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The Art of War

The Art of War

The Art of War is an influential document about tactical warfare written by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sunzi.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Ancient Civilizations, Anthropology, Social Studies, Storytelling, World History

Image

Sunzi

Sunzi was a Chinese general and most famously the author of The Art of War, one of the first documents on military strategies. Although Sunzi wrote this document thousands of years ago, it continued to influence many world leaders within the past century.

Photograph by Charistoone-Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Art of War, an influential document written by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sunzi (also known as Sun-Tzu), is one of the first known treatise on warfare strategy in history. Known in Chinese as Bingfa, this guide features information about various battle maneuvers and tactics, as well as strategic advice on collecting information about the enemy’s location and battlefield terrain before attacking.

It is hard to know exactly when The Art of War was written, but most scholars think it was written between 475 and 221 B.C.E., during the Warring States period. Scholars also cannot be sure about the details of the life of its author, Sunzi, but they believe he was a general working for the Wu state. It is clear that whatever Sunzi’s life experiences were, he had a great deal of knowledge about warfare and tactical training.

The premise of The Art of War is that war should be avoided with diplomacy. If it cannot be avoided, it should be fought strategically and psychologically to minimize damage and the wasting of resources. Warfare should only be a last resort and heading into battle is already admitting a kind of defeat. Sunzi’s strategy in dealing with foes was a combination of peaceful resolutions and aggressive warfare. This mirrors the Taoist principals of yin and yang (or opposing but complementary forces). Sunzi recommended that every leader follow the Tao (or the natural order of the universe) as a main component of successful leadership.

The Art of War has many specific battle strategies and advisements. It stresses preparation for battle above all, including planning around climate and battle terrain, studying the enemy’s movements and weaknesses, and proper training of soldiers. At the same time, it also recommends being flexible, because the battlefield is so unpredictable. It discourages generals from engaging in siege warfare, because it extends the conflict and wastes resources. And generals should treat captured troops and defeated soldiers respectfully.

The Art of War has remained relevant over the years because it is about strategy and tactics rather than specific warfare technology. It has influenced leaders all over the world, not only in warfare but in many areas of life, including business. Modern leaders such as the former chairman of the Chinese Communist party and one of the founders of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong, cited The Art of War as part of their military success.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Specialist, Content Production
Clint Parks
Producer
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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