Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics



The Oldest Military Treatise in the World Translated from the Chinese


Assistant in the Department of Oriental Books and Manuscripts in the British Museum


Written about 500 B. C., THE ART OF WAR by Sun Tzu is the oldest military treatise in the world. Highly compressed, it is devoted to principles and still retains its original value. To the military student able to adapt its principles to modern warfare, it even now, two thousand four hundred years after its preparation, is a valuable guide for the conduct of war. Although the chariot has gone and weapons have changed, this ancient master holds his own, since he deals with fundamentals, with the influence of politics and human nature on military operations. He shows in a striking way how unchanging these principles are.

Sun Tzü Wu, according to Ssü-ma Ch’ien, was a native of the Ch’i state. His ART OF WAR brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, King of Wu. Ho Lu said to him: "I have carefully perused your thirteen chapters. May I submit your theory to a slight test?"

Sun Tzu replied: "You may."

Ho Lu asked: "May the test be applied to women?"

The answer was again in the affirmative. So arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies and placed one of the King’s favorite concubines at the head of each.

He then bade them all to take spears in their hands, and addressed them thus: "I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left 16 hand?" The girls replied: "Yes." Sun Tzu went on: "When I say ’Eyes front,’ you must look straight ahead. When I say ’Left turn,’ you must face towards your left hand. When I say ’About turn,’ you must face right around towards the back." Again the girls assented.

The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order, "Right turn." But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: "If the words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame."

So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order, "Left turn." Whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu said: "If the words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers." So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded.

Now the King of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion; and when he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurriedly sent down the following message: "We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If we are bereft of these two concubines, Our meat and drink will lose their savor. It is Our wish that they shall not be beheaded."

Sun Tzu replied: "Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be general of his forces, there are certain 17 commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept." Accordingly, he had the two ladies beheaded, and straightway installed the pair next in order as leaders in their places.

When the execution was over, the drum was sounded for the drill once more. And the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound.

Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King, saying: "Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for Your Majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey." But the King replied: "Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for Us, We have no wish to come down and inspect the troops."

Thereupon, Sun Tzu said: "The King is only fond of words and cannot translate them into deeds." After that Ho Lu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army, and finally appointed him general. In the west he defeated the Ch’u state and forced his way into Ying, the capital. To the north, he put fear into the states of Ch’i and Chin, and spread his fame abroad amongst the feudal princes. And Sun Tzu shared the might of the king.

This narrative may be apocryphal, but Sun Tzu says in his book: "There are commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed:"


The tactics and strategy of Sun Tzu place high value on maneuver. He advises the avoidance of battle unless all considerations are favorable. Victory is won by indirect methods. The holding force and the enveloping force are the direct and indirect elements of the army. "In all fighting the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed to secure victory." And he adds that indirect tactics are as inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, as unending as the flow of rivers and streams. "All men," he repeats, "can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved." The victorious strategist seeks battle after the victory has been won, while he who is destined to defeat first fights and seeks victory afterwards.

"All warfare is based on deception." When able to attack the general must seem unable; when using his forces, he should appear inactive. Tactical dispositions should mask strength with weakness. And conversely, the skillful opponent should be judged, not by appearances, but by the more precise information obtained from spies.

The five kinds of spies are listed and their use is treated in detail. Inward spies are officials of the enemy. Sun Tzu could well understand how the German aviators were able to bomb Polish headquarters every time it was moved in September, 1939. Converted spies are enemy spies who have been bought off.

Estimation and calculation are given a wholly modern place in gaining victory. Ponder and deliberate before 19 you make a move. Sun Tzu claims he can forecast victory or defeat by the seven items of his estimate. His large attention to terrain is also in accord with modern practice. "The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally."

Nor does he forget the importance of discipline and the need for gaining the loyalty of his soldiers. "Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you unto death." Men must be gradually led to discipline. "If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they (the soldiers) will be useless."

No page of Sun Tzu’s book can be read without finding the distilled wisdom of a great soldier written with the aphoristic distinctness of Chinese literature.

THE ART OF WAR is the greatest military classic of the Chinese. It has had innumerable commentators and has been plagiarized throughout its existence. It is held in even greater reverence in Japan than in China, where the low estate of the soldier prevented the literary recognition it warrants.

The text of the ART OF WAR has been transcribed without omission from the translation by Lionel Giles, M. A., Assistant in the Department of Oriental Books and Manuscripts in the British Museum. It was published by Luzac & Co., London, in 1910. The critical notes of the translator, which comprise the larger portion of 20 his book, have been omitted. Other translations in English and French are lacking both in accuracy and the crystalline language which Dr. Giles has given his work. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Dr. Giles and Luzac & Co. for their generous permission to include his translation in this collection.


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Chicago: "On the Art of War: Introduction," Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics in Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, ed. Thomas R. Phillips (Harrisburg, PA: The Military Service Publishing Company, 1940), Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: . "On the Art of War: Introduction." Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, in Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, edited by Thomas R. Phillips, Harrisburg, PA, The Military Service Publishing Company, 1940, Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'On the Art of War: Introduction' in Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics. cited in 1940, Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, ed. , The Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, PA. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from