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The Art of War | Chapter 8 : The Nine Variables | Summary



Sun Tzu identifies what should—and should not—be done in five different types of ground to lay a foundation for the nine variables. These kinds of ground are: low-lying (in which an army should not camp), communicating (in which allies may be joined), desolate (to be moved through as quickly as possible), enclosed (requiring resourceful solutions to get out of), and death (in which the only option is to fight).

The nine variables are based on an estimation of changing conditions under which action is either indicated or not indicated in any of the five types of ground. Tu Mu weighs in by referring to the difficulties in attacking a well-provisioned city. Sun Tzu and his commentators emphasize that simply knowing these variables will not do any good; they must be put into immediate action at the required time in order to succeed.

Once the sovereign has placed his confidence in his choice of a commander, that commander must retain complete autonomy and authority on the battlefield. Otherwise, attention to rapidly changing conditions is thwarted, and the enemy is given a chance to take control. Again, it is up to the commander to make the decision regarding what ground to take, when, and how. A careful assessment of possible consequences must be made ahead of time. Chia Lin makes a good point: "Ground ... is not to be fought for if one knows ... it will be difficult to defend, or that he gains no advantage by obtaining it."

The chapter concludes with a list of ways to undermine an enemy commander, such as giving him "beautiful women to bewilder him." Sun Tzu adds that a preoccupation with honor and a compassionate nature are variables to be exploited in an enemy and avoided in a general from whom victory can be expected.


The cutthroat nature of "real" war—as opposed to war as recreational pastime practiced by the nobility—is particularly emphasized in this chapter. The five qualities that may be exploited against an enemy general parallel the five kinds of ground discussed at the beginning of the chapter. They are reckless, cowardly, quick-tempered, "too delicate a sense of honor," and "a compassionate nature." While such traits might not have been crucial in warfare in the previous Spring and Autumn Annals period, warfare in the Warring States period of Sun Tzu's time had no place for them.

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