Man of mystery: Sun Tzu's life or what we think we know

Strategy as a science began 2,500 years ago with the writing of The Art of War. Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) wrote the original text of The Art of War shortly before 510 BC. "Sun Tzu" means simply "Master Sun" in Chinese. His surname was Sun, but his first named was Wu (not to be confused with the state Wu of the time, a different Chinese character). He was born in what is today the Shandong area, but at that time it would have been the northern state of Ch'i. Not very much is known about his life.

Historically, there were two "Master Suns" involved with the military treatise. Sun Wu (544-496 BC) was the original author. His descendant, Sun Ping (or Bing) (380-316 BC), worked for the state of Ch’i and added to and popularized his own version of the work. The two are often confused. (Note: According to an e-mail, "Most Chinese recent historians generally agree that he [Sun Wu] was born in around 536 BC. By 516, he was 18, recorded as 'Qing Chun' which means 'still young.')

His Background

We know little about the original Sun Tzu's life. He was obviously literate, which made him a member of the traditional aristocracy or, more likely, the landless aristocracy, the shih. These were descendants of nobility who had lost their dukedoms during the consolidation of the Spring and Autumn period. Unlike most shih, who were traveling academics, Sun Tzu worked as a mercenary. He became the most highly regarded general of his time. He was probably part of a mercenary family because we know the tradition of teaching military science continued in his family through Sun Ping.

The Commanding General of Wu

We know that Sun Tzu started working for King Helu of Wu in approximately 510 BC after finishing his military treatise. The circumstances of his hiring are the only surviving story we have about Sun Tzu's life.

After writing The Art of War, Sun Wu got an audience with the king of Wu. The king invited him to demonstrate his military skills by training the court concubines. Sun Wu accepted the challenge.

Sun Tzu explained the commands for marching, but when the drum signals were given, the women burst out laughing. Sun Tzu teaches that if the orders are not clear, the general is at fault. So he repeated his explanation, but the women only laughed again. Sun Tzu teaches that when the orders are clear but not followed, the officers are at fault. So Sun Tzu ordered the women's commanders, the king's two favorite concubines, beheaded.

After the two were executed and replaced, the remaining women obeyed the orders precisely. The king was too sickened by the deaths to watch the demonstrations, but he gave Sun Tzu command of his army.

His Success and Death

Sun Tzu had a dramatic impact on Chinese history. After his hiring, the kingdom of Wu went on to become the most powerful state of the period.

Sun Tzu supposedly died when King Helu was killed in 496 BC, but since the military success of Wu continued after that year, stories of his death may have been exaggerated for political reasons. Sun Tzu teaches that the first principle of war is deception.