Summary of The Art of War: The Oldest Military Treatise in the World


The Art of War is a comprehensive treatise on military strategy and tactics written by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and strategist, in ancient China. The text emphasizes the importance of planning, deception, and understanding the enemy. Sun Tzu outlines five key factors that govern warfare: the Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, the Commander, and Method and Discipline. He stresses the importance of speed, minimizing losses, and utilizing the terrain to one’s advantage. The text also addresses the use of spies and fire as a weapon.

Throughout the Art of War, Sun Tzu explores various scenarios and tactics using metaphors and historical examples to illustrate his points. He emphasizes that victory is achieved through careful planning, adaptability, and the ability to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. Sun Tzu also stresses the importance of maintaining a strong morale within the army, while understanding and manipulating the enemy’s mindset.


  • Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, was a native of the Ch’i State in ancient China. This is a definitive fact from the text. While there is debate about the extent of his actual military career, the text itself acknowledges his origin.
  • The Art of War was composed for King Ho Lu of the Wu State. This is explicitly stated in the text and confirmed by early commentators like Ts’ao Ts’ao.
  • The Art of War emphasizes the importance of deception in warfare. Sun Tzu says that “All warfare is based on deception” and provides various methods of employing deception to gain an advantage.
  • The Art of War advises against prolonged warfare. Sun Tzu argues that “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” He emphasizes the importance of speed and efficiency in military campaigns.
  • The Art of War stresses the crucial role of terrain in warfare. Sun Tzu outlines nine varieties of ground, each with its own set of tactical considerations.
  • The Art of War acknowledges the importance of maintaining a strong morale within an army. Sun Tzu advises treating soldiers with humanity but keeping them under strict control, emphasizing that a cohesive and motivated army is essential for success.
  • The Art of War highlights the crucial role of spies in warfare. Sun Tzu outlines five classes of spies and discusses various methods for utilizing them to gather information about the enemy.


  • An army of 100,000 men would cost 1,000 ounces of silver per day to maintain. This figure is given by Sun Tzu as an example of the substantial costs associated with warfare.
  • One cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own. This statistic illustrates Sun Tzu’s advice on foraging on the enemy’s supplies.
  • Three-tenths of the people’s income would be dissipated due to war. Sun Tzu details the economic burden of warfare on the people, highlighting the importance of swift operations to minimize these losses.
  • A successful siege can take up to six months to complete. This statistic highlights the importance of avoiding prolonged sieges, as they are costly in terms of resources and manpower.
  • A victorious army opposed to a routed one is as a pound’s weight placed in the scale against a single grain. This analogy emphasizes the significant advantage that a disciplined and victorious army possesses over a defeated force.
  • A general in difficult country should not encamp. Sun Tzu’s advice is based on the need to avoid vulnerable positions and ensure the safety of the army’s movements.
  • An army without its baggage-train, provisions, or bases of supply is lost. This statistic highlights the importance of maintaining a robust supply line for any successful military campaign.
  • A successful night march can cover double the usual distance. This statistic highlights the importance of speed and stealth in surprise attacks.
  • A day’s march is typically 30 li. This statistic provides context for the distances mentioned in Sun Tzu’s discussions on maneuvers and forced marches.
  • An army can be defeated if they have to prepare against possible attacks on multiple fronts. This statistic emphasizes the importance of keeping the enemy guessing about one’s plans and forcing them to spread their forces thin.
  • To successfully conquer a large state, it is necessary to prevent the concentration of its forces. This highlights the importance of dividing the enemy’s forces and limiting their ability to cooperate.
  • The ideal army is one where the courage and spirit of all ranks are equal. This highlights the importance of unity, discipline, and a strong morale within an army.


  • Moral Law (道, dao): A principle of harmony and unity between the ruler and the people, leading to unwavering loyalty and dedication in warfare.
  • Heaven (天, tian): Represents the natural forces and conditions, including the seasons, weather, and celestial phenomena.
  • Earth (地, di): Represents the terrain and geographical features, influencing strategy and tactical decisions.
  • Commander (将, jiang): The general or leader of an army, possessing wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.
  • Method and Discipline (法令, fa ling): Refers to the organization, hierarchy, logistical support, and financial management of the army.
  • Cheng (正, zheng): Direct or orthodox tactics, often referring to frontal attacks.
  • Ch’i (奇, qi): Indirect or unconventional tactics, involving deception, surprise attacks, and flanking maneuvers.
  • Shuai-jan (倏然, shuran): A mythical snake from the Ch’ang mountains, known for its rapid and unpredictable movements, symbolizing the ideal army’s responsiveness and agility.
  • Five Advantages (五利, wu li): Represent five advantageous conditions or courses of action in warfare, such as attacking isolated forces or seizing strategically important positions.
  • Nine Variations (九變, jiu bian): Represent the countless ways in which tactics can be varied and adapted to the specific situation, encompassing the nine varieties of ground.


  • Sun Tzu’s story of the 180 ladies being drilled with spears demonstrates the importance of clear and distinct orders in military discipline. He used this scenario to explain the consequences of failure to follow commands and the need for strong leadership.
  • The story of Han Hsin defeating the army of Chao illustrates the concept of “plunging your army into desperate straits.” He used a feigned retreat to lure the enemy out of their strong position, leading them to a decisive defeat.
  • The story of Ts’ao Ts’ao’s night march to escape a double siege exemplifies the importance of swift maneuvers and resourcefulness in dangerous situations. His courage and strategic thinking allowed him to turn a seemingly hopeless predicament into victory.
  • The story of Chao She’s march to relieve the city of O-yii highlights the importance of deception and strategic maneuvering. He used a combination of feigned delay and rapid movement to outmaneuver the enemy.
  • The story of T’ien Tan’s defense of Chi-mo demonstrates the power of psychological warfare and deception. He used a combination of fabricated fears, fabricated surrender, and a surprise attack to defeat the vastly superior enemy forces.
  • The story of Pan Ch’ao’s attack on Yarkand illustrates the use of “doomed spies” to mislead the enemy. He intentionally let some of his prisoners escape, leading the opposing forces to make a miscalculation and leave themselves vulnerable.
  • The story of Li Ching’s swift campaign to defeat Hsiao Hsien emphasizes the importance of speed and exploiting the enemy’s unreadiness. He used the Yangtsze River’s flood to his advantage, launching a surprise attack before the enemy could mobilize.
  • The story of Wu Ch’i’s leadership demonstrates the importance of treating soldiers with humanity and shared hardships. His willingness to share their burdens and care for them personally earned their unwavering loyalty.
  • The story of Lii Meng’s strict punishment of an officer for stealing a bamboo hat highlights the need for unwavering discipline and order within an army. Lii Meng’s actions, though harsh, were seen as necessary to maintain control and prevent future breaches of discipline.
  • The story of Pan Ch’ao’s use of converted spies at Shan-shan illustrates the effectiveness of manipulating the enemy’s intelligence network. He used spies to gather crucial information about the enemy’s movements and plans, leading to a decisive victory.

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