The Art of War (Sun)/Appreciations of Sun Tzŭ

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Appreciations of Sun Tzŭ.

Sun Tzŭ has exercised a potent fascination over the minds of some of China’s greatest men. Among the famous generals who are known to have studied his pages with enthusiasm may be mentioned 韓信 Han Hsin (d. B.C. 196),[1] 馮異 Fêng I (d. A.D. 34),[2] 呂蒙 Lü Mêng (d. 219),[3] and 岳飛 Yo Fei (1103-1141).[4] The opinion of Ts‘ao Kung, who disputes with Han Hsin the highest place in Chinese military annals, has already been recorded.[5] Still more remarkable, in one way, is the testimony of purely literary men, such as 蘇洵 Su Hsün (the father of Su Tung-p‘o), who wrote several essays on military topics, all of which owe their chief inspiration to Sun Tzŭ.

The following short passage by him is preserved in the Yü Hai:[6]

Sun Wu’s saying, that in war one cannot make certain of conquering,[7] is very different indeed from what other books tell us.[8] Wu Ch‘i was a man of the same stamp as Sun Wu: they both wrote books on war, and they are linked together in popular speech as “Sun and Wu.” But Wu Ch‘i’s remarks on war are less weighty, his rules are rougher and more crudely stated, and there is not the same unity of plan as in Sun Tzŭ's work, where the style is terse, but the meaning fully brought out.[9]

The 性理彚要, ch. 17, contains the following extract from the 藝圃折衷 “Impartial Judgments in the Garden Of Literature” by 鄭厚 Chêng Hou: —

Sun Tzŭ’s 13 chapters are not only the staple and base of all military men’s training, but also compel the most careful attention of scholars and men of letters. His sayings are terse yet elegant, simple yet profound, perspicuous and eminently practical. Such works as the Lun Yü, the I Ching and the great Commentary,[10] as well as the writings of Mencius, Hsün K‘uang and Yang Chu, all fall below the level of Sun Tzŭ.[11]

Chu Hsi, commenting on this, fully admits the first part of the criticism, although he dislikes the audacious comparison with the venerated classical works. Language of this sort, he says, “encourages a ruler’s bent towards unrelenting warfare and reckless militarism.”[12]


  1. See p. 144.
  2. Hou Han Shu, ch. 17 ad init.
  3. San Kuo Chih, ch. 54, f. 10 vo (commentary).
  4. Sung Shih, ch. 365 ad init.
  5. The few Europeans who have yet had an opportunity of acquainting themselves with Sun Tzŭ are not behindhand in their praise. In this connection, I may perhaps be excused for quoting from a letter from Lord Roberts, to whom the sheets of the present work were submitted previous to publication: “Many of Sun Wu's maxims are perfectly applicable to the present day, and no. 11 on page 77 is one that the people of this country would do well to take to heart.”
  6. Ch. 140, f. 13 ro
  7. See IV. § 3.
  8. The allusion may be to Mencius VI. 2. ix. 2: 戰必克
  9. 武用兵不能必克與書所言遠甚吳起與武一體之人皆著書言兵世稱之曰孫吳然而起之言兵也輕法制草略無所統紀不若武之書詞約而義盡.
  10. The Tso Chuan.
  11. 孫子十三篇不惟武人之根本文士亦當盡心焉其詞約而縟易而深暢而可用論語易大傳之流孟荀楊著書皆不及也.
  12. 是啟人君窮兵黷武之心.