Complexities of meaning and historical interpretations illustrate the timelessness of Sun Tzu's treatise on war.
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Sun-tzu is the earliest extant strategic book in human history. It is also the most brilliant and widely applied strategic book ever written.
This timeless, invaluable classic has been handed down to us over approximately twenty-four hundred years.' Even its earliest existing version -- the Linyi text -- is about twenty-one hundred years old. Throughout these two millennia, Sun-tzu's compact but rich text has been the authoritative guide for military affairs and political activities primarily in the Far East.In more modern times, Sun-tzu was translated into French (in 1772 ) and so gradually was introduced to the West. It also has come to be extensively adopted in all areas where problem solving, competition, or development require strategic guidance. Therefore, in addition to its traditional military and political uses, it has naturally become a part of international affairs, global trade, political campaigns, athletic competitions, the management of large or small businesses, and even daily concerns for both profit and success. We therefore may say that Sun-tzu can address something as enormous as a country's existence and the achievement of its military goals, or as modest as a person's satisfaction in life.
THE AUTHOR, SUN WU
Sun-tzu is the book's title, and it also is the author's name; labeling a book after its author was customary in China during the pre-Qin period (before 211 B.C.). From historical records we know that Sun-tzu's given name was Sun Wu, that he was born into a noble clan initially surnamed Chen which lived in the state of Qi, and that he was a youngercontemporary of Confucius. Since the early Zhou Dynasty his ancestors had possessed feudal territory south of the Yellow River; theirs was a small state called Chen, which was later assimilated by the major power, Chu (see the map in Appendix 1).
The state of Chen was filled with political intrigues. In 675 B.C. a political storm in which the heir apparent was murdered swept the state, and this persuaded the princeling Chen Wan to escape to the state of Qi. This princeling was the first generation of Sun Wu's clan to live in Qi.When Chen Wan was still young, his father, the Lord of Chen, invited a taishi in charge of records and astronomy for the Zhou emperor's court to cast an oracle for his son; this oracle foretold that Chen Wan's descendants would possess a state outside of Chen. Later, when Chen Wan was betrothed, his fiancée's family had the bridal couple's fortunes read, and they were told that their descendants would begin to prosper in the fifth generation, and by the eighth generation they would be without peer.
The Power Struggles of Sun Wu's Ancestors
After the Chen clan immigrated to Qi, its members showed a marked ability for political advancement. The fifth-generation descendant of Chen Wan was named Chen Wuyu, and he ultimately achieved the paramount station of daifu (comparable to a proconsul); this coincided with what had been foretold at his great-great-grandmother's betrothal.
Since the Chen clan rose out of a dangerous environment awash with political machinations, it grew to be adept in cultivating exceptional strategic insight, So, at about the time Chen Wuyu became a daifu, he and his father, Chen Wenzi, sensitively took note of the increasingly serious dissension between the ruling Qing clan of Qi and the other nobles. The father said to his son, "Something is about to happen.... What can we gain from this?" Chen Wuyu obliquely replied, "On the main boulevard of the capital we will be able to secure a hundred carts of the Qing family's lumber." Chen Wenzi warned him to "guard them carefully." (This riddle meant that they would obtain the resources on which the Qing clan's political power was based.)
In the autumn of 545 B.C., the wielder of the Qing clan's political power, Qing Feng, went on a hunt with Chen Wuyu accompanying him as an attendant. Before they arrived at the hunting ground, Chen's father sent him the grievous news that Chen Wuyu's mother was critically ill. Qing's men immediately had a tortoiseshell oracle cast and were given a forewarning of death. Tightly clasping the shell in both of his hands, Chen Wuyu wept, and Qing Feng therefore allowed him to return. On his way back, though, Chen Wuyu destroyed all of the boats and bridges, thereby cutting off Qing Feng's return route. And upon his arrival, the Chen clan instantly allied itself with the enemies of the Qing clan.
Before long, the Lord of Qi held the autumnal sacrifices. While the Qing clan still remaining in the capital guarded the shrine, the Chens and their allies sent in their own grooms to sing at the festivities. As the hours passed, the Qing men took off their armor, tethered their horses, drank wine, and enjoyed the entertainment. When the time was ripe, the Chens and their allies swiftly stole all of the armor and weapons, then slew the entire Qing family. The Chen clan thereupon began its climb to become the most politically influential in all of Qi.
Chen Wuyu had three sons: Kai, Qi, and Shu. The surname Sun was conferred upon the third son, Chen Shu, because of his military accomplishments; he became Sun Wu's father. The three sons of Chen Wuyu all gained considerable experience as battle commanders, in addition to their political seasoning.
The second son, Chen Qi, was the most adept of the three at political intrigue; he was the one his father and grandfather relied on for realizing their plans to seize power in Qi. Since ancient times those who have lusted after power typically have been ruthless -- they have cared nothing for bonds or relationships -- so we can imagine how fragile the family ties of these three Chen brothers must have been.
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Meet the Author
John Minford is dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University of Hong Kong. He has published widely on Chinese literature and translated numerous works, including the Penguin Classics edition of Sun-tzu’s The Art of War.
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