Sunzi's《Methods of War》- War

by lsusr1 min read19th Nov 20207 comments


WarWorld OptimizationRationality

This is a translation of Chapter 2 of The Art of War by Sunzi. No English sources were used.


The ordinary methods of war demand:

  • 1,000 teams of 4 horses each,
  • 1,000 wagons,
  • 100,000 shields,
  • provisions to march 1,000 miles,
  • domestic and foreign expenses,
  • hospitality for guests,
  • construction materials for siege weapons,
  • armored vehicles,
  • salaries

…and an army of 100,000 soldiers.


A long war is an expensive war.


An expensive war will cause your vassals to rebel against you.


There is no such thing as a beneficial protracted war.


If you do not understand the costs of war then you do not know which wars are worthwhile to fight.


Do not conscript troops more than once. Do not resupply your army with grain more than twice. Take what you need from the enemy. The enemy has ample grain and an army of troops.


Resupplying an army over long distances impoverishes a country.


Prices soar in wartime. Levying the peasantry under such circumstances will impoverish them while extracting only forced labor.


The central plains will go unfarmed. Seven tenths of the peasantry's labor will be wasted.


Supplying an army out of the public purse slows the army down. Horses sicken. Shields split. Oxen tire. Six tenths is wasted.


The wise general eats the enemy's food. A captured bowl of enemy food is worth twenty bowls of your own. A captured ton of enemy grain is worth twenty tons of your own.


Let your troops kill the enemy in anger, plunder the enemy in greed. A captured enemy combat vehicle is worth no fewer than ten of your own. Reward your first soldier to capture one. Replace its flag. Mix it in among your own.

A good soldier steals victory from the enemy.


A valuable victory is a quick victory. A general who, understanding this, issues orders to the people—thereupon is the fate of a state determined.


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Still liking it; I'm enjoying the "straight to the point" tone. Still no useful feedback to give.

Thank you. 

A good soldier steals victory from the enemy.

This is the sentence I will use as the title in my insights Anki deck. The key insight is that in a conflict keeping up ones own 'supply' is more expensive than taking even a little from the enemy. I think that generalizes.

I love all the insights here, and curious - what did you find it to generalize to?

My head's been on startups lately; reading "enemy" as "competitor" it might be that poaching their employees is worth more than a normal hire? (This was one internal theory about why Google retains so many engineers who don't do that much). If "supply" is "ideas", it's not obvious that copying ideas from the competitor is any better than finding them from any other place, though.

reading "enemy" as "competitor" it might be that poaching their employees is worth more than a normal hire? 

Yes, I was thinking about generalizations like this. Or when competing in a moral maze you might want to try to get subordinates of a manager on your level to work for you - even if only a bit. Not saying that is ethical but those are the things it generalizes to.

Reading this, I wonder how much of the quality is related to your own wisdom, and how much can be attributed to the original author?

The original:


What google translate makes of it:

If the country is poor than the teacher, those who lose far away will lose, and the people who lose far will be poor;

Your version

Resupplying an army over long distances impoverishes a country.

The last one seems to me like pragmatic direct clean common sense. If someone didn't know it, I would think they were not right for military planning.

If every planned military campaign was to be checked against a checklist of common sense objections (that someone might have forgotten mid-planning based on groupthink or enthusiasm or something) then having that line in the checklist makes sense to me. Useful! Practical!

Google's translation has no such virtues and I can't read Chinese. Other lines have a similar pattern of "quality"?

Maybe... I'm reading (and appreciating!) "Lsusr's Steelman Of Sunzi" rather than "the original itself"??

Maybe there's a gap in my cross-cultural literary interpretation capacities (and/or Google is still terrible at Chinese translation) and I'm expecting to be spoon fed, and any normally capable classical Chinese reader would have "basically gotten the same thing you did" from the original, but then perhaps admire specifically your skill at translating it to a new domain (English) with different literary standards (pop culture infused midwits like me)?

Another theory might be that in the original, all the lines ARE vague. Perhaps they are elliptically written to avoid political attacks in Sunzi's own time? Or just honestly lacking the punch and wisdom? Still, all of them together might cause someone who reads Chinese to "read between the lines" and be able to "get" each line?

One test might be to round trip your translation back through Google, and back to Chinese, and see if it "sounds way more sane and direct and useful" in the very last stage still?

Some lines from the original:




Google's version:

Therefore, the soldiers heard the clumsy speed, and they have not seen the cleverness for a long time. There is no such thing as a husband and a soldier who benefits the country for a long time.

If the country is poor than the teacher, those who lose far away will lose, and the people who lose far will be poor;

Therefore, a soldier is expensive to win, not for a long time.

Your take:

There is no such thing as a beneficial protracted war.

Resupplying an army over long distances impoverishes a country.

A valuable victory is a quick victory.

Then back through Google?




So, the final Chinese looks pretty different in terms of characters and density and so on, but I can't read or judge it as language. Your English seems way better than Google's English. Is there a similar jump in quality from Chinese at the beginning as compared to the Chinese at the end?

The Art of War is written in Classical Chinese. Google Translate uses modern Chinese. Google Translate will spit out garbage if you attempt to translate directly from the original text. You have to translate it twice: once from Classical Chinese into modern Chinese and then from modern Chinese into English.

You can get a translation from Classical Chinese into modern Chinese by going here, selecting the chapter you want to read and then clicking the "原文/译文" button in the upper right corner. The Classical Chinese will remain black. A modern Chinese translation will appear in gold. Copy the gold text into Google Translate or Baidu Translate to get a better English translation.

Example classical Chinese:


Example modern Chinese:


Google Translate from modern Chinese into English:

Sun Tzu said: In combat with soldiers, you usually have to dispatch thousands of chariots, thousands of transport vehicles, and gather 100,000 soldiers to transport grain and grass thousands of miles along the way. In this way, all kinds of domestic and foreign expenses, the cost of entertaining envoys and strategists, the cost of repairing materials such as glue and paint for combat equipment, and the maintenance of tanks and armor, all cost a huge amount of money every day. After these preparations are made, the 100,000 army can be dispatched!