The Art of War (Sun)/Section IV

IV. 形篇

  1. 孫子曰昔之善戰者先爲不可勝以待敵之可勝
  2. 不可勝在己可勝在敵

IV. Tactical dispositions.

is a very comprehensive and somewhat vague term. Literally, “form,” “body,” it comes to mean “appearance,” “attitude” or “disposition;” and here it is best taken as something between, or perhaps combining, “tactics” and “disposition of troops.” Ts‘ao Kung explains it as 軍之形也、我動彼應兩敵相察情也 “marching and counter-marching on the part of the two armies with a view to discovering each other’s condition.” Tu Mu says: “It is through the dispositions of an army that its condition may be discovered. Conceal your dispositions of an army (無形), and your condition will remain secret, which leads to victory; show your dispositions, and your condition will become patent, which leads to defeat.” Wang Hsi remarks that the good general can 變化其形因敵以制勝 “secure success by modifying his tactics to meet those of the enemy.” In the modern text, the title of the chapters appears as 軍形, which Capt. Calthrop incorrectly translates “the order of battle.”

1. Sun Tzŭ said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.

2. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

That is, of course, by a mistake on his part. Capt. Calthrop has: “The causes of defeat come from within; victory is born in the enemy’s camp,” which, though certainly an improvement on his previous attempt, is still incorrect.

  1. 故善戰者能爲不可勝不能使敵必可勝
  2. 故曰勝可知而不可爲
  3. 不可勝者守也可勝者攻也
  4. 守則不足攻則有餘
  5. 善守者藏於九地之下善攻者動於九天之上故能自保而全勝也

3. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat,

“By concealing the disposition of his troops, covering up his tracks, and taking unremitting precautions” (Chang Yü).

but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.

The original text reads 使敵之可勝, which the modern text has further modified into 使敵之必可勝. Capt. Calthrop makes out the impossible meaning, “and further render the enemy incapable of victory.”

4. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

Capt. Calthrop translates: “The conditions necessary for victory may be present, but they cannot always be obtained,” which is more or less unintelligible.

5. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

For 不可勝 I retain the sense which it undoubtedly bears in §§ 1—3, in spite of the fact that the commentators are all against me. The meaning they give, “He who cannot conquer takes the defensive,” is plausible enough, but it is highly improbable that should suddenly become active in this way. An incorrect variant in the Yü Lan is 不可勝則守可勝則攻.

6. Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.

7. The general who is skilled in defence hides in the most secret recesses of the earth;

Literally, “hides under the ninth earth,” which is a metaphor indicating the utmost secrecy and concealment, so that the enemy may not know his whereabouts. The 九地 of this passage have of course no connection with the 九地 “Nine situations” of chap. XI.

he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven.

Another metaphor, implying that he falls on his adversary like a thunderbolt, against which there is no time to prepare. This is the opinion of most of the commentators, though Ts‘so Kung, followed by Tu Yu, explains as the hills, rivers, and other natural features which will afford shelter or protection to the attacked, and as the phases of weather which may be turned to account by the attacking party. Capt. Calthrop’s “The skilful in attack push to the topmost heaven” conveys no meaning at all.

Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

Capt. Calthrop draws on a fertile imagination for the following: “If these precepts be observed, victory is certain.”

  1. 見勝不過衆人之所知非善之善者也
  2. 戰勝而天下曰善非善之善者也

8. To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.

As Ts‘ao Kung remarks, 當見未萌 “the thing is to see the plant before it is germinated,” to forsee the event before the action has begun. Li Ch‘üan alludes to the story of Han Hsin who, when about to attack the vastly superior army of Chao, which was strongly entrenched in the city of 成安 Ch‘êng-an, said to his officers: “Gentlemen, we are going to annihilate the enemy, and shall meet again at dinner.” The officers hardly took his words seriously, and gave a very dubious assent. But Han Hsin had already worked out in his mind the details of a clever stratagem, whereby, as he foresaw, he was able to capture the city and inflict a crushing defeat on his adversary. For the full story, see 前漢書, chap. 34, 韓信傳. Capt. Calthrop again blunders badly with: “A victory, even if popularly proclaimed as such by the common folk, may not be a true success.”

9. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!”

True excellence being, as Tu Mu says: 陰謀潛運攻心伐謀勝敵之日曾不血刃 “To plan secretly, to move

surreptitiously, to foil the enemy’s intentions and baulk his schemes, so that at last the day may be won without shedding a drop of blood.” Sun Tzŭ reserves his approbation for things that

“the world’s coarse thumb

And finger fail to plumb.”

  1. 故舉秋毫不爲多力見日月不爲明目聞雷霆不為聰耳
  2. 古之所謂善戰者勝勝易勝者也
  3. 故善戰者之勝也無智名無勇功
10. To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength;

秋毫 is explained as the fur of a hare, which is finest in autumn, when it begins to grow afresh. The phrase is a very common one in Chinese writers. Cf. Mencius, I. 1. vii. 10, and Chuang Tzŭ, 知北遊, et al.

to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

Ho Shih gives as real instances of strength, sharp sight and quick hearing: 烏𫉬 Wu Huo, who could lift a tripod weighing 250 stone; 離朱 Li Chu, who at a distance of a hundred paces could see objects no bigger than a mustard seed; and 師曠 Shih K‘uang, a blind musician who could hear the footsteps of a mosquito.

11. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.

The original text, followed by the T‘u Shu, has 勝於易勝者也. But this is an alteration evidently intended to smooth the awkwardness of 勝勝易勝者也, which means literally: “one who, conquering, excels in easy conquering.” Mei Yao-ch‘ên says: “He who only sees the obvious, wins his battles with difficulty; he who looks below the surface of things, wins with ease.”

12. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.

Tu Mu explains this very well: “Inasmuch as his victories are gained over circumstances that have not come to light, the world at large knows nothing of them, and he wins no reputation for wisdom; inasmuch as the hostile state submits before there has been any bloodshed, he receives no credit for courage.”

  1. 故其戰勝不忒不忒者其所措必勝勝已敗者也
  2. 故善戰者立於不敗之地而不失敵之敗也
  3. 是故勝兵先勝而後求戰敗兵先戰而後求勝
13. He wins his battles by making no mistakes.

Ch‘ên Hao says: “He plans no superfluous marches, he devises no futile attacks.” The connection of ideas is thus explained by Chang Yü: “One who seeks to conquer by sheer strength, clever though he may be at winning pitched battles, is also liable on occasion to be vanquished; whereas he who can look into the future and discern conditions that are not yet manifest, will never make a blunder and therefore invariably win.” Li Ch‘üan thinks that the character should be “to have doubts.” But it is better not to tamper with the text, especially when no improvement in sense is the result.

Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

The T‘u Shu omits . is here =. Chia Lin says it is put for in the sense of ; but this is far-fetched. Capt. Calthrop altogether ignores the important word .

14. Hence the skilful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.

A 不可爲之計 “counsel of perfection,” as Tu Mu truly observes. need not be confined strictly to the actual ground occupied by the troops. It includes all the arrangements and preparations which a wise general will make to increase the safety of his army.

15. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

Ho Shih thus expounds the paradox: “In warfare, first lay plans which will ensure victory, and then lead your army to battle; if you will not begin with stratagem but rely on brute strength alone, victory will no longer be assured.”

  1. 善用兵者修道而保法故能爲勝敗之政
  2. 兵法一曰度二曰量三曰數四曰稱五曰勝
  3. 地生度度生量量生數數生稱稱生勝

16. The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline;

For and , see supra, I. 4 sqq. I think that Chang Yü is wrong in altering their signification here, and taking them as 爲戰之道 and 制敵之法 respectively.

thus it is in his power to control success.

17. In respect of military method, we have, firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory.

18. Measurement owes its existence to Earth; Estimation of quantity to Measurement; Calculation to Estimation of quantity; Balancing of chances to Calculation; and Victory to Balancing of chances.

It is not easy to distinguish the four terms 度量數稱 very clearly. The first seems to be surveying and measurement of the ground, which enable us to form an estimate of the enemy’s strength, and to make calculations based on the data thus obtained; we are thus led to a general weighing-up, or comparison of the enemy’s chances with our own; if the latter turn the scale, then victory ensues. The chief difficulty lies in , which some commentators take as a calculation of numbers, thereby making it nearly synonymous with . Perhaps is rather a consideration of the enemy’s general position or condition ( or 形勢), while is the estimate of his numerical strength. On the other hand, Tu Mu defines as 機數, and adds: 强弱已定然後能用機變數也 “the question of relative strength having been settled, we can bring the varied resources of cunning into play.” Ho Shih seconds this interpretation, which is weakened, however, by the fact that is given as logically consequent on ; this certainly points to the latter being a calculation of numbers. Of Capt. Calthrop’s version the less said the better.

  1. 故勝兵若以鎰稱銖敗兵若以銖稱鎰
  2. 勝者之戰民也若決積水於千仞之谿者形也

19. A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a pound's weight placed in the scale against a single grain.

Literally, “a victorious army is like an i (20 oz.) weighed against a shu (1/24 oz.); a routed army as a shu weighed against an i.” The point is simply the enormous advantage which a disciplined force, flushed with victory, has over one demoralised by defeat. Legge, in his not on Mencius, I. 2. ix. 2, makes the to be 24 Chinese ounces, and corrects Chu Hsi’s statement that it equalled 20 oz. only. But Li Ch‘üan of the T‘ang dynasty here gives the same figure as Chu Hsi.

20. The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep. So much for tactical dispositions.

The construction here is slightly awkward and elliptical, but the general sense is plain. The T‘u Shu omits 民也. A =8 or Chinese feet.