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The Art of War - Chapter 11. The Nine Situations

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


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

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

[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

On the ground of intersecting highways, join hands with your

[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

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

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

[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

[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

["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

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

[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

[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

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

[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

[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

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
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

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.

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

[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,

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

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

Thus he is able to capture their cities and overthrow their

[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

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
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

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.

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