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The Essential Art of War

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The Essential Art of War

Basic Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Ancient General Sun-Tzu tells you how to fight strategically. Now you just need to know when to fight – and when not to.

Editorial Rating



  • Applicable


This short book delivers the essentials of Sun-Tzu’s classic treatise. Ralph D. Sawyer, a translator and expert on Chinese military strategy, provides just enough supplementary material to put the work in context. Unlike many other contemporary adapters of this work, Sawyer does not try to suit Sun-Tzu’s words to business, romance or other modern concerns. Although he includes a few words about business applications in the book’s concluding pages, he seems clearly uncomfortable regarding this classic as anything but a military work. He does an admirable job of sticking to the task at hand, drawing out the essence of what Sun-Tzu wrote, and pointing out its specific relevance in the political and military circumstances that formed the legendary general’s environment. Sawyer provides fascinating background information to make the meaning of the text clearer. On the whole, getAbstract finds that this is an excellent, concise summation and presentation of this seminal work.


Background: The Book and Its Time

Translator Commentary - This is one of China’s most famous books, and Sun-Tzu is undoubtedly one of Chinese history’s most famous authors. That having been said, scholars actually know almost nothing about Sun-Tzu himself. Indeed, it is not even clear whether he really existed or was merely a legend.

The legend is that he lived through the close of the Spring and Autumn period, from 722 to 481 B.C.E. China then had 13 states, seven of which held sway over the rest. The seven states engaged in more or less continuous intrigue and warfare. Each state faced numerous threats, and war was a great risk. Battles consisted of sometimes-massive engagements of infantry and chariots. A state at war had to commit troops on one front, which opened it to the possibility of attack on other fronts - as different foes seized the opportunity to strike when the army was otherwise engaged. War drained the treasury and weakened the state. It burdened the population and, thus, raised the risk of civil discontent. Huge armies imposed a tremendous tax burden on the population. Sun-Tzu says it took six or seven civilians to support a single soldier.


About the Authors

Sun-Tzu was the great, legendary Chinese master of warfare. Translator Ralph D. Sawyer is a leading contemporary scholar of Chinese warfare.

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