The Art Of War - Sun Tzu - Griffith

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Author: Sun Tzu - Translated by Samuel B. Griffith
Pub: 1963 by Oxford University Press
Pages: 197
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By a narrow margin, this is my favorite translation. Griffith has an advantage other translators don't have, he's a retired Marine Corps General. As such, he has the military mind to translate what is in essence the strategy of war. Although Griffith also gives the comments of the same 11 commentators, he uses far less of their comments than Cleary does. For this reason, Griffith's version reads cleaner, but if you are just starting out, Cleary may be more understandable.

In order to make comparisons easy, I've included the same paragraph from four different versions.


Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

[Li Ch`uan cites the case of Fu Chien, prince of Ch`in, who in 383 A.D. marched with a vast army against the Chin Emperor. When warned not to despise an enemy who could command the services of such men as Hsieh An and Huan Ch`ung, he boastfully replied: "I have the population of eight provinces at my back, infantry and horsemen to the number of one million; why, they could dam up the Yangtsze River itself by merely throwing their whips into the stream. What danger have I to fear?" Nevertheless, his forces were soon after disastrously routed at the Fei River, and he was obliged to beat a hasty retreat.]

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

[Chang Yu said: "Knowing the enemy enables you to take the offensive, knowing yourself enables you to stand on the defensive." He adds: "Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack." It would be hard to find a better epitome of the root-principle of war.]


31. Therefore I say: 'Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.

32. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.

33. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.'

Li Ch'uan: Such people are called 'mad bandits'. What can they expect if not defeat?


So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.


If you assess your strength and can fend off opponents, what danger is there? If because of your own strength you fail to measure opponents, then victory is uncertain.


Compare your government to that of the enemy; compare your military leadership to that of the enemy; compare your logistics to that of your enemy; compare your ground to that of your enemy. Having established these comparisons, you will have a preview of superiorities and inferiorities, weaknesses and strengths; this will enable you to prevail every time in subsequent military operations.


When you know others, then you are able to attack them. When you know yourself, you are able to protect yourself. Attack is the time for defense, defense is a strategy of attack. If you know this, you will not be in danger even if you fight a hundred battles. When you only know yourself, this means guarding your energy and waiting. This is why knowing defense but not offense means half victory and half defeat.

When you know neither the arts of defense nor the arts of attack, you will lose in battle.


(He has combined a previous discussion of Generals in the paragraph. I left it in)

The insightful warlord has trust and faith in his generals. He permits them to express their authority under the right conditions and sees to it that they are rewarded when successful and admonished when they fail because of poor planning. He knows the enemy and himself in order to avoid peril. Because of this knowledge, he will succeed in the field and the administration of the state. If he is unaware of the enemy's strengths but is aware of himself, his chances of victory are evenly matched. If he doesn't know himself and doesn't know the enemy, he is certain to entertain defeat. The ruler should never have picked this man to lead; he is not strong either.




Sun Tzu and the Concubines ................ Frontispiece
List of Abbreviations .......................... xvii


   I. The Author ............................... 1
  II. The Text ................................. 13
 III. The Warring States ....................... 20
  IV. War in Sun Tzu's Age ..................... 30
   V. Sun Tzu on War ........................... 39
  IV. Sun Tzu and Mao Tse-tung ................. 45

      Biography of Sun Tzu ..................... 57
   I. Estimates ................................ 63
  II. Waging War ............................... 72
 III. Offensive Strategy ....................... 77
  IV. Dispositions ............................. 85
   V. Energy ................................... 90
  VI. Weaknesses and Strengths ................. 96
 VII. Manoeuvre ............................... 102
VIII. The Nine Variables ...................... 111
  IX. Marches ................................. 116
   X. Terrain ................................. 124
  XI. The Nine Varieties of Ground ............ 130
 XII. Attack by Fire .......................... 141
XIII. Employment of Secret Agents ............. 144

   I. A Note on Wu Ch'i ....................... 150
  II. Sun Tzu's Influence on Japanese
      Military Thought ........................ 169
 III. Sun Tzu in Western Languages ............ 179
  IV. Brief Biographies of the Commentators ... 184

BIBLIOGRAPHY .................................. 187
INDEX ......................................... 193

MAPS                                          Facing
Ch'un-Ch'iu Period ............................. 32
The Contending States - boundaries of 350 B.C. . 33



SUN Tzu's essays on 'The Art of War' form the earliest of known treatises on the subject, but have never been surpassed in comprehensiveness and depth of understanding. They might well be termed the concentrated essence of wisdom on the conduct of war. Among all the military thinkers of the past, only Clausewitz is comparable, and even he is more 'dated' than Sun Tzu, and in part antiquated, although he was writing more than two thousand years later. Sun Tzu has clearer vision, more profound insight, and eternal freshness.

Civilization might have been spared much of the damage suffered in the world wars of this century if the influence of Clausewitz's monumental tomes On War, which moulded European military thought in the era preceding the First World War, had been blended with and balanced by a knowledge of Sun Tzu's exposition on 'The Art of War'. Sun Tzu's realism and moderation form a contrast to Clausewitz's tendency to emphasize the logical ideal and 'the absolute', which his disciples caught on to in developing the theory and practice of 'total war' beyond all bounds of sense. That fatal development was fostered by Clausewitz's dictum that: 'To introduce into the philosophy of war a principle of moderation would be an absurdity - war is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.' Yet subsequently he qualified this assertion by the admission that 'the political object, as the original motive of the war, should be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force and also the amount of effort to be made'. Moreover, his eventual conclusion was that to pursue the logical extreme entailed that 'the means would lose all relation to the end'.

The ill-effects of Clausewitz's teaching arose largely from his disciples' too shallow and too extreme interpretation of it, overlooking his qualifying clauses, but he lent himself to such misinterpretation by expounding his theory in a way too abstract and involved for concrete-minded soldiers to follow the course of his argument, which often turned back from the direction which it seemed to be taking. Impressed but bemused, they clutched at his vivid leading phrases and missed the underlying trend of his thought - which did not differ so much from Sun Tzu's conclusions as it appeared to do on the surface.

The clarity of Sun Tzu's thought could have corrected the obscurity of Clausewitz's. Unfortunately, Sun Tzu was only introduced to the West, by a French missionary's summary translation, shortly before the French Revolution, and although it appealed to the rational trend of eighteenth-century thinking about war its promise of influence was swamped by the emotional surge of the Revolution and the subsequent intoxicating effect of Napoleonic victories over conventional opponents and their too formalized tactics. Clausewitz began his thinking under the influence of that intoxication, and died before he could complete the revision of his work, so that this lay open to the 'endless misconceptions' he had foreseen in his testamentary note. By the time later translations of Sun Tzu were produced in the West, the military world was under the sway of the Clausewitz extremists, and the voice of the Chinese sage had little echo. No soldiers or statesmen heeded his warning: 'there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited'.

There has long been need of a fresh and fuller translation of Sun Tzu, more adequately interpreting his thought. That need has increased with the development of nuclear weapons, potentially suicidal and genocidal. It becomes all the more important in view of the re-emergence of China, under Mao tse-tung, as a great military power. So it is good that the task should have been undertaken, and the need met, by such an able student of war and the Chinese language and thought as General Sam Griffith.

My own interest in Sun Tzu was aroused by a letter I received in the spring of 1927 from Sir John Duncan, who was commanding the Defence Force which the War Office had dispatched to Shanghai in the emergency arising from the advance of the Cantonese armies under Chiang Kai-shek against the Northern war lords.

Duncan's letter began:

I have just been reading a fascinating book 'The Art of War' written in China 5oo B.C. There is one idea which recalled to me your expanding torrent theory: 'An army may be likened to water: water leaves dry the high places and seeks the hollows; an army turns from strength and attacks emptiness. The flow of water is regulated by the shape of the ground; victory is gained by acting in accordance with the state of the enemy.' Another principle contained in the book is acted upon by Chinese generals of today; it is 'the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting'.

On reading the book I found many other points that coincided with my own lines of thought, especially his constant emphasis on doing the unexpected and pursuing the indirect approach. It helped me to realize the agelessness of the more fundamental military ideas, even of a tactical nature.

Some fifteen years later, in the middle of the Second World War, I had several visits from the Chinese Military Attache, a pupil of Chiang Kai-shek. He told me that my books and General Fuller's were principal textbooks in the Chinese military academies - whereupon I asked: 'What about Sun Tzu?' He replied that while Sun Tzu's book was venerated as a classic, it was considered out of date by most of the younger officers, and thus hardly worth study in the era of mechanized weapons. At this, I remarked that it was time they went back to Sun Tzu, since in that one short book was embodied almost as much about the fundamentals of strategy and tactics as I had covered in more than twenty books. In brief, Sun Tzu was the best short introduction to the study of warfare, and no less valuable for constant reference in extending study of the subject.




SSU-MA CH'IEN, whose monumental Shih Chi (Historical Records or Records of the Historian) was completed shortly after 1OO B.C., tells us that Sun Wu was a native of Ch'i State who presented his 'Art of War' to Ho-lu, King of semi-barbarous Wu, in the closing years of the sixth century B.C. But for hundreds of years Chinese scholars have questioned the reliability of this biography; most agree that the book could not possibly have been written when Ssu-ma Ch'ien said it was. My study of the text supports this opinion and indicates a date of composition during the fourth century B.C.

Sun Tzu's series of essays does not merit our attentive interest simply as an antique curiosity. 'The Art of War' is much more than that. It is a thoughtful and comprehensive work, distinguished by qualities of perception and imagination which have for centuries assured it a pre-eminent position in the canon of Chinese military literature.

This first of the 'martial classics' has received the devoted attention of several hundred Chinese and Japanese soldiers and scholars. Among the most distinguished was Ts'ao Ts'ao (155 - 220 A.D.), the great general of the Three Kingdoms period and founder of the Wei Dynasty. During the eleventh century his comments on the text together with the remarks of ten respected T'ang and Sung commentators were collated in an 'official' edition. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century this was revised and annotated by Sun Hsing-yen, a versatile scholar and celebrated textual critic. His edition has since been considered standard in China and my translation is based on it.

Sun Tzu was first brought to the attention of the Western world by a Jesuit missionary to Peking, Father J. J. M. Amiot, whose interpretation of 'The Art of War' was published in Paris in 1772, towards the close of a period during which the imagination of French artists, intellectuals, and craftsmen had been significantly influenced by the newly discovered and exciting world of Chinese arts and letters. Contemporary journals published favourable reviews and Amiot's work was widely circulated. It was again published in an anthology in 1782. Possibly this was read by Napoleon, as one Chinese editor has recently affirmed. As a young officer the future emperor was an avid reader; it is unlikely that these unique essays would have escaped his attention.

In addition to Amiot's interpretation, there have been four translations into Russian and at least one into German. None of the five English translations is satisfactory; even that of Lionel Giles (1910) leaves much to be desired.

Sun Tzu realized that war, 'a matter of vital importance to the State', demanded study and analysis; his is the first known attempt to formulate a rational basis for the planning and conduct of military operations. Unlike most Greek and Roman writers, Sun Tzu was not primarily interested in the elaboration of involved stratagems or in superficial and transitory techniques. His purpose was to develop a systematic treatise to guide rulers and generals in the intelligent prosecution of successful war. He believed that the skilful strategist should be able to subdue the enemy's army without engaging it, to take his cities without laying siege to them, and to overthrow his State without bloodying swords.

Sun Tzu was well aware that combat involves a great deal more than the collision of armed men. 'Numbers alone', he said, 'confer no advantage.' He considered the moral, intellectual, and circumstantial elements of war to be more important than the physical, and cautioned kings and commanders not to place reliance on sheer military power. He did not conceive war in terms of slaughter and destruction; to take all intact, or as nearly intact as possible, was the proper objective of strategy.

Sun Tzu was convinced that careful planning based on sound information of the enemy would contribute to a speedy military decision. He appreciated the effect of war on the economy and was undoubtedly the first to observe that inflated prices are an inevitable accompaniment to military operations. 'No country', he wrote, 'has ever benefited from a protracted war.' He appreciated the decisive influence of supply on the conduct of operations, and among other factors discusses the relationship of the sovereign to his appointed commander; the moral, emotional, and intellectual qualities of the good general; organization, manoeuvre, control, terrain, and weather.

In Sun Tzu's view, the army was the instrument which delivered the coup de grace to an enemy previously made vulnerable. Prior to hostilities, secret agents separated the enemy's allies from him and conducted a variety of clandestine subversive activities. Among their missions were to spread false rumours and misleading information, to corrupt and subvert officials, to create and exacerbate internal discord, and to nurture Fifth Columns. Meanwhile, spies, active at all levels, ascertained the enemy situation. On their reports, 'victorious' plans were based. Marshal Shaposhnikov was not the first to comprehend that the prerequisite to victory is 'to make proper preparations in the enemy's camp so that the result is decided beforehand'. Thus, the former Chief of the General Staff of the Red Army continues in a remarkable paraphrase of Sun Tzu, 'the victorious army attacks a demoralized and defeated enemy'.

'The Art of War' has had a profound influence throughout Chinese history and on Japanese military thought; it is the source of Mao Tse-tung's strategic theories and of the tactical doctrine of the Chinese armies. Through the Mongol-Tartars, Sun Tzu's ideas were transmitted to Russia and became a substantial part of her oriental heritage. 'The Art of War' is thus required reading for those who hope to gain a further understanding of the grand strategy of these two countries today.

S. B. G.



This book is a considerably revised version of a thesis submitted to Oxford University in October 1960 in part satisfaction of requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

In preparing it for publication I have received encouragement and advice from several friends who read and commented extensively on a preliminary draft. Notable among these is Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, to whom I am also deeply indebted for the Foreword. I wish to thank Colonel Saville T. Clark and Colonel Robert D. Heinl, U.S. Marine Corps, and Captain Robert B. Asprey for valuable critical suggestions.

I am grateful to Colonel Susuma Nishiura, Chief, War History Division, Imperial Defense Agency, Tokyo, for helping me to procure copies of various Japanese editions of Sun Tzu, and to the editors of The Japan Quarterly for permission to reproduce the painting 'Sun Tzu and the Concubines'.

The final draft of the typescript was read by Professor Norman Gibbs and my Oxford tutor, Dr. Wu Shih-ch'ang, whose comments were invariably helpful. Dr. Wu's encyclo-paedic knowledge of classical Chinese and of the history and literature of his native country clarified for me many constructions and allusions which would otherwise have been obscure.

I wish to thank Professor Dirk Bodde and the Princeton University Press for permission to quote from his translation of Fung Yu-lan's History of Chinese Philosophy; Professor Robert Hightower and the Harvard University Press for allowing me to quote from his translation of Han Shih t'ai Chuan; Dr. Lionello Lanciotti of the University of Rome and the journal East and West for use of a paragraph of his scholarly essay 'Sword Casting and Related Legends of China', and Professor C. P. Fitzgerald and the Cresset Press for permitting quotation from China: A Short Cultural History.

Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner R Company have authorized citation from Liang Ch'i-ch'ao's Chinese Political Thought; Dr. Homer Dubs, Professor Emeritus of Chinese, Oxford University, has allowed me to use several paragraphs from his Hsun Tze, The Moulder of Ancient Confucianism and The Works of Hsun Tzu, both published by Arthur Probsthain, London, and Dr. Arthur Waley and Messrs. George Allen R Unwin, Ltd. have given permission to reproduce a paragraph from Dr. Waley's felicitous translation of The Analects of Confucius. I here also express my appreciation to the editors of Imprimerie Nationale (Paris) for sanctioning quotation from the latest edition of Maspero's classic La Chine Antique.

On several occasions Dr. Joseph Needham of Cambridge took time from his own demanding work to enlighten me on technical matters relating to early Chinese weapons and metallurgy. He arranged for me to communicate with Drs. Kua Mo-jou and Ku Chieh-kang of the Academia Sinica, Peking. These scholars kindly answered various questions in connexion with the date of composition of 'The Art of War'.

Professor Homer Dubs and A. L. Sadler made numerous suggestions relating to the conduct of military affairs in ancient China and medieval Japan, and I gratefully acknowledge their interest in the progress of this book.

Faulty deductions and mistakes in translation are to be ascribed entirely to me.


Norcross Lodge Mt. Vernon
Maine, U.S.A.



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