Sun Tzu: the Art of War (V): Energy

I will use this easily accessible translation version
to comment on the Art of War, and I will pretend that Sun Tzu was indeed a historical person. 
Sun Tzu artist's impression from Qīnggōngdiàn Cánghuàběn
清宮殿藏畫本 / 清宫殿藏画本

(Early warning: This chapter of The Art of War features a lot of what a modern reader might consider blathering rather than poetry. I suspect that this writing style was used in part to make the whole work reading befitting higher and further education for high-ranking men and their children.)

V. Energy

1. Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.

It may seem so to someone who does not know organization and learns its very basics, but there are indeed huge differences. The share of time that certain leadership activities require changes a lot. A leader of ten men is much occupied with discipline, training and individual issues such as subordinates getting drunk or being troublemakers. A general is rather concerned with administrative issues, politics, campaign planning, logistics, mentoring promising junior officers, appointing officers to leadership positions, intelligence reports. It's similar in businesses; the higher up in the hierarchy, the more the profile of the job changes.

2. Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.

This was clearly false even in the time of Sun Tzu. An army of 30,000 men or so would spread out farther than the eyesight of a general would reach effectively. His control of the battle could be extended by messenger riders and signalling, but it would clearly not be the same to receive a short report as to see the event yourself.

Sun Tzu was most likely trying to convey the usefulness of signs and signals, so this is yet another paragraph that has to be read figuratively rather than literally. 

3. To ensure that your whole host may withstand the brunt of the enemy's attack and remain unshaken-- this is effected by maneuvers direct and indirect.

4. That the impact of your army may be like a grindstone dashed against an egg--this is effected by the science of weak points and strong.

5. In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory. 

All this talk of direct and indirect is practically an invitation to modern Westerners to make up all kinds of pseudo-spiritual nonsense and interpret Sun Tzu's The Art of War wildly to their own taste. I'm convinced it's better to resist such blathering. 

6. Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.

7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. 

His idea of music is badly obsolete (although pop music comes eerily close with the four chords), but the talk about variations reminds me of the arguments in favour of a span of control of four rather than three. The triangular organisation with three manoeuvre elements under one unified command offers few options for arranging the elements for battle;

two left wing + one right wing,

one left wing + two right wing,

one left wing + one centre + one right wing,

left wing + right wing + reserve and

vanguard + left wing + right wing.

A span of control of four adds many more options ("combinations"), including an oblique order with an overwhelming concentration of three elements on one wing.

Sun Tzu was rather writing about combinations of stratagems, though.

8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen. 

Badly outdated as well. Black and white are no colours, and colours are a continuous range. The colours available to mankind were terribly limited well into the 19th century because colours were made almost exclusively with dye plants, which offered few colours. Blue used to be very common and cheap in Europe (and thus rarely worn by rich people) because some blue colour plant was so easily available in Europe. Purple was super-rare. So Sun Tzu talking of five primary colours may actually refer to five most-used dye plants.

9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.

Acrid isn't taste, it's mere pain. Literally. Scientifically. "Hot" spices trigger the pain receptors, seriously. Which brings me to an important point: Sun Tzu was clueless on all scientific advances ever made. We should keep this in mind. Sun Tzu cannot have been trained to think like Westerners are trained to think by schooling. The scientific principle was unknown to him. There was no cultural division between things that we would consider affairs of science and things that we would consider belonging to poetry. That's not sloppiness, it's fuzziness by ignorance.

10. In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack--the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.

11. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle--you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

12. The onset of troops is like the rush of a torrent which will even roll stones along in its course.

13. The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.

14. Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision. 

Suvorov would have liked this.

15. Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger.

16. Amid the turmoil and tumult of battle, there may be seeming disorder and yet no real disorder at all; amid confusion and chaos, your array may be without head or tail, yet it will be proof against defeat.

17. Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline, simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.

18. Hiding order beneath the cloak of disorder is simply a question of subdivision; concealing courage under a show of timidity presupposes a fund of latent energy; masking strength with weakness is to be effected by tactical dispositions.

19. Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it.

20. By holding out baits, he keeps him on the march; then with a body of picked men he lies in wait for him.

21. The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and utilize combined energy.

22. When he utilizes combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling logs or stones. For it is the nature of a log or stone to remain motionless on level ground, and to move when on a slope; if four-cornered, to come to a standstill, but if round-shaped, to go rolling down.

23. Thus the energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet in height. So much on the subject of energy.


  1. Numbers in Chinese culture do carry meanings beyond their numeric value. 5 is an often repeated number for the base elements of a concept. Sun Tzu lived with a different knowledge system than we do today and he fitted his observations and thought into a shape that at least strived to confirm with notions held by his contemporaries. Similarly, Clausewitz was one of many authors who tried to extend the en vogue terms of physics to his field.

    Reported numbers of troops employed by the Chinese are very high. I doubt they are true, but nevertheless it probably meant that command by signals was more highly developed in China than in other parts of the world and a commander would usually manage what he couldn't inspect, whether it was a small or large army by Chinese standards.

    1. On the other hand, battlefields in Southern China were extremely segmented and sloped. It's unlikely that armies of 10,000+ were properly coordinated there.
      Large armies are furthermore impractical for marches, even assuming rice as basic food and no substantial work effort for camp fortifications. The unpaved roads of the time were narrow (especially in the hilly and mountainous South) and thus had little capacity.

    2. The coordination problem in ancient China could mean that what they report as battles were several loosely connected engagement by rather independent "armies". While the roads were more narrow in China, they were also more numerous, allowing fast movement in several independent groups. Field fortifications might have been less of an issue, because in some conflicts the wheelbarrows were used to erect barriers. This combination of riverine transport and wheelbarrow road network makes China different from the European context where throughout history roads were broader for two- and fourwheeled transport and maritime transport played more of a role. This everyday transport creates different conduits for conducting campaigns. So maybe Sun Tzu us right within a Chinese context where the command of large and small armies, many or few men, only via messengers and signals didn't differ much.

    3. That's not what the translation says. The translation says leading an army is the same as leading A FEW MEN. It does not say large or small army.

    4. I concede you have a point.