Sunzi's《Methods of War》- Potential

by lsusr1 min read5th Aug 20214 comments

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This is a translation of Chapter 5 of The Art of War by Sunzi. No English sources were used.


孙子曰:凡治众如治寡,分数是也;斗众如斗寡,形名是也;三军之众,可使必受敌而无败者,奇正是也;兵之所加,如以碫投卵者,虚实是也。

To command the many as if commanding the few; to combat the many as if combating the few; the three armies can receive enemy attacks without being defeated, can attack like a stone thrown at an egg.

凡战者,以正合,以奇胜。故善出奇者,无穷如天地,不竭如江海。终而复始,日月是也。死而更生,四时是也。声不过五,五声之变,不可胜听也;色不过五,五色之变,不可胜观也;味不过五,五味之变,不可胜尝也;战势不过奇正,奇正之变,不可胜穷也。奇正相生,如循环之无端,孰能穷之哉!

Conventional combat achieves typical results. Invent surprises to achieve victory. Elite soldiers have the creativity of Heaven and Earth, the tirelessness of a river flowing into the sea. They finish and start again like the sun and the moon. They die and are reborn like the four seasons.

From the arrangements of five[1] musical notes can be heard infinite sounds. From the arrangements of five colors can be seen infinite colors. From the arrangements of five flavors can be tasted infinite flavors.

The use of military power is limited to invention and convention. From convention and invention can be arranged infinite strategies.

激水之疾,至于漂石者,势也;鸷鸟之疾,至于毁折者,节也。故善战者,其势险,其节短。势如彍弩,节如发机。

Turbulent water can move a boulder in one swift impulse. A raptor can kill its prey in one swift swoop. The skilled at war create precarious tension and abrupt release like the rhythm of the bolt(s) fed through a repeating crossbow.

纷纷纭纭,斗乱而不可乱;浑浑沌沌,形圆而不可败。乱生于治,怯生于勇,弱生于强。治乱,数也;勇怯,势也;强弱,形也。

Though the battlefield is chaotic, your command structure must be in order.

  • Numbers: one side is in chaos = the other side is ordered
  • Potential: one side is cowardly = the other side is brave
  • Form: one side is weak = the other side is strong

故善动敌者,形之,敌必从之;予之,敌必取之。以利动之,以卒待之。

Those skilled at war move the enemy via the situation, the enemy follows the situation; provide bait, the enemy will seize it. Do not let your own troops be so moved.

故善战者,求之于势,不责于人故能择人而任势。任势者,其战人也,如转木石。木石之性,安则静,危则动,方则止,圆则行。

Those skilled at war seek out potential by placing the right talent in the right circumstances like placing wood and stone. Wood and stone stand still on flat terrain, rolls down steep terrain. A square is easy to stand still. A round shape is easy to roll.

故善战人之势,如转圆石于千仞之山者,势也。

To command troops as if rolling a round stone down a 10,000-foot mountain. This is called "potential".


  1. "Five musical notes" refers to the pentatonic scale. ↩︎

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bolder -> boulder

Do not let your own troops be such moved.

Should be "so moved" I think.

Fixed. Thanks.

Wood and stone stands - stand (plural)?

Fixed. Thanks.