John G. BLAIR and Jerusha McCORMACK

Sunzi, a military strategist said to have flourished during China’s chaotic Warring States period, is known for a work attributed to him usually translated as The Art of War. During a time when 600,000 men could participate in a single battle, strategy became paramount for a state’s survival; Sunzi reserved his highest praise for a strategist-general who could win a war without ever fighting a battle. Centuries later Mao Zedong would use his advice in his campaigns against the Nationalists.

Sunzi ?? was the most famous and successful of many Chinese strategists. In self-defense every one of the seven Warring States of his time (he was said to have flourished in the early fourth century BCE) identified someone to prepare strategies and counter-strategies. Little is known of his life, despite the historian Sima Qian’s (c. 145–87 BCE) having identified him as a strategist serving the state of Wu. What is certain is that the thinking assembled under his name reflects the cumulative wisdom of the Warring States period in Chinese history (475–221 BCE), which came to an end with the unification of China under the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). This period saw incessant warfare among the seven states which were gradually swallowed up by the state of Qin until in 221 BCE it succeeded in unifying all of China under the first emperor, Qin Shihuang. Stratagems along similar lines were recommended in a number of widely distributed treatises during these warring centuries that led to China’s consolidation under the Qin.

The military thinking of these strategists paralleled the newly emerging ideas about governance developed by thinkers commonly known in the West as Legalists (fajia ??), led by Han Fei Zi. The Legalists advocated strong central control as the surest way to enhance the power of the state. The Qin state, which was the successor state in the Zhou homeland around what is now known as Xi’an, had been led by Legalist ministers for many years. It succeeded in dominating all its neighbors, though this first empire disintegrated after only a few years with the death of Qin Shihuang. The Legalist philosophy of authoritarian control as a means of prosperity and social stability, however, far outlasted the Qin, and has had a persistent influence throughout Chinese history.

Before the Warring States period, warfare in China was conducted largely in an aristocratic mode that emphasized individual feats of valor. The armies typical of the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) were led by aristocrats driving chariots. The largest armies of the sixth century BCE assembled 50,000 men. Two centuries later the Warring States could muster up to 600,000 men in a single battle. Under these pressures, honor was no longer relevant as a motivation for soldiers. Instead they were to be strictly obedient within a top-down command structure. The orders were given by the king’s most trusted servants, the strategist-generals.

Sunzi seems to have been the earliest or at least the most famous of the strategist-generals, outlining the models to be applied afresh to each particular situation. The text attributed to Sunzi, usually translated as The Art of War (or Warfare), seems to have been widely available, read by would-be strategists and ministers throughout China. In it the strategist recommends avoiding direct confrontations with an enemy. In fact, he reserves his highest praise for a strategist-general who can win a war without ever fighting a battle. The best means for doing so depend on outsmarting the enemy, but that in turn requires intimate knowledge of how the enemy has situated his assets. Sunzi recommends the liberal use of spies, false informers, simulated retreats, or indeed any technique that is likely to yield his side the upper hand.

The Ambush at Maling, 342 BCE

Twelve years after the state of Zhao was saved through the siege of Wei, the state of Wei in turn attacked the Han state. The Han ruler called on the state of Qi for help. Tian Ji and Sun Bin (the chief general and the chief strategist, respectively), commanding the Qi army, immediately led it in an attack against the Wei capital. As soon as Pang Juan, commander of the Wei troops, heard about this, he pulled his army back out of Han territory. Strategist Sun Bin (believed to be a direct descendent of Sunzi) knew of General Pang Juan’s arrogance and his low opinion of the Qi troops. Faced with an advancing Wei army, Sun Bin began an apparent retreat. On the first day, his troops left behind traces of 100,000 campfires; on the second day 50,000, and on the third day only 30,000. Pang Juan, eager for victory, concluded that the Qi army had been seriously weakened by mass desertions. So he left the bulk of his infantry behind and set out in pursuit with some lightly equipped troops.

He covered two days’ worth of ground in a single day’s march. Sun Bin had calculated that Pang Juan would reach Maling at dusk.

Sun Bin set an ambush there and waited. As planned, the Wei troops arrived exhausted from their forced march, and Sun Bin’s army demolished them. General Pang Juan committed suicide on the battlefield, much to the delight of Sun Bin, who had previously had his kneecaps cut off on Pang Juan’s orders after having been framed by the general as a traitor.

Sample Warring-States Stratagem

The strategist Sunzi (also known as Sun-Tzu) recommended using spies and false informers (or indeed any means necessary) to win a war, rather than brute force. His strategems can be understood best by combining remarks from chapters 6 and 7 of The Art of War:

Standing your ground, awaiting those far away, awaiting the weary in comfort, awaiting the hungry with full stomachs, is mastering strength.


Those who are first on the battlefield and await [their] opponents are at ease; those who are last on the battlefield and head into battle get worn out. Therefore good warriors cause others to come to them, and do not go to others!

Source: Sunzi.. (1993). Sun-Tzu: The art of warfare, trans. R. Ames. New York: Ballantine.

Medieval Applications

Centuries later the Chinese were still fascinated by wily strategists, as attested by the fourteenth century classic fiction called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (???? sanguo yanyi). This work, written by Luo Guanzhong, is one of the four all-time classics of Chinese fiction. It was set during the turmoil of the third century CE associated with the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and weaves together the schemes and wars of an entire century into an orderly whole, analyzing the strategies used in great detail. The hero, Zhuge Liang, whose tomb is still preserved in Chengdu, is widely honored because his strategies outwitted those of all his adversaries.

Modern Application of The Art of War

Sunzi’s approach to warfare has applications reaching into the modern era. In his essay “Strategic Problems of the Revolutionary War in China,” dated December 1936, Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) wrote, in reference to his fight against the Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975):

If an attacking opponent is superior to our army in numbers and firepower, we can alter the balance of power only when the enemy has penetrated deep into the interior of our base te
rritory and there has drained the cup of bitterness to the lees, so that “the fat grow lean and the lean exhaust themselves to death.”… At that point the enemy army, though still strong, has been substantially weakened; its soldiers are tired out and demoralized, and many of the enemy’s weaknesses are revealed. The Red Army is still weak, but it has been preserving its strength, storing its energies, and awaiting the exhausted enemy at its ease. At this point it is possible, as a rule, to strike a certain balance in the strength of the two sides or to transform the enemy’s absolute superiority into a merely relative superiority—sometimes it is even possible for us to gain the upper hand.

Mao, who had studied the Chinese classics as part of his schooling, has clearly learned from Sunzi, at one point even echoing Sunzi’s idea of an army awaiting the exhausted enemy at its ease.

In condensed form, Mao formulated the essence of the strategy in a sixteen-character poetic formula for guerrilla warfare, which translates as:

When the enemy comes, we go.

When the enemy rests, we disrupt.

When the enemy is exhausted, we fight.

When the enemy goes, we give chase.

As this passage indicates, the military tactics of Mao, fighting against the Nationalists, owed a substantial debt to the Chinese tradition of strategical thinking.

Further reading

Lewis, M. E. (1990). Sanctioned violence in early China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Luo Guanzhong. (1959). Romance of the three kingdoms. Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle Co.

Mao Zedong. (1954). Strategic problems of China’s revolutionary war. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Sonshi: Online resource for Sun Tzu’s Art of War: Original approach to conflict and competition. (2009). Retrieved March 5, 2009, from

Sunzi. (1993). Sun-Tzu: The art of warfare, trans. R. Ames. New York: Ballantine.

von Senger H. (1991). The book of stratagems, trans. M. B. Gubitz. New York: Viking.

Source: Blair, John G., & McCormack, Jerusha (2009). Sunzi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2136–2138. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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