The Art of War | Study Guide

Sun Tzu

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The Art of War | Symbols



Forces of nature are invoked in several chapters of The Art of War by Sun Tzu and his commentators. The prevailing advice in Chapter 4 is to use the troops as an irresistible force, as if they were water streaming downhill: "A victorious general is able to make his people fight with the effect of pent-up waters which, suddenly released, plunge into a bottomless abyss." Sun Tzu offers a similar analogy in Chapter 5 when he adds that stones and logs can be made to roll downhill with a minimum of effort, much like a well-trained army can be made to exert a powerful force with a minimum expenditure of energy.


The relationship of a general to his troops must be akin to that of a loving yet strict father, guiding the efforts of his children to the benefit of all. Extended family units—which often include parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—have been the traditional norm in China. An effective army is forged based on a hierarchy of command like that of an extended family. Each brother acts like a subcommander over his own children under the direction of the head of the household. In Chapter 5, Sun Tzu states: "He [the general] selects his men and they exploit the situation." Samuel B. Griffith adds a note of explanation that this is not nepotism—the promotion of family members solely because of blood relationships. As is made clear in the rest of the treatise, the "family" of the army is created through a system of rewards and punishments put in place by the commanding general. Officers may even be drawn from among enemy captives who prove their talent and loyalty: "Because such a general regards his men as infants they will march with him into the deepest valleys."


Ground in The Art of War refers both to the physical topography upon which a general must plan his marches and battles, and the psychological and emotional "ground" on which a general establishes himself and his army. Chapters 9 and 10 specifically discuss types of ground, and how to handle different army units to take maximum advantage of their features, while correspondingly forcing the enemy onto ground unfavorable to success. So while "an army prefers high ground to low [and] esteems sunlight and dislikes shade," it is by arriving first at the battlefield that Sun Tzu indicates a general has the opportunity to take the high ground. Advice on reading the psychological "ground" of the enemy is also given in such statements as: "When his [the enemy's] flags and banners move about constantly he is in disarray."

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