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The Art of War - Chapter 4. Tactical Disposition

1. Introduction

2. The Text of Sun Tzu

3. The Commentators

4. Appreciations of Sun Tzu

5. Apologies for War

6. Bibliography

7. Footnotes

8. Chapter 1. Laying Plans

9. Chapter 2. Waging War

10. Chapter 3. Attack By Stratagem

11. Chapter 4. Tactical Disposition

12. Chapter 5. Energy

13. Chapter 6. Weak Points and Strong

14. Chapter 7. Manuevering

15. Chapter 8. Variations in Tactics

16. Chapter 9. The Army on the March

17. Chapter 10. Terrain

18. Chapter 11. The Nine Situations

19. Chapter 12. The Attack by Fire

20. Chapter 13. The Use of Spies


[Ts`ao Kung explains the Chinese meaning of the words for
the title of this chapter: "marching and countermarching on the
part of the two armies with a view to discovering each other's
condition." Tu Mu says: "It is through the dispositions of an
army that its condition may be discovered. Conceal your
dispositions, and your condition will remain secret, which leads
to victory,; show your dispositions, and your condition will
become patent, which leads to defeat." Wang Hsi remarks that the
good general can "secure success by modifying his tactics to meet
those of the enemy."]

1. Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put
themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for
an opportunity of defeating the enemy.
2. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own
hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by
the enemy himself.

[That is, of course, by a mistake on the enemy's part.]

3. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against

[Chang Yu says this is done, "By concealing the disposition
of his troops, covering up his tracks, and taking unremitting

but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.
4. Hence the saying: One may KNOW how to conquer without
being able to DO it.
5. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics;
ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

[I retain the sense found in a similar passage in ss. 1-3,
in spite of the fact that the commentators are all against me.
The meaning they give, "He who cannot conquer takes the
defensive," is plausible enough.]

6. Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient
strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.
7. The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most
secret recesses of the earth;

[Literally, "hides under the ninth earth," which is a
metaphor indicating the utmost secrecy and concealment, so that
the enemy may not know his whereabouts."]

he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost
heights of heaven.

[Another metaphor, implying that he falls on his adversary
like a thunderbolt, against which there is no time to prepare.
This is the opinion of most of the commentators.]

Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the
other, a victory that is complete.
8. To see victory only when it is within the ken of the
common herd is not the acme of excellence.

[As Ts`ao Kung remarks, "the thing is to see the plant
before it has germinated," to foresee the event before the action
has begun. Li Ch`uan alludes to the story of Han Hsin who, when
about to attack the vastly superior army of Chao, which was
strongly entrenched in the city of Ch`eng-an, said to his
officers: "Gentlemen, we are going to annihilate the enemy, and
shall meet again at dinner." The officers hardly took his words
seriously, and gave a very dubious assent. But Han Hsin had
already worked out in his mind the details of a clever stratagem,
whereby, as he foresaw, he was able to capture the city and
inflict a crushing defeat on his adversary."]

9. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and
conquer and the whole Empire says, "Well done!"

[True excellence being, as Tu Mu says: "To plan secretly,
to move surreptitiously, to foil the enemy's intentions and balk
his schemes, so that at last the day may be won without shedding
a drop of blood." Sun Tzu reserves his approbation for things
"the world's coarse thumb
And finger fail to plumb."]

10. To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength;

["Autumn" hair" is explained as the fur of a hare, which is
finest in autumn, when it begins to grow afresh. The phrase is a
very common one in Chinese writers.]

to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the
noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

[Ho Shih gives as real instances of strength, sharp sight
and quick hearing: Wu Huo, who could lift a tripod weighing 250
stone; Li Chu, who at a distance of a hundred paces could see
objects no bigger than a mustard seed; and Shih K`uang, a blind
musician who could hear the footsteps of a mosquito.]

11. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who
not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.

[The last half is literally "one who, conquering, excels in
easy conquering." Mei Yao-ch`en says: "He who only sees the
obvious, wins his battles with difficulty; he who looks below the
surface of things, wins with ease."]

12. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for
wisdom nor credit for courage.

[Tu Mu explains this very well: "Inasmuch as his victories
are gained over circumstances that have not come to light, the
world as large knows nothing of them, and he wins no reputation
for wisdom; inasmuch as the hostile state submits before there
has been any bloodshed, he receives no credit for courage."]

13. He wins his battles by making no mistakes.

[Ch`en Hao says: "He plans no superfluous marches, he
devises no futile attacks." The connection of ideas is thus
explained by Chang Yu: "One who seeks to conquer by sheer
strength, clever though he may be at winning pitched battles, is
also liable on occasion to be vanquished; whereas he who can look
into the future and discern conditions that are not yet manifest,
will never make a blunder and therefore invariably win."]

Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory,
for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.
14. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position
which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for
defeating the enemy.

[A "counsel of perfection" as Tu Mu truly observes.
"Position" need not be confined to the actual ground occupied by
the troops. It includes all the arrangements and preparations
which a wise general will make to increase the safety of his

15. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only
seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is
destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

[Ho Shih thus expounds the paradox: "In warfare, first lay
plans which will ensure victory, and then lead your army to
battle; if you will not begin with stratagem but rely on brute
strength alone, victory will no longer be assured."]

16. The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and
strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his
power to control success.
17. In respect of military method, we have, firstly,
Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly,
Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory.
18. Measurement owes its existence to Earth; Estimation of
quantity to Measurement; Calculation to Estimation of quantity;
Balancing of chances to Calculation; and Victory to Balancing of

[It is not easy to distinguish the four terms very clearly
in the Chinese. The first seems to be surveying and measurement
of the ground, which enable us to form an estimate of the enemy's
strength, and to make calculations based on the data thus
obtained; we are thus led to a general weighing-up, or comparison
of the enemy's chances with our own; if the latter turn the
scale, then victory ensues. The chief difficulty lies in third
term, which in the Chinese some commentators take as a
calculation of NUMBERS, thereby making it nearly synonymous with
the second term. Perhaps the second term should be thought of as
a consideration of the enemy's general position or condition,
while the third term is the estimate of his numerical strength.
On the other hand, Tu Mu says: "The question of relative
strength having been settled, we can bring the varied resources
of cunning into play." Ho Shih seconds this interpretation, but
weakens it. However, it points to the third term as being a
calculation of numbers.]

19. A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a
pound's weight placed in the scale against a single grain.

[Literally, "a victorious army is like an I (20 oz.) weighed
against a SHU (1/24 oz.); a routed army is a SHU weighed against
an I." The point is simply the enormous advantage which a
disciplined force, flushed with victory, has over one demoralized
by defeat." Legge, in his note on Mencius, I. 2. ix. 2, makes
the I to be 24 Chinese ounces, and corrects Chu Hsi's statement
that it equaled 20 oz. only. But Li Ch`uan of the T`ang dynasty
here gives the same figure as Chu Hsi.]

20. The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting
of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.

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