Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” Quiz



By: Marie Hullett

7 Min Quiz

Image: Liam Hudson/Moment/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Many revere "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, also called "The Sun Tzu," as one of the great treatises on military strategy. Addressed to a would-be commander, it describes suggestions to execute strategy and engage enemies in battle. Much like Machiavelli's "The Prince," it also offers all kinds of advice for the military commander on how to avoid or win without armed conflict through the use of deception, diplomacy and intrigue. 

"The Art of War" diverges somewhat from "The Prince" however, with regard to what kind of personal qualities the ideal commander should possess. Whereas "Machiavellian" conjures up images of a rakish tyrant, 'The Art of War" describes a "sage commander," a shrewd but benevolent military leader motivated by the desire to preserve the populace from harm. The text describes the personal qualities of the sage commander in detail, which lends the impression of a kind of Jedi master with a  commitment to settling differences peacefully whenever possible. 

To a Western audience, the text may feel quite foreign, in part due to its essential quality, the Tao. The Tao gives birth to all things, finds its expression in everything and yet remains "unmade." It possesses no distinct character or quality and instead harmonizes with nature. The sage commander changes their form constantly to suit unique circumstances, moves in the shadows and often appears to enemies only as a persona or series of mirages. "The Sun Tzu" tells us, "To be able to transform with the enemy is what is meant by 'spiritlike.'" 

So, even if you've never held a weapon or marched on the front lines, how much do you know about this essential ancient text? Fortunately, you don't have to go to war to find out. Instead, take the following quiz! 

Quentin Tarantino told of "True Romance." Sun Tzu, meanwhile, described "true victory." What is it?

"The Sun Tzu" stresses the importance of avoiding destructive action when possible. War is expensive, causes lasting suffering, deepens animosities and depletes resources. The best results are achieved without violence, i.e., the wisdom of nonaggression.


When we think of armies, we picture unstoppable forces and immovable objects. Which of the following represents the ideal of the army's shape?

The ideal state of the army in "The Sun Tzu" is to be like water. You must use the environment, avoid rigidity, withdraw when pursued, advance when the opportunity affords, so that the army can maintain its strength and chip away at its goal.


One of the challenges of interpreting the text comes from the fact that it contains novel Chinese concepts without Western equivalents. For example, do you know what "shih" means?

Shih is the power of the commander—with a catch. "The Sun Tzu" emphasizes that the power of the commander, although real, is the product of a complex series of relationships. Understanding the ruler's shih means understanding the ideological, political, military and environmental variables that act upon them. When those elements change, shih also changes, like the pieces on a chessboard over the course of a game.


Something to be harnessed by the commander is "chi." What is this?

Chi refers to the life force or vital energy that animates all living creatures. Since Chinese culture fails to draw a sharp distinction between spirit and material reality, chi occupies a type of gray zone for many Westerners. "The Sun Tzu" talks about chi as changing during the course of the day. "Morning chi is sharp, midday chi is lazy, evening chi is spent." "The Art of War" advises attacking when the enemy's chi weakens and avoiding attacking when strong.


Here's another example of one of these terms. What is a "node"?

"The Sun Tzu," in typical Chinese style, is about constant change and one's perception of those changes. As a result, there lies an emphasis on taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. A "node" is such an opportunity, characterized by all the factors converging in one's favor.


Chaos often arises and presents a challenge to the commander. According to "The Art of War," what is an appropriate response of a commander to chaos?

Like water, the commander must not fix on any one position, thereby protecting them from the threat of chaos. They should treat uncertainty as a friend, adjusting to the changing circumstances and allowing their form to change as necessary. The situation may worsen before it improves, but by focusing on the big picture, they can act at the precise moment the situation swings in their favor.


Commanders come in all shapes and sizes, but according to Sun Tzu, which qualities define them?

Although it seems counterintuitive, "The Art of War" describes the ideal commander as gentle. This quality comes stems from the possession of a profound knowledge of themselves, which in turn leads to the other three qualities.


We know the commander wants to avoid a war if possible, but if a fight breaks out what is their first priority?

The commander possesses a deep understanding of war and knows the importance of taking advantage of the dynamics at play. To the wise commander, going to war for personal gain or with an angry disposition will only invite disaster. According to Sun Tzu, the commander must always remind themselves their purpose is to preserve the people.


Before a war begins, Sun Tzu says that there's always a chance to avert it. What is the root of the destructive process in warfare?

The ideal commander recognizes their own aggression but doesn't indulge it. By remaining calm and focused, the commander resists the temptation to give in to anger, thereby denying the enemy something to fight against. According to Sun Tzu, the commander should respond to aggression by creating space, which in turn relaxes the situation.


Every qualified commander should know this one. A favorite tactic of the commander is to mess with the enemy's what?

The commander must avoid destructive action. By employing their knowledge of the environment, the commander can subtly shape the enemy's perceptions and guide them astray. As a result, the enemy may even believe they achieved a victory. This shouldn't bother the commander, however. If the commander understands the enemy's patterns of thought, they can identify the orthodox in their thinking and exploit it. According to Sun Tzu, demoralizing the enemy can be as effective as destroying them.


The commander and their sovereign's attitude toward the enemy's populace is akin to which of these common sayings?

By shaping the ground, the commander can help the enemy see the world in their way. Rather than destroy the enemy's country, the commander can utilize their resources during battle, recruit from the enemy's population and secure a lasting victory.


Not everything happens at once in war. In which order should the enemy be targeted?

Sun Tzu advises against attacking head-on, at least straight off the bat. Instead, the commander should first attempt to dismantle the enemy's strategy. Next, they should deconstruct alliances by breaking down their country's organization. As a last resort, the commander can engage the enemy's forces.


You probably already know what the definition of extraordinary is. However, in "The Sun Tzu," what is the "extraordinary"?

In "The Sun Tzu," the extraordinary is a tool harnessed through the formation of an accurate model of the enemy's perceptions and expectations. In this way, the extraordinary is a subjective quality. For example, in one instance, the extraordinary might be completely banal. But if the commander knows the blind spot in the enemy's worldview, it can be exploited—thus making it extraordinary.


By mastering the orthodox and the extraordinary, the commander creates _________. Can you fill in the blank to this "The Art of War" equation?

Shih is the constantly shifting configuration of one's power. Like a spin doctor, the commander creates expectations and then, when useful, diverges from the perception of the possible or likely. In doing so, the commander can lead the enemy into traps and constantly win battles.


In "The Art of War," Sun Tzu explains how the commander should treat their troops. Which of these sayings sums up his stance?

Sun Tzu says that the commander should observe how power naturally arises in the world in certain ways. People have inherent strengths and weaknesses; the commander should recognize them and use them accordingly. By understanding these dynamics, the commander can excel.


Although the commander wants to avoid all-out war, they must constantly engage the enemy little by little. Why?

The commander should constantly test the enemy to see how they handle certain situations and respond to specific tactics. With an intimate knowledge of the enemy, the commander's strength multiplies exponentially.


Sun Tzu regards the ideal commander as being without two things. What are they?

According to Sun Tzu, the commander must possess a rare, subtle self-knowledge that remains unfixed. As a result, the enemy will then view the commander as an enigma, or the commander may not even be on their radar at all. In "The Sun Tzu," the commander is often the complete opposite of what they appear to be.


According to the Tao, everything always changes, which is a central idea in "The Art of War." Why is remaining responsive to change important?

"The Art of War" stresses the improvisation of the present moment. In the absence of a sure method or body of knowledge to guarantee success, one can learn the patterns before engaging. As a result, you can spot the opportunities and use them creatively.


In "The Art of War," the army should be __________. Can you fill in the blank?

According to Sun Tzu, the army should serve as an extension of the leader's strategy. By constantly reenforcing bonds and remaining genuine, the commander creates a loyal group in the army. Thus, in this creation of mutual trust, the army can successfully execute the will of the commander.


Not all spies are alike. In "The Art of War," how many kinds of spies are there?

There are five kinds of spies: the native spy, the inner spy, the turned spy, the dead spy and the living spy. When the commander uses all these together, they form a "spirit-like web."


Attacking your enemy requires strategy. According to Sun Tzu, which of the following is an ideal attack tactic?

Let's face it: War is expensive. Quite practically, the book suggests using the enemy's resources to curb costs. If the commander can avoid the production and transport of all the necessary supplies, they can create a more dynamic force in the local environment. Without remaining frugal and strategic, war can easily impoverish a country.


Do you know why many of the commander's victories will remain unknown?

The commander should always utilize cunning tactics to avoid fighting or employ clandestine methods to subvert the enemy's plans. As a result, much of the action remains unnoticed, no one publicly takes credit for the defeats and, sometimes, the enemy has no idea they've even suffered.


Imagine that you move outside the grasp of the enemy's strategy. What happens then?

In "The Art of War," Sun Tzu does not deem retreat dishonorable. Instead, he describes the withdrawal and disintegration of forces as an ordinary, necessary part of an ongoing battle. The text warns against the creation of plans based on what the enemy "might" do, instead admonishing would-be commanders to rely on their own preparedness. With a solid escape plan always on hand, even defeats can become victories.


"The Art of War" is full of interesting metaphors. For example, what is the "bow unstrung"?

According to Sun Tzu, the bow unstrung is a wasted instrument. As an essential agent of the military, no army can succeed without a leader—no matter how strong the troops may be. The commander must lead so the army can follow. When this doesn't happen, chaos ensues.


You might have battled an overlord or two while playing Nintendo. How does "The Art of War" define overlord, though?

Sun Tzu composed "The Art of War" around roughly 300 B.C., when the Chinese states were still feudal territories controlled by kings. Sometimes, a king would attempt to wrangle a few kingdoms together and take charge of them. If these kings succeeded in their quest for domination, the public bequeathed them the honorary title of overlord.


Isaac Newton said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. According to Sun Tzu, "The more extreme your action ..."

The commander invites chaos when they undertake military actions. According to Sun Tzu, the commander must be prepared to deal with sustained period of chaos as well as anticipate the potential need to resolve it. Since according to the Sun Tzu, everything follows the general patterns of the Tao, the commander can anticipate the particularities that will arise from military action by studying the Tao carefully.


In ancient China, Sun Tzu identified nine kinds of ground to fight over. What is "light ground"?

"Light ground" opposes "heavy" ground, where the commander and their troops go deep inside enemy territory, surrounded by walled towns and fortifications. Another type of ground, "spread-out" ground, refers to rural areas like forests, swamps, mountains and narrow winding roads. Meanwhile, "junction" means a territory contested by three feudal lords.


"The Art of War" describes the different kinds of terrain soldiers fight on. What are the "forms of the earth"?

"Open" means both sides can meet there, while "hung" means you can get there, but returning might be tricky. "Stalled" refers to when both sides show up, but neither likes their position, so they both back away awkwardly. "Narrow" means there's only room for one army —most of the time, whichever side secures it first controls it until the other side moves in. "Steep" means if you fail to arrive first and secure the high ground, don't bother. Finally, "distant" means the "shih" is equal for both sides.


Victory is fivefold. Which of the following is an element of victory?

According to Sun Tzu, the other four elements of victory include knowing when one can and cannot do battle, knowing the use of the many and the few, the superior and inferior desiring the same, and being prepared while awaiting the unprepared.


Which Chinese commander claimed to have used "The Art of War" to defeat the nationalists?

Mao Zedong carried out a protracted guerrilla war in China, which eventually led to the establishment of the communist regime. For much of the campaign, the communists remained outgunned and outnumbered. They spent years on the run, retreating into remote parts of China again and again to convalesce and regroup. Mao Zedong claimed to have drawn inspiration from "The Art of War" and also made extensive use of it in his own writings on war.


According to "The Art of War," there are various important conditions of battle. What is one of them?

According to Sun Tzu, loyalty should be the troops' highest priority. Often, the commanders must keep their plans secret to avoid compromising them, which means that the troops must maintain the utmost trust and follow them wherever they guide them.


The Sun Tzu compares the close bond of the troops to the commander as ____________. Can you fill in the blank?

According to Sun Tzu, each troop should possess an intimate knowledge of their leader and share a personal connection to them. That way, when the commander speaks or give orders, they can humanize and therefore sympathize with their position.


In Ancient Greece, Ares is the god of war. In Rome, he became Mars. In Chinese mythology, who is the creator of warfare?

Besides inventing warfare, people maintain that The Yellow Emperor invented the calendar. They also dub him the common ancestor of all Chinese people. He possessed a cult of worship during the Han warring states period and remains a key mythological figure from pre-history.


Let's pretend that you're preparing for battle. According to "The Art of War," which of these battlefield recommendations should you follow?

Sun Tzu says, "one skilled at battle summons others and is not summoned by them." When you arrive first, you gain the advantage and can shape the ground in your favor. As a result, you can offer real or imagined threats to move the enemy where you want, dictate their focus and muddle their attention.


"Most deception goes unnoticed and the greatest deception ___________." Can you finish this famous sentence?

Take it from Sun Tzu: in war, being sneaky is good! Confirm other people's projections, even if they're wrong. Create a new reality to replace the one your enemy had before. Smoke and mirrors are your friends. If you're interested in seeing some of these principles in action, the classic Taiwanese film "Touch of Zen" and the Kurosawa film "The Seven Samurai" serve as excellent examples.


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