Art of War Bronze Fountain Pen

“Warfare is the highest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Tao to survival or extinction.”

-Sun Tzu from the Art of War


The central premise of Sun Tzu’s classic treatise on warfare, the Art of War, is that there is no human endeavor more important to the survival of a nation state than the ability to conduct war properly. Sun Tzu lived during the spring and autumn period in Chinese history, which ran from 722 to 481 BC. The ruling Chou Dynasty was in a perpetual state of conflict with other powerful families of the era and this warlike culture gave rise to fortress cities and elaborate defensive structures. The most prominent among these was the Great Wall of China, the first section of which was constructed in the 7th Century B.C. by vassal states who were seeking protection form one another. After China was unified in 221 B.C. the walls were joined to hold off potential foreign invaders. Such elaborate defenses necessitated the advent of new approaches to conducting warfare. It was in the year 509 BC that Sun Tzu had the opportunity to validate his theories on war. He lived in the Chinese state of Wu, which was engaged in a long running war for survival against its chief rival, the state of Ch’u. The war was in its fiftieth year and at a critical juncture, with the state of Wu’s survival hanging in the balance.


A charismatic general, Wu Tzu-shu, recommended to the king of Wu that Sun Tzu be commissioned to organize the army for a big campaign against Ch’u, to deal them a death blow. While the king was much impressed with Sun Tzu’s theories, he was still reticent to attack, fearing the destruction of his army. The defining moment came when Sun Tzu used 300 of the king’s concubines to illustrate his tenets of organization and discipline and challenged the king to demonstrate the will to mobilize his army against Ch’u. He was ultimately entrusted with overall command of Wu’s military forces for the purpose of effecting their reorganization and training after Sun Tzu’s mentor, Wu Tzu-shu, made an impassioned speech on his behalf.


Sun Tzu assumed command and it is clear from the Art of War and other classic military treatises that even at this early date small-unit organization, segmentation, articulation and maneuver were all central to military preparation. In a major campaign against Ch’u that eventually reached its capital city of Ying, Wu’s three armies fielded 33,600 highly disciplined, well organized soldiers capable of following orders and executing tactics. Ch’u was decisively defeated and the state of Wu became the dominant state in the wild, barbaric southern region of China. But Sun Tzu’s glory was fleeting in spite of his great victory.


Sun Tzu remains an enigmatic figure. There is very little historical data in the texts of theperiod and his life never generated the types of anecdotes associated with famous figures from later periods. After his great victory at Ying, his name disappears altogether. It is speculated that he became embroiled in political intrigue related to Wu’s royal court and fearing execution at the hands of a new king, he disappeared and lived in anonymity for the rest of his life. The glory of his decisive battles with the state of Ch’u lives on 2500 years later in his legacy as one of the most influential military theorists in history, whose timeless theories are studied and practiced to this day.