Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” Quiz

By: Marie Hullett

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” 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 enemy's unconditional surrender
Victory over aggression through understanding, which makes further conflict unnecessary
"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.
Capturing the enemy general before the battle
Retiring from service without losing a single battle

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

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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?
Weapons
The power of the ruler
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.
The battlefield
A famous horse

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Something to be harnessed by the commander is "chi." What is this?
Clairvoyance
Herbal tea
Vital energy
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.
The movement of the stars

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Here's another example of one of these terms. What is a "node"?
The spy
The diplomat
A group of soldiers
A moment to take action
"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.

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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?
Stamp it out right away.
Let it resolve itself.
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.
Create more chaos.
Surrender

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Commanders come in all shapes and sizes, but according to Sun Tzu, which qualities define them?
Meanness, strength, cunning, power
Knowledge, trustworthiness, courage, strictness
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.
Charisma, efficiency, candor, ruthlessness
Technical ability, humor, family connections

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We know the commander wants to avoid a war if possible, but if a fight breaks out what is their first priority?
To crush the enemy completely
To capture more territory
To preserve the people
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.
To get into the history books with some flashy maneuvers

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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?
Lack of communication
Political disagreements
Surrendering to aggression
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.
The desire for power

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Every qualified commander should know this one. A favorite tactic of the commander is to mess with the enemy's what?
Hair
Family
Lines of supply
Perception of the world
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.

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The commander and their sovereign's attitude toward the enemy's populace is akin to which of these common sayings?
"My way or the highway"
"Why can't we be friends?"
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.
"Love it or leave it"
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth"

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Not everything happens at once in war. In which order should the enemy be targeted?
Strategy, then alliances, then forces
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.
Forces, then strategy, then alliances
Alliances, then forces, then strategy
Strategy, then forces, then alliances

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You probably already know what the definition of extraordinary is. However, in "The Sun Tzu," what is the "extraordinary"?
Anything the enemy doesn't expect
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.
Something in excess
A rare skill
Different opinions

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

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In "The Art of War," Sun Tzu explains how the commander should treat their troops. Which of these sayings sums up his stance?
"One size fits all"
"Break them down, build them up"
"Horses for courses"
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.
"The more the merrier"

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Although the commander wants to avoid all-out war, they must constantly engage the enemy little by little. Why?
To discourage the enemy from attacking
To keep the enemy on their toes
To know the shape of the enemy
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.
To annoy the enemy

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Sun Tzu regards the ideal commander as being without two things. What are they?
A permanent residence and family
A fixed position and identity
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.
A bad temper and louche demeanor
A hidden agenda and a lust for fame

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According to the Tao, everything always changes, which is a central idea in "The Art of War." Why is remaining responsive to change important?
What goes around comes around.
If you hold to a single point, you lose the power of the whole pattern.
"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.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the nest.

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In "The Art of War," the army should be __________. Can you fill in the blank?
The manifestation of collective will
The logical extension of the state apparatus
The expression of the commander's strategy
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.
A stampeding herd

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Not all spies are alike. In "The Art of War," how many kinds of spies are there?
1
2
10
5
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."

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Attacking your enemy requires strategy. According to Sun Tzu, which of the following is an ideal attack tactic?
Use the enemy's resources to feed and supply your army.
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.
Always attack at night.
Keep all your forces together.
Divide your forces into small groups.

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Do you know why many of the commander's victories will remain unknown?
Because war is complete chaos.
Because they lie outside the sphere of most people's perception.
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.
Because you had to be there to understand.
Because the troops spread misinformation.

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Imagine that you move outside the grasp of the enemy's strategy. What happens then?
You let the enemy have the advantage.
You can eliminate the enemy.
You'll expose yourself to the enemy.
You cannot be attacked.
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.

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"The Art of War" is full of interesting metaphors. For example, what is the "bow unstrung"?
All talk, no action
Forces without leadership
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.
Surrender
Using your bow like a club

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You might have battled an overlord or two while playing Nintendo. How does "The Art of War" define overlord, though?
A tall person
A king of kings
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.
A supernatural being
A swear word

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Isaac Newton said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. According to Sun Tzu, "The more extreme your action ..."
"The better."
"The more detailed your foreknowledge must be."
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.
"The less extreme the result."
"The more the enemy will be surprised."

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In ancient China, Sun Tzu identified nine kinds of ground to fight over. What is "light ground"?
A battle that takes places during the day
A battle that takes place on dry ground
A battle with horses
A battle in enemy territory, but not too deep in enemy territory
"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.

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"The Art of War" describes the different kinds of terrain soldiers fight on. What are the "forms of the earth"?
Open, hung, stalled, narrow, steep, distant
"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.
Turf, road, walkway, patio
Fire, earth, wind, water
Snowy, wet, rocky, steep, narrow, desolate

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Victory is fivefold. Which of the following is an element of victory?
The general being capable and the ruler not interfering is 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.
The general is cunning and lies to their troops.
The officers are hungry for glory and sharpen their swords all night.
The villagers are gleeful with the prospect of victory and prepare a feast.

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Which Chinese commander claimed to have used "The Art of War" to defeat the nationalists?
Chou Enlai
Mao Zedong
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.
Chiang Kai-Shek
Puyi

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According to "The Art of War," there are various important conditions of battle. What is one of them?
That soldiers be informed of the plan beforehand
That soldiers be kept in the dark about the plan beforehand
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.
That the commander dictate his plans at the last minute
That the officers only take the commander's orders as a loose guide

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The Sun Tzu compares the close bond of the troops to the commander as ____________. Can you fill in the blank?
"Jumping off a cliff one after the other"
"Falling backward into each other's arms"
"Taking them by the hand as if leading a single person"
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.
"Finishing each other's sentences"

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In Ancient Greece, Ares is the god of war. In Rome, he became Mars. In Chinese mythology, who is the creator of warfare?
The Dragon Overlord
The Yellow Emperor
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.
The Celestial Charioteer
The Panda

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Let's pretend that you're preparing for battle. According to "The Art of War," which of these battlefield recommendations should you follow?
Carb-loading
Put your armor on the night before and sleep in it
Arrive first at the battlefield
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.
Color-code your uniforms

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"Most deception goes unnoticed and the greatest deception ___________." Can you finish this famous sentence?
Belongs to the commander
Leaves no trace
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.
Is the straw that breaks the camel's back
Has to be seen to be believed

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