The Art of War, by Sun Tzu

xi. The Nine Situations

1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war recognizes nine varieties of ground: (1) Dispersive ground; (2) facile ground; (3) contentious ground; (4) open ground; (5) ground of intersecting highways; (6) serious ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) hemmed-in ground; (9) desperate ground.

2. When a chieftain is fighting in his own territory, it is dispersive ground.

[So called because the soldiers, being near to their homes and anxious to see their wives and children, are likely to seize the opportunity afforded by a battle and scatter in every direction. “In their advance,” observes Tu Mu, “they will lack the valor of desperation, and when they retreat, they will find harbors of refuge.”]

3. When he has penetrated into hostile territory, but to no great distance, it is facile ground.

[Li Ch‘uan and Ho Shih say “because of the facility for retreating,” and the other commentators give similar explanations. Tu Mu remarks: “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.”]

4. Ground the possession of which imports great advantage to either side, is contentious ground.

[Tu Mu defines the ground as ground “to be contended for.” Ts‘ao Kung says: “ground on which the few and the weak can defeat the many and the strong,” such as “the neck of a pass,” instanced by Li Ch‘uan. Thus, Thermopylae was of this classification because the possession of it, even for a few days only, meant holding the entire invading army in check and thus gaining invaluable time. Cf. Wu Tzu, ch. V. ad init.: “For those who have to fight in the ratio of one to ten, there is nothing better than a narrow pass.” When Lu Kuang was returning from his triumphant expedition to Turkestan in 385 A.D., and had got as far as I-ho, laden with spoils, Liang Hsi, administrator of Liang-chou, taking advantage of the death of Fu Chien, King of Ch‘in, plotted against him and was for barring his way into the province. Yang Han, governor of Kao-ch‘ang, counseled him, saying: “Lu Kuang is fresh from his victories in the west, and his soldiers are vigorous and mettlesome. If we oppose him in the shifting sands of the desert, we shall be no match for him, and we must therefore try a different plan. Let us hasten to occupy the defile at the mouth of the Kao-wu pass, thus cutting him off from supplies of water, and when his troops are prostrated with thirst, we can dictate our own terms without moving. Or if you think that the pass I mention is too far off, we could make a stand against him at the I-wu pass, which is nearer. The cunning and resource of Tzu-fang himself would be expended in vain against the enormous strength of these two positions.” Liang Hsi, refusing to act on this advice, was overwhelmed and swept away by the invader.]

5. Ground on which each side has liberty of movement is open ground.

[There are various interpretations of the Chinese adjective for this type of ground. Ts‘ao Kung says it means “ground covered with a network of roads,” like a chessboard. Ho Shih suggested: “ground on which intercommunication is easy.”]

6. Ground which forms the key to three contiguous states,

[Ts‘au Kung defines this as: “Our country adjoining the enemy’s and a third country conterminous with both.” Meng Shih instances the small principality of Cheng, which was bounded on the north-east by Ch‘i, on the west by Chin, and on the south by Ch‘u.]

so that he who occupies it first has most of the Empire at his command,

[The belligerent who holds this dominating position can constrain most of them to become his allies.]

is a ground of intersecting highways.

7. When an army has penetrated into the heart of a hostile country, leaving a number of fortified cities in its rear, it is serious ground.

[Wang Hsi explains the name by saying that “when an army has reached such a point, its situation is serious.”]

8. Mountain forests,

[Or simply “forests.”]

rugged steeps, marshes and fens — all country that is hard to traverse: this is difficult ground.

9. Ground which is reached through narrow gorges, and from which we can only retire by tortuous paths, so that a small number of the enemy would suffice to crush a large body of our men: this is hemmed in ground.

10. Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay, is desperate ground.

[The situation, as pictured by Ts‘ao Kung, is very similar to the “hemmed-in ground” except that here escape is no longer possible: “A lofty mountain in front, a large river behind, advance impossible, retreat blocked.” Ch‘en Hao says: “to be on ‘desperate ground’ is like sitting in a leaking boat or crouching in a burning house.” Tu Mu quotes from Li Ching a vivid description of the plight of an army thus entrapped: “Suppose an army invading hostile territory without the aid of local guides:— it falls into a fatal snare and is at the enemy’s mercy. A ravine on the left, a mountain on the right, a pathway so perilous that the horses have to be roped together and the chariots carried in slings, no passage open in front, retreat cut off behind, no choice but to proceed in single file. Then, before there is time to range our soldiers in order of battle, the enemy is overwhelming strength suddenly appears on the scene. Advancing, we can nowhere take a breathing-space; retreating, we have no haven of refuge. We seek a pitched battle, but in vain; yet standing on the defensive, none of us has a moment’s respite. If we simply maintain our ground, whole days and months will crawl by; the moment we make a move, we have to sustain the enemy’s attacks on front and rear. The country is wild, destitute of water and plants; the army is lacking in the necessaries of life, the horses are jaded and the men worn-out, all the resources of strength and skill unavailing, the pass so narrow that a single man defending it can check the onset of ten thousand; all means of offense in the hands of the enemy, all points of vantage already forfeited by ourselves:— in this terrible plight, even though we had the most valiant soldiers and the keenest of weapons, how could they be employed with the slightest effect?” Students of Greek history may be reminded of the awful close to the Sicilian expedition, and the agony of the Athenians under Nicias and Demonsthenes. [See Thucydides, VII. 78 sqq.].]

11. On dispersive ground, therefore, fight not. On facile ground, halt not. On contentious ground, attack not.

[But rather let all your energies be bent on occupying the advantageous position first. So Ts‘ao Kung. Li Ch‘uan and others, however, suppose the meaning to be that the enemy has already forestalled us, sot that it would be sheer madness to attack. In the SUN TZU HSU LU, when the King of Wu inquires what should be done in this case, Sun Tzu replies: “The rule with regard to contentious ground is that those in possession have the advantage over the other side. If a position of this kind is secured first by the enemy, beware of attacking him. Lure him away by pretending to flee — show your banners and sound your drums — make a dash for other places that he cannot afford to lose — trail brushwood and raise a dust — confound his ears and eyes — detach a body of your best troops, and place it secretly in ambuscade. Then your opponent will sally forth to the rescue.”]

12. On open ground, do not try to block the enemy’s way.

[Because the attempt would be futile, and would expose the blocking force itself to serious risks. There are two interpretations available here. I follow that of Chang Yu. The other is indicated in Ts‘ao Kung’s brief note: “Draw closer together”— i.e., see that a portion of your own army is not cut off.]

On the ground of intersecting highways, join hands with your allies.

[Or perhaps, “form alliances with neighboring states.”]

13. On serious ground, gather in plunder.

[On this, Li Ch‘uan has the following delicious note: “When an army penetrates far into the enemy’s country, care must be taken not to alienate the people by unjust treatment. Follow the example of the Han Emperor Kao Tsu, whose march into Ch‘in territory was marked by no violation of women or looting of valuables. [Nota bene: this was in 207 B.C., and may well cause us to blush for the Christian armies that entered Peking in 1900 A.D.] Thus he won the hearts of all. In the present passage, then, I think that the true reading must be, not ‘plunder,’ but ‘do not plunder.’” Alas, I fear that in this instance the worthy commentator’s feelings outran his judgment. Tu Mu, at least, has no such illusions. He says: “When encamped on ‘serious ground,’ there being no inducement as yet to advance further, and no possibility of retreat, one ought to take measures for a protracted resistance by bringing in provisions from all sides, and keep a close watch on the enemy.”]

In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march.

[Or, in the words of VIII. ss. 2, “do not encamp.]

14. On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem.

[Ts‘au Kung says: “Try the effect of some unusual artifice;” and Tu Yu amplifies this by saying: “In such a position, some scheme must be devised which will suit the circumstances, and if we can succeed in deluding the enemy, the peril may be escaped.” This is exactly what happened on the famous occasion when Hannibal was hemmed in among the mountains on the road to Casilinum, and to all appearances entrapped by the dictator Fabius. The stratagem which Hannibal devised to baffle his foes was remarkably like that which T‘ien Tan had also employed with success exactly 62 years before. [See IX. ss. 24, note.] When night came on, bundles of twigs were fastened to the horns of some 2000 oxen and set on fire, the terrified animals being then quickly driven along the mountain side towards the passes which were beset by the enemy. The strange spectacle of these rapidly moving lights so alarmed and discomfited the Romans that they withdrew from their position, and Hannibal’s army passed safely through the defile. [See Polybius, III. 93, 94; Livy, XXII. 16 17.]

On desperate ground, fight.

[For, as Chia Lin remarks: “if you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; where as death is certain if you cling to your corner.”]

15. Those who were called skillful leaders of old knew how to drive a wedge between the enemy’s front and rear;

[More literally, “cause the front and rear to lose touch with each other.”]

to prevent co-operation between his large and small divisions; to hinder the good troops from rescuing the bad, the officers from rallying their men.

16. When the enemy’s men were united, they managed to keep them in disorder.

17. When it was to their advantage, they made a forward move; when otherwise, they stopped still.

[Mei Yao-ch‘en connects this with the foregoing: “Having succeeded in thus dislocating the enemy, they would push forward in order to secure any advantage to be gained; if there was no advantage to be gained, they would remain where they were.”]

18. If asked how to cope with a great host of the enemy in orderly array and on the point of marching to the attack, I should say: “Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”

[Opinions differ as to what Sun Tzu had in mind. Ts‘ao Kung thinks it is “some strategical advantage on which the enemy is depending.” Tu Mu says: “The three things which an enemy is anxious to do, and on the accomplishment of which his success depends, are: (1) to capture our favorable positions; (2) to ravage our cultivated land; (3) to guard his own communications.” Our object then must be to thwart his plans in these three directions and thus render him helpless. [Cf. III. ss. 3.] By boldly seizing the initiative in this way, you at once throw the other side on the defensive.]

19. Rapidity is the essence of war:

[According to Tu Mu, “this is a summary of leading principles in warfare,” and he adds: “These are the profoundest truths of military science, and the chief business of the general.” The following anecdotes, told by Ho Shih, shows the importance attached to speed by two of China’s greatest generals. In 227 A.D., Meng Ta, governor of Hsin-ch‘eng under the Wei Emperor Wen Ti, was meditating defection to the House of Shu, and had entered into correspondence with Chu-ko Liang, Prime Minister of that State. The Wei general Ssu-ma I was then military governor of Wan, and getting wind of Meng Ta’s treachery, he at once set off with an army to anticipate his revolt, having previously cajoled him by a specious message of friendly import. Ssu-ma’s officers came to him and said: “If Meng Ta has leagued himself with Wu and Shu, the matter should be thoroughly investigated before we make a move.” Ssu-ma I replied: “Meng Ta is an unprincipled man, and we ought to go and punish him at once, while he is still wavering and before he has thrown off the mask.” Then, by a series of forced marches, be brought his army under the walls of Hsin-ch‘eng with in a space of eight days. Now Meng Ta had previously said in a letter to Chu-ko Liang: “Wan is 1200 LI from here. When the news of my revolt reaches Ssu-ma I, he will at once inform his imperial master, but it will be a whole month before any steps can be taken, and by that time my city will be well fortified. Besides, Ssu-ma I is sure not to come himself, and the generals that will be sent against us are not worth troubling about.” The next letter, however, was filled with consternation: “Though only eight days have passed since I threw off my allegiance, an army is already at the city-gates. What miraculous rapidity is this!” A fortnight later, Hsin-ch‘eng had fallen and Meng Ta had lost his head. [See CHIN SHU, ch. 1, f. 3.] In 621 A.D., Li Ching was sent from K‘uei-chou in Ssu-ch‘uan to reduce the successful rebel Hsiao Hsien, who had set up as Emperor at the modern Ching-chou Fu in Hupeh. It was autumn, and the Yangtsze being then in flood, Hsiao Hsien never dreamt that his adversary would venture to come down through the gorges, and consequently made no preparations. But Li Ching embarked his army without loss of time, and was just about to start when the other generals implored him to postpone his departure until the river was in a less dangerous state for navigation. Li Ching replied: “To the soldier, overwhelming speed is of paramount importance, and he must never miss opportunities. Now is the time to strike, before Hsiao Hsien even knows that we have got an army together. If we seize the present moment when the river is in flood, we shall appear before his capital with startling suddenness, like the thunder which is heard before you have time to stop your ears against it. [See VII. ss. 19, note.] This is the great principle in war. Even if he gets to know of our approach, he will have to levy his soldiers in such a hurry that they will not be fit to oppose us. Thus the full fruits of victory will be ours.” All came about as he predicted, and Hsiao Hsien was obliged to surrender, nobly stipulating that his people should be spared and he alone suffer the penalty of death.]

take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots.

20. The following are the principles to be observed by an invading force: The further you penetrate into a country, the greater will be the solidarity of your troops, and thus the defenders will not prevail against you.

21. Make forays in fertile country in order to supply your army with food.

[Cf. supra, ss. 13. Li Ch‘uan does not venture on a note here.]

22. Carefully study the well-being of your men,

[For “well-being”, Wang Hsi means, “Pet them, humor them, give them plenty of food and drink, and look after them generally.”]

and do not overtax them. Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength.

[Ch‘en recalls the line of action adopted in 224 B.C. by the famous general Wang Chien, whose military genius largely contributed to the success of the First Emperor. He had invaded the Ch‘u State, where a universal levy was made to oppose him. But, being doubtful of the temper of his troops, he declined all invitations to fight and remained strictly on the defensive. In vain did the Ch‘u general try to force a battle: day after day Wang Chien kept inside his walls and would not come out, but devoted his whole time and energy to winning the affection and confidence of his men. He took care that they should be well fed, sharing his own meals with them, provided facilities for bathing, and employed every method of judicious indulgence to weld them into a loyal and homogenous body. After some time had elapsed, he told off certain persons to find out how the men were amusing themselves. The answer was, that they were contending with one another in putting the weight and long-jumping. When Wang Chien heard that they were engaged in these athletic pursuits, he knew that their spirits had been strung up to the required pitch and that they were now ready for fighting. By this time the Ch‘u army, after repeating their challenge again and again, had marched away eastwards in disgust. The Ch‘in general immediately broke up his camp and followed them, and in the battle that ensued they were routed with great slaughter. Shortly afterwards, the whole of Ch‘u was conquered by Ch‘in, and the king Fu-ch‘u led into captivity.]

Keep your army continually on the move,

[In order that the enemy may never know exactly where you are. It has struck me, however, that the true reading might be “link your army together.”]

and devise unfathomable plans.

23. Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve.

[Chang Yu quotes his favorite Wei Liao Tzu (ch. 3): “If one man were to run amok with a sword in the market-place, and everybody else tried to get our of his way, I should not allow that this man alone had courage and that all the rest were contemptible cowards. The truth is, that a desperado and a man who sets some value on his life do not meet on even terms.”]

Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength.

[Chang Yu says: “If they are in an awkward place together, they will surely exert their united strength to get out of it.”]

24. Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.

25. Thus, without waiting to be marshaled, the soldiers will be constantly on the qui vive; without waiting to be asked, they will do your will;

[Literally, “without asking, you will get.”]

without restrictions, they will be faithful; without giving orders, they can be trusted.

26. Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts. Then, until death itself comes, no calamity need be feared.

[The superstitious, “bound in to saucy doubts and fears,” degenerate into cowards and “die many times before their deaths.” Tu Mu quotes Huang Shih-kung: “‘Spells and incantations should be strictly forbidden, and no officer allowed to inquire by divination into the fortunes of an army, for fear the soldiers’ minds should be seriously perturbed.’ The meaning is,” he continues, “that if all doubts and scruples are discarded, your men will never falter in their resolution until they die.”]

27. If our soldiers are not overburdened with money, it is not because they have a distaste for riches; if their lives are not unduly long, it is not because they are disinclined to longevity.

[Chang Yu has the best note on this passage: “Wealth and long life are things for which all men have a natural inclination. Hence, if they burn or fling away valuables, and sacrifice their own lives, it is not that they dislike them, but simply that they have no choice.” Sun Tzu is slyly insinuating that, as soldiers are but human, it is for the general to see that temptations to shirk fighting and grow rich are not thrown in their way.]

28. On the day they are ordered out to battle, your soldiers may weep,

[The word in the Chinese is “snivel.” This is taken to indicate more genuine grief than tears alone.]

those sitting up bedewing their garments, and those lying down letting the tears run down their cheeks.

[Not because they are afraid, but because, as Ts‘ao Kung says, “all have embraced the firm resolution to do or die.” We may remember that the heroes of the Iliad were equally childlike in showing their emotion. Chang Yu alludes to the mournful parting at the I River between Ching K‘o and his friends, when the former was sent to attempt the life of the King of Ch‘in (afterwards First Emperor) in 227 B.C. The tears of all flowed down like rain as he bade them farewell and uttered the following lines: “The shrill blast is blowing, Chilly the burn; Your champion is going — Not to return.”1 ]

But let them once be brought to bay, and they will display the courage of a Chu or a Kuei.

[Chu was the personal name of Chuan Chu, a native of the Wu State and contemporary with Sun Tzu himself, who was employed by Kung-tzu Kuang, better known as Ho Lu Wang, to assassinate his sovereign Wang Liao with a dagger which he secreted in the belly of a fish served up at a banquet. He succeeded in his attempt, but was immediately hacked to pieced by the king’s bodyguard. This was in 515 B.C. The other hero referred to, Ts‘ao Kuei (or Ts‘ao Mo), performed the exploit which has made his name famous 166 years earlier, in 681 B.C. Lu had been thrice defeated by Ch‘i, and was just about to conclude a treaty surrendering a large slice of territory, when Ts‘ao Kuei suddenly seized Huan Kung, the Duke of Ch‘i, as he stood on the altar steps and held a dagger against his chest. None of the duke’s retainers dared to move a muscle, and Ts‘ao Kuei proceeded to demand full restitution, declaring the Lu was being unjustly treated because she was a smaller and a weaker state. Huan Kung, in peril of his life, was obliged to consent, whereupon Ts‘ao Kuei flung away his dagger and quietly resumed his place amid the terrified assemblage without having so much as changed color. As was to be expected, the Duke wanted afterwards to repudiate the bargain, but his wise old counselor Kuan Chung pointed out to him the impolicy of breaking his word, and the upshot was that this bold stroke regained for Lu the whole of what she had lost in three pitched battles.]

29. The skillful tactician may be likened to the SHUAI-JAN. Now the SHUAI-JAN is a snake that is found in the Ch‘ang mountains.

[“Shuai-jan” means “suddenly” or “rapidly,” and the snake in question was doubtless so called owing to the rapidity of its movements. Through this passage, the term in the Chinese has now come to be used in the sense of “military maneuvers.”]

Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.

30. Asked if an army can be made to imitate the SHUAI-JAN,

[That is, as Mei Yao-ch‘en says, “Is it possible to make the front and rear of an army each swiftly responsive to attack on the other, just as though they were part of a single living body?”]

I should answer, Yes. For the men of Wu and the men of Yueh are enemies;

[Cf. VI. ss. 21.]

yet if they are crossing a river in the same boat and are caught by a storm, they will come to each other’s assistance just as the left hand helps the right.

[The meaning is: If two enemies will help each other in a time of common peril, how much more should two parts of the same army, bound together as they are by every tie of interest and fellow-feeling. Yet it is notorious that many a campaign has been ruined through lack of cooperation, especially in the case of allied armies.]

31. Hence it is not enough to put one’s trust in the tethering of horses, and the burying of chariot wheels in the ground.

[These quaint devices to prevent one’s army from running away recall the Athenian hero Sophanes, who carried the anchor with him at the battle of Plataea, by means of which he fastened himself firmly to one spot. [See Herodotus, IX. 74.] It is not enough, says Sun Tzu, to render flight impossible by such mechanical means. You will not succeed unless your men have tenacity and unity of purpose, and, above all, a spirit of sympathetic cooperation. This is the lesson which can be learned from the SHUAI-JAN.]

32. The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.

[Literally, “level the courage [of all] as though [it were that of] one.” If the ideal army is to form a single organic whole, then it follows that the resolution and spirit of its component parts must be of the same quality, or at any rate must not fall below a certain standard. Wellington’s seemingly ungrateful description of his army at Waterloo as “the worst he had ever commanded” meant no more than that it was deficient in this important particular — unity of spirit and courage. Had he not foreseen the Belgian defections and carefully kept those troops in the background, he would almost certainly have lost the day.]

33. How to make the best of both strong and weak — that is a question involving the proper use of ground.

[Mei Yao-ch‘en’s paraphrase is: “The way to eliminate the differences of strong and weak and to make both serviceable is to utilize accidental features of the ground.” Less reliable troops, if posted in strong positions, will hold out as long as better troops on more exposed terrain. The advantage of position neutralizes the inferiority in stamina and courage. Col. Henderson says: “With all respect to the text books, and to the ordinary tactical teaching, I am inclined to think that the study of ground is often overlooked, and that by no means sufficient importance is attached to the selection of positions . . . and to the immense advantages that are to be derived, whether you are defending or attacking, from the proper utilization of natural features.”2 ]

34. Thus the skillful general conducts his army just as though he were leading a single man, willy-nilly, by the hand.

[Tu Mu says: “The simile has reference to the ease with which he does it.”]

35. It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order.

36. He must be able to mystify his officers and men by false reports and appearances,

[Literally, “to deceive their eyes and ears.”]

and thus keep them in total ignorance.

[Ts‘ao Kung gives us one of his excellent apophthegms: “The troops must not be allowed to share your schemes in the beginning; they may only rejoice with you over their happy outcome.” “To mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy,” is one of the first principles in war, as had been frequently pointed out. But how about the other process — the mystification of one’s own men? Those who may think that Sun Tzu is over-emphatic on this point would do well to read Col. Henderson’s remarks on Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign: “The infinite pains,” he says, “with which Jackson sought to conceal, even from his most trusted staff officers, his movements, his intentions, and his thoughts, a commander less thorough would have pronounced useless”— etc. etc.3 In the year 88 A.D., as we read in ch. 47 of the HOU HAN SHU, “Pan Ch‘ao took the field with 25,000 men from Khotan and other Central Asian states with the object of crushing Yarkand. The King of Kutcha replied by dispatching his chief commander to succor the place with an army drawn from the kingdoms of Wen-su, Ku-mo, and Wei-t‘ou, totaling 50,000 men. Pan Ch‘ao summoned his officers and also the King of Khotan to a council of war, and said: ‘Our forces are now outnumbered and unable to make head against the enemy. The best plan, then, is for us to separate and disperse, each in a different direction. The King of Khotan will march away by the easterly route, and I will then return myself towards the west. Let us wait until the evening drum has sounded and then start.’ Pan Ch‘ao now secretly released the prisoners whom he had taken alive, and the King of Kutcha was thus informed of his plans. Much elated by the news, the latter set off at once at the head of 10,000 horsemen to bar Pan Ch‘ao’s retreat in the west, while the King of Wen-su rode eastward with 8000 horse in order to intercept the King of Khotan. As soon as Pan Ch‘ao knew that the two chieftains had gone, he called his divisions together, got them well in hand, and at cock-crow hurled them against the army of Yarkand, as it lay encamped. The barbarians, panic-stricken, fled in confusion, and were closely pursued by Pan Ch‘ao. Over 5000 heads were brought back as trophies, besides immense spoils in the shape of horses and cattle and valuables of every description. Yarkand then capitulating, Kutcha and the other kingdoms drew off their respective forces. From that time forward, Pan Ch‘ao’s prestige completely overawed the countries of the west.” In this case, we see that the Chinese general not only kept his own officers in ignorance of his real plans, but actually took the bold step of dividing his army in order to deceive the enemy.]

37. By altering his arrangements and changing his plans,

[Wang Hsi thinks that this means not using the same stratagem twice.]

he keeps the enemy without definite knowledge.

[Chang Yu, in a quotation from another work, says: “The axiom, that war is based on deception, does not apply only to deception of the enemy. You must deceive even your own soldiers. Make them follow you, but without letting them know why.”]

By shifting his camp and taking circuitous routes, he prevents the enemy from anticipating his purpose.

38. At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand.

[Literally, “releases the spring” (see V. ss. 15), that is, takes some decisive step which makes it impossible for the army to return — like Hsiang Yu, who sunk his ships after crossing a river. Ch‘en Hao, followed by Chia Lin, understands the words less well as “puts forth every artifice at his command.”]

39. He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots; like a shepherd driving a flock of sheep, he drives his men this way and that, and nothing knows whither he is going.

[Tu Mu says: “The army is only cognizant of orders to advance or retreat; it is ignorant of the ulterior ends of attacking and conquering.”]

40. To muster his host and bring it into danger:— this may be termed the business of the general.

[Sun Tzu means that after mobilization there should be no delay in aiming a blow at the enemy’s heart. Note how he returns again and again to this point. Among the warring states of ancient China, desertion was no doubt a much more present fear and serious evil than it is in the armies of today.]

41. The different measures suited to the nine varieties of ground;

[Chang Yu says: “One must not be hide-bound in interpreting the rules for the nine varieties of ground.]

the expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics; and the fundamental laws of human nature: these are things that must most certainly be studied.

42. When invading hostile territory, the general principle is, that penetrating deeply brings cohesion; penetrating but a short way means dispersion.

[Cf. supra, ss. 20.]

43. When you leave your own country behind, and take your army across neighborhood territory, you find yourself on critical ground.

[This “ground” is curiously mentioned in VIII. ss. 2, but it does not figure among the Nine Situations or the Six Calamities in chap. X. One’s first impulse would be to translate it distant ground,” but this, if we can trust the commentators, is precisely what is not meant here. Mei Yao-ch‘en says it is “a position not far enough advanced to be called ‘facile,’ and not near enough to home to be ‘dispersive,’ but something between the two.” Wang Hsi says: “It is ground separated from home by an interjacent state, whose territory we have had to cross in order to reach it. Hence, it is incumbent on us to settle our business there quickly.” He adds that this position is of rare occurrence, which is the reason why it is not included among the Nine Situations.]

When there are means of communication on all four sides, the ground is one of intersecting highways.

44. When you penetrate deeply into a country, it is serious ground. When you penetrate but a little way, it is facile ground.

45. When you have the enemy’s strongholds on your rear, and narrow passes in front, it is hemmed-in ground. When there is no place of refuge at all, it is desperate ground.

46. Therefore, on dispersive ground, I would inspire my men with unity of purpose.

[This end, according to Tu Mu, is best attained by remaining on the defensive, and avoiding battle. Cf. supra, ss. 11.]

On facile ground, I would see that there is close connection between all parts of my army.

[As Tu Mu says, the object is to guard against two possible contingencies: “(1) the desertion of our own troops; (2) a sudden attack on the part of the enemy.” Cf. VII. ss. 17. Mei Yao-ch‘en says: “On the march, the regiments should be in close touch; in an encampment, there should be continuity between the fortifications.”]

47. On contentious ground, I would hurry up my rear.

[This is Ts‘ao Kung’s interpretation. Chang Yu adopts it, saying: “We must quickly bring up our rear, so that head and tail may both reach the goal.” That is, they must not be allowed to straggle up a long way apart. Mei Yao-ch‘en offers another equally plausible explanation: “Supposing the enemy has not yet reached the coveted position, and we are behind him, we should advance with all speed in order to dispute its possession.” Ch‘en Hao, on the other hand, assuming that the enemy has had time to select his own ground, quotes VI. ss. 1, where Sun Tzu warns us against coming exhausted to the attack. His own idea of the situation is rather vaguely expressed: “If there is a favorable position lying in front of you, detach a picked body of troops to occupy it, then if the enemy, relying on their numbers, come up to make a fight for it, you may fall quickly on their rear with your main body, and victory will be assured.” It was thus, he adds, that Chao She beat the army of Ch‘in. (See p. 57.)]

48. On open ground, I would keep a vigilant eye on my defenses. On ground of intersecting highways, I would consolidate my alliances.

49. On serious ground, I would try to ensure a continuous stream of supplies.

[The commentators take this as referring to forage and plunder, not, as one might expect, to an unbroken communication with a home base.]

On difficult ground, I would keep pushing on along the road.

50. On hemmed-in ground, I would block any way of retreat.

[Meng Shih says: “To make it seem that I meant to defend the position, whereas my real intention is to burst suddenly through the enemy’s lines.” Mei Yao-ch‘en says: “in order to make my soldiers fight with desperation.” Wang Hsi says, “fearing lest my men be tempted to run away.” Tu Mu points out that this is the converse of VII. ss. 36, where it is the enemy who is surrounded. In 532 A.D., Kao Huan, afterwards Emperor and canonized as Shen-wu, was surrounded by a great army under Erh-chu Chao and others. His own force was comparatively small, consisting only of 2000 horse and something under 30,000 foot. The lines of investment had not been drawn very closely together, gaps being left at certain points. But Kao Huan, instead of trying to escape, actually made a shift to block all the remaining outlets himself by driving into them a number of oxen and donkeys roped together. As soon as his officers and men saw that there was nothing for it but to conquer or die, their spirits rose to an extraordinary pitch of exaltation, and they charged with such desperate ferocity that the opposing ranks broke and crumbled under their onslaught.]

On desperate ground, I would proclaim to my soldiers the hopelessness of saving their lives.

Tu Yu says: “Burn your baggage and impedimenta, throw away your stores and provisions, choke up the wells, destroy your cooking-stoves, and make it plain to your men that they cannot survive, but must fight to the death.” Mei Yao-ch‘en says: “The only chance of life lies in giving up all hope of it.” This concludes what Sun Tzu has to say about “grounds” and the “variations” corresponding to them. Reviewing the passages which bear on this important subject, we cannot fail to be struck by the desultory and unmethodical fashion in which it is treated. Sun Tzu begins abruptly in VIII. ss. 2 to enumerate “variations” before touching on “grounds” at all, but only mentions five, namely nos. 7, 5, 8 and 9 of the subsequent list, and one that is not included in it. A few varieties of ground are dealt with in the earlier portion of chap. IX, and then chap. X sets forth six new grounds, with six variations of plan to match. None of these is mentioned again, though the first is hardly to be distinguished from ground no. 4 in the next chapter. At last, in chap. XI, we come to the Nine Grounds par excellence, immediately followed by the variations. This takes us down to ss. 14. In SS. 43–45, fresh definitions are provided for nos. 5, 6, 2, 8 and 9 (in the order given), as well as for the tenth ground noticed in chap. VIII; and finally, the nine variations are enumerated once more from beginning to end, all, with the exception of 5, 6 and 7, being different from those previously given. Though it is impossible to account for the present state of Sun Tzu’s text, a few suggestive facts maybe brought into prominence: (1) Chap. VIII, according to the title, should deal with nine variations, whereas only five appear. (2) It is an abnormally short chapter. (3) Chap. XI is entitled The Nine Grounds. Several of these are defined twice over, besides which there are two distinct lists of the corresponding variations. (4) The length of the chapter is disproportionate, being double that of any other except IX. I do not propose to draw any inferences from these facts, beyond the general conclusion that Sun Tzu’s work cannot have come down to us in the shape in which it left his hands: chap. VIII is obviously defective and probably out of place, while XI seems to contain matter that has either been added by a later hand or ought to appear elsewhere.]

51. For it is the soldier’s disposition to offer an obstinate resistance when surrounded, to fight hard when he cannot help himself, and to obey promptly when he has fallen into danger.

[Chang Yu alludes to the conduct of Pan Ch‘ao’s devoted followers in 73 A.D. The story runs thus in the HOU HAN SHU, ch. 47: “When Pan Ch‘ao arrived at Shan-shan, Kuang, the King of the country, received him at first with great politeness and respect; but shortly afterwards his behavior underwent a sudden change, and he became remiss and negligent. Pan Ch‘ao spoke about this to the officers of his suite: ‘Have you noticed,’ he said, ‘that Kuang’s polite intentions are on the wane? This must signify that envoys have come from the Northern barbarians, and that consequently he is in a state of indecision, not knowing with which side to throw in his lot. That surely is the reason. The truly wise man, we are told, can perceive things before they have come to pass; how much more, then, those that are already manifest!’ Thereupon he called one of the natives who had been assigned to his service, and set a trap for him, saying: ‘Where are those envoys from the Hsiung-nu who arrived some day ago?’ The man was so taken aback that between surprise and fear he presently blurted out the whole truth. Pan Ch‘ao, keeping his informant carefully under lock and key, then summoned a general gathering of his officers, thirty-six in all, and began drinking with them. When the wine had mounted into their heads a little, he tried to rouse their spirit still further by addressing them thus: ‘Gentlemen, here we are in the heart of an isolated region, anxious to achieve riches and honor by some great exploit. Now it happens that an ambassador from the Hsiung-no arrived in this kingdom only a few days ago, and the result is that the respectful courtesy extended towards us by our royal host has disappeared. Should this envoy prevail upon him to seize our party and hand us over to the Hsiung-no, our bones will become food for the wolves of the desert. What are we to do?’ With one accord, the officers replied: ‘Standing as we do in peril of our lives, we will follow our commander through life and death.’ For the sequel of this adventure, see chap. XII. ss. 1, note.]

52. We cannot enter into alliance with neighboring princes until we are acquainted with their designs. We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country — its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps. We shall be unable to turn natural advantages to account unless we make use of local guides.

[These three sentences are repeated from VII. SS. 12–14 — in order to emphasize their importance, the commentators seem to think. I prefer to regard them as interpolated here in order to form an antecedent to the following words. With regard to local guides, Sun Tzu might have added that there is always the risk of going wrong, either through their treachery or some misunderstanding such as Livy records (XXII. 13): Hannibal, we are told, ordered a guide to lead him into the neighborhood of Casinum, where there was an important pass to be occupied; but his Carthaginian accent, unsuited to the pronunciation of Latin names, caused the guide to understand Casilinum instead of Casinum, and turning from his proper route, he took the army in that direction, the mistake not being discovered until they had almost arrived.]

53. To be ignored of any one of the following four or five principles does not befit a warlike prince.

54. When a warlike prince attacks a powerful state, his generalship shows itself in preventing the concentration of the enemy’s forces. He overawes his opponents, and their allies are prevented from joining against him.

[Mei Tao-ch‘en constructs one of the chains of reasoning that are so much affected by the Chinese: “In attacking a powerful state, if you can divide her forces, you will have a superiority in strength; if you have a superiority in strength, you will overawe the enemy; if you overawe the enemy, the neighboring states will be frightened; and if the neighboring states are frightened, the enemy’s allies will be prevented from joining her.” The following gives a stronger meaning: “If the great state has once been defeated (before she has had time to summon her allies), then the lesser states will hold aloof and refrain from massing their forces.” Ch‘en Hao and Chang Yu take the sentence in quite another way. The former says: “Powerful though a prince may be, if he attacks a large state, he will be unable to raise enough troops, and must rely to some extent on external aid; if he dispenses with this, and with overweening confidence in his own strength, simply tries to intimidate the enemy, he will surely be defeated.” Chang Yu puts his view thus: “If we recklessly attack a large state, our own people will be discontented and hang back. But if (as will then be the case) our display of military force is inferior by half to that of the enemy, the other chieftains will take fright and refuse to join us.”]

55. Hence he does not strive to ally himself with all and sundry, nor does he foster the power of other states. He carries out his own secret designs, keeping his antagonists in awe.

[The train of thought, as said by Li Ch‘uan, appears to be this: Secure against a combination of his enemies, “he can afford to reject entangling alliances and simply pursue his own secret designs, his prestige enable him to dispense with external friendships.”]

Thus he is able to capture their cities and overthrow their kingdoms.

[This paragraph, though written many years before the Ch‘in State became a serious menace, is not a bad summary of the policy by which the famous Six Chancellors gradually paved the way for her final triumph under Shih Huang Ti. Chang Yu, following up his previous note, thinks that Sun Tzu is condemning this attitude of cold-blooded selfishness and haughty isolation.]

56. Bestow rewards without regard to rule,

[Wu Tzu (ch. 3) less wisely says: “Let advance be richly rewarded and retreat be heavily punished.”]

issue orders

[Literally, “hang” or post up.”]

without regard to previous arrangements;

[“In order to prevent treachery,” says Wang Hsi. The general meaning is made clear by Ts‘ao Kung’s quotation from the SSU-MA FA: “Give instructions only on sighting the enemy; give rewards when you see deserving deeds.” Ts‘ao Kung’s paraphrase: “The final instructions you give to your army should not correspond with those that have been previously posted up.” Chang Yu simplifies this into “your arrangements should not be divulged beforehand.” And Chia Lin says: “there should be no fixity in your rules and arrangements.” Not only is there danger in letting your plans be known, but war often necessitates the entire reversal of them at the last moment.]

and you will be able to handle a whole army as though you had to do with but a single man.

[Cf. supra, ss. 34.]

57. Confront your soldiers with the deed itself; never let them know your design.

[Literally, “do not tell them words;” i.e. do not give your reasons for any order. Lord Mansfield once told a junior colleague to “give no reasons” for his decisions, and the maxim is even more applicable to a general than to a judge.]

When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes; but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.

58. Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive; plunge it into desperate straits, and it will come off in safety.

[These words of Sun Tzu were once quoted by Han Hsin in explanation of the tactics he employed in one of his most brilliant battles, already alluded to on p. 28. In 204 B.C., he was sent against the army of Chao, and halted ten miles from the mouth of the Ching-hsing pass, where the enemy had mustered in full force. Here, at midnight, he detached a body of 2000 light cavalry, every man of which was furnished with a red flag. Their instructions were to make their way through narrow defiles and keep a secret watch on the enemy. “When the men of Chao see me in full flight,” Han Hsin said, “they will abandon their fortifications and give chase. This must be the sign for you to rush in, pluck down the Chao standards and set up the red banners of Han in their stead.” Turning then to his other officers, he remarked: “Our adversary holds a strong position, and is not likely to come out and attack us until he sees the standard and drums of the commander-in-chief, for fear I should turn back and escape through the mountains.” So saying, he first of all sent out a division consisting of 10,000 men, and ordered them to form in line of battle with their backs to the River Ti. Seeing this maneuver, the whole army of Chao broke into loud laughter. By this time it was broad daylight, and Han Hsin, displaying the generalissimo’s flag, marched out of the pass with drums beating, and was immediately engaged by the enemy. A great battle followed, lasting for some time; until at length Han Hsin and his colleague Chang Ni, leaving drums and banner on the field, fled to the division on the river bank, where another fierce battle was raging. The enemy rushed out to pursue them and to secure the trophies, thus denuding their ramparts of men; but the two generals succeeded in joining the other army, which was fighting with the utmost desperation. The time had now come for the 2000 horsemen to play their part. As soon as they saw the men of Chao following up their advantage, they galloped behind the deserted walls, tore up the enemy’s flags and replaced them by those of Han. When the Chao army looked back from the pursuit, the sight of these red flags struck them with terror. Convinced that the Hans had got in and overpowered their king, they broke up in wild disorder, every effort of their leader to stay the panic being in vain. Then the Han army fell on them from both sides and completed the rout, killing a number and capturing the rest, amongst whom was King Ya himself. . . . After the battle, some of Han Hsin’s officers came to him and said: “In the ART OF WAR we are told to have a hill or tumulus on the right rear, and a river or marsh on the left front. [This appears to be a blend of Sun Tzu and T‘ai Kung. See IX ss. 9, and note.] You, on the contrary, ordered us to draw up our troops with the river at our back. Under these conditions, how did you manage to gain the victory?” The general replied: “I fear you gentlemen have not studied the Art of War with sufficient care. Is it not written there: ‘Plunge your army into desperate straits and it will come off in safety; place it in deadly peril and it will survive’? Had I taken the usual course, I should never have been able to bring my colleague round. What says the Military Classic —‘Swoop down on the market-place and drive the men off to fight.’ [This passage does not occur in the present text of Sun Tzu.] If I had not placed my troops in a position where they were obliged to fight for their lives, but had allowed each man to follow his own discretion, there would have been a general debandade, and it would have been impossible to do anything with them.” The officers admitted the force of his argument, and said: “These are higher tactics than we should have been capable of.” [See CH‘IEN HAN SHU, ch. 34, ff. 4, 5.] ]

59. For it is precisely when a force has fallen into harm’s way that is capable of striking a blow for victory.

[Danger has a bracing effect.]

60. Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating ourselves to the enemy’s purpose.

[Ts‘ao Kung says: “Feign stupidity”— by an appearance of yielding and falling in with the enemy’s wishes. Chang Yu’s note makes the meaning clear: “If the enemy shows an inclination to advance, lure him on to do so; if he is anxious to retreat, delay on purpose that he may carry out his intention.” The object is to make him remiss and contemptuous before we deliver our attack.]

61. By persistently hanging on the enemy’s flank,

[I understand the first four words to mean “accompanying the enemy in one direction.” Ts‘ao Kung says: “unite the soldiers and make for the enemy.” But such a violent displacement of characters is quite indefensible.]

we shall succeed in the long run

[Literally, “after a thousand LI.”]

in killing the commander-in-chief.

[Always a great point with the Chinese.]

62. This is called ability to accomplish a thing by sheer cunning.

63. On the day that you take up your command, block the frontier passes, destroy the official tallies,

[These were tablets of bamboo or wood, one half of which was issued as a permit or passport by the official in charge of a gate. Cf. the “border-warden” of LUN YU III. 24, who may have had similar duties. When this half was returned to him, within a fixed period, he was authorized to open the gate and let the traveler through.]

and stop the passage of all emissaries.

[Either to or from the enemy’s country.]

64. Be stern in the council-chamber,

[Show no weakness, and insist on your plans being ratified by the sovereign.]

so that you may control the situation.

[Mei Yao-ch‘en understands the whole sentence to mean: Take the strictest precautions to ensure secrecy in your deliberations.]

65. If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.

66. Forestall your opponent by seizing what he holds dear,

[Cf. supra, ss. 18.]

and subtly contrive to time his arrival on the ground.

[Ch‘en Hao‘s explanation: “If I manage to seize a favorable position, but the enemy does not appear on the scene, the advantage thus obtained cannot be turned to any practical account. He who intends therefore, to occupy a position of importance to the enemy, must begin by making an artful appointment, so to speak, with his antagonist, and cajole him into going there as well.” Mei Yao-ch‘en explains that this “artful appointment” is to be made through the medium of the enemy’s own spies, who will carry back just the amount of information that we choose to give them. Then, having cunningly disclosed our intentions, “we must manage, though starting after the enemy, to arrive before him (VII. ss. 4). We must start after him in order to ensure his marching thither; we must arrive before him in order to capture the place without trouble. Taken thus, the present passage lends some support to Mei Yao-ch‘en’s interpretation of ss. 47.]

67. Walk in the path defined by rule,

[Chia Lin says: “Victory is the only thing that matters, and this cannot be achieved by adhering to conventional canons.” It is unfortunate that this variant rests on very slight authority, for the sense yielded is certainly much more satisfactory. Napoleon, as we know, according to the veterans of the old school whom he defeated, won his battles by violating every accepted canon of warfare.]

and accommodate yourself to the enemy until you can fight a decisive battle.

[Tu Mu says: “Conform to the enemy’s tactics until a favorable opportunity offers; then come forth and engage in a battle that shall prove decisive.”]

68. At first, then, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening; afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.

[As the hare is noted for its extreme timidity, the comparison hardly appears felicitous. But of course Sun Tzu was thinking only of its speed. The words have been taken to mean: You must flee from the enemy as quickly as an escaping hare; but this is rightly rejected by Tu Mu.]

1 Giles’ Biographical Dictionary, no. 399.

2 “The Science of War,” p. 333.

3 “Stonewall Jackson,” vol. I, p. 421.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/suntzu/art-of-war/chapter11.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31