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The Art of War - Chapter 6. Weak Points and Strong

1. Introduction

2. The Text of Sun Tzu

3. The Commentators

4. Appreciations of Sun Tzu

5. Apologies for War

6. Bibliography

7. Footnotes

8. Chapter 1. Laying Plans

9. Chapter 2. Waging War

10. Chapter 3. Attack By Stratagem

11. Chapter 4. Tactical Disposition

12. Chapter 5. Energy

13. Chapter 6. Weak Points and Strong

14. Chapter 7. Manuevering

15. Chapter 8. Variations in Tactics

16. Chapter 9. The Army on the March

17. Chapter 10. Terrain

18. Chapter 11. The Nine Situations

19. Chapter 12. The Attack by Fire

20. Chapter 13. The Use of Spies


[Chang Yu 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 defense, 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 defense, 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 Tzu 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
2. Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the
enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.

[One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own
terms or fights not at all. [1] ]

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`en's interpretation of I. ss. 23.]

if well supplied with food, he can starve him out; if quietly
encamped, he can force him to move.
5. Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend;
march swiftly to places where you are not expected.
6. An army may march great distances without distress, if
it marches through country where the enemy is not.

[Ts`ao Kung sums up very well: "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."]

7. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you
only attack places which are undefended.

[Wang Hsi explains "undefended places" 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

You can ensure the safety of your defense 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 later clause. Tu Mu, Ch`en Hao, and Mei
Yao-ch`en assume the meaning to be: "In order to make your
defense 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 Yu, 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. ss. 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 defense 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 skillful in attack whose opponent
does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose
opponent does not know what to attack.

[An aphorism which puts the whole art of war in a nutshell.]

9. O divine art of subtlety 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.]

and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands.
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.
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 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 Tzu,
unlike certain generals in the late Boer war, was no believer in
frontal attacks.]

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.

[This extremely concise expression is intelligibly
paraphrased by Chia Lin: "even though we have constructed
neither wall nor ditch." Li Ch`uan says: "we puzzle him by
strange and unusual dispositions;" and Tu Mu finally clinches the
meaning by three illustrative anecdotes--one of Chu-ko Liang, who
when occupying Yang-p`ing and about to be attacked by Ssu-ma I,
suddenly struck his colors, 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 Ssu-ma I, suspecting an ambush,
actually drew off his army and retreated. What Sun Tzu is
advocating here, therefore, is nothing more nor less than the
timely use of "bluff."]

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 Yu
(after Mei Yao-ch`en) 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."]

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, 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.
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.
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 small
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.

[What Sun Tzu 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 Blucher just at the critical
moment on the field of Waterloo.]

20. But if neither time nor place be known, then the left
wing will be impotent to succor the right, the right equally
impotent to succor 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 Yu'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 defense, 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 Yueh
exceed our own in number, that shall advantage them nothing in
the matter of victory. 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 Kou Chien
and its incorporation in Yueh. This was doubtless long after Sun
Tzu's death. With his present assertion compare IV. ss. 4.
Chang Yu 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, it 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 Yueh who, according to Sun
Tzu'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."]

22. Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may prevent
him from fighting. Scheme so as to discover his plans and the
likelihood of their success.

[An alternative reading offered by Chia Lin is: "Know
beforehand all plans conducive to our success and to the enemy's

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

[Chang Yu 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 Cho-ku Liang, who sent the scornful present of a
woman's head-dress to Ssu-ma I, in order to goad him out of his
Fabian tactics.]

Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable
24. Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so
that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is

[Cf. IV. ss. 6.]

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

[The piquancy of the paradox evaporates in translation.
Concealment is perhaps not so much actual invisibility (see supra
ss. 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

[Tu Mu explains: "Though the enemy may have clever and
capable officers, they will not be able to lay any plans against

26. How victory may be produced for them out of the enemy's
own tactics--that is what the multitude cannot comprehend.
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.]

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."]

29. Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its
natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards.
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 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: "they predominate

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. ss. 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 Tzu
mentions is by no means paralleled in war.]

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

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