The Concept of “Interests” in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”

Aug. 13 (China Military Article released by “China Military Power Mashup”) — ‘Every existing culture in the world has developed its own concepts of warfare, and every midtary philosophy is embedded with traces of its cultural traditions. It’s imperative that a country’s traditional military thought is studied before its strategic mindset can be grasped The Art of War, written by Sunzi, also known as “Sun Tzu,” in 512 B.C, has been podshed and passed down for thousands of years. It is the crystallization of traditional Chinese military thought. The concept of “interests” rooted in this classic work provides a window through which current Chinese military thought can be interpreted.

Waging war to further one’s own interests and seeking benefit from waging war have been the most essential elements in the contemplation of war. Composed of 13 chapters, The Art of War comprises only a few thousand words, but the character “li” (meaning interests) appears 51 times in the book. It’s justifiable to say that a certain section of every one of the 13 chapters is devoted to the discussion of “li.” The pursuit of “li” is both the starting point and target of Sunzi’s military philosophy. “Li,” or interests within the framework of Sunzi’s military philosophy, is threefold: military interests in war; the national interests of states involved in war; and the interests of “tianxia” (literally referring to “the whole world,” but here referring to broader interests beyond the national horizon).

Military interests are the major concern during times of war. Sunzi believes that one should seek the greatest possible interests at the least cost and add to one’s own military capabilities while defeating the enemy. In one simple example, he suggests that in waging war, one should “rely on the enemy for provisions” for “one zhong of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own and one shi of the enemy’s fodder to twenty shi of one’s own.” By seeking provisions for one’s own troop from the enemy, one cannot only guarantee logistics, but undermine the enemy’s ability to fight, thus maximizing the benefits generated from the battle.

The national interest is the fundamental pursuit in considering war. Sunzi opens his treatise by proclaiming, “War is a matter of vital importance to the state; a matter of life or death, the road either to survival or to ruin. Hence, it is imperative that it be studied thoroughly.” This highlights the close relations between war and the national interest. With national strategy in mind, he proposes the military principle,”Concentrate and move when it is advantageous to do so; when not advantageous, stay put.” He puts the state and people’s benefits as the fundamental starting point of the deployment of troops. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods in which Sunzi lived, the various kingdoms were constantly waging war with one another. The end of one battle usually signaled the start of another. It seemed that no reasons were needed to start wars in this social context, but Sunzi specifically pointed out that “a sovereign cannot launch a war because he is enraged, nor can a general fight a war because he is resentful,” warning sovereigns against waging war on impulse. He believed the national interest should always be the basic starting point


  1. How the non-han populations feeling about this 5 part strategic peace plan?

  2. American military thought flies in the face of these principles.

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