Sunzi and modern management techniques

The Art of War is a manual of military strategy and tactics ascribed to Su Wu, 544-496 BCE, better known as Sunzi, a general active during the Spring and Autumn period. Although there indeed was a general by that name, it is not entirely clear that he was the author of the work in question, but in China the book is nevertheless known as Sunzi bingfa, “Master Sun’s Rules for Soldiers.” Sunzi emphasized the importance of intelligence gathering, of subterfuge and dissimulation, but he also discussed the role of diplomacy and how best to deploy troops.

In Japan The Art of War was used as a textbook in military academies at the end of the nineteenth-century. Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who destroyed the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, was reputed to have been an avid Sunzi reader. The Japanese victory in the war with Russia was the first time since the Mongols that an “eastern people” defeated a “western people,” and in the wake of this triumph The Art of War came to be read as a manual embodying a uniquely “eastern” way of war-making. This at any rate was how the book was understood by students from various East Asian countries who studied in Japan in the first decades of the twentieth-century. Taking The Art of War with them home, they used it as a manual for how to liberate themselves from European colonialism. Ho Chi Minh, leader of Vietnamese independence movement, translated portions of the book and it was read by Vo Nguyen Giap, the general who defeated the French army at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

This was when Americans too started reading Sunzi. Much as in Japan the book was used at military academies and suggested reading for American officers dispatched to Vietnam. From the American military academies, Sunzi’s fame spread to the American business community thanks to writers who claimed that his nuggets of wisdom had a direct application to matters of business strategy. It was only by learning from Sunzi, the authors claimed, that European and American companies could recapture market shares captured by their East Asian competitors. This is how a Chinese military manual from the sixth-century BCE, became readily available in bookshops in airports the world over.

External links:

In Our Time: “China’s Warring States Period”

Librivox, “Sunzi, Art of War”

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