The Art of War: Introduction

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This simple book was written 2500 years ago, by a relatively uneducated peasant philosopher and General by the name of Sun Tzu. A better definition for the western mind would be to call the book "the study of control" or just "how to win". It is an ancient guide to leaders (Generals). I consider it the ancient eastern equivalent of, "How to make friends and influence people". It is about learning to control others, in order to control yourself, to control a situation, and the costs of failure. It tries to teach people to think of the costs and consequences of their actions before hand.

It is not a hard text to read the original - 13 small chapters. But it's a good mental exercise to read the original (translation), and create your own notes on what they mean for you.

Chapter 0 - Introduction

Art of War : Intro - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - Conclusion

My interpretation.

Literal translation by Lionel Giles.

Introduction - A simple test

When asked by a local King (Ho Lu) for proof of what he knew (a Resume of a General), Sun Tzu created the text of "The Art of War" to explain (or gave him a copy of what was already written). Even then the King did not fully understand. Ho Lu said that while he read the texts he wanted to put the book, and the Philosopher General, to a test.

So the King brought out 180 concubines and basically challenged Sun Tzu to turn them into an army - after all, the Art of War implied that the right philosophy (strategy) could win any war, so certainly the right philosopher-general could make an army out of anything.

Sun Tzu divided the concubines up into two groups, and told them how to turn and march. Upon the command to turn left, the girls (being girls and not soldiers) only giggled. So Sun Tzu had the leaders of each group beheaded, and had the second in commands put in charge. When next he ordered the command to turn left (and march) there was no hesitation, and no giggling -- the "soldiers" had become hardened, and understood the costs of failure and understood war. They proceeded to act like soldiers and obey commands.

The King had protested his two favorite concubines losing their heads (before the act) - but Sun Tzu was intending to teach the King as much as the girls.

He explained that Generals have certain obligations - and once things are in motion, some "orders" or "requests" by their kings can not (and will not) be obeyed. He had them beheaded anyway.

At the end Sun Tzu explained that the girls were now soldiers and much more prepared to fight than before - and more importantly he explained to the King that now the King better understood the costs of war as well.

The King of course was smart enough to appoint Sun Tzu as General of his armies.


One day, King of Wu asked Sun Tzu, "I have carefully perused your thirteen chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?"

Sun Tzu replied, "You may."

The king 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 made 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 toward your left hand. When I say 'right turn,' you must face toward your right hand. When I say 'about turn,' you must face right around toward the 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 patiently, 'If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then 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 he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded.

Now the King of Wu was watching 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 there savor. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded."

Sun Tzu replied even more patiently: "Having once received His Majesty's commission to be general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept." Accordingly, and immediately, he had the two leaders beheaded and straightaway 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. The girls went thorough all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling about, 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 now 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."

There upon Sun Tzu said calmly:

The king is only fond of words and cannot translate them into deeds.

After that the King of Wu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army, and appointed him general.