The Art of War

Sunzi’s The Art of War is, historically, a strategic military manual, written 2,500 years ago in feudal China, elaborating the principal considerations of conducting organised state warfare against another state. It is a remarkable text for the broad applicability, across time and space, of the principles it elucidates for many social contexts in which one party is in competition with another. I identify three organising themes of the text, which are: the virtuous valiant, the autonomous arena, and the strategic substantiality.


The virtuous valiant is the general who glorifies his/her king and country; or the CEO who advances the interests of his/her shareholders and firm; or the entrepreneur who blazes the trail for his/her society and ambition. He/she is anyone who is committed to other people and to an ideal, and takes action and leads others in order to honour that commitment.

The virtuous valiant is virtuous because there is a standard of character demanded of him/her. The Art of War says: “The General must be possessed of wisdom, honesty, benevolence, courage and discipline.[1] The virtuous valiant is valiant because he/she must put him/herself forth to lead others to honour his/her commitment. This also requires wisdom on his/her part, to know the virtues demanded of him/her and to know that amongst everyone he/she is best placed to take the lead.[2]

How do the virtues play out? The valiant must “bring your troops together with humane treatment, and bind them with discipline.” He/she must be fair and consistent with reward and punishment to those whom he/she leads to secure their loyalty.[3]  He/she must care for his/her followers but also demand performance.[4] He/she must be able to unite them under his/her leadership, such that they will follow him/her unreservedly. [5]

Crucially, the virtuous valiant is committed to others and to an ideal he/she holds; hence he/she must be humane. Leading others to war, to any form of competition is costly, and the valiant must empathise with the costs borne by his/her followers while taking the courage to incur those costs.[6] Having foreknowledge of and planning for the fight is thus also highly important. This brings me to the second organising theme, the autonomous arena.


The autonomous arena is the space in which the virtuous valiant leads his/her followers to fight for his/her commitment. It is an arena or an environment which is climatic and terrene.[7] There are pervasive or structural factors (which can be analogised to Sunzi’s Heaven) and concrete or individual factors (Earth) which need to be understood. In the battlefield, Heaven is the sun, the rain, the seasons, and Earth is the mountains, valleys and rivers. In business, Heaven is the policies, tax regimes, technologies pertaining to the valiant, and Earth is the field of competitor firms, clients and other stakeholders.

The arena is autonomous in having its own logic of action.[8] For Sunzi, “War is the place where life and death meet; it is the road to destruction or survival. It demands study.[9] He elaborates the logic of war in brilliant detail throughout the Art of War: “first comes scoping, then measurement, then calculation, then balancing, and finally victory.[10] Knowing the 6 types of natural terrain (地形篇) and the 9 types of military ground (九地篇) lets the valiant set the scope of battle, whereupon he/she can measure the troops and resources needed to conduct battle, calculate the distribution of troops and resources against the enemy, balance that distribution according to the arena in play, and fight for victory. The analogy to business is clear: the autonomous logic of economic competition requires understanding the playing field and the implications of environmental factors on one’s business strategy. This pertains to the third organising theme, strategic substantiality.


The Art of War is often (mis-)quoted for its advocacy of “Deception”, or 诡. On first pass, it seems to be saying that war is fundamentally duplicitous – the text begins by stating: “when you are able to act, feign incapacity; when deploying, feign inactivity; when you are close, appear to be far off; when you are distant, appear close. When your enemy seeks an advantage, lure him further; if he is in disorder, crush him; if he is organised; be ready for him; when he is strong, avoid him; when he is angry, goad him further; if he is humble, be overbearing; if he is resting, harry him; if his armies are united, split them. Attack where he is unprepared, appear where you are least expected.[11] But if the general is a virtuous valiant, how can he/she resort to deception? In fact, this is a distraction.

Sunzi’s point, and genius, is that the autonomous logic of warfare is strategic substantiality. War is costly to the general and the country he defends; hence the virtue of humaneness requires the general to minimise this cost. This is why “winning a hundred victories out of a hundred battles is not the ultimate achievement; the ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle.[12] Within the logic of warfare, death and deceit are accepted norms. Hence Sunzi advocates the strategic employment of espionage (用间篇) and deception (虚实篇) to maximise one’s advantage over the enemy while minimising one’s cost.

The principle underlying deception is substantiality. To see this, consider substantiality in terms of the men and resources committed to an objective. A commitment is substantial if, for example, a frontal attack is promised and executed. A commitment is insubstantial if there is an expectation of a frontal attack but what is executed is instead a flank. Hence the principle of substantiality consists of expectation and substance. What Sunzi means by deception is then the management of substantiality (expectation and substance) to maximise one’s advantage over the enemy while minimising one’s cost. Seen in this way, deception obeys the autonomous logic of warfare while respecting the humaneness of the virtuous valiant.


Successfully grasping the three organising themes of virtuous valiant, autonomous arena and strategic substantiality lets one be highly capable and adaptable to succeed in honouring whatever commitment he/she has. One becomes like water. “Water adapts its course according to the terrain; in the same way you should shape your victory around the enemy’s dispositions. There are no constants in warfare, any more than water maintains a constant shape.[13] In the dynamic and evanescent context of war, business, or any form of social competition, Sunzi offers sage advice for anyone who wants to come out on top.


[1] “将者,智·信·仁·勇·严也。” 始计篇。 I rely on James Trapp’s (2012) translation, published by Chartwell Books.

[2] There is a reflexive moment in the text, where Sunzi begins by imploring the reader (the would-be virtuous valiant) to plan for war and to study the five decisive factors, one of which is the virtues of the general.

[3] “卒未亲附而罚之,则不服,不服则难用也。卒已亲附而罚不行,则不可用也。故令之以文,齐之以武,是谓必取。令素行以教其民,则民服;令不素行以教其民,则民不服。令素行者,与众相得也。” 行军篇。

[4] “视卒如婴儿,故可与之赴深溪;视卒如爱子,故可与之俱死。厚而不能使,爱而不能令,乱而不能治,譬若骄子,不可用也。” 地形篇。

[5] “故善用兵者,携手若使一人,不得已也。” 九地篇。

[6] “凡兴师十万,出征千里,百姓之费,公家之奉,日费千金;内外骚动,怠于道路,不得操事者,七十万家。相守数年,以争一日之胜,而爱爵禄百金,不知敌之情者,不仁之至也,非人之将也,非主之佐也,非胜之主也。” 用间篇。

[7] “天者,阴阳、寒暑、时制也。地者,远近、险易、广狭、死生也。” 始计篇。

[8] James Trapp notes in his translation of the Art of War that “Sunzi’s approach to war is entirely pragmatic … The General’s ‘Moral Compass’ applies only to his attitude to his ruler.” The logic of warfare is, he claims, completely independent of the moral considerations of initiating war. I am not able to deal with this complex topic in this essay, as “Moral Compass” is his translation of 道, or the Taoist concept of the Way, which is an issue for another day.

[9] “兵者,国之大事,死生之地,存亡之道,不可不察也。” 始计篇。

[10] “兵法:一曰度,二曰量,三曰数,四曰称,五曰胜。” 军形篇。

[11] “故能而示之不能,用而示之不用,近而示之远,远而示之近;利而诱之,乱而取之,实而备之,强而避之,怒而挠之,卑而骄之,佚而劳之,亲而离之。攻其无备,出其不意。” 始计篇。

[12] “是故百战百胜,非善之善者也;不战而屈人之兵,善之善者也。” 谋策篇。

[13] “夫兵形象水,水之形,避高而趋下,兵之形,避实而击虚。水因地而制流,兵因敌而制胜。故兵无常势,水无常形,能因敌变化而取胜者,谓之神。” 虚实篇。