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The Art of War | Chapter 10 : Terrain | Summary



Sun Tzu devotes this chapter to a study of the ground (or terrain) on which a battle may be fought. However, in so doing, he often shifts focus from the physical terrain itself to the effects of those conditions on different psychological "grounds." Sun Tzu explains that the nature of terrain may be classified as one—or a combination—of six distinctive types. These types are: "accessible, entrapping, indecisive, constricted, precipitous, and distant." After he and his commentators have explained how to deal with each of these by way of either engaging or not engaging the enemy, they turn their attention to disasters that cannot be blamed on natural surroundings but instead on faulty leadership.

The dangers inherent in a general's weakness or indecision has just as much influence on the readiness of troops to fight as the conditions of the terrain on which a battle takes place. This holds true of all subcommanders and officers relative to the units they command. The link must be as strong on one side as it is on the other, because even a "valiant" officer cannot make up for a poorly trained unit, and a well-trained unit cannot overcome poor leadership. Sun Tzu says, "When the general is morally weak and his discipline not strict ... when the formations are slovenly the army is in disorder." It is therefore up to the general to catch and correct problems within the ranks. This will ensure the entire "body" of his fighting force has the same goals and consistency of discipline.

Sun Tzu and his commentators then turn to the process of choosing elite troops for special operations that require efficiency, speed, and a "vanguard sharp point." Ho Yen-hsi lists titles for the different types of elite troop actions, including the "Leapers and Agitators" of the T'ang forces.

The chapter concludes with six conditions a general must remain vigilant against, as they are signs of defeat. The first two of these have to do with the physical terrain on which a battle is fought and the capacity of the commander to estimate the situation relative to both his own and his opponent's forces. Discussion then turns to the metaphoric "terrain" of the army structure, starting with the right of the general to disobey a sovereign's orders for the good of the state. The point is made that the decorum of the commander sets the tone for everyone else, and several examples are given of generals who shared hardship with their men, and were neither too strict nor too indulgent: "He treats them as his own beloved sons and they will die with him."


The reference to the "disorder" of an army is one of several implied allusions to family structure. "Family" in this sense refers to the functioning of an extended family—parents, grandparents, sons, and their wives living together—rather than a nuclear family (father, mother, and children living together). Extended families are traditional not only in China but throughout Asia as well. Everyone in a family contributes to the running of the large household according to their abilities. An army works the same as a family. The commander in chief is a respected elder, while sons are subcommanders and officers in charge of their own family. Order of command is generally given by chronological birth, so that the first-born son advises and directs his younger brothers. The same holds true of the wives, who also have an internal order among them according to the position of their respective husbands. Every individual has rights and responsibilities according to his or her ability, age, and position.

Samuel B. Griffith points out in his note regarding the word "slovenly" that this actually means "vertically and horizontally." A vertical dysfunction has to do with the "up and down" levels of rank, from the lowest commander to the highest. A horizontal dysfunction refers to one common to everyone at a certain level in the structure. For example, if several cousins attempt to bully other cousins in an extended family, it is up to the father or fathers of the disrupters to put a stop to it. And if they can't, then the miscreants may be in for a good scolding by their grandparents. An interesting point is that horizontal and vertical integration of goods and services controlled by a single entity has proven highly successful in modern times, as shown by the economic rise of so-called "big box" stores.

Griffith also states that the elite corps of fighters, "Leapers and Agitators," are not explained, but he suggests they may have been experts in acrobatic "sword-play" that would simultaneously encourage their fellow troops and distract the enemy troops with their uncommon skill and ferocity. After all, such displays of fighting in Chinese theater thrill audiences even today, as evidenced by the popularity of such movies as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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