69 pages 2 hours read

Sun Tzu

The Art of War

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The Art of War, written in China during the fifth century BCE by military expert Sun Tzu, has been favored reading among soldiers and strategists for two millennia. Its concise 13 chapters, studied to this day by world leaders and generals from Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong to US Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, teach victory through studying the opponent, building impregnable defenses, confusing the enemy with diversions, and attacking forcefully its weak spots. The book is recommended reading at leading military academies in the US, Great Britain, and elsewhere.

The principles expounded in The Art of War also apply in other areas of intense competition, such as politics, business, and sports. The book remains especially popular among business leaders, who apply its tenets to their marketplace strategies and tactics. Trial attorneys are known to use the work’s tactics in court.

Widely available in the public domain, The Art of War boasts several English translations. The celebrated 1910 version translated by Lionel Giles, with annotations, appears in a 2016 eBook edition published by Coterie Classics; it forms the basis for this study guide.


The Art of War begins with a warning: War is highly risky and must be considered carefully. Five main factors affect a war’s outcome: the quality of the ruler, weather, terrain, military leadership, and the state of the army. Strategists must take all these factors into account, and they must deceive the enemy about their strengths and weaknesses.

War is costly, and an army shouldn’t depend on its own country to feed it, especially during a long campaign, lest it bankrupt the state. Instead, it should forage on the food of the country it invades, capture weaponry from the enemy and use it against them, and treat kindly any prisoners so that they might be induced to join the invaders.

Instead of engaging in direct fighting, it is best to win by frustrating the enemy’s war plans or at least preventing its armies from massing. Direct fighting is a lesser choice, and an extended siege is the worst option. Wise generals know how to deploy their armies against inferior and superior forces, how to make good use of officers’ personality strengths, and how to inspire the men. Good generals know themselves, the enemy, and the situation.

A well-ordered army arranges itself to be impregnable, yet its true strength cannot be seen. Smart commanders plan carefully, taking into account the weather, terrain, and the disposition of enemy troops; they order an attack only at the best moment, suddenly and with tremendous force.

Attacks may be direct or indirect. Indirect sorties sow confusion or, in their apparent weakness, make the opponent overestimate the odds. While thus occupied, the enemy is surprised by a sudden, powerful, direct assault elsewhere against its forces.

An army should arrive early, make itself impossible to attack, and then rest; when the opponent arrives, it should be kept exhausted and preoccupied. Thereafter, the army must only attack at the enemy’s weakest points. If it faces a huge opposing formation, it should attack at unexpected places, which causes the enemy to split its forces and become disorganized.

Once on the move, an army should avoid lengthy treks, but if it maneuvers well, it can force the enemy to take longer routes that fatigue it. To this end, native informants can help leaders better understand terrain and travel routes. It is better to attack the enemy when they’re tired than to strike in the morning when they’re rested.

Perceptive generals take advantage of changing situations by abandoning plans that no longer work. They also check any tendency on their own part toward impatience, anger, fear, pride, and worry.

An army should move quickly through difficult terrain and camp in a valley with high, flat land areas, arranging things so the enemy has difficult terrain at its rear. The leader should watch and listen for telling signs and sounds from the enemy camp, such as the dust of movement, arguments that signal disorder, and indicators of thirst or hunger.

The general must consider six types of ground terrain: desirable flat land, undesirable difficult regions, areas that offer no advantage, cliffs for overhead assault, passes to blockade, and great distances to be avoided. The other dangerous terrain lies inside the minds of the officers, who must take care to avoid the rocks and pitfalls of over eagerness, weakness, anger, lack of clarity, and lack of planning.

Nine situations can affect an army’s resolve. When stationed in home territory or the land just inside the enemy’s borders, soldiers will be thinking of returning to their families. Some borderlands divide several countries at once; here, the leader can intimidate those states and bring them into alliances. Deep within enemy territory, the invaders will face dire situations that the general can use to inspire bold and energetic fighting.

A daring leader can shoot flaming arrows into an enemy camp and pick off its soldiers as they emerge. Fire can also be used to destroy provisions, weapons, and supply lines. Beyond the use of fire, other innovations may present themselves—redirecting river waters to flood a foe’s camp, for example—and good leaders must avail themselves of these opportunities as they arise.

No army should venture into enemy territory without excellent intelligence gathered from spies and informants. Five types of spies can be used: local, culled from natives; inward, working within the opponent’s government; converted, or captured spies treated well; doomed, who are given false information and then betrayed into the hands of the enemy; and surviving spies, who go deep undercover and return with vital intelligence.

At 9,500 words, The Art of War is short, concise, and filled with useful advice. Most of the book is clear and easy to understand. The work is so pithy that some of its phrases may seem esoteric or enigmatic. Certain paragraphs make reference to historical events largely unknown in the West; others use words in unusual ways that beg to be clarified. Scholars have analyzed the book thoroughly and explained virtually all its passages, especially the ones that might confuse the modern reader. This guide reflects those understandings.

Each short chapter is divided into numbered paragraphs, most of which consist of a single sentence. Quotations from the book are cited by chapter and paragraph number.