The Art of War – The Main Points


Sun Tzu (孫子 Sūn Zǐ; c. 6th century BCE) was a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, a widely influential work of military strategy that has affected both Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking; also known as Sun Wu (孫武; Sūn Wǔ), and Chang Qing (長卿; Cháng Qīng).

 

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Chapter I · Detail Assessment and Planning

  • 兵者,詭道也。故能而示之不能,用而示之不用,近而示之遠,遠而示之近,
    • All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
    • Variant translations
    • A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.
  • 實而備之,強而避之,怒而撓之,卑而驕之,佚而勞之,親而離之,出其不意,攻其不備。
    • If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
    • Note: “If his forces are united, separate them” is also interpreted: “If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them.”
  • 亂而取之
    • Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
  • 卑則驕之
    • Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
  • 孫子曰:國之上下,死生之地,存亡之道,不可不察也。
    • The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.
  • 夫未戰而庙算胜者,得算多也;未戰而庙算不勝者,得算少也。
    • The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.
  • 将听吾计,用之必胜,留之;将不听吾计,用之必败,去之;
    • The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat: — let such a one be dismissed!
  • 怒而挠之
    • If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him.

 

 

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Chapter II · Waging War

  • 故兵貴勝,不貴久。
    • What is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.
  • 近于师者贵卖,贵卖则百姓财竭
    • Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted.
  • 兵久而国利者,未之有也。
    • There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.

 

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Chapter III · Strategic Attack

  • 上兵伐謀
    • What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.
  • 知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆
    • It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
    • Variant translations
    • If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
    • Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught in fear for 100 battles. Know yourself but not your enemy, find level of loss and victory. Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.
    • Literal translation: Know [the] other, know [the] self, hundred battles without danger; not knowing [the] other but know [the] self, one win one loss; not knowing [the] other, not knowing [the] self, every battle must [be] lost.
  • 故用兵之法,十則圍之,五則攻之,倍則分之, 敵則能戰之,少則能守之,不若則能避之。
    • It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, defend against them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.
  • 是故百戰百勝,非善之善者也;不戰而屈人之兵,善之善者也。
    • For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
    • Variant translations
    • Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
    • The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities… It is best to win without fighting.
  • 古之所善戰者,勝於易勝者也。
    • What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.
  • 知可战与不可战者胜。
    • He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.
  • 以虞待不虞者胜。
    • He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.
  • 凡用兵之法,全國為上;破國次之;全軍為上,破軍次之;全旅為上,破旅次之;全卒為上,破卒次之;全伍為上,破伍次之。
    • In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.
    • Variant translations
    • It is best to keep one’s own state intact; to crush the enemy’s state is only second best.
  • 是故上攻伐谋
    • Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.

 

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Chapter IV · Disposition of the Army

  • 是故勝兵先勝而後求戰,敗兵先戰而後求勝。
    • Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
    • Variant: 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.
  • 见胜不过众人之所识,非善之善者也。
    • To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.
  • 守则不足,攻则有余
    • One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.
  • 孫子曰:昔之善戰者,先為不可勝,以待敵之可勝,不可勝在己,可勝在敵。故善戰者,能為不可勝,不能使敵必可勝。故曰:勝可知,而不可為。
    • Sunzi said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.
    • Translation by Lionel Giles

 

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Chapter V · Forces

  • 治众如治寡,分数是也。
    • Management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization.
  • 积水之激,至于漂石者,势也。鸷鸟之疾,至于毁折者,节也。
    • When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of its momentum. When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing.
  • 鸷鸟之疾,至于毁折者,节也。
    • The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.
  • 故善战者,求之于势,不责于人。
    • A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates.
    • VariantThe expert in battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage and does not demand it from his men.

 

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Chapter VI · Weaknesses and Strengths

  • 微乎微乎,至于无形;神乎神乎,至于无声;故能为敌之司命。
    • Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.
    • Alternative translation: Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. Thus he is master of his enemy’s fate.
    • Alternative translation: O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.
  • 人皆知我所以勝之形,而莫知我所以制勝之形。
    • All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.
  • 故形兵之极,至于无形,无形,则深间不能窥,上智不能谋。
    • The ultimate in disposing one’s troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wise lay plans against you.
  • 故善战者,至人而不至于人。
    • And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.
  • 故敌逸能劳之,饱能饥之,安能动之。出其所不趋,趋其所不意。
    • When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him; when well fed, to starve him; when at rest, to make him move. Appear at places to which he must hasten; move swiftly where he does not expect you.
  • Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.
    • Lionel Giles translation

 

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Chapter VII · Military Maneuvers

  • 圍師必闕
    • To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape.

 

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Chapter VIII · Variations and Adaptability

  • 故用兵之法,無恃其不來,恃吾有以待之;無恃其不攻,恃吾有所不可攻也。
    • The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
    • Translation by Lionel Giles

 

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Chapter IX · Movement and Development of Troops

  • 数赏者,窘也;数罚者,困也;
    • Too frequent rewards indicate that the general is at the end of his resources; too frequent punishments that he is in acute distress.
  • In war, numbers alone confer no advantage. Do not advance relying on sheer military power.
  • 令素行以教其民,则民服。令不素行以教其民,则民不服。令素行者,与民相得也。
    • A leader leads by example not by force.

 

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Chapter X · Terrain

  • 将弱不严,教道不明,将之过也。
    • If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.
  • 故戰道必勝,主曰無戰,必戰可也;戰道不勝,主曰必戰,无戰可也;
    • If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.
  • 进不邀功,退不避罪,唯人是保,而利合于主,国之宝也。
    • The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
  • 視卒如愛子,故可與之俱死。
    • Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.

 

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Chapter XI · The Nine Battlegrounds

  • 吾士无余财,非恶货也。无余命,非恶寿也。
    • 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 longevity.
  • 兵之情主速,乘敌所不及,由不虞之途,攻其所不备也。
    • Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.
  • 施无法之赏,悬无政之令。犯三军之众,若使一人。
    • Bestow rewards without respect to customary practice; publish orders without respect to precedent. Thus you may employ the entire army as you would one man.

 

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Chapter XII · Attacking with Fire

  • 非利不動,非得不用,非危不戰。主不可以怒而興師,將不可以慍而致戰;合于利而動,不合于利而止。怒可以復喜,慍可以復悅,亡國不可以復存,死者不可以復生。故明君慎之,良將警之,此安國全軍之道也。
    • Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are. Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.
    • Translation by Lionel Giles

 

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Chapter XIII · Intelligence and Espionage

  • 敌间之来间我者,因而利之,导而舍之,故反间可得而用也;
    • It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to conduct espionage against you and to bribe them to serve you. Give them instructions and care for them. Thus doubled agents are recruited and used.
  • 故明君賢將,所以動而勝人,成功出于眾者,先知也。
    • Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.
  • 故三军之事,莫亲于间,赏莫厚于间,事莫密于间,
    • Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent; of all rewards none more liberal than those given to secret agents; of all matters none is more confidential than those relating to secret operations.
  • 此(译注:用间)兵之要,三军之所恃而动也。
    • Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.

 

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