On March 25 2023, Facebook page “The Other 98%” shared a quote attributed to Sun Tzu; several individual Facebook users followed suit with various iterations of the phrase and attribution:
An evil man will burn his own nation to the ground to rule over the ashes. – Sun Tzu
In chronological context, it seemed likely that “The Other 98%” was referencing former United States President Donald Trump. On March 25 2023, Trump followed through on his controversial decision to hold a rally in Waco, Texas:
Sun Tzu was a military strategist and philosopher born in what is now China around 544 BCE. Although details of his life are sketchy, he remains a well-known historical figure who is credited with writing The Art of War, a significant work that provides his perspectives on war, battles, and diplomacy.
Sun Tzu’s writings were well-documented, leaving little room for “new” material to be “found” by the internet millennia after he lived and died:
The Art of War is a systematic guide to strategy and tactics for rulers and commanders. The book discusses various maneuvers and the effect of terrain on the outcome of battles. It stresses the importance of accurate information about the enemy’s forces, dispositions and deployments, and movements. This is summarized in the axiom “Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat.” It also emphasizes the unpredictability of battle and the use of flexible strategies and tactics. The book’s insistence on the close relationship between political considerations and military policy greatly influenced some modern strategists. Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists took from The Art of War many of the tactics they utilized in fighting the Japanese and, later, the Chinese Nationalists.
Google Trends data demonstrated a spike in searches for “Sun Tzu” on March 26 and 27 2023. In the seven-day period ending March 27 2023, Google Trends measured “Breakout” levels of interest in searches for “an evil man will burn down …,” the first part of the phrase.
Unsurprisingly, Wikiquote’s entry for Sun Tzu was extensive; it included a “Discussion” tab. Neither “ashes” nor “evil” appeared in the main portion of the page, the latter appearing once in a quote marked “Misattributed”:
The true objective of war is peace.
- This attributed to Sun Tzu and his book The Art of War. Actually James Clavell’s foreword in The Art of War states, “‘the true object of war is peace.'” Therefore the quote is stated by James Clavell, but the true origin of Clavell’s quotation is unclear. Nonetheless the essence of the quote, that a long war exhausts a state and therefore ultimately seeking peace is in the interest of the warring state, is true, as Sun Tzu in Chapter II Waging Wars says that “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” This has been interpreted by Lionel Giles as “Only one who knows the disastrous effects of a long war can realize the supreme importance of rapidity in bringing it to a close.”
A search for the quote led to other variations on social media. Six days after the January 6 2021 Capitol insurrection, a Reddit account shared a variation on it to r/quotes in a clear commentary on the news cycle at that time:
In the 2021 post embedded above, “an evil man” was phrased as “an evil enemy.” A search for Sun Tzu and “rule over the ashes” returned 11,000 results in total — the first being a January 6 2021 tweet:
We restricted the same search for Sun Tzu and “rule over the ashes,” limiting results to anything published on or before December 31 2020. In total, 11,000 results narrowed to 19, most of which were misdated social media posts published after January 6 2021.
In the comments of the November 2020 Facebook post, one user asked about the authenticity of the quote. One response linked to a February 2014 blog post by author and researcher David G. Jones, addressing an array of misquotes.
Jones, who authored a book about Sun Tzu’s works (The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires Without War), explained in his post:
These are invented, borrowed or just plain stupid quotes attributed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Some of this comes from bad translation, but most is either Hollywood or fortune cookies. If your Sun Tzu: Art of War has any of these “quotes” you have a clearly inferior rendition. That assessment is based on twenty years’ research … All of the following [quotes] appeared on Internet “quote” sites and elsewhere on social media. When I come across these erroneous statements, I contact the authors and suggest they look at a more authoritative Sun Tzu text – such as my own.
(The grammar and spelling errors are not mine).
An evil enemy, will burn his own nation to the ground….to rule over the ashes.
On March 25 2023 (and in January 2021), a quote attributed to Sun Tzu circulated: “An evil man will burn his own nation to the ground to rule over the ashes.” In January 2021, the quote differed slightly: “An evil enemy will burn his own nation to the ground to rule over the ashes.” Neither quote originated with Sun Tzu, and the latter appeared on a list of misquotes compiled by Jones. We found no versions of the quote shared prior to October 2020; it was possible Jones routinely included new misattributions in the form of updates. Although the quote clearly struck a chord with social media users, it was not the writing of Sun Tzu.