Deciphering Sun Tzu

How to Read 'The Art of War'

October 2014 9781849042420 256pp
February 2022 9781787387232 256pp
EU Customers


As the People’s Republic’s seemingly inexorable rise to economic and military power continues, never has the need for a better grasp of Chinese strategic thought by the West been more acute. In Deciphering Sun Tzu, Derek Yuen seeks to reclaim for the reader the hidden contours and lost Chinese and Taoist contexts of Sun Tzu’s renowned treatise The Art of War, a literary classic and arguably one of the most influential books ever written. He also explains its historical, philosophical, strategic, and cross-cultural significance. His comprehensive analysis of Sun Tzu, based on close reading of the Chinese sources, also reconstructs the philosophy, Taoist methodology and worldview that effectively form the cornerstones of Chinese strategic thinking, which are arguably as relevant today as at any moment in history. Yuen’s innovative reading and analysis of Sun Tzu within and from a Chinese context is a new way of approaching the strategic master’s main concepts, which he compares with those of Clausewitz, Liddell-Hart and other Western strategists. Deciphering Sun Tzu offers illuminating analysis and contextualisation of The Art of War in a manner that has long been sought by Western readers and opens new means of getting to grips with Chinese strategic thought.

Table of contents


Glossary of Chinese Terms and Expressions


Introduction: Sun Tzu in the West

1. The System of Chinese Strategic Thought

2. The Genesis of The Art of War

3. From Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu: The Completion of Chinese Strategic Thought

4. Deciphering Sun Tzu

5. The Successors of Sun Tzu in the West

6. On Chinese Strategic Culture





Deciphering Sun Tzu is by far the best book on the subject in years. … Yuen argues that the only way to read Sun Tzu is to understand the philosophical, historical, and cultural context behind The Art of War. … Yuen’s work reveals that Sun Tzu’s treatise needs to be seen in the context of statecraft as a broader cultural artifact rather than in the narrower context of war or strategy’. — Rob Johnson, Director of the Changing Character of War Programme, Oxford University, in The American Interest

‘Yuen puts Sun Tzu in context, identifying his debts to Chinese philosophy (particularly Taoism), providing historical background, guiding the reader through the key themes in his work, explaining common interpretations of it, and detailing its reception in the West. Yuen presents Sun Tzu’s view of strategic thought as holistic and nonlinear. This is not a book for the faint-hearted or for those skeptical about Sun Tzu’s approach to strategy. But anyone who wishes to understand Sun Tzu should not ignore it.’ — Lawrence Freedman, Foreign Affairs

‘Taking the oldest and most enigmatic of military texts Derek Yuen boldly confronts questions of philosophy and strategic culture as no other contemporary interpreter of Sun Tzu has done before. In a quite extraordinary work of erudition he demonstrates both the continuing significance of The Art of War in Chinese thinking and why our continuing misreading of the text is proving so damaging to our understanding of Chinese thinking.’ — Christopher Coker, Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of The Improbable War: China, the US and the Logic of Great Power Conflict

‘Derek Yuen has produced a fascinating re-interpretation of Sun Tzu. He casts a wide philosophical-cultural net in his quest to capture the essence of this timeless Chinese classic of strategy.’ — Andrew Scobell, Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation and author of China’s Use of Military Force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March

‘Derek Yuen’s exciting new book takes Sun Tzu studies to a new level. It goes beyond the existing translations of and commentaries on this canonical text to deploy its underlying, unique logic as it evolved through Daoist philosophy to serve as a foundation for developing a more comprehensive theory of strategic thought. It is a bold and profoundly philosophical attempt to rise above the familiar rationalisations of this antique text to register its seminal contribution to the holistic nature of Chinese thinking in its broadest sense.’ — Roger T. Ames, Professor of Philosophy, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Hawaii

‘Reading Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War by Derek Yuen is very much a light bulb moment for commentators on Western strategic thought.’ —  LSE Review of Books



Derek M.C. Yuen has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading. Based in Hong Kong, his research focuses on the strategic thought of Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu and Mao Zedong, with a view to developing more accurate readings of Chinese strategy and China itself.

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