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Understanding Sunzi’s The Art of War within the framework of Systems Thinking
By Henry Kwok

Sunzi might have written The Art of War some 2500 years ago but this classic masterpiece has remained relevant through the ages.

It has withstood the test of time. Great world leaders and military strategists through the ages had studied and applied its precepts in warfare. A modern day application is seen in the Desert Storm offensives when General Norman Schwarzkopf applied Sunzi’s principles of deception, speed and attacking the enemy's weakness. The book has become a required reading in the U.S. military academy. This speaks volume of its continuing influence that extends into modern military warfare.

It also has withstood the test with many varied applications. The main theme of the book may be on military warfare but its concepts and precepts have found applications in the field of politics, international affairs, sports, business management, litigations and beyond.



Early Chinese thinking contrasts sharply to the western emphasis on empirical verification. Chinese philosophy is largely based on the relationships among individuals within society and with nature. Thus it is largely guided by the systemic laws of nature and how things work in unison. The focus is not so much on how things work individually but more on how they relate, interconnect and act collectively in nature and society. This is underscored by the rich dialectic thoughts and proverbial wisdom as in the writings of Confucius in The Analects and in the writings of Laozi in his classic Dao De Ching. This also explains why these writings can find broad ranging applications even in our modern days and age. These writings are simply reflecting the universal truth on the way nature naturally works.

The writing of Sunzi shows the heavy influence from the systemic perspective of the Chinese philosophy of his times. Many articles and book have tried to reinterpret The Art of War but few have tried to distil the essence of his military concepts and precepts using the same systemic perspective of “holism” that Sunzi has used to put his thoughts together. We need to know how he thinks if we really want to unravel the “secret” underlying to his strategies.

Sunzi appears to be cognisant of the fact that what we get depends on how we act; how we act depends on how we plan; and how we plan depends on how we think. Thus this book, written in less than 7500 Chinese characters, is not a manual written with a promise of some magic formulae or best practices on what to think and do things efficiently. The book is more a philosophical treatise, intended to prod us towards thinking, how to think and do things effectively.

The obviously difference is this. We are trying to do things right in efficiency. We are trying to do the right things in effectiveness.

Thinking what to think has its limits. For one, when we fail to consider the core values and assumptions embedded in a “best practice”, the danger is that we can end up dealing with the symptoms instead of the root causes of a problem. On the other hand, thinking how to think will question the soundness of the core values and assumptions used in the analysis of a given situation. Herein lies the hidden beauty of the book. Sunzi is more concerned in addressing the root issues. He is using his profound insights to provoke us into thinking on the right track.

Those of us who consider The Art of War as operationally weak could have overlooked the very subtlety in Sunzi’s thinking - the rules of strategy are few and simple but tactics leading up to victory can be infinite. There are more ways than one to secure victory. This is from this context why Sunzi suggests successful tactics should not be repeated for this practice will make us predictable. Effective actions and counteractions during a war must be executed with elements of deception and surprises in flexible and timely fashions. There are more outcomes than one in victory. He encourages leaders to count the costs and to be prepared for unintended outcomes.

We need to see the three phases in strategic warfare – planning, preparation and finally execution for the grand finale. We can gain a better understanding of Sunzi’s thinking by framing his various stratagems and concepts into each of these phases.

We may not be able to deploy the right strategies and stratagems at the right time at the right place. But this skill in planning and implementing military strategies can be perfected into an ART with practice, even in seemingly peaceful times.

From this flow of ideas, we can see that the prize of getting the right strategies and tactics must emerge from a thinking process that is constantly adapting, learning and evolving. Modern management prizes performance highly but those who fail to institutionalise this thinking process often end up in dire straits. This thinking process does not accept everything out there. Sunzi anchors his thoughts with sound but basic principles on how to turn dangers into opportunities, to calculate risks and rewards, on how to be flexible, responsive and unpredictable at the battlefield to spring the element of surprise, on espionage to gain advance knowledge on the enemies’ plan, and so on.

This article will attempt to present some key thoughts in Sunzi’s Art of War using a basic “big picture” model as a framework. It will use the lens of the lateral simplicity of systems thinking to dot the various concepts and precepts of Sunzi and then connect them coherently as a form of artwork. Hopefully this article can provide a platform to study The Art of War in greater details and bring our understanding of the book to a higher level!

3 Key Relevant Concepts in Systems Thinking

There are many keys concepts in Systems Thinking but this article will focus on three.

  1. Level of Engagement
  2. Singularity of Event
  3. Complex Evolving Systems “Black Box” Model

Level of Engagement

Systems exist within larger systems, these larger systems exist within yet larger systems and this progression can go on. The level of engagement determines the level of control a given system has in bringing about the desired change. In situations where it has not control, then it has to use their influence to being about the desired changes.

At the state or national level, Sunzi tasks the ruler/leader to preserve peace by building a state par excellence that it can get what it desires from other states without fighting. The state must always remain on constant guard even in peace times. Thus it must continue to build and maintain their strength. It is from this position of strength that it can dictate terms on other states. Sunzi shows a preference for win-win collaborative relationships and abhors win-lose confrontations. He discourages the use of force as a desperate attempt for self-preservation or to annihilate the enemies. Such gambits can be costly. Force should only be used as a last resort! Even in victory, victors can become vulnerable to others if they have over-stretched their resources.

The citizens and the soldiers are to render their support to the state and army but they have no control over the running affairs of the states or the army. A general can command the army with the right military doctrine and control but it is his leadership and skills that has a greater influence on the morale and confidence of those under his command. He may not have control over the strategies opposing forces will adopt but he can influence their countermoves by how, where and when he deploys his troops.

The Singularity of Event

The environment changes as time changes. Thus no two events can be identical. Each event is singularly in nature. We need to assess every situation from this point of uniqueness. A Singapore company demonstrated how a seemingly sound decision could turn bad over the course of 2 years. Things can change. That company failed to buy over SCSI-floppy-disk maker but the opportunity re-surfaced 2 years later. They quickly grabbed the opportunity and lost on record $500 million. The speed in the developments of faster and higher capacity disk drive technology would make floppy disk drives obsolete very quickly.

Sunzi similarly sees each and every situation as unique. He wisely avoids recommending any “best practice.” Fads for the seasons, “best practices,” archetypal mind maps and the likes may not address the singular needs arising from each situation. At best, these tools can serve an end. It will be a mistake to become a serf to them! Perhaps it is from this perspective that Sunzi did not provide a manual. Instead he provides a thinking process to assess the unique setting of each situation in the “singularity in time.” He gets us to look at the emerging pattern of relationships arising from the interactions of the various factors in the situation.

Spaces - A Complex Evolving System "Black Box" Model

A Complex Evolving System (CES) is a complex collection of agents (which may represent cells, individuals, species, communities, army units, nation states). These agents interact dynamically in a network, in which each agent constantly will be acting and reacting in parallel to what the other agents are doing. Each agent will decide on rules of engagement with others - they will choose those they want to ignore, compete or co-operate with. In the process, new connections can be established and existing connections can change and evolve. Some interrelations will be strengthened, some weakened and others broken over a physical-space-time domain. Though the processes and structures within the system can influence how the agents will interact to a certain extent, these interactions can be largely complex, chaotic, random and unpredictable as well.

The system as a whole unit also will decide on the interactions to respond, tolerate or ignore. A pattern of behaviours will emerge to define the part played by each agent within the system and the part played by the system at a given point in time.

While all systems exist within their own environment, they are also part of that environment. When the agents scan their environment, they will find changes in the environment. They may find it necessary to respond to these changes in order to fit into the “new” environment. Since they are part of their environment, as they change, they also will be changing part of the environment as well. As the environment responses to these changes, the agents may find it necessary to change once again – and the process continues.

Complex adaptive systems and complex evolving systems are very similar in many ways. A common distinction is this – a complex adaptive system may adapt to the changes around them but they may not necessarily learn from the process. Whereas, a CES learns and evolves from each change enabling them to influence their environment, to better predict likely changes in the future, and to prepare for them accordingly.

In short, a CES is complex in that it has multiple interconnected diverse elements and it is evolving in that it is learning and changing from experience. Ambiguity and paradox can abound in complex systems but a CES can use these contradictions to create new possibilities to co-evolve with their environment.

A “black box” model can capture the essence of a CES. A CES has structures, processes and activities through which the agents convert inputs into outputs. External environmental factors affect the way it operates. It works on feedbacks which monitor actual outcomes against a set of the desired outcomes. Figure 1 shows the 5 basic phases - the operating environment, outputs, feedback, inputs and throughput - in an “open loop” Black Box model.

In opening lines of the first chapter on “Laying Plans”, Sunzi says that the art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are:

  1. Dao - The Moral Law
  2. Tian - Heaven
  3. Di - Earth
  4. Jiang - The Commander
  5. Fa - Method and discipline

Fitting each of Sunzi’s key precepts into each of these phases precisely is almost impossible. This is inevitable when re-interpreting the principles and precepts in any book. First is the insurmountable issue of semantics. Next Sunzi has framed his thoughts quite differently in his writing, thus his ideas cannot fall into squarely into the various phases. However we can break up his various concepts and precepts into “dots”, re-frame these dots into the right phases and then re-connect these dots to reach a better understanding of his book.

Fig. 1 - "Spaces": The Black Box Model to Strategic Thinking


For each of the phases, there is a strategic question:

  1. SURROUNDING: What have/may change in the environment? The prevalent and potential changes in the surrounding environment can have big impact on the ways we do things now and more importantly on the ways we need to do things very differently in the future. Each change can present both opportunities and threats. What must we do to capitalise on the opportunities and to minimise or reduce the threats

    These external environmental changes are beyond human control and are decreed by Sunzi’s concept of heaven or “tian.” Tian is typified by the time for night and day, good or inclement weather and seasonal changes.

  2. PURPOSE: What is the future we want create? Strategically we must start with the dream we want to realise. We must start with end in mind in terms of shared goals for the state and the populace. Sunzi’s concept of the “dao” refers to the common path or moral law – the shared vision, values and goals that inspire the people to follow their ruler or leader with little regard of fear and danger for their lives. Leaders must only know how to formulate the “dao” but also know how to binds the heart of the people towards the common goals.

  3. ARTICULATION: How do articulate the desired future in measureable terms? The difference between actual and desired outcomes will indicate the corrective actions needed to rectify the situation. Sunzi uses a matrix of seven “considerations” - the wisdom and ability of the ruler; the capabilities of the commander; the vantage position occupied by the army with regards to the terrain and environment; the discipline of the army; the strength and morale of the troop; the skills of the officers and men; and fairness in rewards and punishments. The military strength of a state is measured not so much by the score on each consideration but more by how well these considerations interplay with one another.

    This makes sense. We have seen every now and then teams comprising of top players losing to minnows in league games. It is not about how good each player is but it is how well the players combine as a team! This resonates with the two concepts of systems thinking in that the whole is primary and the parts are secondary and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The latter can exacerbate both the strength and the weaknesses of the parts on the whole. This embodies the need more for a dynamic cross-impact analysis of the factors under considerations than for a matrix based on static “score card” measurements.

  4. COMPETITIVE EDGE: What competitive edge do we need secure? What are our current strength and weaknesses in the context of the future we want create? The two concepts of Sunzi {di and jiang} will be relevant here. “Di” refers to the ground or situation as defined by the terrain of the battle ground. The terrain can be described in various ways - its vantage point, its distance from the base camp, the difficulty in traversing and its openness. A proficient commander/leader must know how to manoeuvre his troops and gain foothold of a more advantageous position before engaging the enemy. “Jiang” refers to the general, commander or leader. The skill level of the leader and his qualities in wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, discipline and etc play an important role in rallying the army and boosting its morale. He must acquire the skills to use the right “doctrine” and the right strategies and tactics to win the war. We can expand this concept of competitive edge beyond securing vantage position and leadership skill to include resources, knowledge and culture among other factors.

  5. EVOLUTION: How should we evolve to realise the future we want create? What are the corrective actions we need to take? How do we maximise our strength and minimise our weaknesses? How do we align the body, mind and spirit of the state or corporation to work together to realise the future? What are strategies and action plans must we plan, implement and sustain to transition towards the desired future?

    Whenever a state or corporation runs into troubles, the root causes can be found in one or more of the following misalignments – the body which concerns the issue of resources in money, provision and military supplies, talents, knowhow among others; the spirit which involves the issue of the heart; and the mind which deals with the issues of doctrine, processes of activities and structures within the states, army or organisation.

    Sunzi has very similar ideas. He uses the concept of “shi” which refers closely to “the alignment of forces,” the “propensity of things,” or the “potential born of disposition.” Only an astute strategist will know how to harness the potential of “shi” by aligning the various elements and action plans to gain victory even over a superior force. Aspects of “shi” are also found in Sunzi’s discussion of other concepts such as deception, stratagem, intelligence, deterrence, and so on.

    Sunzi uses the concept of “dao” to align the issues of the heart. We can expand this to mean the societal values and culture which unify the citizens of the states.

    He uses the concept of “fa”{or method and discipline or doctrine or art, as in "Art of War} to align the issue of the mind with strategies and action plans, supported by the right processes of activities and organisational structures. Here, among other things, the commander organises his chain of command; he outlines roles of the individuals and their responsibilities and accountabilities; he plans the routes for provision and military supplies to the army.

    The crux is this – we have to understand the subtle difference between strategic aims and strategies here. Strategic aims have more to do with the future we want to create and thus should remain fairly stable over a period of time. Strategies have more to do with means to an end or the strategic aim(s). Strategies have more to do with how we transition from where we are now to the future where we want to. Strategies have more to do with how we develop and align the resources, the heart of the people and the corporate culture to achieve the desired objectives. Thus, when the environment changes, the strategies and supporting action plans must change as well. Many strategies fail because they are treated as ends unto themselves. The inflexible strategies can prevent them from changing, adapting and evolving to respond in a timely fashion to the environmental changes. Sunzi keeps this evolution dynamically alive.

  6. SYSTEMS THINKING: How do we dot the various ideas and join them coherently? This calls for the need for holistic systemic thinking - instead of the fragmented approach in analytical thinking – to tie the various concepts together into a workable and understandable framework. While Sunzi’s concepts are vital to victory, nothing is more important than to study and master them during peacetime. It would be too late to seek advice and take remedial actions when the enemies are right at the door. Leaders, political and national, military and business alike, must practice and make strategic thinking their second nature. The fact that the model is an open loop means that “The Art of War” will require a continuous thinking and learning process to respond to changes around us. As the state changes, it will also change the environment. As it changes the environment so it must respond to such changes. The world does not stand still!


This article has barely scratched the surface but it can be the spring board from which more in-depth studies on Sunzi’s book on The Art of War can be conducted using Systems Thinking. One of the myths this article wishes to expose is that we do not need a modern definition for strategy. The basics for strategy formulation have been defined millenniums ago. What we need is to go back to basic and examine what has gone wrong with the way we plan and implement our strategies. The Art of Strategic Thinking is rarely understood.

In a certain way the approach taken by this article departs from the causal loops concept so popularly used. This article hopes to demonstrate that there are also other approaches to systems thinking. Systems thinking based on a “black box model” of living complex evolving systems is equally adept in helping one to look at systems. This approach tries to look at the big picture first, rather than the paint strokes. It tries to reduce the complex web of interlocking relationships to a model in simplicity. It will be less daunting and complex for those who prefer to look at the big pictures and for those of us who are less conversant in looking at causal loop diagrams.

If you know both yourself and your enemy,
you can come out of hundreds of battles without danger.


  1. The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, can be downloaded from . This will be a useful text to read in conjunction with this article
  2. The Hundred Schools of Thought were philosophers and schools that flourished from 770 to 221 B.C.E., an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China.
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