Sunzi's《Methods of War》- Introduction

by lsusr1 min read18th Nov 202021 comments

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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.


孙子曰:兵者,国之大事,死生之地,存亡之道,不可不察也。

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

故经之以五事,校之以计,而索其情:一曰道,二曰天,三曰地,四曰将、五曰法。

Five aspects are of paramount important:

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

道者,令民与上同意也,故可以与之死,可以与之生,而不畏危。

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

天者,阴阳,寒暑、时制也。

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

地者,远近、险易、广狭、死生也。

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

将者,智、信、仁、勇、严也。

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

法者,曲制、官道、主用也。

"Method" concerns tactics, doctrine and organization.

凡此五者,将莫不闻,知之者胜,不知者不胜。

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

故校之以计,而索其情,曰:主孰有道?将孰有能?天地孰得?法令孰行?兵众孰强?士卒孰练?赏罚孰明?

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?

吾以此知胜负矣。将听吾计,用之必胜,留之;将不听吾计,用之必败,去之。计利以听,乃为之势,以佐其外。势者,因利而制权也。

These things determine victory and defeat.

兵者,诡道也。故能而示之不能,用而示之不用,近而示之远,远而示之近;利而诱之,乱而取之,实而备之,强而避之,怒而挠之,卑而骄之,佚而劳之,亲而离之。攻其无备,出其不意。此兵家之胜,不可先传也。

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.

夫未战而庙算胜者,得算多也;未战而庙算不胜者,得算少也。多算胜,少算不胜,而况于无算乎?吾以此观之,胜负见矣。

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

21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:02 AM
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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!

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.

吾以此知胜负矣。将听吾计,用之必胜,留之;将不听吾计,用之必败,去之。计利以听,乃为之势,以佐其外。势者,因利而制权也。

These things determine victory and defeat.

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

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.

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 are a measure 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.

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.

卑而骄之

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!

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?

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.