Sunzi's《Methods of War》- Planning Attacks

by lsusr1 min read23rd Dec 20203 comments

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This is a translation of Chapter 3 of The Art of War by Sunzi. No English sources were used.


孙子曰:夫用兵之法,

全国为上,破国次之,

全军为上,破军次之;

全旅为上,破旅次之;

全卒为上,破卒次之;

全伍为上,破伍次之。

  • It is best to conquer a state whole rather than breaking it.
  • It is best to conquer an army whole rather than breaking it.
  • It is best to conquer a regiment whole rather than breaking it.
  • It is better to conquer a company whole rather than breaking it.
  • It is better to conquer a squad whole rather than breaking it.

是故百战百胜,非善之善者也;

不战而屈人之兵,善之善者也。

A hundred victories in as many battles is imperfect perfection.

To defeat an enemy without a fight is perfect perfection

故上兵伐谋,

其次伐交,

其次伐兵,

其下攻城。

  • The best use of soldiers is to dispatch plans,
  • followed by dispatching ambassadors,
  • followed by dispatching troops,
  • followed by attacking cities.

攻城之法为不得已。

Attack cities reluctantly.

修橹轒辒,具器械,三月而后成,距堙,又三月而后已。

Furbish your mortuary tools. In three months, dig a grave. Then dig another grave three months after that.

将不胜其忿而蚁附之,杀士三分之一而城不拔者,此攻之灾也。

A general who grows impatient, angers and storms a city will kill one third of the attacking force and fail to take the city.

故善用兵者,

屈人之兵而非战也,

拔人之城而非攻也,

毁人之国而非久也,

必以全争于天下。

The perfect general

  • subdues the enemy without battle,
  • draws enemies out of cities to be attacked,
  • destroys people quickly,
  • utilizes every attack under the sun.

故兵不顿而利可全,此谋攻之法也。

Total benefit without halt, this is the strategem of war.

故用兵之法,

十则围之,

五则攻之,

倍则分之,

敌则能战之,

少则能逃之,

不若则能避之。

If you outnumber the enemy

  • 10× surround
  • 5× attack
  • 2× divide
  • 1× engage, if possible
  • <1× run, if possible
  • ≪1× escape, if possible

故小敌之坚,

大敌之擒也。

A small stubborn force will be captured by a large enemy.

夫将者,国之辅也。

辅周,则国必强;

辅隙,则国必弱。

The general complements the country. If the complement is whole then the country will be mighty. If the complement is chinked then the country will be weak.

故君之所以患于军者三:

There are three obstructions to commanding armies:

不知军之不可以进而谓之进,不知军之不可以退而谓之退,是谓“縻军”;

If you do not know the army cannot advance then the army will not advance at your command. If you do not know the army cannot retreat then the army cannot retreat at your command. This is called a "tied up" army.

不知三军之事,而同三军之政者,则军士惑矣;

If you do not know the three armies[1] and their command structure then soldiers will be confused.

不知三军之权,而同三军之任,则军士疑矣。

If you contradict the commands already issued by officers then they will be hesitant.

三军既惑且疑,则诸侯之难至矣,是谓“乱军引胜”。

If your army is confused and hesitant then your feudal lords will rebel against you. This is called a "self-defeating army".

故知胜有五:知可以战与不可以战者胜,识众寡之用者胜,上下同欲者胜,以虞待不虞者胜,将能而君不御者胜。此五者,知胜之道也。

There are five things you must know in advance to ensure victory:

  • If you understand the conditions you can fight or cannot fight, then you are capable of victory.
  • If you understand how to flexibly employ the many and the few, then you are capable of victory.
  • If the whole army is of one heart, then you are capable of victory.
  • If, prepared, you attack an unprepared enemy, then you are capable of victory.
  • If the regent does not meddle with the general, then you are capable of victory.

These five conditions, know the Dao of victory.

故曰:知彼知己者,百战不殆;

Know the other, know yourself, one hundred battles, zero defeats.

不知彼而知己,一胜一负,

Know not the other or know not yourself, one victory, one defeat.

不知彼,不知己,每战必殆。

Know not the other, know not yourself, every battle, requisite defeat.

Translation Note

"知彼" is often translated "know your enemy". The word for enemy is "敌". Sunzi uses it frequently. If Sunzi wanted to say "know [your] enemy" then he would write "知敌". Instead he writes "知彼". The pronoun "彼" means "that which is not you".


  1. The phrase "three armies" 三军 used to refer to the upper, middle and lower army. Today, the phrase refers to the Army, Navy and Air Force. ↩︎

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All make sense to me except this one:

Furbish your mortuary tools. In three months, dig a grave. Then dig another grave three months after that.

It means lots of your soldiers are going to die if you attack a fortified city.