THE OLDEST MILITARY TREATISE IN THE WORLD

sun-tzuTranslated from the Chinese with Introduction and Critical Notes

BY

LIONEL GILES, M.A.

Assistant in the Department of Oriental Printed Books and MSS. in the British Museum

First Published in 1910

To my brother Captain Valentine Giles, R.G.

in the hope that a work 2400 years old may yet contain lessons worth consideration by the soldier of today this translation is affectionately dedicated.

INTRODUCTION

Sun Tzu and his Book


Ssu-ma Chien gives the following biography of Sun Tzu: [1]

Sun Tzu Wu was a native of the Chi State. His ART OF WAR brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, [2] King of Wu. Ho Lu said to him: “I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?”

Sun Tzu replied: “You may.”

Ho Lu asked: “May the test be applied to women?”

The answer was again in the affirmative, so arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, and placed one of the King’s favorite concubines at the head of each. He then bade them all take spears in their hands, and addressed them thus: “I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?”

The girls replied: Yes.

Sun Tzu went on: “When I say “Eyes front,” you must look straight ahead. When I say “Left turn,” you must face towards your left hand. When I say “Right turn,” you must face towards your right hand. When I say “About turn,” you must face right round towards your back.”

Again the girls assented. The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order “Right turn.” But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order “Left turn,” whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded. Now the king of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion; and when he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurriedly sent down the following message: “We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If We are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savor. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded.”

Sun Tzu replied: “Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.”

Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway installed the pair next in order as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more; and the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound. Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King saying: “Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.”

But the King replied: “Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, We have no wish to come down and inspect the troops.”

Thereupon Sun Tzu said: “The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds.”

After that, Ho Lu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army, and finally appointed him general. In the west, he defeated the Chu State and forced his way into Ying, the capital; to the north he put fear into the States of Chi and Chin, and spread his fame abroad amongst the feudal princes. And Sun Tzu shared in the might of the King.

About Sun Tzu himself this is all that Ssu-ma Chien has to tell us in this chapter. But he proceeds to give a biography of his descendant, Sun Pin, born about a hundred years after his famous ancestor’s death, and also the outstanding military genius of his time. The historian speaks of him too as Sun Tzu, and in his preface we read: “Sun Tzu had his feet cut off and yet continued to discuss the art of war.” [3] It seems likely, then, that “Pin” was a nickname bestowed on him after his mutilation, unless the story was invented in order to account for the name. The crowning incident of his career, the crushing defeat of his treacherous rival Pang Chuan, will be found briefly related in Chapter V. ss. 19, note.

To return to the elder Sun Tzu. He is mentioned in two other passages of the SHIH CHI: —

In the third year of his reign [512 B.C.] Ho Lu, king of Wu, took the field with Tzu-hsu [i.e. Wu Yuan] and Po Pei, and attacked Chu. He captured the town of Shu and slew the two prince’s sons who had formerly been generals of Wu. He was then meditating a descent on Ying [the capital]; but the general Sun Wu said: “The army is exhausted. It is not yet possible. We must wait”…. [After further successful fighting,] “in the ninth year [506 B.C.], King Ho Lu addressed Wu Tzu-hsu and Sun Wu, saying: “Formerly, you declared that it was not yet possible for us to enter Ying. Is the time ripe now?” The two men replied: “Chu’s general Tzu-chang, [4] is grasping and covetous, and the princes of Tang and Tsai both have a grudge against him. If Your Majesty has resolved to make a grand attack, you must win over Tang and Tsai, and then you may succeed.” Ho Lu followed this advice, [beat Chu in five pitched battles and marched into Ying.] [5]

This is the latest date at which anything is recorded of Sun Wu. He does not appear to have survived his patron, who died from the effects of a wound in 496.

In another chapter there occurs this passage: [6]

From this time onward, a number of famous soldiers arose, one after the other: Kao-fan, [7] who was employed by the Chin State; Wang-tzu, [8] in the service of Chi; and Sun Wu, in the service of Wu. These men developed and threw light upon the principles of war.

It is obvious enough that Ssu-ma Chien at least had no doubt about the reality of Sun Wu as an historical personage; and with one exception, to be noticed presently, he is by far the most important authority on the period in question. It will not be necessary, therefore, to say much of such a work as the WU YUEH CHUN CHIU, which is supposed to have been written by Chao Yeh of the 1st century A.D. The attribution is somewhat doubtful; but even if it were otherwise, his account would be of little value, based as it is on the SHIH CHI and expanded with romantic details. The story of Sun Tzu will be found, for what it is worth, in chapter 2. The only new points in it worth noting are: (1) Sun Tzu was first recommended to Ho Lu by Wu Tzu-hsu. (2) He is called a native of Wu. (3) He had previously lived a retired life, and his contemporaries were unaware of his ability.

The following passage occurs in the Huai-nan Tzu: “When sovereign and ministers show perversity of mind, it is impossible even for a Sun Tzu to encounter the foe.” Assuming that this work is genuine (and hitherto no doubt has been cast upon it), we have here the earliest direct reference for Sun Tzu, for Huai-nan Tzu died in 122 B.C., many years before the SHIH CHI was given to the world.

Liu Hsiang (80-9 B.C.) says: “The reason why Sun Tzu at the head of 30,000 men beat Chu with 200,000 is that the latter were undisciplined.”

Teng Ming-shih informs us that the surname “Sun” was bestowed on Sun Wu’s grandfather by Duke Ching of Chi [547-490 B.C.]. Sun Wu’s father Sun Ping, rose to be a Minister of State in Chi, and Sun Wu himself, whose style was Chang-ching, fled to Wu on account of the rebellion which was being fomented by the kindred of Tien Pao. He had three sons, of whom the second, named Ming, was the father of Sun Pin. According to this account then, Pin was the grandson of Wu, which, considering that Sun Pin’s victory over Wei was gained in 341 B.C., may be dismissed as chronological impossible. Whence these data were obtained by Teng Ming-shih I do not know, but of course no reliance whatever can be placed in them.

An interesting document which has survived from the close of the Han period is the short preface written by the Great Tsao Tsao, or Wei Wu Ti, for his edition of Sun Tzu. I shall give it in full: —

I have heard that the ancients used bows and arrows to their advantage. [10] The SHU CHU mentions “the army” among the “eight objects of government.” The I CHING says: “‘army’ indicates firmness and justice; the experienced leader will have good fortune.” The SHIH CHING says: “The King rose majestic in his wrath, and he marshaled his troops.” The Yellow Emperor, Tang the Completer and Wu Wang all used spears and battle-axes in order to succor their generation. The SSU-MA FA says: “If one man slay another of set purpose, he himself may rightfully be slain.” He who relies solely on warlike measures shall be exterminated; he who relies solely on peaceful measures shall perish. Instances of this are Fu Chai [11] on the one hand and Yen Wang on the other. [12] In military matters, the Sage’s rule is normally to keep the peace, and to move his forces only when occasion requires. He will not use armed force unless driven to it by necessity.

Many books have I read on the subject of war and fighting; but the work composed by Sun Wu is the profoundest of them all. [Sun Tzu was a native of the Chi state, his personal name was Wu. He wrote the ART OF WAR in 13 chapters for Ho Lu, King of Wu. Its principles were tested on women, and he was subsequently made a general. He led an army westwards, crushed the Chu state and entered Ying the capital. In the north, he kept Chi and Chin in awe. A hundred years and more after his time, Sun Pin lived. He was a descendant of Wu.] [13] In his treatment of deliberation and planning, the importance of rapidity in taking the field, [14] clearness of conception, and depth of design, Sun Tzu stands beyond the reach of carping criticism. My contemporaries, however, have failed to grasp the full meaning of his instructions, and while putting into practice the smaller details in which his work abounds, they have overlooked its essential purport. That is the motive which has led me to outline a rough explanation of the whole.

One thing to be noticed in the above is the explicit statement that the 13 chapters were specially composed for King Ho Lu. This is supported by the internal evidence of I. ss. 15, in which it seems clear that some ruler is addressed.

In the bibliographic section of the HAN SHU, there is an entry which has given rise to much discussion: “The works of Sun Tzu of Wu in 82 PIEN (or chapters), with diagrams in 9 CHUAN.” It is evident that this cannot be merely the 13 chapters known to Ssu-ma Chien, or those we possess today. Chang Shou-chieh refers to an edition of Sun Tzu’s ART OF WAR of which the “13 chapters” formed the first CHUAN, adding that there were two other CHUAN besides. This has brought forth a theory, that the bulk of these 82 chapters consisted of other writings of Sun Tzu — we should call them apocryphal — similar to the WEN TA, of which a specimen dealing with the Nine Situations [15] is preserved in the TUNG TIEN, and another in Ho Shin’s commentary. It is suggested that before his interview with Ho Lu, Sun Tzu had only written the 13 chapters, but afterwards composed a sort of exegesis in the form of question and answer between himself and the King. Pi I-hsun, the author of the SUN TZU HSU LU, backs this up with a quotation from the WU YUEH CHUN CHIU: “The King of Wu summoned Sun Tzu, and asked him questions about the art of war. Each time he set forth a chapter of his work, the King could not find words enough to praise him.” As he points out, if the whole work was expounded on the same scale as in the above- mentioned fragments, the total number of chapters could not fail to be considerable. Then the numerous other treatises attributed to Sun Tzu might be included. The fact that the HAN CHIH mentions no work of Sun Tzu except the 82 PIEN, whereas the Sui and Tang bibliographies give the titles of others in addition to the “13 chapters,” is good proof, Pi I-hsun thinks, that all of these were contained in the 82 PIEN. Without pinning our faith to the accuracy of details supplied by the WU YUEH CHUN CHIU, or admitting the genuineness of any of the treatises cited by Pi I-hsun, we may see in this theory a probable solution of the mystery. Between Ssu-ma Chien and Pan Ku there was plenty of time for a luxuriant crop of forgeries to have grown up under the magic name of Sun Tzu, and the 82 PIEN may very well represent a collected edition of these lumped together with the original work. It is also possible, though less likely, that some of them existed in the time of the earlier historian and were purposely ignored by him. [16]

Tu Mu’s conjecture seems to be based on a passage which states: “Wei Wu Ti strung together Sun Wu’s Art of War,” which in turn may have resulted from a misunderstanding of the final words of Tsao King’s preface. This, as Sun Hsing-yen points out, is only a modest way of saying that he made an explanatory paraphrase, or in other words, wrote a commentary on it. On the whole, this theory has met with very little acceptance. Thus, the SSU KU CHUAN SHU says: “The mention of the 13 chapters in the SHIH CHI shows that they were in existence before the HAN CHIH, and that latter accretions are not to be considered part of the original work. Tu Mu’s assertion can certainly not be taken as proof.”

There is every reason to suppose, then, that the 13 chapters existed in the time of Ssu-ma Chien practically as we have them now. That the work was then well known he tells us in so many words. “Sun Tzu’s 13 Chapters and Wu Chi’s Art of War are the two books that people commonly refer to on the subject of military matters. Both of them are widely distributed, so I will

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