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9 Ways The Art of War Conquered the World

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Image credit: A bamboo copy of The Art of War, housed at the University of California, Riverside, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is perhaps the most influential treatise on leadership and war ever written. Everyone from New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick to Tupac Shakur has supposedly read the 2500-year-old text’s 13 chapters on the 13 aspects of warfare. (Even Paris Hilton knows a smart photo-op when she sees one.) But how much do you really know about this frequently name-checked text?

1. SUN TZU MIGHT NOT HAVE ACTUALLY WRITTEN THE ART OF WAR.

The Art of War is the oldest surviving manuscript on military tactics from Ancient China’s hallowed martial tradition, reportedly written in the 4th or 5th century BCE by Chinese general Sun Tzu (also known as Sunzi or “Master Sun”). But the historical figure Sun Tzu was probably not the actual author of the work (if he existed at all), which may have been a compilation of “greatest hits” from Chinese military theorists, written on sewn-together bamboo slips a few centuries after his death.

According to later biographers, Sun Tzu was born during the violent Spring and Autumn period of China, in either Qi or Wu, depending on the source, and grew up to become General of the Wu army. The success of The Art of War is only partially due to its advice; the rest can be attributed to the legend cultivated around the man who supposedly wrote it.

2. BUT HE WAS KNOWN FOR HIS RUTHLESSNESS.

Sima Qian, a biographer writing in roughly the second century BCE, proved Sun Tzu’s fitness for doling out military advice by claiming that the general defeated an army 10 times the size of his own at the Battle of Boju. Sima Qian did a lot to cement Sun Tzu’s reputation for refuse-to-blink ruthlessness and, by extension, the reputation of the text.

One episode in particular stands out: According to Sima Qian, the King of Wu told Sun Tzu that he’d read the treatise and wanted to put Sun Tzu’s theories to a test. The King asked whether his advice for managing soldiers could also be applied to women; Sun Tzu replied in the affirmative. To prove this, 180 courtesans were brought out to the courtyard and divided into two companies. With the King’s two favorite concubines at their heads, all of the women were given spears.

Sun Tzu began to give the women basic military commands—turn left, turn right, etc.—but was initially met with giggles. “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame,” he said. He tried again; more giggles. “But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officer.” As punishment, Sun Tzu ordered that the two company leaders be beheaded on the spot, in front of the King and their horrified “soldiers.” New women were forced to take their places; the next time the companies were given a command, they performed it with terrified precision.

3. THE ART OF WAR IS AS MUCH ABOUT NOT GOING TO WAR AS IT IS ABOUT WAR.

Despite stories like that, the treatise is equally concerned with nonviolent strategy: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” it declares. Sun Tzu—or whoever—appears to regard war as a necessary, but wasteful, evil, and one to be avoided whenever possible. This would make sense: At the time of the book’s writing, China was in the grips of a thousand-year period of near-unrelenting conflict between its seven main vassal states. The era’s military leaders would have been all too familiar with the real cost of battle and would have been keen to avoid it.

4. THE TEXT WAS BROUGHT TO EUROPE BY A MISSIONARY.

The treatise remained an important and popular text in Chinese tradition, and through centuries of dynastic, imperial rule, its fame spread across Asia to Japan and beyond. Still, it remained largely unknown in the Western world until 1772, when it was “discovered” by a Jesuit missionary and translated into French. Supposedly, Napoleon himself was one of the text’s first European devotees. The Art of War wasn’t translated into English until 1905, but it’s been a steadfast bestseller ever since.

5. TONY SOPRANO AND PETYR BAELISH HAVE HELPED BOOST SALES.

In an April 2001 episode of The Sopranos, Tony told his therapist that he’d been reading The Art of War—a useful choice for the embattled fictional mob boss. Sales of the book immediately skyrocketed, and by the end of the month, Oxford University Press had gone through its entire stock of 14,000 copies. Company executives wasted no time capitalizing on the free publicity; they ordered 25,000 more copies and even took out a small ad in The New York Times. (The copy read, “Tony Soprano fears no enemy. Sun Tzu taught him how. The Art of War. The book for bosses.”) Today, the book remains hugely popular—it’s currently ranked #1 in both Military Sciences and History of Education on Amazon. And a new spin on the book's audio version—read by Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen (a.k.a. Littlefinger)—landed in the Top 20 on Audible.com’s list of bestsellers.

6. THE ART OF WAR WENT TO WAR.

Between 1943 and 1946, the Council on Books in Wartime—a non-profit group comprised of book sellers, publishers, librarians, and writers—began publishing cheap, pocket-sized editions of popular and classic books for soldiers serving in World War II. Working under the publishing name Armed Services Editions, it adopted the slogan “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” The group managed to put almost 123 million copies of 1,322 titles into the hands of the troops. Titles sent overseas included Bram Stoker’s Dracula; The Art of Illusion, a 1944 book of magic tricks; Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; and James Thurber and E.B. White’s Is Sex Necessary? (Which probably wasn’t the most sensitive choice for men and women serving thousands of miles away from their loved ones.)

In 2002, a writer and collector of ASE copies named Andrew Carroll revived the program for American troops serving overseas; The Art of War was selected as one of four books printed and sent abroad. Its companions: War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Carroll), American Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present, by Allan Mikaelian, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.

7. CORPORATE LEADERS LOVE IT ...

Japan has had a long love affair with Sun Tzu, dating back to at least the 8th century AD, when the first Japanese translation of the text appeared. (There’s even a statue of Sun Tzu in tiny Yurihama, Tottori, Japan.) In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Japanese businessmen began applying Sun Tzu’s teachings to the country’s burgeoning corporate culture, with real results. Wall Street, both in awe of and unnerved by Japan’s growing business acumen, caught on in the late ‘80s, prompting a flurry of books and think-pieces intended to adapt the book’s words of advice for a more material world. (Gordon Gecko, the principal villain of 1987’s Wall Street, can quote Sun Tzu.) The text has since been repackaged for business audiences in dozens of books and articles (like this one and this one), and has even been “re-interpreted” for lady bosses in The Art of War for Women. Because it’s hard for us ladies to read anything that doesn't have “for women” in the title.

8. ... BUT IT GOES IGNORED BY CHINESE BUSINESS STUDENTS.

Despite the fact that it is one of the pillars of Chinese military theory, Western business tradition has largely replaced The Art of War in Chinese business schools, according to a blog for the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. “The Chinese are so taken by Western knowledge that they have been blinded to their own history,” Shalom Saada Saar, a lecturer at Cheung Kong, told the blog. “I do believe they have it right here, but they’re not looking.”

9. IT’S NOW A STAPLE IN THE SELF-HELP SECTION.

In the immortal words of Pat Benatar, “Love is a battlefield.” So it should come as no surprise that titles like the sinister-sounding The Art of War for Dating: Master Sun Tzu's Tactics to Win Over Women exist. (It promises to help the hapless male reader “win the battle of the sexes.”) There’s also the slightly-less-evil-sounding The Art of Love: Sun Tzu's The Art of War for Romantic Relationships, which features excerpts from the The Art of War alongside relevant pieces of love advice. The author of The Art of Love, Gary Gagliardi, has mined The Art of War to produce a truly staggering number of works, including (but not limited to) The Art of Parenting: Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Parenting Teens, which sounds useful, and The Art of War on Terror: Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Countering Terrorism, which sounds suspiciously like The Art of Parenting.

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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