Notes from a Sun Tzu Skeptic

When the people of Yue studied the art of long-distance archery, they looked up at the sky and shot, but their arrows landed only five paces away because they did not change their aim. To stick to old ways of doing things after the times have altered is like the people of Yue practicing archery.
—The Huainanzi (2nd century BC text)

 Zhuge Liang wept bitterly when presented with Ma Su’s severed head. Since China’s famed strategist personally ordered the execution of Ma Su, one of his own subordinate commanders, this reaction puzzled some of Zhuge Liang’s advisors. “It is not for Ma Su that I weep,” he remonstrated. “I am thinking of the late Emperor, warning me not to use this man because his deeds would not match his boasts. The late king’s words have proved too true, leaving me now to rue my blindness. I weep to recall it."[2]

What incongruous boast sealed the fate of the hapless Ma Su? According to the Chinese historical novel, Three Kingdoms, his fatal mistake was slavish devotion to the military advice of Sun Tzu. Ma Su was renowned for his diligent study of classical strategic texts, yet he lacked any practical military experience. When Zhuge Liang tapped him for the vital mission of holding the strategic crossroads near Jieting against a large and capable military force led by Sima Yi, Ma Su confidently replied: “Lifelong study of military science has given me a good understanding of warfare. I hardly think it beyond my abilities to hold a Jieting.”[3]

Upon arrival at the objective, Ma Su immediately spotted a secluded hilltop and determined it to be the epitome of Sun Tzu’s favored “death ground” for positioning one’s own army. When Ma Su’s second-in-command, the battle-hardened Wang Ping, suggested they instead hold Jieting by establishing a defense-in-depth centered on the vital crossroads and nearby a source of fresh water, Ma Su upbraided him: “That’s really a woman’s way of seeing things! Sun Tzu has said, ‘Soldiers always survive when threatened by death.’ I know my military texts. Even his Excellency has come to me with questions. Don’t make things difficult!” [4]

The enemy commander, also determined to make things difficult for Ma Su, quickly surrounded his isolated forces and cut off their access to the water supply. Instead of spurring his soldiers to fight fearlessly for their lives when encircled, as The Art of War assured its readers it would, Ma Su’s army instead panicked, attempted to flee, and was decisively defeated. Zhuge Liang was apoplectic over Ma Su’s military ineptitude and only managed to stave off complete disaster by gambling on a risky empty fortress stratagem; thereby fooling Sima Yi into believing that this was all part of an elaborate ruse to draw him into a devastating ambush.

Some might be surprised at this blunt disparagement of one of the world’s most revered military texts., but they shouldn’t be. Sun Tzu’s own contemporaries and later Chinese thinkers did not shy away from spirited debates over the enduring wisdom found in his work. Chinese historian Sima Qian describes a figure similar to Ma Su named Zhao Kuo, who was also well known for his meticulous study of strategic texts, but likewise lacked concrete military experience. When the king appointed him as the overall army commander based solely on his rhetorical skills in debating military matters, the result was a disaster. At the Battle of Changping in 260 BC, Zhao Kuo was quickly drawn into a trap and killed. As a consequence, all 400,000 soldiers under his command were executed by the victorious Qin forces.[5] Much later, the Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722 AD), himself a successful military commander and the first ruler to bring Tibet and Taiwan under firm Chinese control, expressed disdain for those who advocated reliance on ancient texts to solve contemporary military problems:

The Battle of Changping (Illustrated Curiosity)

For in war it’s experience in action that matters. The so-called Seven Military Classics are full of nonsense about water and fire, lucky omens and advice on the weather, all at random and contradicting each other. I told my officials once that if you followed these books you would never win a battle.[6]

One of the most extensive critiques of Sun Tzu comes from the third century BC Confucian philosopher, Xunzi. In a chapter titled “A Debate on Military Affairs,” King Xiaocheng of Zhao asks about the most crucial aspects of military strategy. Lord Linwu, invoking the name of Sun Tzu, argues that following the advice laid out in his book is the surest way to achieving victory. Xunzi vehemently disagrees and launches into a lengthy discourse as to why relying on the guidance of Sun Tzu might produce ephemeral gains, the inherent weakness of his overall military theory inevitably results in strategic defeat. Xunzi suggests that adherence to the military counsel of Sun Tzu is so detrimental to one’s own self-interest, that it would be equivalent to “using one’s finger to stir a boiling pot.”[7]

Xunzi’s pessimism is not without historical basis. Commentators on Sun Tzu invariably cite his campaign against the state of Chu in 506 BC as evidence of his strategic acumen. As the commander of the state of Wu’s small army, Sun Tzu defied expectations by invading his much larger and more powerful neighbor, Chu. At the Battle of Boju, the forces of Wu shockingly defeated the Chu army and occupied their capital at Ying. Most commentators conveniently quit the story at this point, but this cropping of the historical timeline masks strategic folly with operational and tactical success. According to the Zuozhuan, China’s oldest historical narrative of this era, Sun Tzu’s triumph was surprisingly short lived.[8] Immediately following its defeat, the remnants of the Chu army allied themselves with the state of Qin, who together quickly expelled Sun Tzu’s forces from Chu territory. Wu’s retreat was complicated by the fact the state of Yue had taken advantage of Sun Tzu’s absence by invading Wu’s homeland. Piling on calamity, an attempted coup by the king of Wu’s younger brother concurrent with these events leaves one questioning the overall strategic value of Sun Tzu’s most celebrated campaign.

Within two years of Sun Tzu’s offensive, the state of Chu regained its status as a major Chinese power, a position it would maintain for the next three centuries.[9] And what ultimate fate befell Wu, the entity Sun Tzu vowed to strengthen and protect, the realm profiting directly from his personal tutelage? Only three decades after its startling victory at Boju, the state of Wu was completely exterminated—wiped off the map by its implacable enemy to the south, Yue, who decimated Wu with the assistance of a still smarting Chu.[10] As a Western military theorist would later caution: “the ultimate outcome of war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil.”[11] Sun Tzu might have benefited from Clausewitz’s counsel that “the destruction of the enemy’s forces is always the superior, more effective means, which others cannot compete.”[12]

This healthy skepticism over The Art of War is sorely lacking in contemporary analyses of the work. Authors such as Mark McNeilly and Bevin Alexander forcefully argue that Sun Tzu provides us with universal and enduring principles for achieving military victory, and only by foolishly diverging from these tenets have commanders suffered ignominious defeat. Derek Yuen sees in this ancient tome a precursor to what modern theorists label “cybernetics,” and alchemizes disparate verses from the text into an implausibly intricate contrivance for manipulating the opposing commander’s feedback mechanisms, thereby rendering one’s enemy combat ineffective before the first shot is fired. The History Channel’s episode on Sun Tzu beats the viewer over the head with its absurdly simplistic hypothesis that the tragedy of Vietnam could have been avoided if only U.S. military commanders unequivocally adopted the book’s teachings.

During the Second World War, the military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart met with China’s military attaché to Britain, who told him the cadets at the Whampoa Military Academy often studied his own works. Hart asked, “What about Sun Tzu?” The attaché replied “that while Sun Tzu’s book was a venerated classic, it was considered out of date by most of the younger officers, and thus hardly worth study in the era of mechanized weapons. At this [Hart] remarked that it was time they went back to Sun Tzu.”[13]

Perhaps the Chinese students possessed a superior comprehension of the text and were more perceptive in noting its limitations. In an age of standing professional armies and devastatingly accurate, long-range automatic fire, following Sun Tzu’s repeated directive to always drive deeply into enemy territory and then seek death ground for your own soldiers as a method to compel courage might be thinking best left in the distant past.

The main problem, though, is that The Art of War is no longer viewed as merely one entrant within a larger arena of competing strategic ideas. For too many, especially in the West, Sun Tzu is often the lone voice speaking on behalf of millennia of Chinese strategic and military thinking. Michael Handel’s Masters of War, which examines the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western strategic philosophies, exemplifies this issue. While Handel focuses primarily on Clausewitz in examining the Western view of strategy, he also supplements his assessment with the writings of a diverse group of competing theorists from vastly different eras, such as Thucydides, Polybius, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Jomini, Mahan, and Corbett. The Eastern side of the equation focuses exclusively on Sun Tzu, with the exception of a smattering of Mao Zedong quotes. The 2,400 intervening years of Chinese strategic writing and history between Sun and Mao—let alone the centuries preceding Sun Tzu—remain an unexamined black box. Within the curriculum of prestigious strategic studies courses such as the U.S. Army War College and Yale’s Program in Grand Strategy, Sun Tzu retains his status as the sole representative of the entire corpus of Chinese strategic thinking.

The 2,400 intervening years of Chinese strategic writing and history between Sun and Mao—let alone the centuries preceding Sun Tzu—remain an unexamined black box.

The mischaracterization of Sun Tzu as a metonymy for all Chinese strategic wisdom, past, present, and future, grossly distorts the text’s importance and provides unrealistic expectations of what The Art of War can reasonably offer the modern strategist. Moreover, it leads to a myopic view of current Chinese strategic thinking, as too many contemporary analysts seek to neatly trace back almost every Chinese action to verses found in this solitary ancient text.

This skeptical stance does not suggest that there is nothing of value to be gained from continued study of The Art of War, nor that we should purge it from strategic studies syllabi. There is still much to be admired in the work. “Do not depend on the enemy not coming; depend rather on being ready for him,” should be carved into granite above the main entrance to each of the service’s war colleges.[14] Sun Tzu’s admonition that “a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning,” should be affixed to the cubicle of every staff officer in the Pentagon.[15] But we err in our unchallenged assumption that Sun Tzu also provides us a viable roadmap to achieving these goals. Despite the prevailing conventional wisdom, the text is much more reflective of the character of warfare during the early Warring States era than a treatise on the unchanging nature of war. If we insist on clinging to the false narrative of Sun Tzu’s enduring relevance, we are destined to fare no better in our quest to master strategy than the oblivious archers of Yue.

John F. Sullivan is a former U.S. Army China Foreign Area Officer who served assignments in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington DC. He is currently a JD candidate at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law. A recently published article in Parameters, “Reconsidering Sun Tzu,” expands further upon some of these arguments.

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Headers Image: Red Cliffs, the battleground of the three kingdoms, ink painting by Wu Yuanzhi, of the 12th century. (All Things Chinese)


[1] Liu An, The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, trans. Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major, (New York: Columbia University Press), 629.

[2] Luo Guanzhong, Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, trans. Moss Roberts, (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2003), 1154. The events surrounding Ma Su are described in chapters 95 and 96.

[3] Ibid, 1138.

[4] Ibid, 1141.

[5] Ssu-ma Ch’ien, The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume VII: The Memoirs of Pre-Han China, ed. William H. Nienhauser Jr. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 263–71.

[6] Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 22.

[7] Xunzi, Xunzi: The Complete Text, trans. Eric L. Hutton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 146.

[8] Zuozhuan: Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals,” trans. Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li and David Scharburg (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 1753-67 (Lord Ding, Years 4-5). It is interesting to point out that while the Zuozhuan goes into great narrative detail about Wu’s invasion of Chu, at no point does it mention Sun Tzu as a participant in this action, let alone as a recognized strategist in Wu. Sun Tzu’s connection to this campaign was first noted by the Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing four centuries after this event. This has led some scholars to conclude that Sun Tzu was not an actual historical figure, but rather a backwards projection of a fictional military authority meant to lend The Art of War additional didactic weight when it was compiled at least a century or more after the legendary Sun Tzu was said to have lived.

[9] The Zuozhuan notes that in 504 BC Wu again initiated successful military incursions into Chu territory, but these actions spurred the Chief Minister of Chu, Gongzi Shen, to implement long-delayed administrative reforms that finally “brought stability to the domain of Chu.” Zuozhuan, 1771 (Lord Ding, Year 6).

[10] Ibid, 1971 (Lord Ai, Year 22). Chu would later go on to exterminate Yue, thereby annexing the territory of its former foe, Wu.

[11] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 80.

[12] Ibid, 97. Although it is important to point out that when Clausewitz notes “the destruction of the enemy’s forces,” he is referring to both the physical forces as well as the moral force that sustains the enemy’s resistance. Clausewitz recognizes that the enemy can be decisively defeated well short of the complete destruction of its army. However, if the enemy’s physical forces are allowed to survive, they must first be deprived of the moral force necessary to continue effective resistance. In Sun Tzu’s Boju campaign, he decisively defeated neither Chu’s physical nor moral forces.

[13] B. H. Liddell Hart, foreword to The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), vii.

[14] Sun Tzu, Sun Tzu: The Art of Warfare, trans. Roger T. Ames, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 136.

[15] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 88.