Ancient Secrets to Success
Legions of followers swear by his advice. His disciples include CEOs, celebrity agents, sports coaches and TV mob boss Tony Soprano. Hollywood has turned his how-to book into a movie, and fans on the Internet parse his every word.
Deepak Chopra? L. Ron Hubbard?
Try Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military strategist who’s been dead for 2,400 years.
Sun was the author of “The Art of War,” a basic but canny guide to outwitting and conquering the enemy in battle. The treatise, a classic in military annals, was written for a beleaguered Chinese warlord at the same time the pharaohs ruled Egypt and the Greeks worshiped Zeus.
Over the centuries, Sun’s insights have made him a household name in China, despite his murky historical origins. But two millenniums have also transmogrified Sun and his work into something no one could have foreseen: an international cottage industry that touts him as a self-help guru and his book as a must-read for anyone wanting to succeed in politics, the boardroom, even the boxing ring.
Its lessons in combat tactics and troop management have made “The Art of War” a standard text in business school classes from Malaysia to Massachusetts in recent years. For inspiration in waging election campaigns, the late Lee Atwater, a cunning political consultant, always kept handy his marked-up copy of the book, which he called “the most succinct strategy document ever written.”
Other adherents include super-agent Michael Ovitz and boxing promoter Don King. Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, now at Texas Tech, was fond of intoning passages from “The Art of War” during interviews.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Internet was abuzz with conversation among fans who combed the treatise for clues to the terrorists’ mind-set and tactics and to how the U.S. might respond.
The book is a slender volume peppered with vivid metaphors and memorable one-liners perfect for today’s sound-bite era. Devotees quote from it the way literature lovers cite Shakespeare.
Want to beat your competition at its own game? Then “know your enemy and know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will never face defeat,” as one of Sun’s most famous proverbs goes. Another well-known aphorism reminds aggressors that the ablest leaders know how to win fights without fighting. Good preparation is crucial.
“War is a deceitful game,” Sun wrote. Therefore, espionage, disinformation, mind games and stealth are all legitimate weapons in a skillful warrior’s armory.
Exploit your enemy’s weaknesses, Sun counseled. Sow confusion in his ranks. Be flexible. And remember: “Speed is everything.... An army should move as fast as a gale ... [and] act as suddenly as a thunderclap.”
Such pithy pearls of wisdom have turned Sun into arguably the best-known ancient Chinese thinker in the West after Confucius, who was roughly one of his contemporaries.
That Sun continues to captivate so many people from around the world, in so many walks of life, is a point of pride in the land of his birth.
“This book has spanned both time and space. Two thousand years later, it’s still popular and shows a lot of vitality,” said Xie Guoliang, past president of the Sun Tzu Research Society in China. “It’s China’s treasure--and the world’s treasure too.”
Many of his ideas are now figures of everyday speech in China, such as “Yi yi dai lao,” a loose equivalent of “Pick your battles.” Teachers commonly use the phrase to admonish students to conserve their strength for their college-entrance exams.
One of Beijing’s biggest bookstores stocks more than 100 titles applying Sun’s precepts to everything from business deals to romantic relationships.
Likewise, Amazon.com offers dozens of books that expound or expand on Sun’s principles. One translation of his book recently ranked among the Web site’s 100 bestsellers.
Sales got a big boost last year when Tony Soprano, the navel-gazing Mafia don on the hit show “The Sopranos,” confessed his admiration of “The Art of War” to his therapist. A paperback version put out by Oxford University Press jumped from selling fewer than 1,000 copies a month to 16,000 in the month after the episode aired, with an extra printing of 25,000 to meet demand, said Sara Leopold, Oxford’s U.S. spokeswoman.
The publishing house followed up with an ad campaign aimed at business executives (“Tony Soprano fears no enemy. Sun Tzu taught him how.”) and another marketing push around Father’s Day (“For the head of your family”).
“It’s always one of our top sellers. Even currently it’s the No. 2 book we sell to Barnes & Noble,” Leopold said. “You can sort of dip into it. It’s a classic, and people recommend it to each other.”
Yet for all his enduring popularity centuries after he led soldiers with crossbows and chariots into battle, very little is known about Sun--only stray facts and stories passed down in legends and some ancient historical records.
Tradition holds that Sun lived around the 6th to 5th century BC, the “Spring and Autumn” period in China when the land was carved up among feuding regional states.
He was born Sun Wu to an aristocratic family with a military background. (Sun Tzu, as he is now universally known, means “Master Sun.”) As a young man, he attached himself to the lord of the state of Wu, who was looking nervously over his shoulder at a bigger, stronger neighboring kingdom, the Chu.
At the time, Sun was apparently a neophyte when it came to battle, but he had a brilliant mind able to summarize and synthesize the military philosophy he’d absorbed from his family. According to tradition, he presented his patron with a 13-chapter volume on how to wage war effectively, covering such topics as troop deployment, fake-out techniques, the use of spies, political support back home and the vagaries of terrain and weather.
“War is a matter of vital importance to a state, involving life or death, survival or doom,” the book begins solemnly, “so it calls for serious study.”
Records say that Sun’s first foray into combat proved wildly successful. Through cunning stratagems, which involved crying “wolf"--or “war"--enough times to lull the Chu forces into complacency, the lord of Wu was able to defeat his more powerful rival.
After that, details about Sun virtually disappear from historical archives.
His war manual lived on, added to by scores of Chinese commentators through the ages with their own musings and interpretations of Sun’s thought. The earliest known copy is one discovered in Shandong province, written on bamboo strips sometime during the Western Han period (approximately 202 BC to AD 9).
Whether “The Art of War” was actually penned by Sun, or put together later by his heirs and apprentices, has become subject to debate among scholars.
Whatever its true authorship, the influence of the book on modern warfare is astonishing. Napoleon is reputed to have read it. After World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm allegedly moaned that Germany wouldn’t have lost if he had known of Sun’s teachings beforehand.
Mao Tse-tung used it to bring the Communists to power in China. To this day, officers of the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest standing military force, study Sun’s doctrines.
A decade ago, “The Art of War” surfaced during the Persian Gulf War. Copies of the book traveled with U.S. Marines to Saudi Arabia; the Marine Corps even sent out versions of the book on tape for troops to listen to on their Walkmans.
Retired U.S. Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, a former ambassador to China, has been a fan since he read the book as a cadet.
Prueher says he drew on Sun for guidance while serving in Vietnam and the Middle East, and later back in the U.S. while helping the Navy develop strike tactics, especially the use of surprise and deception. “I haven’t ever found things he’s said to be wrong, which is pretty good,” Prueher said.
Last year, when the Chinese government detained 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing in southern China, “I dragged out Sun Tzu again and said, ‘How are they [Chinese officials] thinking about this?’” recalled Prueher, who was in his final month as U.S. ambassador at the time.
Beijing’s aggressive attitude made Prueher think of an injunction by Sun about dissembling: Act strong when you’re weak, and act weak when you’re strong.
“When someone’s overbearing, you think, OK, where’s their weak point here? What are they trying to cover up?” Prueher said.
Eventually, Prueher and other U.S. officials were able to devise a strategy to win release of the crew. Part of it, insiders say, played off Beijing’s apparent desire to quickly publicize U.S. statements of regret over the death of a Chinese fighter pilot in the collision that brought down the American craft and over the spy plane’s landing.
Beijing’s eagerness to broadcast its “victory” gave the U.S. some leverage, echoing Sun’s injunction to “wrest from [the enemy] what he cherishes most, and he will have to comply with your wishes.”
Nowadays, however, Sun’s theories are more likely to be applied to more mundane activities, such as making money.
Undeterred by the book’s complete lack of a plot, Hollywood released a film two years ago loosely based on “The Art of War,” a thriller of the same name starring Wesley Snipes that took in $30.2 million at the box office amid mixed reviews and a confusing story line. Another cinematic adaptation, starring Jackie Chan, is in the works by a Hong Kong production company.
Off screen, Sun’s work is regularly cited by CEOs as the book that has had the most impact on the way they do business. They follow his cues on good leadership and try to find ways to outflank their opponents.
For Dorothy Famiano of DigitalBay.net, a small Web development company based in Florida, one of the most helpful lessons she took away from “The Art of War” was the need to be flexible, to modify battle plans as conditions shift.
“I compete with some of the largest development companies in the world. I’ve gone in with a best-laid plan, and my competitors have blown me away,” she said. But after regrouping, proposing new ideas and pointing out her company’s strengths and her competition’s weaknesses, Famiano has beaten out bigger rivals for contracts.
“You have to be constantly ready for change,” she said. “And you have to be ready to counterattack from all angles.”
The capitalist graveyard is littered with the corpses of companies that failed to follow principles outlined by Sun, argues Mark McNeilly, a marketing strategist for IBM and the author of “Sun Tzu and the Art of Business.”
Take faltering discount chain Kmart. It “tried to out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart.” McNeilly said. “They attacked Wal-Mart on its biggest strength, which is its cost model. Well, no one out-Wal-Marts Wal-Mart. It failed.”
In the West, generals and tacticians often think of matching strength against strength and trying to overpower an opponent that way. “Sun Tzu is more about finding where my opponent’s weakness is,” McNeilly said, adding, “In the West, that might be considered somewhat unfair.”
Others might consider it common sense.
In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of “The Art of War” is that it simply states the obvious, that it contains nothing a 12-year-old wouldn’t instinctively know going into a fight against a schoolyard bully: Size up your strength and his weakness. Fool him if you can. Strike fast. Retreat if necessary.
But Sun Tzu was the first to integrate these ideas and lay them out in systematic, logical and vivid fashion, his acolytes contend.
“You could say a lot of the things in the book should be common sense. But evidently they’re not,” said DigitalBay’s Famiano, “because the people who use the book religiously seem to be the most successful.”