Sunzi's《Methods of War》- Introduction

by lsusr1 min read18th Nov 202022 comments


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This is a translation of the Chapter 1 of The Art of War by Sunzi. No English sources were used. The original text and many of the interpretations herein come from 古诗文网.


War determines life and death of troops, existence and destruction of a country. It cannot be ignored.


Five aspects are of paramount important:

  1. Dao
  2. Heaven
  3. Earth
  4. Generalship
  5. Method


"Dao" concerns alignment. Your side must be unified. By dying together, living together, you shall be unafraid.


"Heaven" concerns timing, yin and yang, winter and summer.


"Earth" concerns the near and far, impassable and passable, open fields and choke points, death and life.


"Generalship" is a matter of wisdom, fidelity, benevolence, bravery and severity.


"Method" concerns tactics, doctrine and organization.


A commander must not ignore these five aspects. Understanding them brings victory. Lack of understanding does not bring victory.


Ask yourself: Are ruler and subjects aligned? Is the general capable? Heaven (climate) and Earth (geography) in your favor? Methods effective? Troops strong? Trained? Enlightenedly punished?


These things determine victory and defeat.


The art of war depends on local conditions. The near informs you about the far. The far informs you about the near.

  • If the enemy is clever then tempt.
  • If the enemy is disordered then raid.
  • If the enemy is capable then prepare.
  • If the enemy is mighty then run.
  • If the enemy is angry then provoke.
  • If the enemy is inferior then threaten.
  • If the enemy is dissolute then persevere.

Attack where the enemy is unprepared. Do what is least expected. But do not forget the five aspects. They are of primary importance.


A war cannot be won without lots of equipment. This facet of war too must be examined.

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Thanks for this post! My Chinese isn't anywhere near good enough to read Art of War in the original, but it's just good enough that I get something out of seeing the translation side by side with the original text. I also salute you for taking on this project – translation is a really deep and complex intellectual task (something I've ranted about on LW before :P) and I'm impressed with your work so far!

Heaven (climate)

I'm curious about the parenthetical; are there multiple words for Heaven, and this is the one that's meant? Or there's a generic word for Heaven that means lots of things, and here you think Sunzi is specifically referring to the climate?

天 refers to material things which affect you but which you yourself lack the power to significantly influence. The standard and most poetic translation of 天 is "heaven", but 天 also includes the gods, fate, sky, weather, climate and all the other material things far above you. To the median person living today, 天 includes everything from the Federal Reserve to the orbit of Jupiter.

Many readers of Less Wrong come from a Western intellectual tradition where "heaven" is a moral immaterial Christian concept. I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that 天 is an amoral material relationship.

天 refers to material things which affect you but which you yourself lack the power to significantly influence.

I really like this phrasing!

Are there terms that split apart the level of abstraction on which the material thing exists? Like, I am affected by whether or not it's raining right now, without being able to do much in return; I'm also affected by whether or not my currency is undergoing inflation, able to do even less in return, and I'm also affected by whether or not 13 is prime, able to do nothing in return. [My guess is the distinction between these didn't really become crisp until this last century or so, and so probably there aren't specific terms in classical Chinese.]

Practically, I'm interested in getting a sense of how much Sunzi's distinction between Heaven and Earth is metaphorical vs. literal; in the first case, 'heaven' is about paying attention to things on a higher level of abstraction than the things 'earth' is directing you to pay attention to, in the second case, both of them are about the physical environment, but different parts of it (you need to make plans based on whether it rains or shines, and also you need to make plans based on whether there's a hill or there isn't).

Yes there is! The difference between 道 (Dao) and 天 (heaven) is a split along whether a thing physically exists. Dao can be interpreted to mean immaterial law including (but not limited to) abstract mathematics. In this interpretation, "whether or not 13 is prime" belongs to Dao. Rain and inflation exist under heaven[1].

The five aspects rank broadness of applicability. Broad ideas are more useful than narrow ideas. Concrete ideas are more useful than abstract ideas. Broadly applicable ideas are often highly abstract but the reverse is not necessarily true. The best ideas are both broad and concrete. Abstraction is a price you pay to buy generality.

It is a good heuristic to treat ambiguity in classical Chinese literature as deliberate. Sunzi's distinction between Heaven and Earth isn't metaphorical vs literal. It is metaphorical and literal.

  1. This sentence is a play on words. The phrase "under heaven" refers to a specific Chinese cultural concept. ↩︎

天 means 'heaven' but also means 'sky' or 'weather'. In context, 'Heaven and Earth in your favor' seems to want a literal, practically applicable interpretation, thus 'weather and geography in your favor'. Though I don't know much about Chinese literature, I think what's going on here is: 

(1) the deliberate double meaning with (a) the poetic 'heaven and earth' reading and (b) the practically applicable 'weather and geography' reading, and 

(2) lsusr wants to make it clear to people that 'weather and geography' connect to the second third important aspects.

ETA: Oh, this question is probably related to edits made due to jimv's comment below.

My Chinese is nowhere near good enough to read any classical texts, and has degraded a lot since college anyway. I'm curious about your impression of Sunzi's writing style. My understanding is that many classic Chinese texts rely heavily on multiple meanings and associations of a word or pronunciation, making them very dense to interpret even for a trained scholar. Would I be correct in assuming Sunzi was writing for a less scholarly audience and used language that needed less unpacking? 

Yes. In Sunzi's writing, "armored vehicles" is a metaphor for armored vehicles, "crossbows" is a metaphor for crossbows and "supply lines" is a metaphor for supply lines.


These things determine victory and defeat.

Is this translation right? Looks like the original was much longer.

No, the translation omits too much. That roughly translates to:

吾以此知胜负矣: That's is how I know victory from defeat (in advance).

将听吾计,用之必胜,留之;将不听吾计,用之必败,去之。: (If) the general follow my advice, victory is ensured, (make him) stay. (If) the general does not follow my advice, it would lead to defeat, (make him) leave.

计利以听,乃为之势,以佐其外: Given (my) strategies are followed, create situations, to have a synergizing environment (for the strategies).

势者,因利而制权也: such situations are objective/circumstance dependent. (basically saying be flexible, resourceful)

Classical Chinese is something strange. Anybody with a middle school education can have a fairly good understanding. Yet a precise translation is difficult. The above is the best translation I can give. It shall not be regarded as error-free. But the original one definite is not complete.

At his best, Sunzi writes with the concision of a poet. Dense poetry tends to lengthen when it is translated from one language to another. I balance things out by abbreviating the long-winded passages.

This is a translation of the first chapter of The Art of War by Sunzi. No English sources were used. The original text and many of the interpretations herein come from 古诗文网.

Who is the translator?

I enjoyed reading that, although I cannot compare with the original chinese or other translations. I'm not sure how hard it would be, but I would have really enjoyed an appendix talking about the difficulties encountered in translation.

If the enemy is humble then be arrogant.

What are alternative translations? To me, humility is being aware of your weaknesses and the enemy's strengths, and preparing to overcome them. Arrogance is good if it means being cocky and aggressive and not intimidated. But it can easily by (mis-)understood as being unaware of your weaknesses and the enemy's strengths, and not preparing to overcome them because you think you're better. As Crash Davis says in Bull Durham: ‘Fear and arrogance.’ – One doesn't work without the other.


If the enemy is humble then be arrogant.

Here are some alternative translations.

  • = "low / base / vulgar / inferior / humble"
  • = "proud / arrogant"

You make a good case for "cocky" and "aggressive". This is indeed about intimidation. Thank you for the feedback. I have changed my translation.

If the enemy is inferior then threaten.

I can relate to that. Thanks!

In the numbered list, the third item (地 I think) is translated as "earth". In the item descriptions below, I believe the same item is translated as "geography". These seem like they are intended to be the same things, so consistent translation seems like it might be an improvement.

A more common military term would be ‘terrain’. Not sure if that's consistent with the rest of the text.

"Terrain" is fine. I prefer "Earth" because of how it preserves the "Heaven and Earth" motif. 天 is everything above you and 地 is everything below you.

Ah! That makes sense.