The Art of War (Sun)/Section VI

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The Art of War by Sun Tzu, translated by Lionel Giles
Section VI: Weak Points and Strong

VI. 虛實篇

  1. 孫子曰凡先處戰地而待敵者佚後處戰地而趨戰者勞
  2. 故善戰者致人而不致於人

VI. Weak points and strong.

Chang Yü attempts to explain the sequence of chapters as follows: “Chapter IV, on Tactical Dispositions, treated of the offensive and the defensive; chapter V, on Energy, dealt with direct and indirect methods. The good general acquaints himself first with the theory of attack and defence, and then turns his attention to direct and indirect methods. He studies the art of varying and combining these two methods before proceeding to the subject of weak and strong points. For the use of direct or indirect methods arises out of attack and defence, and the perception of weak and strong points depends again on the above methods. Hence the present chapter comes immediately after the chapter on Energy.”

1. Sun Tzŭ said: Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle, will arrive exhausted.

Instead of , the Yü Lan has in both clauses the stronger word . For the antithesis between and , cf. I. § 23, where however is used as a verb.

2. Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.

The next paragraph makes it clear that does not merely mean, as Tu Mu says, 令敵來就我 “to make the enemy approach me,” but rather to make him go in any direction I please. It is thus practically synonymous with . Cf. Tu Mu’s own note on V. § 19. One mark of a great soldier is that he fights on his own terms or fights not at all.[1]

  1. 能使敵人自至者利之也能使敵人不得至者害之也
  2. 故敵佚能勞之飽能飢之安能動之
  3. 出其所必趨趨其所不意
  4. 行千里而不勞者行於無人之地也
3. By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord; or, by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near.

In the first case, he will entice him with a bait; in the second, he will strike at some important point which the enemy will have to defend.

4. If the enemy is taking his ease, he can harass him;

This passage may be cited as evidence against Mei Yao-Ch‘ên’s interpretation of I. § 23.

if well supplied with food, he can starve him out;

is probably an older form than , the reading of the original text. Both are given in the 說文.

if quietly encamped, he can force him to move.

The subject to is still 善戰者; but these clauses would read better as direct admonitions, and in the next sentence we find Sun Tzŭ dropping insensibly into the imperative.

5. Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.

The original text, adopted by the T‘u Shu, has 出其所不趨; it has been altered to suit the context and the commentaries of Ts‘ao Kung and Ho Shih, who evidently read 必趨. The other reading would mean: “Appear at points to which the enemy cannot hasten;” but in this case there is something awkward in the use of . Capt. Calthrop is wrong of course with “appearing where the enemy is not.”

6. An army may march great distances without distress, if it marches through country where the enemy is not.

We must beware of understanding 無人之地 as “uninhabited country.” Sun Tzŭ habitually uses in the sense of , e.g. supra, § 2.Ts‘ao Kung sums up very well: 出空擊虛避其所守擊其不意 “Emerge from the void [q.d. like “a bolt from the blue”], strike at vulnerable points, shun places that are defended, attack in unexpected quarters.” The difference of meaning between and is worth noting.

  1. 攻而必取者攻其所不守也守而必固者守其所不攻也
  2. 故善攻者敵不知其所守善守者敵不知其所攻
7. You can be sure of succeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.

所不守 is of course hyperbolical; Wang Hsi rightly explains it as “weak points; that is to say, where the general is lacking in capacity, or the soldiers in spirit; where the walls are not strong enough, or the precautions not strict enough; where relief comes too late, or provisions are too scanty, or the defenders are variance amongst themselves.”

You can ensure the safety of your defence if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

I.e., where there are none of the weak points mentioned above. There is rather a nice point involved in the interpretation of this latter clause. Tu Mu, Ch‘ên Hao, and Mei Yao-ch‘ên assume the meaning to be: “In order to make your defence quite safe, you must defend even those places that are not likely to be attacked;” and Tu Mu adds: “How much more, then, those that will be attacked.” Taken thus, however, the clause balances less well with the preceding — always a consideration in the highly antithetical style which is natural to the Chinese. Chang Yü, therefore, seems to come nearer the mark in saying: “He who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven [see IV. § 7], making it impossible for the enemy to guard against him. This being so, the places that I shall attack are precisely those that the enemy cannot defend ... He who is skilled in defence hides in the most secret recesses of the earth, making it impossible for the enemy to estimate his whereabouts. This being so, the places that I shall hold are precisely those that the enemy cannot attack.”

8. Hence that general is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defence whose opponent does not know what to attack.

An aphorism which puts the whole art of war into a nutshell.

  1. 微乎微乎至於無形神乎神乎至於無聲故能爲敵之司命
  2. 進而不可禦者衝其虛也退而不可追者速而不可及也
  3. 故我欲戰敵雖高壘深溝不得不與我戰者攻其所必救也
9. O divine art of sublety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible;

Literally, “without form or sound,” but it is said of course with reference to the enemy. Chang Yü, whom I follow, draws no sharp distinction between and , but Tu Mu and others think that indicates the secrecy to be observed on the defensive, and the rapidity to be displayed in attack. The Yü Lan text differs considerably from ours, reading: 微乎微乎故能隱於常形神乎神乎故能爲敵司命.

and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.

The T‘ung Tien has 故能爲變化司命. Capt. Calthrop’s version of this paragraph is so remarkable that I cannot refrain from quoting it in full: “Now the secrets of the art of offence are not to be easily apprehended, as a certain shape or noise can be understood, of the senses; but when these secrets are once learnt, the enemy is mastered.”

10. You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy’s weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy.

The second member of the sentence is weak, because 不可及 is nearly tautologous with 不可追. The Yü Lan reads for .

11. If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch. All we need do is to attack some other place that he will be obliged to relieve.

Tu Mu says: “If the enemy is the invading party, we can cut his line of communications and occupy the roads by which he will have to return; if we are the invaders, we may direct our attack against the sovereign himself.” It is clear that Sun Tzŭ, unlike certain generals in the late Boer war, was no believer in frontal attacks.

  1. 我不欲戰畫地而守之敵不得與我戰者乖其所之也
  2. 故形人而我無形則我專而敵分
12. If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from engaging us even though the lines of our encampment be merely traced out on the ground. All we need do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.

In order to preserve the parallelism with § 11, I should prefer to follow the T‘u Shu text, which inserts before 畫地. This extremely concise expression is intelligibly paraphrased by Chia Lin: 雖未修壘壍 “even though we have constructed neither wall nor ditch.” The real crux of the passage lies in 乖其所之也. of course = . Ts‘ao Kung defines by the word , which is perhaps a case of obscurum per obscurius. Li Ch‘üan, however, says: 設奇異而疑之 “we puzzle him by strange and unusual dispositions;” and Tu Mu finally clinches the meaning by three illustrative anecdotes — one of 諸葛亮 Chu-ko Liang, who when occupying 陽平 Yang-p‘ing and about to be attacked by 司馬懿 Ssŭ-ma I, suddenly struck his colours, stopped the beating of the drums, and flung open the city gates, showing only a few men engaged in sweeping and sprinkling the ground. This unexpected proceeding had the intended effect; for Ssŭ-ma I, suspecting an ambush, actually drew off his army and retreated. What Sun Tzŭ is advocating here, therefore, is nothing more nor less than the timely use of “bluff.” Capt. Calthrop translates: “and prevent the enemy from attacking by keeping him in suspense,” which shows that he has not fully grasped the meaning of .

13. By discovering the enemy’s dispositions and remaining invisible ourselves, we can keep our forces concentrated, while the enemy’s must be divided.

The conclusion is perhaps not very obvious, but Chang Yü (after Mei Yao-ch‘ên) rightly explains it thus: “If the enemy’s dispositions are visible, we can make for him in one body; whereas, our own dispositions being kept secret, the enemy will be obliged to divide his forces in order to guard against attack from every quarter.” is here used as an active verb: “to make to appear.” See IV, note on heading. Capt. Calthrop’s “making feints” is quite wrong.

  1. 我專爲一敵分爲十是以十共其一也則我衆而敵寡
  2. 能以衆擊寡者則吾之所與戰者約矣
  3. 吾所與戰之地不可知不可知則敵所備者多敵所備者多則吾所與戰者寡矣
14. We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into fractions. Hence there will be a whole pitted against separate parts of a whole,

The original text has 以敵攻其一也, which in accordance with the T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan has been altered as above. I adopt the more plausible reading of the T‘u Shu: 是以十攻其一也, in spite of having to refer to ourselves and not to the enemy. Thus Tu Yu and Mei Yao-ch‘ên both regard as the undivided force, consisting of so many parts, and as each of the isolated fractions of the enemy. The alteration of into can hardly be right, though the true text might conceivably have been 是以十共攻其一也.

which means that we shall be many to the enemy’s few.

15. And if we are able thus to attack an inferior force with a superior one, our opponents will be in dire straits.

For , the T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan have . Tu Yu, followed by the other commentators, arbitrarily defines as 少而易勝 “few and easy to conquer,” but only succeeds thereby in making the sentence absolutely pointless. As for Capt. Calthrop’s translation: “In superiority of numbers there is economy of strength,” its meaning is probably known to himself alone. In justification of my own rendering of , I would refer to Lun Yü IV. 2 and VII. 25 (3).

16. The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points;

Sheridan once explained the reason of General Grant’s victories by saying that “while his opponents were kept fully employed wondering what he was going to do, he was thinking most of what he was going to do himself.”

and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.

  1. 故備前則後寡備後則前寡備左則右寡備右則左寡無所不備則無所不寡
  2. 寡者備人者也衆者使人備己者也
  3. 故知戰之地知戰之日則可千里而會戰
17. For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

In Frederick the Great’s Instructions to his Generals we read: “A defensive war is apt to betray us into too frequent detachment. Those generals who have had but little experience attempt to protect every point, while those who are better acquainted with their profession, having only the capital object in view, guard against a decisive blow, and acquiesce in smaller misfortunes to avoid greater.”

18. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.

The highest generalship, in Col. Henderson’s words, is “to compel the enemy to disperse his army, and then to concentrate superior force against each fraction in turn.”

19. Knowing the place and the time of the coming battle, we may concentrate from the greatest distances in order to fight.

There is nothing about “defeating” anybody in this sentence, as Capt. Calthrop translates. What Sun Tzŭ evidently has in mind is that nice calculation of distances and that masterly employment of strategy which enable a general to divide his army for the purpose of a long and rapid march, and afterwards to effect a junction at precisely the right spot and the right hour in order to confront the enemy in overwhelming strength. Among many such successful junctions which military history records, one of the most dramatic and decisive was the appearance of Blücher just at the critical moment on the field of Waterloo.

  1. 不知戰地不知戰日則左不能救右右不能救左前不能救後後不能救前而況遠者數十里近者數里乎
  2. 以吾度之越人之兵雖多亦奚益於勝敗哉故曰勝可爲也
20. But if neither time nor place be known, then the left wing will be impotent to succour the right, the right equally impotent to succour the left, the van unable to relieve the rear, or the rear to support the van. How much more so if the furthest portions of the army are anything under a hundred li apart, and even the nearest are separated by several li!

The Chinese of this last sentence is a little lacking in precision, but the mental picture we are required to draw is probably that of an army advancing towards a given rendezvous in separate columns, each of which has orders to be there on a fixed date. If the general allows the various detachments to proceed at haphazard, without precise instructions as to the time and place of meeting, the enemy will be able to annihilate the army in detail. Chang Yü’s note may be worth quoting here: “If we do not know the place where our opponents mean to concentrate or the day on which they will join battle, our unity will be forfeited through our preparations for defence, and the positions we hold will be insecure. Suddenly happening upon a powerful foe, we shall be brought to battle in a flurried condition, and no mutual support will be possible between wings, vanguard or rear, especially if there is any great distance between the foremost and hindmost divisions of the army.”

21. Though according to my estimate the soldiers of Yüeh exceed our own in number, that shall advantage them nothing in the matter of victory.

Capt. Calthrop omits 以吾度之, and his translation of the remainder is flabby and inaccurate. As Sun Tzŭ was in the service of the Wu State, it has been proposed to read instead of — a wholly unnecessary tampering with the text. Yüeh coincided roughly with the present province of Chehkiang. Li Ch‘üan very strangely takes not as the proper name, but in the sense of “to surpass.” No other commentator follows him. 勝敗 belongs to the class of expressions like 遠近 “distance,” 大小 “magnitude,” etc., to which the Chinese have to resortin order to express abstract ideas of degree. The T‘u Shu, however, omits .

I say then that victory can be achieved.

Alas for these brave words! The long feud between the two states ended in 473 B.C. with the total defeat of Wu by 勾踐 Kou Chien and its incorporation in Yüeh. This was doubtless long after Sun Tzŭ’s death. With his present assertion compare IV. § 4: 勝可知而不可爲 (which is the obviously mistaken reading of the Yü Lan here). Chang Yü is the only one to point out the seeming discrepancy, which he thus goes on to explain: “In the chapter on Tactical Dispositions it is said, ‘One may know how to conquer without being able to do it,’ whereas here we have the statement that ‘victory can be achieved.’ The explanation is, that in the former chapter, where the offensive and defensive are under discussion, is said that if the enemy is fully prepared, one cannot make certain of beating him. But the present passage refers particularly to the soldiers of Yüeh who, according to Sun Tzŭ’s calculations, will be kept in ignorance of the time and place of the impending struggle. That is why he says here that victory can be achieved.”

  1. 敵雖衆可使無鬥故策之而知得失之計
  2. 作之而知動靜之理形之而知死生之地
22. Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting.

Capt. Calthrop quite unwarrantably translates: “If the enemy be many in number, prevent him,” etc.

Scheme so as to discover his plans and the likelihood of their success.

This is the first of four similarly constructed sentences, all of which present decided difficulties. Chang Yü explains 知得失之計 as 知其計之得失. This is perhaps the best way of taking the words, though Chia Lin, referring to ourselves and not the enemy, offers the alternative of 我得彼失之計皆先知也 “Know beforehand all plans conducive to our success and to the enemy’s failure.”

23. Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity.<

Instead of , the T‘ung Tien, Yü Lan, and also Li Ch‘üan’s text have , which the latter explains as “the observation of omens,” and Chia Lin simply as “watching and waiting.” is defined by Tu Muas 激作, and Chang Yü tells us that by noting the joy or anger shown by the enemy on being thus disturbed, we shall be able to conclude whether his policy is to lie low or the reverse. He instances the action of Chu-ko Liang, who sent the scornful present of a woman’s head-dress to Ssŭ-ma I, in order to goad him out of his Fabian tactics.

Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.

Two commentators, Li Ch‘üan and Chang Yü, take 形之 in the sense of 示之 “put on specious appearances.” The former says: “You may either deceive the enemy by a show of weakness — striking your colours and silencing your drums; or by a show of strength — making a hollow display of camp-fires and regimental banners.” And the latter quotes V. 19, where 形之 certainly seems to bear this sense. On the other hand, I would point to § 13 of this chapter, where must with equal certainty be active. It is hard to choose between the two interpretations, but the context here agrees better, I think, with the one that I have adopted. Another difficulty arises over 死生之地, which most of the commentators, thinking no doubt of the 死地 in XI. § 1, refer to the actual ground on which the enemy is encamped. The notes of Chia Lin and Mei Yao-ch‘ên, however, seem to favour my view. The same phrase has a somewhat different meaning in I. § 2.

  1. 角之而知有餘不足之處
  2. 故形兵之極至於無形無形則深閒不能窺知者不能謀
24. Carefully compare the opposing army with your own,

Tu Yu is right, I think, in attributing this force to ; Ts‘ao Kung defines it simply as . Capt. Calthrop surpasses himself with the staggering translation “Flap the wings”! Can the Latin cornu (in its figurative sense) have been at the back of his mind?

so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient.

Cf. IV. § 6.

25. In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them;

The piquancy of the paradox evaporates in translation. 無形 is perhaps not so much actual invisibility (see supra, § 9) as “showing no sign” of what you mean to do, of the plans that are formed in your brain.conceal your dispositions, and you will be safe from the prying of the subtlest spies, from the machinations of the wisest brains.

深閒 is expanded by Tu Mu into 雖有閒者深來窺我. [For , see XIII, note on heading.] He explains 知者 in like fashion: 雖有智能之士亦不能謀我也 “though the enemy may have clever and capable officers, they will not be able to lay any plans against us.”

  1. 因形而錯勝於衆衆不能知
  2. 人皆知我所以勝之形而莫知吾所以制勝之形
  3. 故其戰勝不復而應形於無窮
26. How victory may be produced for them out of the enemy’s own tactics — that is what the multitude cannot comprehend.

All the commentators except Li Ch‘üan make refer to the enemy. So Ts‘ao Kung: 因敵形而立勝. is defined as . The T‘u Shu has , with the same meaning. See IV. § 13. The Yü Lan reads , evidently a gloss.

27. All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

I.e., everybody can see superficially how a battle is won; what they cannot see is the long series of plans and combinations which has preceded the battle. It seems justifiable, then, to render the first by “tactics” and the second by “strategy.”

28. Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.

As Wang Hsi sagely remarks: “There is but one root-principle () underlying victory, but the tactics () which lead up to it are infinite in number.” With this compare Col. Henderson; “The rules of strategy are few and simple. They may be learned in a week. They may be taught by familiar illustrations or a dozen diagrams. But such knowledge will no more teach a man to lead an army like Napoleon than a knowledge of grammar will teach him to write like Gibbon.”

  1. 夫兵形象水水之行避高而趨下
  2. 兵之形避實而擊虛
  3. 水因地而制流兵因敵而制勝
  4. 故兵無常勢水無常形
  5. 能因敵變化而取勝者謂之神
  6. 故五行無常勝四時無常位日有短長月有死生
29. Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards.

is 劉晝子 Liu Chou-tzŭ’s reading for in the original text.

30. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Like water, taking the line of least resistance.

31. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows;

The T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan read 制形, — the latter also 制行. The present text is derived from Chêng Yu-hsien.

the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

32. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

33. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

34. The five elements

Water, fire, wood, metal, earth.

are not always equally predominant;

That is, as Wang Hsi says: 迭相克也 “they predominate alternately.”the four seasons make way for each other in turn.

Literally, “have no invariable seat.”

There are short days and long; the moon has its periods of waning and waxing.

Cf. V. § 6. The purport of the passage is simply to illustrate the want of fixity in war by the changes constantly taking place in Nature. The comparison is not very happy, however, because the regularity of the phenomena which Sun Tzŭ mentions is by no means paralleled in war.

  1. See Col. Henderson’s biography of Stonewall Jackson, 1902 ed., vol. II, p. 490.