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Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法 "The Art of War by Master Sun"

The Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法 "The art of war by Master Sun", short Sunzi 孫子 "Master Sun", is probably the most important and popular military classic of ancient China. It is also known under the titles of Wu Sunzi bingfa 吳孫子兵法 "The art of war by Master Sun from the state of Wu", Sun Wu bingfa 孫武兵法 "The art of war by Sun Wu" or Sun Wu bingshu 孫武兵書 "The book on [the art of] war by Sun Wu". During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) it was rated the "ancestor" of all military books. Its fame spread soon to neighbouring countries like Japan where it became known during the Tang period 唐 (618-907), and has been studied hundredfold in the West.
The author of the book is Sun Wu 孫武 who originated in the state of Qi 齊 during the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). He wrote 13 chapters on military strategy which he presented to King Helü 闔閭 (r. 514-496) from the state of Wu 吳, a semi-Chinese state at the southeast coast. Together with Wu Zixu 伍子胥 Sun Wu was able to defeat the powerful state of Chu 楚 in central China and to conquer its capital.
The book Sunzi was traditionally ascribed to Sun Wu. During the Song period Mei Yaochen 梅堯臣 and Ye Shi 葉適 brought forward some doubts about such an early date of composition. It was rather, they thought, written during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). Probably the author even was Sun Bin 孫臏 who had also written a military treatise, the Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法, which had been lost until it was rediscovered in a Han period tomb in 1972. Doubts about the authorship of Sun Wu were also raised by Japanese scholars and the Chinese historian Qi Sihe 齊思和 in the 1930s. Modern scholars think that the Sunzi bingfa was composed, as a draft, during the 5th century and then later, probably by Sun Bin, revised according to contemporary tactics and strategy. The received version is thus a product from the Warring States period.
The Sunzi consists of 13 chapters. It main concept is that campaigns have to be carefully planned at home before setting out to the field. Although many chapters talk about practical things the language is in many passages short, enigmatic and somewhat philosophical, which makes it difficult to interpret certain phrases.
The Sunzi had always attracted the interest of military strategists, and although the original number of chapters, 13, is identical to that of the received version, there were also changes in the text. Especially during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) strategists enlarged the book and attached illustrations. Ren Hong's 任宏 revision, for example, made a 82-chapter book of it, with 9 illustrations. Therefore the oldest commentaries to the Sunzi, like that of Cao Cao 曹操 from the 3rd century CE, had to eredicate the later added parts. These additions were already lost during the Tang period 唐 (618-907), which some persons thought was a pity, and Cao Cao was charged of having forged the received Sunzi version. There are ten (eleven) commentaries to the Sunzi, the so-called Shiyi jia zhu Sunzi 十一家注孫子. The commentators are Cao Cao (posthumous title Wei Wudi 魏武帝), Master Meng 孟氏 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557), the Tang period scholars Li Quan 李荃, Du Mei 杜枚, Chen Hao 陳皡, Jia Lin 賈林, and the Song perod scholars Mei Yaochen, Wang Xi 王皙, He Yanxi 何延錫, and Zhang Yu 張預. The eleventh commentary are comments by Du You 杜佑 in his encyclopedia Tongdian 通典 from the Tang period. Some additional comments have been collected by the Song period scholar Zheng Youxian 鄭友賢. The most important editions of the Sunzi plus commentaries are the Song period printing of the Wei Wudi zhu Sunzi 魏武帝注孫子 in the collectanea Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書, the Sunzi in the Song period canon Wujing qishu 武經七書, the Seven Military Classics, contained in the collectanea Xu yigu congshu 續逸古叢書, and the Song print of the ten commentaries Shijia Sunzi hui zhu 十家孫子會注.
There are a lot of scholars who studied the Sunzi, like Lu Daje 陸達節 (Sunzi kao 孫子考, Sunzi bingfa shumu huibian 孫子兵法書目彙編), Sun Xingyan 孫星衍 (edition of the commentaries, with discussion of fragments), Bi Yixun 畢以珣 (Sunzi xulu 孫子敍錄), Yan Kejun 嚴可均 (complete literature of ancient times), Ma Guohan 馬國翰 (adds fragments in his Yuhan shanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書), as well as Wang Renjun 王仁俊 (collection of fragments Jingji yiwen 經籍佚文).
In 1972 some bamboo texts in a Han period tomb were excavated in Yinqueshan 銀雀山, Shandong, among them the Sunzi bingfa and Sun Bin bingfa. This proves that at the beginning of the Han period there was a tradition of a Master Sun from Wu (the Sunzi bingfa), and one from a Master Sun from the state of Qi (the Sun Bin bingfa). The text of the Yinqueshan Sunzi is somewhat differing from the received version, but identical to quotations in Han and Tang period sources. The tomb library also contained wooden slips (mudu 木牘) inscribed with chapters titles of the Sunzi, with six chapters of a first part (shangbian 上編), and seven chapters, the so-called Qishi 七勢 "Seven conditions", as second part (xiabian 下編). There are also five full chapters which are not found in the received version of the Sunzi.
The Sunzi stresses that warfare is essential for the survival of a state, and is therefore a field which is necessarily to be paid attention to. Once defeated in war a country will never rise again. The enlightened ruler therefore has to care for war, and good generals study it in detail and have to be prepared in advance.
Master Sun explains the main factors influencing victory and defeat. Government conduct (dao 道), weather (tian 天), territory (di 地), generals (jiang 將), and tactics (fa 法) are the main themes covered by Sun Wu. A ruler has to be enlightened about a strategy, weather and territory have to be observed and selected, generals have to be able, commands and tactics have to be clear, the army has to be strong, the troops to be trained, rewards and punishments have to be clarified (the seven plans, qiji 七計). The ruler has to see to it that his people is willing to fight for him and the state, and eventually to sacrifice themselves. He has thus to exert a virtous government which is attractive enough for the population, he has to nourish a proper conduct of governemt (xiu dao 修道) and to care for the observation of laws (bao fa 保法).
The Sunzi bingfa emphasizes the importance of capable generals that represent the state on the battlefield. Wisdom, trust, humanity, courage, and strictness are the most importance requirements for an able commander. The commander has to know himself as good as he knows the enemy (zhi bi zhi ji 知彼知己), his army as well as the strategy of the inimical state. Generals should be able to exhibit a certain outer condition (shi xing 示形) to deceive him, like feigning weakness, distance, or incapability, and to apply his strengths (ren shi 任勢) in the right situation, but also to take over responsibility for false decisions (bu bi zui 不避罪). Like on the battlefield, a general has to use the right weight of reward and punishment, he must neither be too lenient nor too harsh, but a general has to be able to have both military (wu 武) spirit and a civilized (wen 文) mind. Military spirit will make the troops obedient, and a civilized mind will make them loyal. Submitting troops are to be welcomed and integrated, if they are willing.
For a full victory five points are necessary: to know whether one is able to fight or not; to know how to use whom among the troops; to unify the spirit of all parts of the army; to have the anxious encouraged by the brave; and that a capable generals also acts without royal command. Generals who are not clear about the abilities of the enemy and the own troops, nor of the territorial conditions, will only achieve half a victory. A quick victory is the best an army can achieve, but it is necessary to be well prepared for battle, in other words, triumping before going into battle (xian sheng er hou qiu zhan 先勝而後求戰). The general advice of Sun Wu is therefore also to avoid siege warfare and to prefer quick battles in the field. On the battlefield the enemy has to be forced to follow what the own army dictates him. The inimical general has to be forced to be passive, while the initiative stays with oneself. An enemy hiding behind his fortifications has to be lured out, and his week points have to be attacked. While the own troops have to be concentrated to achieve full fighting power it is necessary to have the inimical troops scattered and weakened. A very common form to obtain victory is to attack the enemy first with the main phalanx (zheng 正 "orthodox" formations), which he expects mostly, and then to make victory sure by surprise attacks with spontaneously arranged units ( [sic!] 奇 "unorthodox" formations). The number of the troops also plays a role in the Sunzi's considerations, as well as the character of the enemy. An arrogant enemy has to be lured by a submissive comportment and displaying weakness.
The position of a general is highly emphasized in the Sunzi bingfa. He is seen as the most important element in warfare and even seen as the one who decides over security and danger of a country.

Guo Huaruo 郭化若 (1989). "Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Junshi 軍事, vol. 2, pp. 977-979. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Li Ling 李零 (1992). "Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 2, pp. 1066-1069. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.

Contents of the transmitted Sunzi Contents of the Sunzi of the Yinqueshan tomb
1. 始計 Shiji Laying plans Ji
2. 作戰 Zuozhan Waging war 作戰 Zuozhan
3. 謀攻 Mougong Attack by stratagem 謀攻 Mougong
4. 軍形 Junxing Tactical dispositions Xing (two versions)
5. 兵勢 Bingshi Energy Shi
6. 虛實 Xushi Weak points and strong 實虛 Xushi
7. 軍爭 Junzheng Maneuvring 軍爭 Junzheng
8. 九變 Jiubian Nine variations in tactics 九變 Jiubian
9. 行軍 Xingjun The army on the march 行軍 Xingjun
10. 地形 Dixing Terrain 地形 Dixing (below)
11. 九地 Jiudi The nine situations 九地 Jiudi
12. 火攻 Huogong The attack by fire 火攻 Huogong
13. 用間 Yongjian The use of spies 用閒 Yongxian
吳問 Wu wen
四變 Sibian
黃帝伐赤帝 Huangdi fa Chidi
地形 Dixing
見吳王 Jian Wu wang
Chinese literature according to the four-category system

July 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail