Sunzi's《Methods of War》- War

by lsusr1 min read19th Nov 20205 comments

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


孙子曰:凡用兵之法,驰车千驷,革车千乘,带甲十万,千里馈粮,内外之费,宾客之用,胶漆之材,车甲之奉,日费千金,然后十万之师举矣。

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.

其用战也胜,久则钝兵挫锐,攻城则力屈,久暴师则国用不足。

A long war is an expensive war.

夫钝兵挫锐,屈力殚货,则诸侯乘其弊而起,虽有智者,不能善其后矣。

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

故兵闻拙速,未睹巧之久也。夫兵久而国利者,未之有也。

There is no such thing as a beneficial protracted war.

故不尽知用兵之害者,则不能尽知用兵之利也。

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

善用兵者,役不再籍,粮不三载,取用于国,因粮于敌,故军食可足也。

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.

国之贫于师者远输,远输则百姓贫;

Resupplying an army over long distances impoverishes a country.

近师者贵卖,贵卖则百姓财竭,财竭则急于丘役。

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

力屈财殚,中原内虚于家,百姓之费,十去其七;

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

公家之费,破军罢马,甲胄矢弩,戟楯蔽橹,丘牛大车,十去其六。

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

故智将务食于敌,食敌一钟,当吾二十钟;萁秆一石,当吾二十石。

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.

故杀敌者,怒也;取敌之利者,货也。车战得车十乘以上,赏其先得者,而更其旌旗,车杂而乘之,卒善而养之,是谓胜敌而益强。

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.

故兵贵胜,不贵久。故知兵之将,生民之司命,国家安危之主也。

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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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:04 AM
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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:

国之贫于师者远输,远输则百姓贫;

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:

故兵闻拙速,未睹巧之久也。夫兵久而国利者,未之有也。

国之贫于师者远输,远输则百姓贫;

故兵贵胜,不贵久。

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?

没有所谓的持久战。 

长途补给军队会使一个国家贫穷。 

宝贵的胜利是快速的胜利。

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?