The Art of War (Sun)/Section XII

Translated from the Chinese by Lionel Giles, M.A. (1910)

XII. 火攻篇

  1. 孫子曰凡火攻有五一曰火人二曰火積三曰火輜四曰火庫五曰火隊

XII. The attack by fire.

Rather more than half the chapter (§§ 1—13) is devoted to the subject of fire, after which the author branches off into other topics.

1. Sun Tzŭ said: There are five ways of attacking with fire. The first is to burn soldiers in their camp;

So Tu Mu. Li Ch‘üan says: 焚其營殺其士卒也 “Set fire to the camp, and kill the soldiers” (when they try to escape from the flames). Pan Ch‘ao, sent on a diplomatic mission to the King of Shan-shan [see XI. § 51, note], found himself placed in extreme peril by the unexpected arrival of an envoy from the Hsiung-nu [the mortal enemies of the Chinese]. In consultation with his officers, he exclaimed: “‘Never venture, never win![1] The only course open to us now is to make an assault by fire on the barbarians under cover of night, when they will not be able to discern our numbers. Profiting by their panic, we shall exterminate them completely; this will cool the King’s courage and cover us with glory, besides ensuring the success of our mission.’ The officers all replied that it would be necessary to discuss the matter first with the Intendant (從事). Pan Ch‘ao then fell, into a passion: ‘It is to-day,’ he cried, ‘that our fortunes must be decided! The Intendant is only a humdrum civilian, who on hearing of our project will certainly be afraid, and everything will be brought to light. An inglorious death is no worthy fate for valiant warriors.’ All then agreed to do as he wished. Accordingly, as soon as night came on, he and his little band quickly made their way to the barbarian camp. A strong gale was blowing at the time. Pan Ch‘ao ordered ten of the party to take drums and hide behind the enemy’s barracks, it being arranged that when they saw flames shoot up, they should begin drumming and yelling with all their might. The rest of his men, armed with bows and crossbows, he posted in ambuscade at the gate of the camp. He then set fire to the place from the windward side, whereupon a deafening noise of drums and shouting arose on the front and rear of the Hsiung-nu, who rushed out pell-mell in frantic disorder. Pan Ch‘ao slew three of them with his own hand, while his companions cut off the heads of the envoy and thirty of his suite. The remainder, more than a hundred in all, perished in the flames. On the following day, Pan Ch‘ao went back and informed 郭恂 Kuo Hsün [the Intendant] of what he had done. The latter was greatly alarmed and turned pale. But Pan Ch‘ao, divining his thoughts, said with uplifted hand: ‘Although you did not go with us last night, I should not think, Sir, of taking sole credit for our exploit.’ This satisfied Kuo Hsün, and Pan Ch‘ao, having sent for Kuang, King of Shan-shan, showed him the head of the barbarian envoy. The whole kingdom was seized with fear and trembling, which Pan Ch‘ao took steps to allay by issuing a public proclamation. Then, taking the king’s son as hostage, he returned to make his report to 竇固 Tou Ku.” [Hou Han Shu, ch. 47, ff. 1, 2.]

the second is to burn stores;

Tu Mu says: 糧食薪芻 “Provisions, fuel and fodder.” In order to subdue the rebellious population of Kiangnan, 高潁 Kao Kêng recommended Wên Ti of the Sui dynasty to make periodical raids and burn their stores of grain, a policy which in the long run proved entirely successful. [隋書, ch. 41, fol. 2.]

the third is to burn baggage trains;

An example given is the destruction of 袁紹 Yuan Shao’s waggons and impedimenta by Ts‘ao Ts‘ao in 200 A.D.

the fourth is to burn arsenals and magazines;

Tu Mu says that the things contained in and are the same. He specifies weapons and other implements, bullion and clothing. Cf. VII. § 11.

the fifth is to hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy.

No fewer than four totally diverse explanations of this sentence are given by the commentators, not one of which is quite satisfactory. It is obvious, at any rate, that the ordinary meaning of (“regiment” or “company”) is here inadmissible. In spite of Tu Mu’s note, 焚其行伍因亂而擊之, I must regard “company burning” (Capt. Calthrop’s rendering) as nonsense pure and simple. We may also, I think, reject the very forced explanation given by Li Ch‘üan, Mei Yao-ch‘ên

and Chang Yü, of whom the last-named says: 焚其隊仗使兵無戰具 “burning a regiment’s weapons, so that the soldiers may have nothing to fight with.” That leaves only two solutions open: one, favoured by Chia Lin and Ho Shih, is to take in the somewhat uncommon sense of “a road,” = . The commentary on a passage in the 穆天子傳, quoted in K‘ang Hsi, defines (read sui) as 谷中險阻道 “a difficult road leading through a valley.” Here would stand for the 糧道 “line of supplies,” which might be effectually interrupted if the country roundabout was laid waste with fire. Finally, the interpretation which I have adopted is that given by Tu Yu in the T‘ung Tien. He reads (which is not absolutely necessary, chui being sometimes used in the same sense), with the following note: 以火墮敵營中也火墮之法以鐵籠火着箭頭頸强弩射敵營中 “To drop fire into the enemy’s camp. The method by which this may be done is to set the tips of arrows alight by dipping them into a brazier, and then shoot them from powerful crossbows into the enemy’s lines.”

  1. 行火必有因煙火必素具
  2. 發火有時起火有日
2. In order to carry out an attack with fire, we must have means available.

Ts‘ao Kung thinks that 姦人 “traitors in the enemy’s camp” are referred to. He thus takes as the efficient cause only. But Ch‘ên Hao is more likely to be right in saying: 須得其便不獨姦人 “We must have favourable circumstances in general, not merely traitors to help us.” Chia Lin says: 因風燥 “We must avail ourselves of wind and dry weather.”

the material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.

煙火 is explained by Ts‘ao Kung as 燒具 “appliances for making fire.” Tu Mu suggests 艾蒿荻葦薪芻膏酒之屬 “dry vegetable matter, reeds, brushwood, straw, grease, oil, etc.” Here we have the material cause. Chang Yü says: 𫎓火之器燃火之物 “vessels for hoarding fire, stuff for lighting fires.”

3. There is a proper season for making attacks with fire, and special days for starting a conflagration.

A fire must not be begun “recklessly” or 偶然 “at haphazard.”

  1. 時者天之燥也日者宿在箕壁翼軫也凡此四宿者風起之日也
  2. 凡火攻必因五火之變而應之
  3. 火發於內則早應之於外
4. The proper season is when the weather is very dry; the special days are those when the moon is in the constellations of the Sieve, the Wall, the Wing or the Cross-bar;

These are, respectively, the 7th, 14th, 27th, and 28th of the 二十八宮 Twenty-eight Stellar Mansions, corresponding roughly to Sagittarius, Pegasus, Crater and Corvus. The original text, followed by the T‘u Shu, has in place of 宿; the present reading rests on the authority of the T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan. Tu Mu says: 宿者月之所宿也. For 箕壁, both T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan give the more precise location 戊箕東壁. Mei Yao-ch‘ên tells us that by is meant the tail of the Dragon; by , the eastern part of that constellation; by and , the tail of the Quail.

for these four are all days of rising wind.

此四宿者 is elliptical for 月在此四宿之日. 蕭繹 Hsiao I (afterwards fourth Emperor of the Liang dynasty, A.D. 552—555) is quoted by Tu Yu as saying that the days 丙丁 of spring, 戊已 of summer, 壬癸 of autumn, and 甲乙 of winter bring fierce gales of wind and rain.

5. In attacking with fire, one should be prepared to meet five possible developments:

I take as qualifying , not , and therefore think that Chang Yü is wrong in referring 五火 to the five methods of attack set forth in § 1. What follows has certainly nothing to do with these.

6. (1) When fire breaks out inside to enemy's camp, respond at once with an attack from without.

The Yü Lan incorrectly reads for .

  1. 火發而其兵靜者待而勿攻
  2. 極其火力可從而從之不可從而止
  3. 火可發於外無待於內以時發之
7. (2) If there is an outbreak of fire, but the enemy's soldiers remain quiet, bide your time and do not attack.

The original text omits 而其. The prime object of attacking with fire is to throw the enemy into confusion. If this effect is not produced, it means that the enemy is ready to receive us. Hence the necessity for caution.

8. (3) When the force of the flames has reached its height, follow it up with an attack, if that is practicable; if not, stay where you are.

Ts‘ao Kung says: 可見而進知難而退 “If you see a possible way, advance; but if you find the difficulties too great, retire.”

9. (4) If it is possible to make an assault with fire from without, do not wait for it to break out within, but deliver your attack at a favourable moment.

Tu Mu says that the previous paragraphs had reference to the fire breaking out (either accidentally, we may suppose, or by the agency of incendiaries) inside the enemy’s camp. “But,” he continues, 若敵居𮎰澤草穢或營柵可焚之地卽須及時發火不必更待內發作然後應之恐敵人自燒野草我起火無益 “if the enemy is settled in a waste place littered with quantities of grass, or if he has pitched his camp in a position which can be burnt out, we must carry our fire against him at any seasonable opportunity, and not wait on in hopes of an outbreak occurring within, for fear our opponents should themselves burn up the surrounding vegetation, and thus render our own attempts fruitless.” The famous 李陵 Li Ling once baffled the 單于 leader of the Hsiung-nu in this way. The latter, taking advantage of a favourable wind, tried to set fire to the Chinese general’s camp, but found that every scrap of combustible vegetation in the neighbourhood had already been burnt down. On the other hand, 波才 Po-ts‘ai, a general of the 黃巾賊 Yellow Turban rebels, was badly defeated in 184 A.D. through his neglect of this simple precaution. “At the head of a large army he was besieging 長社 Ch‘ang-shê, which was held by 皇甫嵩 Huang-fu Sung. The garrison was very

small, and a general feeling of nervousness pervaded the ranks; so Huang-fu Sung called his officers together and said: ‘In war, there are various indirect methods of attack, and numbers do not count for everything. [The commentator here quotes Sun Tzŭ, V. §§ 5, 6 and 10.] Now the rebels have pitched their camp in the midst of thick grass (依草結營), which will easily burn when the wind blows. If we set fire to it at night, they will be thrown into a panic, and we can make a sortie and attack them on all sides at once, thus emulating the achievement of T‘ien Tan.’ [See p. 90.] That same evening, a strong breeze sprang up; so Huang-fu Sung instructed his soldiers to bind reeds together into torches and mount guard on the city walls, after which he sent out a band of daring men, who stealthily made their way through the lines and started the fire with loud shouts and yells. Simultaneously, a glare of light shot up from the city-walls, and Huang-fu Sung, sounding his drums, led a rapid charge, which threw the rebels into confusion and put them to headlong flight.” [Hou Han Shu, ch. 71, f. 2 r°.]

  1. 火發上風無攻下風
  2. 晝風久夜風止
  3. 凡軍必知有五火之變以數守之
10. (5) When you start a fire, be to windward of it. Do not attack from the leeward.

Chang Yü, following Tu Yu, says: 燒之必退退而逆擊之必死戰則不便也 “When you make a fire, the enemy will retreat away from it; if you oppose his retreat and attack him then, he will fight desperately, which will not conduce to your success.” A rather more obvious explanation is given by Tu Mu: “If the wind is in the east, begin burning to the east of the enemy, and follow up the attack yourself from that side. If you start the fire on the east side, and then attack from the west, you will suffer in the same way as your enemy.”

11. A wind that rises in the daytime lasts long, but a night breeze soon falls.

Cf. Lao Tzŭ’s saying: 飄風不終朝 “A violent wind does not last the space of a morning.” (Tao Tê Ching, chap. 23.) Mei Yao-ch‘ên and Wang Hsi say: “A day breeze dies down at nightfall, and a night breeze at daybreak. This is what happens as a general rule.” The phenomenon observed may be correct enough, but how this sense is to be obtained is not apparent.

12. In every army, the five developments connected with fire must be known, the movements of the stars calculated, and a watch kept for the proper days.

Tu Mu’s commentary shows what has to be supplied "in order to make sense out of 以數守之. He says: 必筭星𨇠之數守風起之日乃可發火 “We must make calculations as to the paths of the stars, and watch for the days on which wind will rise, before making our attack with fire.” Chang Yü seems to take in the sense of : “We must not only know how to assail our opponents with fire, but also be on our guard against similar attacks from them.”

  1. 故以火佐攻者明以水佐攻者强
  2. 水可以絶不可以奪
13. Hence those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence;

I have not the least hesitation in rejecting the commentators’ explanation of as = 明白. Thus Chang Yü says: 灼然可以取勝 “... will clearly [i.e. obviously] be able to gain the victory.” This is not only clumsy in itself, but does not balance in the next clause. For ; “intelligent,” cf. infra, § 16, and Lun Yü XII. 6.

those who use water as an aid to the attack gain an accession of strength.

Capt. Calthrop gives an extraordinary rendering of the paragraph: “...if the attack is to be assisted, the fire must be unquenchable. If water is to assist the attack, the flood must be overwhelming.”

14. By means of water, an enemy may be intercepted, but not robbed of all his belongings.

Ts‘ao Kung’s note is: 但可以絶敵道分敵軍不可以奪敵蓄積 “We can merely obstruct the enemy’s road or divide his army, but not sweep away all his accumulated stores.” Water can do useful service, but it lacks the terrible destructive power of fire. This is the reason, Chang Yü concludes, why the former is dismissed in a couple of sentences, whereas the attack by fire is discussed in detail. Wu Tzŭ (ch. 4) speaks thus of the two elements: 居軍下濕水無所通霖雨數至可灌而沉居軍𮎰澤草楚幽穢風飆數至可焚而滅 “If an army is encamped on low-lying marshy ground, from which the water cannot run off, and where the rainfall is heavy, it may be submerged by a flood. If an army is encamped in wild marsh lands thickly overgrown with weeds and brambles, and visited by frequent gales, it may be exterminated by fire.”

  1. 夫戰勝攻取而不修其功者凶命曰費留
  2. 故曰明主慮之良將修之
15. Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general stagnation.

This is one of the most perplexing passages in Sun Tzŭ. The difficulty lies mainly in 不修其功, of which two interpretations appear possible. Most of the commentators understand in the sense (not known to K‘ang Hsi) of “reward” or “promote,” and 其功 as referring to the merit of officers and men. Thus Ts‘ao Kung says: 賞善不踰日 “Rewards for good service should not be deferred a single day.” And Tu Mu: “If you do not take opportunity to advance and reward the deserving, your subordinates will not carry out your commands, and disaster will ensue.” 費留 would then probably mean 留滯費耗 “stoppage of expenditure,” or as Chia Lin puts it, 惜費 “the grudging of expenditure.” For several reasons, however, and in spite of the formidable array of scholars on the other side, I prefer the interpretation suggested by Mei Yao-ch‘ên alone, whose words I will quote: 欲戰必勝攻必取者在因時乘便能作爲攻也作爲攻者修火攻水攻之類不可坐守其利也坐守其利者凶也 “Those who want to make sure of succeeding in their battles and assaults must seize the favourable moments when they come and not shrink on occasion from heroic measures: that is to say, they must resort to such means of attack as fire, water and the like. What they must not do, and what will prove fatal, is to sit still and simply hold on to the advantages they have got.” This retains the more usual meaning of , and also brings out a clear connection of thought with the previous part of the chapter. With regard to 費留, Wang Hsi paraphrases it as 費財老師 “expending treasure and tiring out [lit., ageing] the army.” of course is expenditure or waste in general, either of time, money or strength. But the soldier is less concerned with the saving of money than of time. For the metaphor expressed in “stagnation” I am indebted to Ts‘ao Kung, who says: 若水之留不復還也. Capt. Calthrop gives a rendering which bears but little relation to the Chinese text: “unless victory or possession be obtained, the enemy quickly recovers, and misfortunes arise. The war drags on, and money is spent.”

16. Hence the saying: The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.

As Sun Tzŭ quotes this jingle in support of his assertion in § 15, we must suppose 修之 to stand for 修其功 or something analogous. The meaning seems to be that the ruler lays plans which the general must show resourcefulness in carrying out. It is now plainer than ever that cannot mean “to reward.” Nevertheless, Tu Mu quotes the following from the 三略, ch.2: 霸者制士以權結士以信使士以賞信衰則士疏賞虧則士不用命 “The warlike prince controls his soldiers by his authority, knits them together by good faith, and by rewards makes them serviceable. If faith decays, there will be disruption; if rewards are deficient, commands will not be respected.”

  1. 非利不動非得不用非危不戰
  2. 主不可以怒而興師將不可以慍而致戰
  3. 合於利而動不合於利而止
17. Move not unless you see an advantage;

, the Yü Lan’s variant for , is adopted by Li Ch‘üan and Tu Mu.

use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

Sun Tzŭ may at times appear to be over-cautious, but he never goes so far in that direction as the remarkable passage in the Tao Tê Ching. ch. 69: 吾不敢爲主而爲客不敢進寸而退尺 “I dare not take the initiative, but prefer to act on the defensive; I dare not advance an inch, but prefer to retreat a foot.”

18. No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.

Again compare Lao Tzŭ, ch. 68: 善戰者不怒. Chang Yü says that is a weaker word than , and is therefore applied to the general as opposed to the sovereign. The T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan read for , and the latter for .

19. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.

This is repeated from XI. § 17. Here I feel convinced that it is an interpolation, for it is evident that § 20 ought to follow immediately on § 18. For , the T‘ung Tien and Yü Lan have . Capt. Calthrop invents a sentence which he inserts before this one: “Do not make war unless victory may be gained thereby.” While he was about it, he might have credited Sun Tzŭ with something slightly less inane.

  1. 怒可以復喜愠可以復悅
  2. 亡國不可以復存死者不可以復生
  3. 故明君愼之良將警之此安國全軍之道也
20. Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content.

According to Chang Yü, denotes joy outwardly manifested in the countenance, the inward sensation of happiness.

21. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being;

The Wu State was destined to be a melancholy example of this saying. See p. 50.

nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.

22. Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution.

, which usually means “to warn,” is here equal to . This is a good instance of how Chinese characters, which stand for ideas, refuse to be fettered by dictionary-made definitions. The T‘u Shu reads 故曰, as in § 16.

This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.

It is odd that 全軍 should not have the same meaning here as in III. § 1, q.v. This has led me to consider whether it might not be possible to take the earlier passage thus: “to preserve your own army (country, regiment, etc.) intact is better than to destroy the enemy’s.” The two words do not appear in the T‘ung Tien or the Yü Lan. Capt. Calthrop misses the point by translating: “then is the state secure, and the army victorious in battle.”

  1. 不入虎穴不得虎子 “Unless you enter the tiger’s lair, you cannot get hold of the tiger’s cubs.”