Famous people who may never have existed

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has long been revered as the preeminent guidebook on how to properly wage war. So who better to advise than someone like Tzu, an ancient Chinese military leader and warrior who knew how to fight and win? He also knew how to motivate his charges, reportedly beheading two men popular with the king, just to show the other courtesans nobody was safe from punishment and discipline.

But now, people wonder if Sun Tzu was real at all. As History.com explains, scholars currently know nothing about where The Art of War came from, only that it would randomly appear — usually on sewn-together bamboo slabs — for whatever military person or scholar needed it. There’s no record of “Sun Tzu” promoting himself as the author, going on book tours, or anything of that sort, and even the story of him beheading those poor courtesans is unsourced and quite possibly a myth.

It stands to reason “Sun Tzu” is a pen name, and Art of War’s contents are cobbled together from generations of Chinese military lessons, theories, and strategies. Considering how people worldwide are still reading and learning from it, thousands of years after it first appeared, it’s clearly solid advice. It just probably didn’t come from the mind of one cruel military genius.