China and East Asia

Sunzi and modern management techniques

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The Art of War is a manual of military strategy and tactics traditionally ascribed to Su Wu, 544-496 BCE, better known as Sunzi, one of the generals 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.” The best general, says Sunzi, should avoid direct confrontations with the enemy and instead patiently maneuver to improve his position and to undermine that of the enemy. Sunzi emphasized the importance of intelligence gathering, of subterfuge and dissimulation, but he also discussed the role of diplomacy and how best to deploy the troops.

The Art of War was widely read during the Warring States period, and the book has been widely read ever since. In Japan it was used as a textbook in military academies at the end of the nineteenth-century. Admiral Togo Heihachiro, 1848-1934, who destroyed the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima, 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 making war. This was at any rate how the book was understood by the many students from 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 their countries from European colonialism. Ho Chi Minh, 1890-1969, leader of Vietnamese independence movement, translated portions of the book and it was read by Vo Nguyen Giap, 1911-2013, the general who defeated the French army at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954. This is 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. The hope was clearly that Sunzi would help American soldiers to better understand the tactics employed by the Vietnamese guerrilla.

From the American military academies, Sunzi’s fame soon 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. This connection became particularly important once various East Asian companies in the 1980s started to take market share away from their European and American counterparts. Since they allegedly all were familiar with The Art of War, East Asian business leaders pursued a uniquely “eastern” way of doing business which European and American business leaders ignored only at their own peril. This at least was the claim of books with titles such as Sun Tzu for Business Success, Art of War for Managers, and Sun Tzu: Strategies for Selling. It was only by learning from Sunzi, the authors argued, that European and American companies could regain their former position. This is how a Chinese military manual from the sixth-century BCE, became readily available in bookshops in airports the world over.