[The heading means literally “The Nine Variations,” but as Sun Tzu does not appear to enumerate these, and as, indeed, he has already told us (V SS. 6–11) that such deflections from the ordinary course are practically innumerable, we have little option but to follow Wang Hsi, who says that “Nine” stands for an indefinitely large number. “All it means is that in warfare we ought to very our tactics to the utmost degree. . . . I do not know what Ts‘ao Kung makes these Nine Variations out to be, but it has been suggested that they are connected with the Nine Situations” — of chapt. XI. This is the view adopted by Chang Yu. The only other alternative is to suppose that something has been lost — a supposition to which the unusual shortness of the chapter lends some weight.]
1. Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces.
[Repeated from VII. ss. 1, where it is certainly more in place. It may have been interpolated here merely in order to supply a beginning to the chapter.]
2. When in difficult country, do not encamp. In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.
[The last situation is not one of the Nine Situations as given in the beginning of chap. XI, but occurs later on (ibid. ss. 43. q.v.). Chang Yu defines this situation as being situated across the frontier, in hostile territory. Li Ch‘uan says it is “country in which there are no springs or wells, flocks or herds, vegetables or firewood;” Chia Lin, “one of gorges, chasms and precipices, without a road by which to advance.”]
In hemmed-in situations, you must resort to stratagem. In desperate position, you must fight.
3. There are roads which must not be followed,
[“Especially those leading through narrow defiles,” says Li Ch‘uan, “where an ambush is to be feared.”]
armies which must be not attacked,
[More correctly, perhaps, “there are times when an army must not be attacked.” Ch‘en Hao says: “When you see your way to obtain a rival advantage, but are powerless to inflict a real defeat, refrain from attacking, for fear of overtaxing your men’s strength.”]
towns which must not be besieged,
[Cf. III. ss. 4 Ts‘ao Kung gives an interesting illustration from his own experience. When invading the territory of Hsu-chou, he ignored the city of Hua-pi, which lay directly in his path, and pressed on into the heart of the country. This excellent strategy was rewarded by the subsequent capture of no fewer than fourteen important district cities. Chang Yu says: “No town should be attacked which, if taken, cannot be held, or if left alone, will not cause any trouble.” Hsun Ying, when urged to attack Pi-yang, replied: “The city is small and well-fortified; even if I succeed intaking it, it will be no great feat of arms; whereas if I fail, I shall make myself a laughing-stock.” In the seventeenth century, sieges still formed a large proportion of war. It was Turenne who directed attention to the importance of marches, countermarches and maneuvers. He said: “It is a great mistake to waste men in taking a town when the same expenditure of soldiers will gain a province.”1 ]
positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.
[This is a hard saying for the Chinese, with their reverence for authority, and Wei Liao Tzu (quoted by Tu Mu) is moved to exclaim: “Weapons are baleful instruments, strife is antagonistic to virtue, a military commander is the negation of civil order!” The unpalatable fact remains, however, that even Imperial wishes must be subordinated to military necessity.]
4. The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.
5. The general who does not understand these, may be well acquainted with the configuration of the country, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge to practical account.
[Literally, “get the advantage of the ground,” which means not only securing good positions, but availing oneself of natural advantages in every possible way. Chang Yu says: “Every kind of ground is characterized by certain natural features, and also gives scope for a certain variability of plan. How it is possible to turn these natural features to account unless topographical knowledge is supplemented by versatility of mind?”]
6. So, the student of war who is unversed in the art of war of varying his plans, even though he be acquainted with the Five Advantages, will fail to make the best use of his men.
[Chia Lin tells us that these imply five obvious and generally advantageous lines of action, namely: “if a certain road is short, it must be followed; if an army is isolated, it must be attacked; if a town is in a parlous condition, it must be besieged; if a position can be stormed, it must be attempted; and if consistent with military operations, the ruler’s commands must be obeyed.” But there are circumstances which sometimes forbid a general to use these advantages. For instance, “a certain road may be the shortest way for him, but if he knows that it abounds in natural obstacles, or that the enemy has laid an ambush on it, he will not follow that road. A hostile force may be open to attack, but if he knows that it is hard-pressed and likely to fight with desperation, he will refrain from striking,” and so on.]
7. Hence in the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together.
[“Whether in an advantageous position or a disadvantageous one,” says Ts‘ao Kung, “the opposite state should be always present to your mind.”]
8. If our expectation of advantage be tempered in this way, we may succeed in accomplishing the essential part of our schemes.
[Tu Mu says: “If we wish to wrest an advantage from the enemy, we must not fix our minds on that alone, but allow for the possibility of the enemy also doing some harm to us, and let this enter as a factor into our calculations.”]
9. If, on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.
[Tu Mu says: “If I wish to extricate myself from a dangerous position, I must consider not only the enemy’s ability to injure me, but also my own ability to gain an advantage over the enemy. If in my counsels these two considerations are properly blended, I shall succeed in liberating myself. . . . For instance; if I am surrounded by the enemy and only think of effecting an escape, the nervelessness of my policy will incite my adversary to pursue and crush me; it would be far better to encourage my men to deliver a bold counter-attack, and use the advantage thus gained to free myself from the enemy’s toils.” See the story of Ts‘ao Ts‘ao, VII. ss. 35, note.]
10. Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them;
[Chia Lin enumerates several ways of inflicting this injury, some of which would only occur to the Oriental mind:—“Entice away the enemy’s best and wisest men, so that he may be left without counselors. Introduce traitors into his country, that the government policy may be rendered futile. Foment intrigue and deceit, and thus sow dissension between the ruler and his ministers. By means of every artful contrivance, cause deterioration amongst his men and waste of his treasure. Corrupt his morals by insidious gifts leading him into excess. Disturb and unsettle his mind by presenting him with lovely women.” Chang Yu (after Wang Hsi) makes a different interpretation of Sun Tzu here: “Get the enemy into a position where he must suffer injury, and he will submit of his own accord.”]
and make trouble for them,
[Tu Mu, in this phrase, in his interpretation indicates that trouble should be make for the enemy affecting their “possessions,” or, as we might say, “assets,” which he considers to be “a large army, a rich exchequer, harmony amongst the soldiers, punctual fulfillment of commands.” These give us a whip-hand over the enemy.]
and keep them constantly engaged;
[Literally, “make servants of them.” Tu Yu says “prevent the from having any rest.”]
hold out specious allurements, and make them rush to any given point.
[Meng Shih’s note contains an excellent example of the idiomatic use of: “cause them to forget PIEN (the reasons for acting otherwise than on their first impulse), and hasten in our direction.”]
11. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
12. There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction;
[“Bravery without forethought,” as Ts‘ao Kung analyzes it, which causes a man to fight blindly and desperately like a mad bull. Such an opponent, says Chang Yu, “must not be encountered with brute force, but may be lured into an ambush and slain.” Cf. Wu Tzu, chap. IV. ad init.: “In estimating the character of a general, men are wont to pay exclusive attention to his courage, forgetting that courage is only one out of many qualities which a general should possess. The merely brave man is prone to fight recklessly; and he who fights recklessly, without any perception of what is expedient, must be condemned.” Ssu-ma Fa, too, make the incisive remark: “Simply going to one’s death does not bring about victory.”]
(2) cowardice, which leads to capture;
[Ts‘ao Kung defines the Chinese word translated here as “cowardice” as being of the man “whom timidity prevents from advancing to seize an advantage,” and Wang Hsi adds “who is quick to flee at the sight of danger.” Meng Shih gives the closer paraphrase “he who is bent on returning alive,” this is, the man who will never take a risk. But, as Sun Tzu knew, nothing is to be achieved in war unless you are willing to take risks. T‘ai Kung said: “He who lets an advantage slip will subsequently bring upon himself real disaster.” In 404 A.D., Liu Yu pursued the rebel Huan Hsuan up the Yangtsze and fought a naval battle with him at the island of Ch‘eng-hung. The loyal troops numbered only a few thousands, while their opponents were in great force. But Huan Hsuan, fearing the fate which was in store for him should be be overcome, had a light boat made fast to the side of his war-junk, so that he might escape, if necessary, at a moment’s notice. The natural result was that the fighting spirit of his soldiers was utterly quenched, and when the loyalists made an attack from windward with fireships, all striving with the utmost ardor to be first in the fray, Huan Hsuan’s forces were routed, had to burn all their baggage and fled for two days and nights without stopping. Chang Yu tells a somewhat similar story of Chao Ying-ch‘i, a general of the Chin State who during a battle with the army of Ch‘u in 597 B.C. had a boat kept in readiness for him on the river, wishing in case of defeat to be the first to get across.]
(3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;
[Tu Mu tells us that Yao Hsing, when opposed in 357 A.D. by Huang Mei, Teng Ch‘iang and others shut himself up behind his walls and refused to fight. Teng Ch‘iang said: “Our adversary is of a choleric temper and easily provoked; let us make constant sallies and break down his walls, then he will grow angry and come out. Once we can bring his force to battle, it is doomed to be our prey.” This plan was acted upon, Yao Hsiang came out to fight, was lured as far as San-yuan by the enemy’s pretended flight, and finally attacked and slain.]
(4) a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame;
[This need not be taken to mean that a sense of honor is really a defect in a general. What Sun Tzu condemns is rather an exaggerated sensitiveness to slanderous reports, the thin-skinned man who is stung by opprobrium, however undeserved. Mei Yao-ch‘en truly observes, though somewhat paradoxically: “The seek after glory should be careless of public opinion.”]
(5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.
[Here again, Sun Tzu does not mean that the general is to be careless of the welfare of his troops. All he wishes to emphasize is the danger of sacrificing any important military advantage to the immediate comfort of his men. This is a shortsighted policy, because in the long run the troops will suffer more from the defeat, or, at best, the prolongation of the war, which will be the consequence. A mistaken feeling of pity will often induce a general to relieve a beleaguered city, or to reinforce a hard-pressed detachment, contrary to his military instincts. It is now generally admitted that our repeated efforts to relieve Ladysmith in the South African War were so many strategical blunders which defeated their own purpose. And in the end, relief came through the very man who started out with the distinct resolve no longer to subordinate the interests of the whole to sentiment in favor of a part. An old soldier of one of our generals who failed most conspicuously in this war, tried once, I remember, to defend him to me on the ground that he was always “so good to his men.” By this plea, had he but known it, he was only condemning him out of Sun Tzu’s mouth.]
13. These are the five besetting sins of a general, ruinous to the conduct of war.
14. When an army is overthrown and its leader slain, the cause will surely be found among these five dangerous faults. Let them be a subject of meditation.
1 “Marshal Turenne,” p. 50.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00