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The Art of War - Chapter 8. Variations in Tactics

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


[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

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
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

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

[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

[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

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.

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