China s Tradition of Scholarship and Documentation

Sun Tsu Art of War

Sun Tzu as Confucian Scholar-Soldier

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Sun Tzu and his famous book The Art of War cannot be understood apart from the Chinese cultural and historical context that produced them, although his concepts were widely borrowed and imitated over the past 2,000 years. He was a contemporary of Confucius, after all, and his assumptions about warfare were harmonized within that philosophical tradition. Warfare was an evil, a waste and cause of disharmony and disorder, especially when it was prolonged. It was a waste of lives as well as the resources of the state, and should therefore be avoided through deterrence and clever diplomacy, and only then be used as a last resort. The most brilliant commander was the one who was able to defeat the enemy without fighting battles, although if these had to be fought then they should be won quickly and decisively.

In the Western world, The Art of War by Sun Wu (Sun Tzu) is often regarded as a how-to manual for winning battles, which indeed it is, but this is also to ignore the larger cultural and historical context in which this work was composed, edited and formalized into its present version. Sun Wu was also a Confucian philosopher in his own right, and the politics, culture and economics of warfare was his major area of study, and the ‘Tzu’ was actually an honorific title that meant Master or Philosopher. In his own way, he should be considered a cultural anthropologist or sociologist who firmly insisted that knowledge of one’s own society as well as those of allies as enemies was one of the key elements to success in warfare. As a Confucian, he actually regarded warfare as an evil that should be prevented if possible and then won very quickly if it could not be avoided. His philosophy was widely studied in Asia long before it was known in the West, and his ideal of the Confucian philosopher-soldier was widely imitated in other countries, including by Korea’s greatest national her Admiral Yi Sunshin.

Sun Tzu (Master Sun) or Sun Wu was from the same generation as Confucius (551-479 BC) and was employed by King Ho-lu of Wu during the Warring States period of Chinese history. Warfare had become far more extensive and brutal in this era as nine kingdoms contended for control of China, and battlefield deaths rose from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands. In the Spring and Autumn era before the time of the Warring States, warfare had been an aristocratic profession, rarely involving civilians or large numbers of troops, and even Confucius was trained as both a scholar and a soldier. Later, in the Warring States era, the use of conscripts and mercenaries became more common, as did the use of professional military strategists like Sun Tzu, who offered their services to the various kingdoms. New archeological evidence in 1972, uncovered five lost chapters from his book The Art of War in addition to the thirteen familiar ones, dating from the 2nd Century BC (Carr, 2000, p. 18). This previous edition was one thousand years older than any manuscript discovered up to that time. In addition, the discovery also included the book of a or Sun Pin, whose concepts of war differed somewhat from the original Sun Wu. In ancient China, all such texts were compilations that “emerged more as a process than as a single event,” but The Art of War was already edited into its final form by the 100s BC (Carr, p. 20).

Chinese philosophy took a highly pragmatic and materialistic view toward warfare, as indeed it did to other aspects of politics, government and society. War is a “cultural performance” in the anthropological sense that is “routinely accompanies by equally unique forms of cultural discourse” concerning why societies wage wars, what means they use and what their goals are, and Sun Tzu always had “delicately nuanced and understated views on precisely these questions in The Art of War” (Lucas, 2009, p. 38). He could even be considered an anthropologist in his own right, as well as a historian and sociologist, since he placed great value on intelligence and asserted that “it is as important to know yourself — and by extension your allies — as to know your enemies” (Banton 2004). Warfare was a regular “topic of philosophic reflection in China that is not paralleled in Western philosophical literature,” although within the Confucian context it was always regarded as evil and a last resort (Carr, p. 31).

In warfare and in every other aspect of life, Chinese culture and philosophy put the highest value on harmony (bo) between all elements and components. Unlike Christianity or the Greek Platonists, it started with the assumption “there is only one continuous concrete world that is the source and locus of all our experience” (Carr, p. 37). No causes or ordering principles exited outside this known world, which was itself a living, organic and self-sustaining whole, which could be mastered and organized with the proper skill and knowledge. No isolated or independent individuals existed outside of their proper and harmonious roles and relationships, such as fathers and sons or older brothers and younger brothers. None of these were equal to each other but existed as part of a hierarchy, and even in nature and the material world “one thing is associated with another by virtue of contrastive and hierarchical relations that sets it off from other things” (Carr, p. 39). Thus the overall context of the philosophy of Sun Tzu or Confucius differed greatly from the Western philosophical tradition and cannot be simply or easily separated from its cultural and historical context.

For Sun Tzu, Confucius and the other classical Chinese thinkers, human beings were communal, collective and tied to various roles, including generals, scholars and kings. Within this philosophical and cultural system, Sun Tzu derived the principles that “disorder is born from order; cowardice from courage; weakness from strength,” as much as the whole required the forces on yin and yang” (Carr, p. 55). Sun Tzu preferred short, decisive military campaigns, not sieges or prolonged wars that wasted the resources of the state. He was opposed to warfare on general principles and wrote that “the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all” (Carr, p. 59). Sieges of cities in fact were the absolute last resort, since the most skilled leaders attacked the alliances and strategy of the enemy rather than cities and troops on the battlefield. On the other hand, the later strategist Sun Pin endorsed siege warfare because the weapons had improved and large commercial cities were more valuable targets (Carr, p. 24). All the best commanders won their victories rapidly and decisively while minimizing casualties and destruction on both sides, for no prolonged war ever benefitted any nation. A strong commander never waited for the enemy to attack, and always formulated a strategy and a defense that deterred any enemy from attacking him. If he actually had to fight battles, then he would wait for the enemy to make errors or divide their forces, and then attack at their weakest point.

Sun Tzu insisted that the best rulers and military commanders should have all the Confucian virtues of patience, wisdom, loyalty, integrity, courage and discipline. As an ideal, Confucianism also became the main military and governmental philosophy of Japan, Korea and Indochina, and indeed the central organizing principle of society and the extended family as a hole. It was authoritarian, disciplined and hierarchical, and had no concept of the equality of rights and duties or of individualism. Indeed, the latter concept was considered synonymous with egotism, greed and selfishness, rather than the positive good that it became in Western philosophy. A Confucian ruler was selfless and self-sacrificing rather than greedy, selfish or corrupt, harmonizing himself with his duty to the family and the state. Korea’s greatest national hero, Admiral Yi Sunshin, was widely regarded as being the embodiment of the virtues of the Confucian scholar-soldier, even by his Japanese opponents (See Appendix). He died in the line of duty during the Ima Jin War against Japan (1592-98), after winning seventeen battles against the Japanese navy. He was also a disciple of Sun Tzu and followed the principles of The Art of War, which enabled him to defeat much larger enemy forces, using decisive and innovative tactics including the invention of ironclad ‘turtle ships’ — a first in the history of naval warfare. At the national historic shrine in South Korea, built near the site where he died in battle in 1598, he has been posthumously honored as a ‘man of loyal valor’ (Ebrey et al., 2009, p, 296).

Considered from a cultural and anthropological viewpoint, Sun Tzu was a Confucian scholar who sought out principles of harmony and order in warfare, government and statecraft. War should not be fought for purposes of plunder, aggression or personal glory, but only as a necessary evil to preserve the state, and only then in such a way that it will not ruin the state that it is supposedly protecting. All the greatest rulers and generals in history sought ways to achieve their goals without fighting battles, and the best generals knew how to win without fighting at all. A military commander should also be a model of duty, diligence, loyalty and propriety rather than corrupt and self-seeking and no army would ever really find success in the long-term without a commander who embodied these virtues. His cultural and philosophical assumptions held that the general was the father of his men and their model, just as the king was the head of the entire extended family of his subjects. If the leaders lacked virtue then the state was doomed in any case, and would be conquered or overthrown. Sun Tzu’s mental world was authoritarian and hierarchical rather than democratic and individualistic, and separating out his pragmatic principles of warfare from the broader cultural, political and anthropological context is problematic. His work was designed for a specific period in Chinese history when conflict between the Warring States had intensified and escalated beyond a scale ever seen before, and even though Sun Tzu achieved success in this environment, his preference was for wars that were never fought at all. He knew how to win them when necessary, but on the whole he thought that states would do better to pursue more harmonious relations.


Banton, M. (2009). The Social Anthropology of Complex Societies. Routledge.

Carr, C. (2000). The Book of War. Modern Library Paperback.

Ebrey, P. et al. (2009). East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, 2nd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Lucas, G.R. (2009). Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.



These are some pictures of the Shrine of Admiral Yi Sunshin in South Korea, including a replica of one of his famous ironclad ‘turtle ships’. Admiral Yi is in fact the and warrior as well as a nationalist icon, in that he embodied all the virtues of patriotism, selflessness, moral integrity, loyalty, duty and diligence, and sacrificed his life for his country. Korea was devastated by this seven-year war with Japan, but emerged victorious in 1598, and the shrine of Admiral Yi is treated with genuine reverence even up to the present. He was also a disciple of Sun Tzu’s Art of War and regularly used his maxims such as: “If the soldiers are committed to fight to the death they will live, whereas if they seek to stay alive they will die.” Although his forces were badly outnumbered in every battle, his philosophy was that determination and dedication could make up for inferior numbers, and he repeatedly had his officers and men take an oath to fight to death. Even when he was mortally wounded in his last battle in 1598, he refused to permit his officers to inform the men of this fact, lest they lose confidence and hope.

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