In ancient China, wars left millions dead and the leaders in search of a new way of governing. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu recommended a strategic method to win that rarely required actual war. Spies, diplomats, deception, and a well organised internal structure were his main tools. If it came to war though, he had detailed insight into its methods and strategies.

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Sun Tzu's Art of War

Around 500 BC the Art of War was written to educate and impress the nobility.  It works.

The book is expanded, possibly to 82 chapters.

The original, 13 chapter version becomes a popular classic with Chinese leaders from the Warring States Period to Chairman Mao.  It influences military and government policy.  As recently as 1999, the Jiangsu Province Army Division built an Art of War park!

In 1772, a French Jesuit discovers and translates the text.  It it said to have become a favourite of Napoleon.

In 1910, Lionel Giles, of the British Museum translates the book into English.  This translation become popular, especially after the copyright ran out.

In 1972 a large quantity of previously lost Art of War text is discovered in a tomb at Yin Chueh Shan, China.

1980's onwards:  The Art of War gets mainstream exposure in movies like "Wall Street", "The Art of War", "Las Vegas" and "The Sopranos".


Have you heard the expression: "Long time, no see".  I bet it confused you the first time you heard it.  Its meaning is in the words, but you need to think about the situation and implications to work out its common English meaning, which would be "I haven't seen you in a long time."  The reason the expression is so cryptic is it originates from a literal, character by character translation of the Chinese expression - . The expression. like the Art of War, is written in an old fashioned, poetic style that is hard to translate into modern English without interpretation.  This is the problem for translators. 

The cultural context makes the translator's job difficult too.  If the text refers to an ancient kind of military equipment or a distance in old Chinese measures, do you convert or retain the original meaning.  If you exactly translate Lao Tzu's famous saying for example, it would become: "Even a 2,440 mile journey begins with a single step."  It loses some of the magic, but gains in accuracy. 

I have made my own translation of some sections of the book in the Quotes Section.  My translation replaces the old, poetic style of writing with modern English aimed at people with no special knowledge of ancient Chinese culture.

The original Chinese text is available here.

The Giles translation is available in English.