Sun Tzu’s Fighting Words

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For good generals do not attack in open battle where the danger is mutual, but do it always from a hidden position, so as to kill or at least terrorize the enemy while their own men are unharmed as far as possible.
—Vegetius, De Re Militari[1]

Colin Gray, the late doyen of strategy scholars, branded one of his maxims of war and strategy as: “If Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz Did Not Say It, It Probably Is Not Worth Saying.”[2] The acceptance of these three texts as a strategic canon, though, poses a challenge for the contemporary strategist. None of these works was originally written in English, and all of them were compiled in an age far removed from our own frames of reference. Thus, we must rely on others to accurately translate the words of the original text for us, and we concurrently need some insight into the historical context in which they were written to verify our interpretations of their meaning. Only then can we accurately gauge their modern relevance. For Clausewitz, we are assisted greatly in this endeavor by his dogged determination to clearly define his terms. And, although Thucydides’ Greek is renowned for its translation difficulties, his lengthy explanations of historical factors—including the documentation of contemporaneous speeches and debates—aids the student in wrestling with the varied meanings of the text.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War presents a far more daunting obstacle. Its brevity, terse style, arcane language, and lack of historical tethers frustrate our efforts to gain clear insight. Within the text, both individual characters and entire verses stubbornly defy any scholarly consensus. No one truly translates Sun Tzu; they merely strive to interpret him for the modern reader. Moreover, our general lack of knowledge about the historical factors that shaped Sun Tzu’s thinking hampers our ability to independently assess the various scholarly interpretations. At the war college level, most approach Thucydides with at least a vague notion of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, and Clausewitz’s Napoleonic era is far from alien. Conversely, very few will approach Sun Tzu with any comparable understanding of what drove the animosity between the states of Wu and Yue—the original text’s only significant historical reference.

Sword of Goujian. Goujian was the king of the Kingdom of Yue (present-day northern Zhejiang) near the end of the Spring and Autumn period. (Wikimedia)

These twin issues of ambiguous translation and lack of historical context combine to create an environment ripe for distortion. Nowhere is this problem more prevalent than in our amorphous belief that Sun Tzu emphasized non-violent competition through the iconic goal of winning without fighting. A close examination of the actual terminology used in The Art of War, coupled with an examination of the historical record supporting the text’s meaning, suggests that while engaging in pitched battles was certainly discouraged, killing the enemy in combat was far from a disfavored practice.

Does Sun Tzu Truly Prioritize a Bloodless Victory?

Many today view winning without fighting as the cornerstone of Sun Tzu’s overall military philosophy. Michael Handel’s Masters of War highlights its significance to his entire understanding of conflict: “Sun Tzu, who concentrates on the highest political and strategic levels and is interested in achieving a bloodless victory before the outbreak of war, assigns a higher priority on the use of non-military means.”[3] Linking Sun Tzu with modern thinking, General David Petraeus adds: “For Sun Tzu, and for any strategist, of course, the best strategy is the one that delivers victory without fighting.”[4]

The source of this theory of strategic victory through non-violent measures is not in dispute. It derives from the translation of the second verse of the third chapter in The Art of War: “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”[5] While this translation is not wrong per se, it fails to convey crucial differences between ancient Chinese terminology and its modern variants. What is commonly rendered in English as “to subdue the enemy without fighting” is shown in its original Chinese script below, with a rough direct translation of each individual character:

First, note the stated object of one’s effort to subdue is not the enemy’s state, leadership, general population, or even its army writ large, but rather the individual soldiers that make up its ranks. This implies that we might be overreaching in our assumption that Sun Tzu here is making a suggestion of conflict avoidance at the level of grand strategy or even military strategy, rather than simply a tactical ploy for advantage over an opposing force one might soon expect to engage.

From a contemporary Western perspective, though, interpreting not battle (?æ?°) as without fighting is a perfectly logical translation choice. If you aren’t battling, you aren’t fighting, and if you aren’t fighting, you most likely aren’t warring in a traditional sense. But did the ancient Chinese hold this same perspective of their own written language? Does not battle truly equal not fighting at the strategic level in the context of Chinese warfare during this period? One can argue that it does not, and the term not battle fails to convey a concurrent meaning of non-kinetic methods to subdue the enemy’s forces prior to conflict commencing. Sun Tzu is not seeking avoidance of fighting in toto; he is simply looking to avoid being forced into fighting a pitched battle.

Defining the Terms: What Did Battle Mean In Sun Tzu’s Era?

Since ancient Chinese writing lacked a precise character to express war or fighting as an abstract concept, we need to carefully parse the exact terminology used in each situation.[6] To get a sense of what the term battle meant in Sun Tzu’s time, other contemporaneous texts from that era must be analyzed. One of the most revealing sources is the Zuozhuan, the oldest historical narrative of the Spring and Autumn era (722 - 468 BCE). In 519 BCE, the state of Wu invaded the border region of its more powerful neighbor, Chu. Chu responded by dispatching its own army along with an alliance of three vassal states to expel the intruders. One of the Wu commanders recommended first attacking the weaker alliance partners:

Chu can be defeated. If we divide our army and first attack Hu, Shen, and Chen, they are certain to flee first. When these three domains have been defeated, the armies of the princes will be shaken in their purpose. When the princes are divided and disorderly, Chu is sure to turn in wholesale flight.[7]

Wu follows this advice, defeats the three vassal armies in combat, and causes Chu to flee before their own army even attempts to engage the Wu force. The Zuozhuan, however, emphasizes the official court record will deny labelling this action as a battle: “The text does not speak of ‘doing battle’ [æ?°] because Chu had not yet set up its formation [é?³].”[8]

This noticeably diverges from our modern understanding of the term battle, in which we make no substantive distinction between whether or not both sides established formations before the fighting starts. Conversely, a symbiotic relationship between the terms battle (æ?°) and formation (é?³) is well documented in military writings from Sun Tzu’s period. In an earlier exegetical passage, the Zuozhuan reiterates: “In all cases concerning troops, if the enemy was not yet in proper formation [é?³], the text says that ‘such and such troops were defeated.’ When all were in proper formation, the text says, ‘did battle’ [æ?°]."[9] The point is that in ancient Chinese writing, battle did not necessarily convey a meaning of generic fighting, but instead represented a specific subset of fighting—that in which both sides were afforded the opportunity to organize their ranks before kinetic operations commenced.

The Wuzi—another military text thought to be written by a famous general of this era, Wu Qi, and later codified along with The Art of War into the Seven Military Classics of Ancient China—describes the relationship between formation and battle through a description of the “four discords” of military operations:

If there is discord in the state, then you cannot deploy the army;
If there is discord in the army, then you cannot organize your formations [é?³];
If there is discord in your formations, then you cannot join battle [æ?°];
If there is discord in battle, then you cannot achieve victory.

Establishing formations, though, was hardly a prerequisite necessary to fight and kill the enemy. In a later verse the Wuzi notes that if the enemy’s “formations [é?³] are not yet settled...attack them without any doubts.”[11] What the Zuozhuan and Wuzi both point to is a narrow definition of  doing battle, composed of three sequential steps that must be completed before one can formally classify a military action as a battle:

  • Step 1: Deploy the army

  • Step 2: Form orderly ranks (é?³)

  • Step 3: Engage the enemy (æ?°)

Only if each side has an opportunity to form orderly ranks can one state that a battle has technically occurred. The ample catalogue of military actions documented in the Zuozhuan supports this restrictive definition. Of the 584 examples of inter-state conflict recorded in the text, only 31 are classified as battles (æ?°). The vast majority of military actions, despite also involving soldiers slaughtering other soldiers in armed combat, are alternatively categorized as: attacks (?), surprise attacks (æ??), invasions (?), sieges (å?), annihilations (æ»?), annexations (å?), forced entries (å?¥), or defeats (æ??). The historical record implies that Sun Tzu’s military predecessors also appeared to disfavor pitched battles, preferring alternate methods of fighting instead.

Given this view of ancient Chinese warfare and the language it employed, it becomes easier to envision a more limited interpretation of what Sun Tzu sought to achieve through his often-quoted verse. When Sun Tzu recommends that one strive to subdue the enemy without doing battle (?æ?°), he is not advocating non-kinetic measures undertaken prior to reaching the first step (deploy the army), such as diplomatic or psychological operations to convince the enemy to forgo resistance and immediately submit to its political will. This is a thoroughly modern interpretation of battle avoidance.[12]

Instead, Sun Tzu assumes that both sides have already gone to war and deployed their forces, but that one side should leverage the seam between steps one and two, and therefore launch an assault prior to the enemy having time to organize its ranks in preparation to receive the blow. If one side denies the other an opportunity to mount an effective tactical defense, military victory will be much easier to achieve. What Sun Tzu is trying to avoid, if at all possible, is being forced into fighting a set piece battle in which he might have an equal to or greater than chance of losing.

The logic behind the conventional interpretation of “winning without fighting” is further eroded later in the third chapter, where Sun Tzu discusses force ratios and argues that when one is five times the enemy’s strength, attack. If winning without fighting is the preferred option, why wouldn’t a five-fold numerical advantage allow one to achieve submission without ever resorting to an attack? Furthermore, Sun Tzu concludes the chapter with his famous aphorism that if one knows oneself and the enemy, “in a hundred battles [æ?°] you will never be in peril.”[13] If conflict avoidance is the strategic priority, why wouldn’t this information dominance allow one to profitably avoid engaging in battles altogether? Sun Tzu is certainly not hesitant about engaging in warfare when he possesses a clearly superior advantage; what he is doing is rejecting the traditional ideal of offering the enemy a fair fight.

Does Historical Evidence Support This Interpretation of Battle?

The Zuozhuan provides several illuminating examples of this traditional view of battle, as well as the skeptical stance taken by astute military practitioners eager to upend the deference given to this increasingly risky norm. In 638 BCE the Duke of Song went to war with the state of Chu, deployed his army, and then organized its ranks on a river bank to await the advancing Chu forces:

The men of Song had already formed their ranks, but the men of Chu had not yet finished crossing the river. The supervisor of the military [Ziyu] said, “They are numerous, and we are few. Let us attack them before they have completed the crossing.” The duke said, “That won’t do.” When the Chu army had completed the crossing but had not yet formed their ranks, the supervisor of the military again notified him. But the duke said, “That will not do.” Only after the Chu army was properly marshaled [é?³] did he attack them. The Song troops were completely defeated.[14]

Following Song’s defeat, Ziyu excoriates the Duke for his failure to attack the Chu army while disarrayed and criticizes him for his inability to “understand warfare.”[15] Just a decade later, Chu found himself again in a similar situation. At war against the state of Jin, it marched its army to the edge of another river where the enemy forces awaited on the opposite bank. After a protracted delay, a representative of the Jin side approached with a proposal to break the stalemate:

I have heard: “In ritual matters one does not avoid enemies.” If you want to join in battle [æ?°], then I will retreat one day's march. You cross the river and array your troops in formations [é?³]. Then whether you delay or make haste to fight is entirely up to you. If you do not do this, then show the same liberality to me. To wear out our troops by keeping them in the field for a long time and to waste resources does not profit anyone.[16]

The Chu commander, perhaps recalling the naïve chivalry of the former Duke of Song, suggests crossing immediately. His military advisor, though, suspects Jin will not honor its pledge and will attack them as they ford. He convinces the Chu commander to accept the offer to retreat one day’s march first and thereby compel the Jin army to come to their side of the river. Although the Chu army temporarily withdraws, the Jin commander simply declares that Chu has abandoned its effort, proclaims victory, and marches his army home.[17] The Chu commander also returns home and is executed by his king for his failure to engage the enemy force.

Yet Jin's subsequent refusal to cross the river themselves after Chu withdrew first suggests that the military advisor most likely made a shrewd decision not to trust Jin’s forbearance. Just eight years later, Jin debated whether to engage in pitched battle with an approaching army from Qin. The Jin commander, Zhao Dun, explained his decision to launch a surprise attack instead:

"‘To preempt the enemy is to rob him of his will’ is good military strategy. ‘To pursue the enemy as if one were chasing men in flight’ is good military leadership." They [Jin] instructed the soldiers, sharpened their weapons, fed the horses, and ate in abundance. Forming the ranks of the troops in secret, they set out at night [and] defeated the Qin troops.[18]

The traditional pillars of ritualized and honor-bound modes of combat were rapidly eroding during this era.[19] This breakdown of martial norms ushered in centuries of internecine warfare that paused only temporarily with the Qin state’s brutal military annihilation of all potential contenders by 221 BCE.

Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period (Absolute Chine)

It is under these circumstances that Sun Tzu eventually collected the thoughts later compiled into The Art of War. Most likely, the concept of not battling never reflected a complex matrix of grand strategies, diplomatic negotiations, economic statecraft, and long-term psychological operations designed to compel the enemy’s submission prior to hostilities being declared. Instead, it was an operational or tactical ruse, conducted after a decision to fight was already made, and designed to violently strike at the enemy’s armed forces while they were still in their most vulnerable and unprepared state.


Based on this analysis, a more appropriate translation of the second verse of the third chapter is:

Achieving victory in every [pitched] battle is not the height of excellence. Routing the enemy’s soldiers [before they have an opportunity to form orderly ranks] is the height of excellence.

This puts Sun Tzu’s thinking in agreement with the 4th/5th century Roman military writer Vegetius, who argued that while engaging in pitched battle was potentially decisive, the risk of suffering catastrophic defeat necessitated astute commanders to also consider less direct methods of attack.[20] This is simply one more reason to abandon the popular but erroneous notion that Sun Tzu represents a uniquely Chinese view of warfare, one which was left unexamined by military practitioners in the West.

This suggested revision might even help shed light on contemporary military analyses. Sun Tzu devotees seeking to explain recent Chinese military actions such as its invasions of Tibet and Korea in 1950, the First and Second Taiwan Crises (1954-58), the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Soviet border clashes of 1969, the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, or its crushing of peaceful protestors in 1989, struggle to concoct the tortured logic necessary to square these clearly offensive attacks with the supposed cultural preference of winning without fighting.[21] This proposed interpretation provides a more straightforward justification. In each of these cases, China simply chose to attack an opponent that had not yet formed its ranks in defense prior to the commencement of kinetic operations. Odds are that in its next military conflict, China will once again seek to follow this venerable blueprint. For those tasked with safeguarding their nation against any potential adversary, one piece of Sun Tzu’s unambiguous advice remains just as relevant today as it was millennia ago: “Do not depend on the enemy not coming; depend rather on being ready for him.”[22]

John F. Sullivan is a former U.S. Army China Foreign Area Officer. He is currently a JD candidate at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De Re Militari: Epitome of Military Science, trans. N.P. Milner (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 83-4. Vegetius was a Roman writer living in the late 4th to early 5th century CE.

[2] Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 58. Gray later acknowledged that while this sentiment is somewhat hyperbolic, these texts continue to represent a useful distillation of traditional  strategic thought.

[3] Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, (London: Routledge, 2007), 62 (emphasis in original).

[4] David H. Petraeus, “Foreword” to Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Peter Harris (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2018), 7.

[5] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 77.

[6] My appreciation to Hein Drop for raising this point in an earlier draft.

[7] Zuozhuan: Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals,” trans. Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li and David Schaberg (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 1621.

[8] Ibid, (Lord Xi, Year 22), 1623.

[9] Ibid, (Lord Zhuang, Year 11), 165.

[10] Author’s translation. The original Chinese text reads: æ??å???å??ï¼??å??æ?¼å??ï¼????å?º?ï¼??å??æ?¼?ï¼????å?ºé?³ï¼??å??æ?¼é?³ï¼????é?²æ?°ï¼??å??æ?¼æ?°ï¼?????å?ã??

[11] Wu Qi, “Wu-Tzu” in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 212.

[12] For example, Michael Handel simply infers a wide range of non-violent methods Sun Tzu supposedly prefers even though he cannot provide supporting passages from the original text: “Sun Tzu devotes considerable attention to concerns that precede war, discussing in detail the advantages of various diplomatic strategies. For him, diplomacy is the best means of attaining his ideal of victory without bloodshed. When advising that the enemy’s plans should be attacked at their inception, Sun Tzu is presumably referring to diplomatic and political bargaining, negotiations, and deception, although he offers no further explanation.” Masters of War, 33. For an alternate interpretation of what Sun Tzu meant by “the enemy’s plans should be attacked at their inception,” see “Who Was Sun Tzu’s Napoleon?”

[13] Sun Tzu, 84.

[14] Zuozhuan, (Lord Xi, Year 22), 357.

[15] Ibid, 359.

[16] Ibid, (Lord Xi, Year 33), 455.

[17] Although one could argue that in this example Jin actually achieved the goal of “subduing the enemy without battle,” the historical record shows that it only provided a temporary respite. Jin and Chu would engage in nearly continuous warfare over the next two centuries. The strain of this constant fighting along with internal unrest would cause Jin to break-up into separate entities in 453 BCE. The partition of Jin would be the catalyst for the transition into the Warring States era (403 - 221 BCE).

[18] Ibid, (Lord Wen, Year 7), 501.

[19] The translators of the Zuozhuan aptly summarize the zeitgeist of the last few decades of the era as documented in the text: “The Spring and Autumn era draws to a close in gathering gloom and exercises of petty Realpolitik. The old powers of ritual propriety are little more than a memory. Warfare dominates the narrative. Succession crises and rebellions divide domains against themselves and draw neighboring domains into protracted proxy wars. Rulers and chief noblemen are murdered or driven into exile. Two ancient domains are destroyed. Wu completes its swift rise to power and promptly falls. Confucius dies, the Annals end, and Zuozhuan carries on for several years more, following a few tales of internecine strife to their dismal conclusions. The few men who win glory in these years earn it for acts of military bravery or diplomatic savvy, deeds that often prove futile.” Durrant, Li, and Schaberg, 1827.

[20] Vegetius, 83. See also the quote highlighted in the epigram, above.

[21] Chinese People’s Liberation Army Colonel Liu Mingfu sums up the fanciful idea, also prevalent in official Chinese government rhetoric, that the Chinese people possess a cultural aversion to aggressive actions: “But in the thousands of years of China’s history, it’s hard to find even one example of China attacking a country or people without being attacked first.” Liu Mingfu, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking & Strategic Posture in the Post American Era (New York: CN Times Books, Inc., 2015), 98.

[22] Sun Tzu, Sun Tzu: The Art of Warfare, trans. Roger T. Ames, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 136.

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