Chinese science and philosophy: some cultural knowledge needed to understand the original text

We cannot understand the original text of The Art of War without understanding its underlying cultural context.  In Sun Tzu's own era, even our English title of the work, borrowed from a book on the military by Machiavelli, would have been considered inapproapriate. Sun Tzu wrote his work around philosophical and scientific concepts that would have been familiar to people of his own world, but a completely unfamiliar to those today, even those translating his work.

The Six Philosophies

There were six schools of scientific and philosophical thought during Sun Tzu's era: the yinyang, Confucian, Mohist, legalist, fatalist, and Taoist schools. Sun Tzu's work was both a reflection of and a reaction against many of these ideas. While we cannot do justice to the ideas of all these streams of thought in this article, we should hightlight the ideas most central to Sun Tzu's work. 

We refer to the idea of yin and yang in Sun Tzu's strategy as "complementary opposites." Sun Tzu's system deals specifically with balancing competing forces. Sun Tzu's philosophy also adopted the impartiality of Mohism, its belief that a leader needed tools that served a clear purpose more than good intentions, and its opposition to fatalism, which considered all outcomes as predetermined by fate. While Sun Tzu rejected the philosophy of legalism generally, he used its concept of fa (meaning "principles" or "methods", from Sun Tzu's Chinese title for his work, Bing-fa), which called for rules to be written down and clearly spelled out. He used a number of ideas from Confucianism, but rejected its central principle that people and groups need to stay in their existing social place.  The relationship with Sun Tzu and Taoism is more complex, since Sun Tzu references many of Lao Tzu's verses, changing them in interest ways. 

The Five Elements

This balance of yinyang and Confucian five virtues are manifested in the five Chinese classical elements. These elements represent different stages in an ongoing process of transformation. Sun Tzu's five elements replace the traditional Chinese elements of wood, metal, water, fire, and earth with mission (path), ground, climate, command, and methods. These concepts go back to the I Ching, which predates all these philosophies by 2,500 years, but which is called a Confucian classic because of Confucius's supposed role in editing it.

A large part of Chinese science and philosophy was concerned, like that of Aristotle, with charting teh relationships and connections in the natural world. These connections centered around the five elements. The Chinese developed several systems for mapping their elements to illustrate the key relationships among them in various contexts. Probably the best known is the Bagua. Sun Tzu's book describes a basic arrangement of the elements that are specialized versions of traditional mapping methods and the Bagua.