Text in China

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Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) wrote the original text of The Art of War shortly before 510 BC. During most of the past two thousand years, the common people in China were forbidden to read Sun Tzu's text. However, the text was preserved by China's nobility for over 2,500 years. Unfortunately, it was preserved in a variety of forms. A "complete" Chinese language version of the text wasn't available until the 1970s. Before that, there were a number of conflicting, fragmentary versions in different parts of China, passed down through 125 generations of duplication.

The Chinese preserved the text of The Art of War, known in Chinese as Bing-fa, even though the famous book-burning by the first Emperor of Chi around 200 BC. The text was treasured and passed down by the Empire’s various rulers. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were two main textual traditions in circulation, known as the (Complete Specialist Focus) and (Military Bible) versions. There were also perhaps a dozen minor versions and both derived and unrelated works also entitled Bing-fa. Of course, every group considered (and still considers) its version the only accurate one.

In the twentieth century, sections of the work have been found in a number of archeological digs uncovering the tombs of the ancient rulers of China. These finds have verified the historical existence of the text and the historical accuracy of various sections. New finds are still being made.

The first complete, consistent Chinese version was created in Taipei in the 1970s. It was titled "The Complete Version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War." It was created by the National Defense Research Investigation Office, which was a branch of Taiwan's defense department. This version compared the main textual traditions to each other and to archeological finds and compiled the most complete version possible.

This work was completed in Taiwan rather than mainland China for a number of reasons. Mainland China was still in the throws of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, which actively suppressed the study of traditional works such as Sun Tzu. The mainland had also moved to a reformed character set, while Taiwan still used the traditional character set in which the text was written. Only today is the study of Sun Tzu in mainland China growing, interestingly enough, through the translation of Sun Tzu into contemporary Chinese.

Based on the archeological sources we have today, we are reasonably certain of the historical accuracy of this compiled version that is the basis of what most people use today. There is a high probability that most of it is the original work of the first Master Sun, Sun Wu. The same cannot be said about many related works on strategy, attributed to other Chinese scholars, including possibly Sun Wu's descendant, Sun Ping. For these other works, there are fewer traditional sources, questionable histories, and virtually no archeological sources. While some of these other works may well be historical frauds, virtually all scholars agree on the historicity of Sun Tzu's work, if not the man himself.