The Art of War (Sun)/Section VIII
VIII. Variation of tactics.
The heading means literally “The Nine Variations,” but as Sun Tzŭ does not appear to enumerate these, and as, indeed, he has already told us (V. §§ 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 當極其變 we ought to vary our tactics to the utmost degree . . . I do not know what Ts‘ao Kung makes these Nine Variations out to be [the latter’s note is 變其正得其所用九也], but it has been suggested that they are connected with the Nine Situations” — of chap. XI. This is the view adopted by Chang Yü: see note on 死地, § 2. 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. § 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.
For explanation of 圮地, see XI. § 8.
In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies.
See XI, §§ 6, 12. Capt. Calthrop omits 衢地. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.
絶地 is not one of the Nine Situations as given in the beginning of chap. XI, but occurs later on (ibid. § 43, q.v.). We may compare it with 重地 (XI. § 7). Chang Yü calls it a 危絶之地, situated across the frontier, in hostile territory. Li Ch‘üan 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.
See XI. §§ 9, 14. Capt. Calthrop has “mountainous and wooded country,” which is a quite inadequate translation of 圍.
In desperate position, you must fight.See XI. §§ 10, 14. Chang Yü has an important note here, which must be given in full. “From 圮地無舍,” he says, “down to this point, the Nine Variations are presented to us. The reason why only five are given is that the subject is treated en précis (舉其大略也). So in chap. XI, where he discusses the variations of tactics corresponding to the Nine Grounds, Sun Tzŭ mentions only six variations; there again. we have an abridgment. [I cannot understand what Chang Yü means by this statement. He can only be referring to §§ 11—14 or §§ 46—50 of chap. XI; but in both places all the nine grounds are discussed. Perhaps he is confusing these with the Six 地形 of chap. X.] All kinds of ground have corresponding military positions, and also a variation of tactics suitable to each (凡地有勢有變). In chap. XI, what we find enumerated first [§§ 2—10] are the situations; afterwards [§§ 11—14] the corresponding tactics. Now, how can we tell that the 九變 “Nine Variations” are simply the 九地之變 “variations of tactics corresponding to the Nine Grounds”? It is said further on [§ 5] that ‘the general who does not understand the nine variations of tactics may be well acquainted with the features of the country, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge to practical account.’ Again, in chap. XI [§ 41] we read: ‘The different measures adapted to the nine varieties of ground (九地之變) and the expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics must be carefully examined.’ From a consideration of these passages the meaning is made clear. When later on the nine grounds are enumerated, Sun Tzŭ recurs to these nine variations. He wishes here to speak of the Five Advantages [see infra, § 6], so he begins by setting forth the Nine Variations. These are inseparably connected in practice, and therefore they are dealt with together.” The weak point of this argument is the suggestion that 五事 “five things” can stand as a 大畧, that is, an abstract or abridgment, of nine, when those that are omitted are not less important than those that appear, and when one of the latter is not included amongst the nine at all.
||3. There are roads which must not be followed,
“Especially those leading through narrow defiles,” says Li Ch‘üan, “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‘ên Hao says: “When you see your way to obtain a trivial advantage, but are powerless to inflict a real defeat, refrain from attacking, for fear of overtaxing your men’s strength.”
Capt. Calthrop says “castles” — an unfortunate attempt to introduce local colour.
which must not be besieged,
Cf. III. §4. Ts‘ao Kung gives an interesting illustration from his own experience. When invading the territory of 徐州 Hsü-chou, he ignored the city of 華費 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 Yü says: “No town should be attacked which, if taken, cannot be held, or if left alone, will not cause any trouble” 荀罃 Hsun Ying, when urged to attack 偪陽 Pi-yang, replied: “The city is small and well-fortified; even if I succeed in taking it, ’t 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 manœuvres. He said: “It is a great mistake to waste men in taking a town when the same expenditure of soldiers will gain a province.”
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 Tzŭ (quoted by Tu Mu) is moved to exclaim: 兵者凶器也爭者逆德也將者死官也 “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. Cf. III. § 17. (5), X. § 23. The T‘ung Tien has 將在軍 before 君命, etc. This is a gloss on the words by Chu-ko Liang, which being repeated by Tu Yu became incorporated with the text. Chang Yü thinks that these ﬁve precepts are the 五利 referred to in § 6. Another theory is that the mysterious 九變 are here enumerated, starting with 圮地無舍 and ending at 地有所不爭, while the final clause 君命有所不受 embraces and as it were sums up all the nine. Thus Ho Shih says: “Even if it be your sovereign’s command to encamp in difficult country, linger in isolated positions, etc., you must not do so.” The theory is perhaps a little too ingenious to be accepted with confidence.
||4. The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.
Before 利 in the original text there is a 地, which is obviously not required.
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 Yü says: “Every kind of ground is characterised by certain natural features, and also gives scope for a certain variability of plan. How is it 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.Ts‘ao Kung says that the 五利 are 下五事也 “the five things that follow;” but this cannot be right. We must rather look back to the five “variations” contained in § 3. Chia Lin (who reads 五變 here to balance the 五利 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 on. Here the 變 comes in to modify the 利, and hence we see the uselessness of knowing the one without the other — of having an eye for weaknesses in the enemy’s armour without being clever enough to recast one’s plans on the spur of the moment. Capt. Calthrop offers this slovenly translation: “In the management of armies, if the art of the Nine Changes be understood [sic], a knowledge of the Five Advantages is of no avail.”
||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 schemes.
信, according to Tu Mu, is equivalent to 申, and 務可信也 is paraphrased by Chang Yü as 可以伸己之事. Tu Mu goes on to say: “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.A translator cannot emulate the conciseness of 雜於害 “to blend [thoughts of advantage] with disadvantage,” but the meaning is as given. 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. § 35, note. In his first edition, Capt. Calthrop translated §§ 7—9 as follows: “The wise man perceives clearly wherein lies advantage and disadvantage. While recognising an opportunity, he does not overlook the risks, and saves future anxiety.” This has now been altered into: “The wise man considers well both advantage and disadvantage. He sees a way out of adversity, and on the day of victory to danger is not blind.” Owing to a needless inversion of the Chinese, the words which I have italicised are evidently intended to represent § 8!
||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 counsellors. 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 Yü (after Wang Hsi) considers the 害 to be military chastisement: “Get the enemy,” he says, “into a position where he must suffer injury, and he will submit of his own accord.” Capt. Calthrop twists Sun Tzŭ’s words into an absurdly barbarous precept: “In reducing an enemy to submission, inflict all possible damage upon him.”
and make trouble for them,
業 is defined by Ts‘ao Kung as 事, and his definition is generally adopted by the commentators. Tu Mu, however, seems to take it in the sense of “possessions,” or, as we might say, “assets,” which he considers to be 兵衆國富人和令行 “a large army, a rich exchequer, harmony amongst the soldiers, punctual fulfilment of commands.” These give us a whip-hand over the enemy.
and keep them constantly engaged;
役, literally, “make servants of them.” Tu Yu says 令不得安佚 “prevent them from having any rest.”
hold out specious allurements, and make them rush to any given point.Mêng Shih’s note contains an excellent example of the idiomatic use of 變: 令忘變而速至 “cause them to forget pien (the reasons for acting otherwise than on their first impulse), and hasten in our direction.”
||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;
The T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan read 有能以待之也, but the conciser form is more likely to be right.
not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
The T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan insert 吾也 after the first 攻, and omit 有所.
12. There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction;
勇而無慮 “Bravery without forethought," as Ts‘ao Kung analyses it, which causes a man to fight blindly and desperately like a mad bull. Such an opponent, says Chang Yü, “must not be encountered with brute force, but may be lured into an ambush and slain.” Cf. Wu Tzŭ, chap. IV ad init.: 凡人論將常觀於勇勇之於將乃數分 之一耳夫勇者必輕合輕合而不利未可也 “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.” Ssŭ-ma Fa, too, makes the incisive remark 上死不勝 “Simply going to one’s death does not bring about victory.”
(2) cowardice, which leads to capture;
必生 is explained by Ts‘ao Kung 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.” Mêng Shih gives the closer paraphrase 志必生反 “he who is bent on returning alive,” that is, the man who will never take a risk. But, as Sun Tzŭ knew, nothing is to be achieved in war unless you are willing to take risks. T‘ai Kung said: 失利後時反受其殃 “He who lets an advantage slip will subsequently bring upon himself real disaster.” In 404 A.D., 劉裕 Liu Yü pursued the rebel 桓𤣥 Huan Hsüan up the Yangtsze and fought a naval battle with him at 崢嶸洲 the island of Ch‘êng-hung. The loyal troops numbered only a few thousands, while their opponents were in great force. But Huan Hsüan, fearing the fate which was in store for him should he 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 ardour to be first in the fray, Huan Hsüan’s forces were routed, had to burn all their baggage and fled for two days and nights without stopping. [See 晉書, chap. 99, fol. 13.] Chang Yü tells a somewhat similar story of 趙嬰齊 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;
I fail to see the meaning of Capt. Calthrop’s “which brings insult.” Tu Mu tells us that 姚襄 Yao Hsiang, when opposed in 357 A.D. by 黃眉 Huang Mei, 鄧羌 Têng Ch‘iang and others, shut himself up behind his walls and refused to fight. Têng 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 on as far as 三原 San-yuan by the enemy’s pretended flight, and finally attacked and slain.
(4) a delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame;
This need not be taken to mean that a sense of honour is really a defect in a general. What Sun Tzŭ condemns is rather an exaggerated sensitiveness to slanderous reports, the thin-skinned man who is stung by opprobrium, however undeserved. Mei Yao-ch‘ên truly observes, though somewhat paradoxically: 徇名不顧 “The seeker after glory should be careless of public opinion.”
(5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.Here again, Sun Tzŭ does not mean that the general is to be careless of the welfare of his troops. All he wishes to emphasise 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 favour 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 be but known it, he was only condemning him out of Sun Tzŭ’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.
- “Marshal Turenne," p. 50.