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9 Ways The Art of War Conquered the World

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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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

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2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

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10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

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A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

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11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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