It has been disputed by some historians whether Sun Tzu (pronounced Soon – zuh) was a real person or not. There is no argument however as to the value of his only contribution to the literary world and the realm of philosophy – The Art of War.
There is more evidence that supports the existence of Sun Tzu than not, especially the historical accounts of Sima Qian, author of the Shih chi, known in English as the Records of the Grand Historian. In these writings, Siam recounted Chinese History from the period of the Yellow Emperor until his own era, and he refers to Sun Tzu as a general and military strategist who was prominent during the Spring and Autumn Period which ran from 544BC until 496BC. Sima Qian’s account of Sun Tzu is reinforced by the writings in the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yueh, an account of the history of the ancient Chinese states of Wu and Yueh, that records Sun Tzu as having been born in the state of Wu. Historians generally agree that he lived from 544 BC to 496 BC.
The Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yueh refers to Sun Tzu as being an exceptionally astute military strategist who dwelled on the fringes of society, perhaps using the quiet of solitude to meditate on his military stratagems. Though relatively unknown to the general populace, the King’s personal advisor Wu Tzu-hsu was very familiar with the brilliance of Sun Tzu, and consequently the strategist was brought before King Ho-lu. By this time Sun Tzu had completed his book, and each time he finished reading a section to the King, the ruler was extremely impressed. When asked if his theories would hold true in practice, Sun Tzu proved their worth by transforming 180 women from the King’s court into a crack military unit in just a single session.
King Ho-lu appointed Sun Tzu as general of his forces, and using the genius general's strategies, they went on to defeat the powerful state of Ch’u in 506BC, following up with victories over the states of Chin and Ch’i in the same year. Sun Tzu’s fame quickly spread, and warlords around the country sought copies of his already famous book.
There is no record of Sun Tzu’s death, but the survival of his military text through a period of Chinese history which saw much of the nation's literary works destroyed in warfare is a testament to its immense value.
A brief history of Sun Tzu and the Art of War is entertainingly illustrated in this series of videos from The History Channel: