Sun Tzu and his Art of War are studied and quoted in military strategy courses and corporate boardrooms around the world. There's just one problem - we aren't sure that Sun Tzu actually existed!
Certainly, someone wrote a book called The Art of War several centuries before the common era. That book has a singular voice, so it is likely the work of one author and not a compilation. That author also appears to have had significant practical experience leading troops into battle. For simplicity's sake, we will call that author Sun Tzu. (The word "Tzu" is a title, equivalent to "sir" or "master," rather than a name - this is the source of some of our uncertainty.)
Traditional Accounts of Sun Tzu
According to traditional accounts, Sun Tzu was born in 544 BCE, during the late Spring and Autumn Period of the Zhou Dynasty (722-481 BCE). Even the two oldest known sources about Sun Tzu's life differ as to his place of birth, however. Qian Sima, in the Records of the Grand Historian, claims that Sun Tzu was from the Kingdom of Wu, a coastal state that controlled the mouth of the Yangtze River during the Spring and Autumn Period. In contrast, the Spring and Autumn Annals of the Lu Kingdom state that Sun Tzu was born in the State of Qi, a more northerly coastal kingdom located approximately in modern Shandong Province.
From about the year 512 BCE, Sun Tzu served the Kingdom of Wu as an army general and strategist. His military successes inspired him to write The Art of War, which became popular with strategists from all seven rival kingdoms during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE).
Down through the centuries, Chinese and then also western historians have reconsidered Sima Qian's dates for Sun Tzu's life. Most agree that based on the specific words he uses, and the battlefield weapons such as crossbows, and the tactics he describes, The Art of War could not have been written as early as 500 BCE. In addition, army commanders during the Spring and Summer Period were generally the kings themselves or their close relatives - there were no "professional generals," as Sun Tzu appears to have been, until the Warring States Period.
On the other hand, Sun Tzu does not mention cavalry, which made its appearance in Chinese warfare around 320 BCE. It seems most likely, then, that The Art of War was written sometime between about 400 and 320 BCE. Sun Tzu probably was a Warring States Period general, active about one hundred or one hundred and fifty years after the dates given by Qian Sima.
Sun Tzu's Legacy
Whoever he was, and whenever he wrote, Sun Tzu has had a profound influence on military thinkers over the past two thousand years and more. Tradition avers that the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huangdi, relied on The Art of War as a strategic guide when he conquered the other warring states in 221 BCE. During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763 CE) in Tang China, fleeing officials brought Sun Tzu's book to Japan, where it greatly influenced samurai warfare. Japan's three reunifiers, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, are said to have studied the book in the late sixteenth century.
More recent students of Sun Tzu's strategies have included the Union officers pictured here during the American Civil War (1861-65); Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong; Ho Chi Minh, who translated the book into Vietnamese; and US Army officer cadets at West Point to this day.
Lu Buwei. The Annals of Lu Buwei, trans. John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riege, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Qian Sima. The Grand Scribe's Records: The Memoirs of Han China, trans. Tsai Fa Cheng, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Sun Tzu. The Illustrated Art of War: The Definitive English Translation, trans. Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.