more, he repeated [the orders] then gave the drum beat for a left turn. Once more the women burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said, ‘When the standing orders are not clear […] it is the commander’s fault. When they have been made clear, yet are not followed, it is the officer’s fault.’”

Sima Qian writes that Sun Tzu then beheaded the two company commanders, despite the vehement protests of the king, after which the concubines executed the drill flawlessly. Impressed by his ruthless commanding ability, King Helü appointed him a general in his army.

It was in the service of King Helü that Sun Tzu apparently distinguished himself as one of the greatest strategists of Chinese history. In 506 BC, King Helü decided to invade the larger and more powerful neighbouring state of Chu. Sima Qian records that, with Sun Tzu as his general, the king was able to defeat the Chu at the decisive battle of Boju, capturing the Chu capital of Ying. From there, he moved north and defeated the states of Qi and Qin. Chu, which had been one of the most powerful states of the Spring and Autumn period, never recovered, whilst the state of Wu reached the height of its power. Sima Qian summarises Sun Tzu’s importance in this victory: “[when Wu] defeated the mighty Chu to its west […] and spread its fame among the feudal lords, it was due in part to Sun Tzu.”

There is, however, a problem with this narrative. The most authoritative text written on the subject of the Wu-Chu war of 506 BC is the Zuo Zhuan, a monumental history of the Spring and Autumn period compiled in the late 4th Century BC. It is a far more contemporary work to the supposed time of Sun Tzu than the much later works of Sima Qian’s Records or the Annals of Wu and Yue. However, there is absolutely no mention of a ‘Sun Tzu’, or any of his other names, commanding the Wu army in the Zuo Zhuan. This key discrepancy casts severe doubt on his existence.

Furthermore, even as far back as the 12th Century AD many scholars began to point out anachronisms in accounts of Sun Tzu’s life that suggested he lived much later than the Spring and Autumn period. For example, crossbows and cavalry, both of which are mentioned in The Art of War, did not become a major part of Chinese warfare until the later Warring States period. Sun Tzu also mentions many other ideas and military techniques that should not have been available to him at the time.

What can therefore be said for certain is that Sun Tzu, if he existed, did not live in the time or place outlined by Sima Qian. However, the solution to the issue of The Art of War’s authorship is still not clear. Some have argued it is likely a collection of works from multiple different authors and strategists that was eventually published under the name of ‘Master Sun’. Later historians such as Sima Qian, it is thought, may have mistaken Sun Tzu for a real historical figure and attributed events to his life that did not take place. However, there are still modern scholars who believe in the historicity of Sun Tzu, placing the events of his life later on in the Warring States period to explain the anachronisms in his work. Without firm evidence pointing either way, the historical Sun Tzu remains a mystery.

Cooper, M., 2017. Sun Tzu. Cavendish Square Publishing LLC.

Nienhauser, W., 2021. The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume VII: The Memoirs of Pre-Han China. Indiana University Press.

Featured image: 663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.