Sun Tzu (about 543B.C.–470B.C.) was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who is the author of the Art of War. He lived in middle Zhou Dynasty, almost the same time as Confucius (551B.C.–479B.C.) created Confucianism and Lao Tzu wrote Tao Te Ching. The Art of War is as much a text of philosophy as a book of battlefield tactics, and many people have adapted its principles to other facets of their lives, including business management and political leadership, in the past 2,500 years.
Sun Tzu, also known as Sun Wu or Sun Zi, had a very short biography in historical records. His name only appeared in a few battles between Wu and other states about 505B.C. But his quotations and strategies for warfare have become golden rules for military leaders all over the world for more than two thousand years.
The Art of War: Sun Tzu Sayings and History
One of the most interesting parts of history is that a metaphor or a fiction story in a classic book can turn to be a true story later. For example, some of Sun Tzu’s sayings and quotes came true in history.
In the chapter the Nine Situations of the Art of War, Sun Tzu said, “He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots; like a shepherd driving a flock of sheep, he drives his men this way and that, and nothing knows whither he is going.” Sun Tzu might just use “burning boats and breaking pots” to illustrate a battlefield tactic: cut off the way to retreat and drive the soldiers to survive by advancing and fighting.
But more than 200 years after Sun Tzu died, a story of “burning boats and breaking pots” really happened. During the Qin Dynasty (221B.C.–206B.C.), Xiang Yu led a rebellion. After crossing the Zhang River, Xiang Yu’s army sank all their boats and broke their cooking pots. Without a way to retreat and having only three days’ rations, the army advanced and fought with no fear and defeated the Qin army. Later this story became an idiom Po Fu Chen Zhou (Smashing the Pots and Sinking the Boats). Today many Chinese still use this idiom in their daily lives to indicate their firm determination to achieve a goal at any cost.
Crossing the Rubicon: Idiom and Caesar
About 160 years later, the western world created an idiom with a similar meaning too. In 49B.C. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with a firm determination for a victory. Later this event turned to be an idiom “Crossing the Rubicon,” similar to the modern phrase “Passing the Point of no Return.”
Did Caesar sink his boats and smash his pots when he crossed the Rubicon? People may never know as Rubicon has changed its way for many times in history and washed off everything Caesar might have left. But the golden rule is still the same: cutting off the way to retreat, you will fight as best you can.
- Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian (104B.C.–91B.C.)
- Sun Tzu, the Art of War (about 500B.C.)