So why do some scholars doubt Sun Tzu's existence in the first place? There are three main reasons why:
(1) The primary record of the Spring and Autumn period (722 BCE - 481 BCE), the Tso chuan (written by Tso Ch'iu-ming [5th century BCE]), didn't mention Sun Tzu. If Sun Tzu's contributions were that exceptional, why wouldn't his name be included in Tso chuan, arguably the most important historical record of this time period? The answer might be that Sun Tzu was a later invention.
(2) Anachronisms in the weapons and equipment and the number of troops employed. Scholars have pointed out that during the traditional timeline of Sun Tzu's life, from 544 BCE to 496 BCE, crossbows weren't developed yet and armies numbering 100,000 soldiers weren't seen until the Warring States period (403 BCE - 221 BCE). Given the above, why were crossbows and armies of 100,000 soldiers mentioned in Sun Tzu's Art of War? The book seems out of place and that calls its authorship into question.
(3) Sun Tzu was another name for Sun Pin (died 316 BCE) or Wu Tzu-hsu (died 484 BCE). The assertion here is that when records mentioned Sun Tzu (meaning Master Sun), they really meant Sun Pin. Some modern scholars such as Victor Mair, whose translation Sonshi.com ranks as #1, hold this view. An Art of War scholar by the name of Chang Ch'i-yun (20th century) proposed that Sun Wu -- Sun Tzu's given name -- was actually Wu Tzu-hsu, the top adviser and chief military commander for King Ho Lu (514 BCE - 496 BCE). Thus Wu Tzu-hsu was the one who wrote The Art of War, not the invented personage Sun Wu.
Now let us review and respond to each assertion, respectively:
(1) The primary record of the Spring and Autumn period (722 BCE - 481 BCE), the Tso chuan (written by Tso Ch'iu-ming [5th century BCE]), didn't mention Sun Tzu. Just because a major record like Tso chuan didn't mention an individual doesn't mean he or she didn't exist. This especially makes sense in Sun Tzu's case because he didn't hold an official title in King Ho Lu's court. He was an outside adviser, relatively young (in his mid-30s), and reported to Wu Tzu-hsu, King Ho Lu's top general. The Tso chuan reminds me of business publications of today, where many will mention the CEO's contribution to a company's success but few will ever dig deeper than a VP's contribution no matter how exceptional the manager.
Fortunately, Sun Tzu's performance was outstanding enough to have been mentioned in the Shih chi (written by Ssu-ma Ch'ien [145 BCE – 86 BCE]), Wu Yue Chun Qiu (written by Chao Yeh [between 206 BCE - AD 220]), Han Fei Tzu (280 BCE – 233 BCE), and Hsun Tzu (310 BCE - 220 BCE). The Shih chi and Wu Yue Chun Qiu provided specific accounts of Sun Tzu's actions in King Ho Lu's court and military campaigns. Both books also corroborate each other in the major details regarding Sun Tzu's biography, which gives credence to Sun Tzu's significant contribution to the state of Wu's extraordinary military successes during King Ho Lu's reign.
(2) Anachronisms in the weapons and equipment and the number of troops employed. Indeed the crossbow wasn't generally in use until the Warring States period (403 BCE - 221 BCE), but many ancient Chinese weaponry historians agree that the crossbow first appeared in the state of Ch'u in the early 5th century BCE and was commonly used there by the 4th century BCE.
Now I ask: what large state do you think the state of Wu conquered with Sun Tzu's assistance in 506 BCE? The state of Ch'u! So although this is still an earlier date than the known date of crossbow technology development, both the general timeline and specific place are eerily close and relevant to that technology. After all, it is not inconceivable that weapons technology timelines would be pushed back earlier with each new military archaeological discovery.
However, what is most convincing to me regarding the appropriate connection of The Art of War's traditionally accepted composition date (512 BCE) to its specified technologies is what the book failed to include: cavalry. Experts differ as some believe there was no evidence of mounted horse riders until 300 BCE while others agree that there were mounted horse riders by the end of the Spring and Autumn period (722 BCE - 481 BCE). Sun Pin (died 316 BCE) proposed cavalry as a viable option in battle. In addition, Sun Tzu mentions horse chariots but not cavalry, indicating that horses were available but technologies such as stirrups and saddles were not developed yet.
What I can conclude from the preponderance of the above evidence on cavalry is if The Art of War was written during the Warring States period (403 BCE - 221 BCE) as some Sun Tzu's doubters believe, the omission of cavalry would be so glaring, that it would be practically impossible for an experienced military general to have ignored such an important element of battle, especially given Sun Tzu's emphasis on speed. Therefore, since The Art of War didn't mention cavalry, it is highly probable that The Art of War was written at a time before the Warring States period as traditionalists believe.
Regarding the size of the army, Sun Tzu mentions an army numbering 100,000 soldiers. Many scholars have argued this size of an army would not be common until the Warring States period. It might be possible that Sun Tzu used rounded numbers or perhaps used a more poetic sounding number, both of which I find rather unsatisfactory. A more plausible explanation is simply in Chapter Two of The Art of War, Sun Tzu underscored the high cost and seriousness of arming and mobilizing an army by using a realistic yet extreme example of employing 100,000 men -- quite easily the minimum number employed by the powerful state of Ch'u against the state of Wu during the Battle of Boju in 506 BCE.
(3) Sun Tzu was another name for Sun Pin (died 316 BCE) or Wu Tzu-hsu (died 484 BCE). The hypothesis that Sun Tzu and Sun Pin were the same individual had been largely been dispelled after the Yinqueshan Han slips were discovered in two Han dynasty (206 BCE – AD 220) tombs near the city of Linyi in Shandong Province in 1972. In the tombs, they found two distant works attributed to Sun Tzu and to Sun Pin, the latter whose discussion of military technologies were clearly more advanced than the former's. It also confirms (or at the very least doesn't disprove) the allegation that Sun Pin was a direct descendant of Sun Tzu, and that they are not one and the same person.
And regarding Wu Tzu-hsu being the same person as Sun Wu (Sun Tzu), if Sun Wu was Wu Tzu-hsu's puppet, then he would have failed King Ho Lu's real-time test on training the court women. The real purpose of Wu Tzu-hsu's recommendation of Sun Wu was to convince King Ho Lu via the use of an unbiased outsider that the king needed to mobilize his army. By passing Ho Lu's test, Sun Wu proved that he was clearly superior and was his own man, and thereby wouldn't require Wu Tzu-hsu's help to write The Art of War. Also, that both were named Wu means little in my view. I once worked for a company where four managers were named Tom or Thomas. Nobody confused us for being the same person except by a clerical mistake.
Let us not forget a certain fan of Sun Tzu by the name of Cao Cao (AD 155 – AD 220), a peerless academic, strategist, and military general. He said of Sun Tzu:
"Many books have I read on the subject of war and fighting; but the work composed by Sun Wu is the profoundest of them all ... Sun Tzu stands beyond the reach of carping criticism. My contemporaries, however, have failed to grasp the full meaning of his instructions, and while putting into practice the smaller details in which his work abounds, they have overlooked its essential purport." Cao Cao.
In addition, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, admired Sun Tzu's principles because it enabled him to conquer and unite All-Under-Heaven. Why would he admire the strategies of a fictional character since that would mean those strategies would be ineffective to achieve his aim? As Emperor, would he not have access to all of the necessary records at the time to disprove Sun Tzu's legitimacy? If Sun Tzu's Art of War were a work of fiction, would it not be a part of the countless books he ordered burned, yet it continued to be prized and preserved by Huang?
Sun Tzu's existence is further confirmed by King Ho Lu's mention of Sun Tzu's book containing 13 chapters as recounted in the Shih chi and Wu Yue Chun Qiu. How many chapters does The Art of War still have today? 13 chapters. Nobody questions that the book The Art of War with 13 chapters exists but somehow doubters refuse to credit Sun Tzu as the sole author. They believe that The Art of War is a result of multiple authors composing and continually updating the book at later dates, despite historical sources and archaeological discoveries that prove the contrary, e.g., the Han dynasty tomb's Art of War copy (206 BCE – AD 220) remained largely unchanged from the official Sung dynasty's copy (AD 960 - AD 1279) and that both copies contain 13 chapters, exactly as described in the Shih chi and Wu Yue Chun Qiu. The Art of War itself is simply too short of a text to have had multiple authors continually contribute to it outside of commentaries, that the book would have easily expanded beyond 13 chapters if it had.
Who in history had the indignity of having their existence questioned even when many differing records and later discovered records point to the affirmative? Doubters go so far as having to also question Sun Tzu's own given name, Sun Wu. I've heard from more than one scholar that Wu suspiciously means martial. Come on, they say -- sounds like someone made up the name to puff up a military strategy book. But couldn't they also make the same argument about the names of Wu Tzu-hsu or even the state of Wu?
Along the same line, how about the name of Sun Pin, Sun Tzu's direct descendant. Pin means kneecap. Due to the jealousy of a less abled competitor, P'ang Chuan, Sun Pin's kneecaps were removed as punishment thereby crippling him. Although physically disabled, his strategic mind was still supremely capable. Therefore, Sun Pin seems like a convenient name for a good revenge story (P'ang Chuan was eventually vanquished by Sun Pin), but nobody questions Sun Pin's existence nor his name. The answer seems to be there is no need to doubt unless there is clear evidence to support that doubt, and not relying on only speculation, which seems to be the case with Sun Tzu.
Just examining today's question purely on logic, let us apply the idea of Occam's razor: given two possibilities, the simpler one is usually better. In other words, the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is. Therefore, trying to prove Sun Tzu didn't exist requires more of a mental acrobatic act than accepting he did exist, especially given multiple records that distinctly mentioned Sun Tzu's name as a separate entity, his clear relationships with other historically proven figures, and his contributions during real historical events, not fantastical stories or fictional settings. Did the historians of these known records -- Shih chi, Wu Yue Chun Qiu, Han Fei Tzu, Hsun Tzu -- aim to intricately promote a myth or to simply pass on accepted accounts of a very human yet exceptional man?
How Sun Tzu left the state of Wu's service and how or when he died is anyone's guess. One hypothesis is Sun Tzu left like how Lao Tzu (604 BCE - 531 BCE) or Fan Li (born 517 BCE) left: he disappeared. US General Douglas MacArthur once said, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." I will share with you such a story about Sun Tzu's departure from the Tung-chou lieh-kuo-chih, a popular Ming dynasty (AD 1368 - AD 1644) novel based on historical materials from the Eastern Chou period (770 BCE - 256 BCE):
When [King] Ho Lu discussed comparative achievement in Ch'u's destruction, he ranked Sun Wu [Sun Tzu] first. Sun Wu was unwilling to occupy an official position, so he steadfastly requested permission to return to the mountains. The king had Wu Tzu-hsu detain him. Sun Wu personally addressed Wu Tzu-hsu,
"Do you know the Tao of Heaven? When summer goes winter comes; after spring returns autumn will arrive. The king now relies upon his strength flourishing; the four borders are free of worries; arrogance and pleasure will inevitably be born. Now when achievements are complete, failing to retire will invariably result in later misfortune. I am not trying to preserve myself alone, but I also want to preserve you."
Wu Tzu-hsu said he didn't find it to be so.
Sun Wu subsequently drifted away. Having been presented with several carriages of gold and silk, he scattered them all among the impoverished common people along his route. Later no one knew how he ended up.
"The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure." Sun Tzu's Art of War, chapter 10, verse 18.
Personally, I define Sun Tzu as leadership without a leader. That is to say, having grown up with a single mother, I had essentially adopted Sun Tzu and relied on his lessons to get me through my childhood years without guidance from a father figure, a role I have taken on with great pride for my own children. Did Sun Tzu ever lived? I hope I have already convinced you today that he did. But even if you believe Sun Tzu was a figment of someone's imagination, he certainly lived in my mind and heart as I realized the fruits of his lessons and he will continue to live on at Sonshi.com, where I reside every day.
And now for the big news: On January 18, 2017, China's President H.E. Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, where he not only quoted Sun Tzu but also prefaced the quote by highlighting that it was an effort to give an "explicit answer" to many people's question about what policies China will pursue. Here is his answer:
"First, China remains unchanged in its commitment to uphold world peace. Amity with neighbors, harmony without uniformity and peace are values cherished in the Chinese culture. The Art of War, a Chinese classic, begins with this observation, “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road to either survival or ruin. Hence it demands careful study.” What it means is that every effort should be made to prevent a war and great caution must be exercised when it comes to fighting a war. For several millennia, peace has been in the blood of us Chinese and a part of our DNA." H.E. Xi Jinping
If we continue to focus on current and future improvements that we can change, instead of past petty matters we cannot change, the world is in good position to achieve Sun Tzu's highest level of accomplishment: winning without fighting.
Thank you for reading.
“When two sides who consider each other enemies converge in armed struggle, for the moment they are no longer enemies. They are fellow human beings who face the same two choices that their ancestors did for centuries before them: to destroy each other or to prosper together.” The Art of War—Spirituality for Conflict: Annotated & Explained