The Art of War


By Tzu Sun

Translated by Ralph D. Sawyer

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD



  1. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $16.99 $22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 11, 1994. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The definitive translation of Sun-tzu's timeless classic of military strategy, Art of War

Sun-tzu's Art of War is almost certainly the most famous study of strategy ever written. This treatise has been credited with influencing some of the most legendary military operations. Beyond the battlefield, people far and wide have long turned to Art of War for advice on how to succeed in various competitive situations, and companies around the world now make this book required reading for their executives. 
In this translation, Chinese warfare scholar Ralph D. Sawyer places Art of War in its proper historical context, outlining several battles that Sun-tzu either conducted or that may have influenced him, and offers an edition that is uniquely accurate and accessible.


Other Works by Ralph D. Sawyer Published by Westview Press
The Complete Art of War
The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China
Sun Pin
Military Methods
One Hundred Unorthodox Strategies
Battle and Tactics of Chinese Warfare
The Tao of Spycraft
Intelligence Theory and Practice
in Traditional China
The Tao of War

In memory of three who forged their own paths: John, Ralph, and Chad

RECENT DECADES have witnessed explosive growth in American and European interest in the Far East. Books and articles about China have enjoyed popularity since the 1970s; those on Japan, especially on Japanese management practices, have proliferated since the early 1980s; and those focusing on business in terms of "corporate warfare" and theories of strategy, including Asian practices and their underlying philosophies, retain currency. The writings of Musashi, the famous Japanese swordsman, and Sun-tzu, the ancient Chinese military theorist, have been repeatedly translated, investigated, and discussed. However, as interesting as they and a few books from the martial arts have proven to be, the vast Chinese military corpus—despite its historical importance and contemporary significance—remains unknown in the West.
Chinese military thought probably originated with neolithic village conflicts four or five thousand years ago, perhaps even as mythologized in the clash of legendary cultural heroes and Sage Emperors. Subsequently, because men were compelled to direct their ingenuity toward combat, weapons were developed, tactics evolved, and power structures arose. Eventually, dominant figures—perhaps clan or lineage chiefs commanding more-warlike peoples—imposed their wills over other groups and widening domains and some groups became significant political powers. At the dawn of the historical age, as preserved in early written materials and revealed by artifacts, frequent, intense clashes were already occurring between these contending forces as they evolved into states and as powerful individuals sought to establish sole rule over the realm and to found dynastic houses. Thereafter the scope of battle expanded; the strength and effectiveness of weapons increased; and military organization, tactics, and technology all developed. Eventually, battlefield lessons and command experience became the focus of conscious study; efforts were made to preserve the insights and avoid the errors of the past; and the science of military tactics and strategy was born.
By the second century B.C. China had already passed through a thousand years of almost unremitting conflict and had been brutally unified into a vast, powerful, imperially directed entity. Along the way, skilled commanders appeared, and major battles were fought. Campaigns became interminable, and the scale of destruction was immense, consuming both men and the thoughts they had committed to writing. However, among the small number of military writings that survived until unification, there were six major ones, including Sun-tzu's famous Art of War. They continued to be studied and transmitted down through the centuries until the remnants were collected and edited in the Sung dynasty around twelve hundred years later. Combined with a T'ang dynasty work, they compose the Seven Military Classics, a compilation that comprised the orthodox foundations for military thought and the basis for the imperial examinations required for martial appointment.
In the early 1970s, archaeologists excavating the Han dynasty tomb of a high-ranking official discovered a large number of immensely valuable texts written on remarkably well preserved bamboo slips. The military works among them include major portions of several of the Seven Military Classics, including the Art of War and extensive fragments of Sun Pin's Military Methods. Although this last book—by Sun-tzu's descendant—appeared in the bibliographic listings compiled in the Han dynasty, it had apparently vanished in the Han and been lost for over two thousand years. This important find thus increased the total extant military materials from the ancient period to eight classic works in all, supplemented by a few hundred other writings of various, but definitely later, dates.
Even though tactical studies continued to be written throughout Chinese history, much of the vast military corpus has undoubtedly been lost over the centuries through carelessness, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, and warfare. However, ancient epigraphic materials and such early historical records as the Tso chuan and Shih chi also chronicle the exploits of generals and kings; the Twenty-five Histories preserves extensive information about men and actions; and Warring States philosophical works contain discussions of military issues. Thus resources abound, but only a part of the historical writings, including the complete Tso chuan, and essentially two of the Seven Military Classics (Sun-tzu's Art of War—three major versions, several minor ones—and the Wu-tzu—which appears as an appendix to Griffith's translation) have been translated and published.
Far from having vanished and being forgotten, these ancient Chinese military works have extensively influenced twentieth-century thought and are experiencing a new vitality in Asia. Not only in the military realm—throughout the century they have been thoroughly studied in Japan and China—do they continue to be discussed, but also in the business and personal spheres their resurgence is particularly evident. In the 1980s a management book that revived Sun-tzu's thought and employed the revitalized figures of several ancient martial heroes to instruct companies in the basics of business and marketing became a bestseller in the draconian Communist environment of the People's Republic of China and eventually in capitalist Hong Kong as well. Japanese companies have regularly held study groups to seek insights from the Art of War that may be implemented as corporate strategy. Koreans, enduring intense international pressure to revalue their currency, open their markets, and submit to trade limitations just when prosperity is attainable, are discovering strategies for international business warfare in these books.
In Taiwan, where companies confront a situation similar to Korea's, books applying the thoughts of the ancient strategists to life, business, sports, and the stock market have suddenly surged in popularity, even though modernists have ignored and scorned them for decades. Perhaps more astounding is the penchant of Japanese writers to apply principles and tactics from the Seven Military Classics to all the complexities of modern society; they use such tactics, for example, for succesful human relations, romantic liaisons, and company infighting. In addition to at least one scholarly translation, several new paperbacks offering simplified renditions and popularized expansions of selected teachings are published annually in Japan. The ubiquitous salaryman may be seen reading them while commuting to work, and there are even comic-book editions of the Art of War and novels about Sun-tzu to satisfy those so inclined. Naturally, tactics from the classics also frequently appear in novels, movies, and on television, and their words are quoted in contemporary media throughout Asia. However, in every sphere, Sun-tzu's Art of War predominates, eclipsing all the other military writings combined.
. . .
There is a great temptation, given the extensive materials rapidly becoming available from diverse sources, to undertake a truly comprehensive introduction to the entire military enterprise in Ancient China. Many topics critical to understanding strategy, tactics, and the evolution of military thought merit exploration and analysis. However, we have consciously focused upon depicting the historical context and reviewing the essential material aspects, such as armor and weapons, rather than ineffectually sketching comprehensive intellectual issues. Although we have not totally neglected the latter, exploring topics such as the relationships of Taoism and military thought in at least cursory fashion in the introductions and the extensive notes, these areas must largely be consigned to another work and to expert monographs. Similarly, although we have outlined the essentials of Sun-tzu's concepts, such as unorthodox /orthodox, we have not analyzed them in depth, nor have we discussed the details of technology; concrete tactics of deployment; or the implementation of strategy beyond that found in the Art of War, supplemented by the historical records of Sun-tzu's era—the Shih chi, Tso chuan, and Wu Yüeh ch'un-ch'iu. Furthermore, except in an occasional note, we have not explored the relationship of the Art of War to the Kuan-tzu, the Book of Lord Shang, or other Warring States philosophical writings that prominently espouse military policies, administrative measures, and strategic concepts. These and many other topics, including the systematic analysis and integration of ideas and methods and their interrelationship in each of the classics, require extensive studies in themselves. Because their inclusion would be premature and would probably detract from the core teaching of the Art of War, we will focus upon them in a future work integrating the interactive development of military technology and tactical thought.
Because this book is intended for the general reader, a rubric we assume encompasses everyone except those few specialists in ancient Chinese studies with expertise in the previously neglected military writings, we have provided somewhat fuller notes on many general aspects than might otherwise be necessary. Overall the notes have been designed for several different audiences; although much of the translation cries out for detailed annotation, in order to minimize the number of notes, we have refrained from exploring deeply every thought, concept, and strategy. Many of the notes simply provide contextual information or identify figures and terms for the convenience of readers unfamiliar with Chinese history and writings. Others are intended for those students of Asia—professional or not—who might benefit from further historical, technical, or military information or from the citation of certain seminal articles. Many notes comment upon the intricacies of translation matters: They provide alternative readings; note emendations we have accepted and commentaries followed; discuss the relevant fragments from the tomb text when differences exist; and sometimes indicate where we have relied upon our own judgment contrary to traditional readings. Finally, some amplify those portions of the introductory material where we sought to avoid dogmatic assertions about the numerous issues, such as textual authenticity, that have only tentatively been resolved or remain the subject of scholarly controversy. Every reader is encouraged to peruse them all, at least briefly, focusing upon those of greatest relevance in the quest to understand these texts.
Full bibliographic information is provided for each work at its first appearance in each chapter, with abbreviated titles thereafter. Consequently, for the bibliography we have departed from the usual format and instead provided a selected listing by subject for those who might wish to investigate the literature on a single topic. Numerous books with only tangential connections with the Seven Military Classics and solely of interest to specialists have been excluded. For matters of general knowledge that have not been annotated, the reader should consult the Western-language works listed in the bibliography for further reading.
* * *
A work of this scope, in our case undertaken enthusiastically without fully realizing the many thorny issues it would entail, is necessarily the product of years of reading, study, pondering, sifting, and effort. We have benefited vastly from the commentaries and essays of a hundred generations of Chinese scholars and from the growth of detailed knowledge deriving from the work of Western and Asian scholars in the present century. However, having left the academic community two decades ago, we have enjoyed a rather different, vibrant perspective on these ideas and philosophies—the result of twenty-five years of technical and business consulting at all levels in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Southeast Asia. For a startling number of our Asian associates, the various military classics—especially the Art of War—remain compendiums of effective tactics and strategies, providing approaches and measures that can be profitably adopted in life and employed in business practices. Their discussions and understanding of many of the concrete lessons, although not necessary orthodox or classically based, stimulated our own enlightenment on many issues. In particular, conversations over the decades in Asia with Guy Baer, Cleon Brewer, Ma Shang-jen, Kong Jung-yul, Professor W. K. Seong, Professor Ts'ai Mao-t'ang, and especially C. S. Shim have been both stimulating and illuminating.
Certain early teachers had a lasting influence on my approach to Chinese intellectual history. In particular, as a graduate student at Harvard in the turbulent 1960s I was greatly influenced by Professors Yang Lien-sheng, Yü Ying-shih, Benjamin Schwartz, and especially Dr. Achilles Fang, under whom I was privileged to be thrust into the true study of classical Chinese. Thereafter I was fortunate to read intermittently for more than a decade with Professor Chin Chia-hsi, a Chuang-tzu specialist and university professor of Chinese at National Taiwan University. However, my greatest intellectual debt is to Professor Nathan Sivin, initially a Sage at M.I.T.; a friend for more than twenty-five years; and ultimately responsible for both illuminating the Way and making the path accessible. However, these are all general intellectual obligations, not specific, for these scholars have not seen any portion of this work, and the survivors from Harvard would perhaps be astonished to learn that I have been carrying on the Chinese tradition of private scholarship over these many years.
Whereas I am responsible for the translations, introductions, and notes, Mei-chün Lee (Sawyer) has not only been an active participant in our discussions and studies over the years but also undertook numerous burdens associated with the detailed research of such historical issues as the evolution of weapons. She also contributed immeasurably through her insightful readings of the translations and the tedious investigation and comparison of various modern commentaries. Her collaborative efforts greatly aided my understanding of many issues and improved the overall work significantly, all while she continued to fulfill her responsibilities in our consulting operations.
Finally we would like to thank Westview Press, in particular, Peter Kracht, senior editor, for his efforts on the original edition of the Seven Military Classics, on which this edition of the Art of War is based. We benefited greatly from Westview's editorial support and from the intensive, detailed reading of the translation provided through their auspices by Professor Robin D. S. Yates. Many of his numerous emendations and general suggestions substantially improved the work, and all his criticisms stimulated a careful reexamination of the text and many additional materials; nevertheless, final responsibility for their evaluation and integration, where accepted, remains with the translators.
Others who assisted, especially in locating articles and textual materials in the United States and Asia, include Miao Yong-i, Marta Hanson, Yuriko Baer, Anton Stetzko, and Zhao Yong; Lorrie Stetzko provided expertise on horses and the intricacies of riding; Westview Press and Max Gartenberg essentially made the project possible. We express our deep appreciation to all these people and to Lee T'ing-jung, who has honored the work with his calligraphy.
Ralph D. Sawyer

A Note on the Translation and Pronunciation
THE TRANSLATION IS based upon and rigorously follows the so-called Ming edition of the (Sung dynasty) Seven Military Classics, which contains and benefits from Liu Yin's consistent commentary—the chih-chieh, or "direct explanations"—throughout all seven books. However, although many of his comments are illuminating and even critical to understanding the actual text, scholarship continued to advance, and over the centuries, a few valuable commentaries and several variant editions that have furthered the process of understanding—particularly of the Art of War—have come out. Where the Ming text appears obviously defective, recourse for emendation is made first to the Sung edition and then to other variants. Full information on the individual variants employed is given in the introduction and the notes for each book, and the basic editions are listed in the bibliography.
We have sought to employ contemporary scholarship judiciously, irrespective of its political perspective, and to integrate insights provided by archaeological discoveries. The discovery of early versions, although dramatic and invaluable, precipitates the problem about which text to translate: the "original" versions, which entail numerous problems of their own, or the Sung Seven Military Classics edition, which has been historically available and influential for nine centuries. Because the newly recovered tomb text, even when supplemented by additional fragments that may well have been part of the Art of War or from Sun-tzu's hand (or school), is only partial, while the book that is read and known throughout Asia remains the traditional text, we have chosen to translate the traditionally received version. Accordingly, we have used the newly recovered textual materials to make emendations only where they resolve highly problematic or completely incomprehensible passages, and to supplement passages where clearly integral to the topic. In addition, we have provided translations of the relevant, important tomb materials in a supplementary section, together with the highly illuminating nine passages on "configurations of terrain" separately preserved in the T'ung tien.
In providing a translation for a general readership, rather than a somewhat more literal (and some would claim precise) version for sinologists, we hope to emulate the vibrant translations of Professor Burton Watson and thereby make this amazing text accessible to the widest possible audience. We have thus avoided military jargon because, apart from the thorny question about each term's appropriateness, such terms would render the translation less comprehensible to anyone lacking military experience or unacquainted with military history.
Unfortunately, neither of the two commonly employed orthographies makes the pronunciation of romanized Chinese characters easy. Each system has its stumbling blocks and we remain unconvinced that the Pinyin qi is inherently more comprehensible than the Wade-Giles ch'i, although it is certainly no less comprehensible than j for r in Wade-Giles. However, as many of the important terms may already be familiar to Western readers and previous translations have employed Wade-Giles, we have opted to use that system throughout our work. Well-known cities, names, and books—such as Peking—are retained in their common form, and books and articles published with romanized names and titles also appear in their original form.
As a guide to pronunciation, we offer the following notes on the significant exceptions to normally expected sounds:
t, as in Tao: without apostrophe, pronounced like d
p, as in ping: without apostrophe, pronounced like b
ch, as in chuang: without apostrophe, pronounced like j
hs, as in hsi: prounounced sh
j, as in jen: pronounced like r
Thus, the name of the famous Chou dynasty is pronounced as if written "jou" and sounds just like the English name "Joe."

Chronology of Approximate Dynastic Periods
Dynastic PeriodYears
Legendary Sage Emperors2852-2255 B.C.
Western Chou1045-770
Eastern Chou770-256
Spring and Autumn 722-481
Warring States 403-221
Former Han206 B.C.-8 A.D.
Later Han23-220
Six Dynasties222-589
Five Dynasties907-959
Southern Sung1127-1279
Yüan (Mongol)1279-1368
Ch'ing (Manchu)1644-1911

General Introduction and Historical Background
MILITARY THOUGHT, the complex product of both violent war and intellectual analysis, suffered from disparagement and disrepute during almost all the past two millennia in Imperial China. Ignoring the original teachings of Confucius, self-styled Confucians eschewed—whether sincerely or hypocritically—the profession of arms and all aspects of military involvement from the Han dynasty on, growing more vociferous in their condemnation with the passing of centuries.1 However, regardless of these people's civilized and cultured self-perception, the nation could not be without armies or generals, particularly in the face of constant "barbarian" threats and ongoing conflicts with volatile nomadic peoples. Accordingly, a number of early military treatises continued to be valued and studied and thereby managed to survive, while the turmoil of frequent crises inevitably fostered generations of professional military figures and additional strategic studies. Yet compared to the Confucian classics and various other orthodox writings, the military corpus remained minuscule, numbering at most a few hundred works.
Individual chapters of several writings by influential philosophers of the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.),2 such as Lord Shang, also focused upon military matters, often with radical impact.3 Many famous thinkers, including Hsün-tzu and Han Fei-tzu,4 pondered the major questions of government administration and military organization; motivation and training; the nature of courage; and the establishment of policies to stimulate the state's material prosperity. The Tso chuan and other historical writings similarly record the thoughts of many key administrators and preserve the outlines of famous strategies, although their presentation of battlefield tactics is minimal.
A number of the ancient strategic monographs became relatively famous, and scholars in the Sung Period (circa A.D. 1078) collected, edited, and assembled the six important survivors, augmenting them with a T'ang dynasty book; the final product was the Seven Military Classics. Thus codified, the seven works thereafter furnished the official textual foundation for government examinations in military affairs and concurrently provided a common ground for tactical and strategic conceptualization.
Despite incessant barbarian incursions and major military threats throughout its history, Imperial China was little inclined to pursue military solutions to aggression—except during the ill-fated expansionistic policies of the Former Han dynasty, or under dynamic young rulers, such as T'ang T'aitsung, during the founding years of a dynasty. Rulers and ministers preferred to believe in the myth of cultural attraction whereby their vastly superior Chinese civilization, founded upon Virtue5 and reinforced by opulent material achievements, would simply overwhelm the hostile tendencies of the uncultured. Frequent gifts of the embellishments of civilized life, coupled with music and women, it was felt, would distract and enervate even the most warlike peoples. If they could not be either overawed into submission or bribed into compliance, other mounted nomadic tribes could be employed against the troublemakers, following the time-honored tradition of "using barbarian against barbarian."6


  • "A tour de force. Sawyer puts this most famous of the classic Chinese military writings into context and shows that Sun-tzu was not just a solitary genius, but the product of a remarkably rich martial culture."
    Robert L. O'Connell, author of Fierce Patriot
  • "I am convinced that this translation...will prove to be the definitive edition for many years to come."
    Robin D.S. Yates, McGill University
  • "Fills a serious gap for anyone interested in the history of ancient warfare...a fascinating book."—Arther Ferrill, author of The Origins of War

On Sale
Feb 11, 1994
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Tzu Sun

About the Author

Ralph D. Sawyer, one of America’s leading scholars in Chinese warfare, has worked extensively with major intelligence and defense agencies. After studying at MIT and Harvard and a brief stint of university teaching, Sawyer has spent the past thirty years lecturing and doing international consulting work focused on China.

Learn more about this author