Sun Tzu: A Primer for Martial Artists

The same strategies used by a military commander to defend the nation can also be used to protect one’s self. Sun Tzu’s classic manual The Art of War is therefore required reading for all serious martial artists.

Here is a summary of Sun Tzu’s most important points (based on translations by Roger Ames):

On Assessments (計篇第一)
Warfare is the art of deceit. Therefore, when able, seem to be unable; when ready, seem unready; when nearby, seem far away; and when far away, seem near. If the enemy seeks some advantage, entice him with it. If he is in disorder, attack him and take him.

Attack where he is not prepared; go by way of places where it would never occur to him you should go. These are the military strategist’s calculations for victory—they cannot be settled in advance.

On Waging Battle (作戰篇第二)
I have heard of a foolish haste, but I have yet to see a case of cleverly dragging on the hostilities. There has never been a state that has benefited from an extended war…prize the quick victory, not the protracted engagement.

Planning the Attack (謀攻篇第三)
It is best to keep one’s own state intact; to crush the enemy’s state is only second best…So to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.

Therefore, the expert in using the military subdues the enemy’s forces without going to battle, takes the enemy’s walled cities without launching an attack, and crushes the enemy’s state without a protracted war. He must use the principle of keeping himself intact to compete in the world.

He who knows the enemy and himself
Will never in a hundred battles be at risk;
He who does not know the enemy but knows himself
Will sometimes win and sometimes lose;
He who knows neither the enemy nor himself
Will be at risk in every battle.

Strategic Positions (形篇第四)
Of old the expert in battle would first make himself invincible and then wait for his enemy to expose his vulnerability. Invincibility depends on oneself; vulnerability lies with the enemy.

He whom the ancients called an expert in battle gained victory where victory was easily gained. Thus the battle of an expert is never an exceptional victory, nor does it win him reputation for wisdom or credit for courage. His victories in battle are unerring. Unerring means that he acts where victory is certain, and conquers an enemy that has already lost.

The victorious army only enters battle after first having won the victory, while the defeated army only seeks victory after having first entered the fray.

Strategic Advantage (勢篇第五)
The expert in getting the enemy to make his move shows himself, and the enemy is certain to follow. He baits the enemy, and the enemy is certain to take it. In so doing, he moves the enemy, and lies in wait for him with his full force.

The expert in battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage and does not demand it from his men.

Weak and Strong Points (虛實篇第六)
If the enemy makes preparations by reinforcing his numbers at the front, his rear is weakened; if he makes preparations at the rear, his front is weakened…to be prepared everywhere is to be weak everywhere.

One is weak because he makes preparations against others; he has strength because he makes others prepare against him.

The ultimate skill in taking up a strategic position is to have no form or position…of the five phases (wu hsing), none is a constant victor.

Armed Contest (軍爭篇第七)
Making the enemy’s road long and torturous, lure him along it by baiting him with easy gains. Set out after he does, yet arrive before him.

Use your proper order to await the enemy’s disorder; use your calmness to await his clamor. This is the way to manage the heart-and-mind.

Adapting to Contingencies (九變篇第八)
There are five traits that are dangerous in a commander: If he has a reckless disregard for life, he can be killed; if he is determined to live at all costs, he can be captured; if he has a volatile temper, he can be provoked; if he is a man of uncompromising honor, he is open to insult; if is loves his people, he can be easily troubled and upset. These five traits…can prove disastrous in the conduct of war.

The Nine Kinds of Terrain (九地篇第十一)
The commanders of old said to be expert at the use of the military were able to ensure that with the enemy:
His vanguard and rearguard could not relieve each other,
The main body of his army and its special detachments could not support each other,
Officers and men could not come to each other’s aid,
And superiors and subordinates could not maintain their lines of communication.
The enemy forces when scattered could not regroup,
And when their army assembled, it could not form ranks.

Incendiary Attack (火攻篇第十二)
A ruler cannot mobilize his armies in a rage; a commander cannot incite a battle in the heat of the moment. Move if it is to your advantage; bide your time if it is not. The enraged and passionate can be restored to good humor, but the dead cannot be brought back to life.


  1. I remember reading this back in high school, but it’s good to get a refresher. I’ve got to admit, however, that back in high school I read it so that I could play video games better…

    Still, it’s good words and strategy, but it always seemed a little belligerent to me. There’s no defensive position, he encourages engaging only in offense (when victory is assured, of course), and at other times to be hiding or waiting, biding one’s time. I suppose that means that those kinds of strategies are more effective than defense and counter-attack types?

  2. I also read the Art of War in high school, and I read it again in college, and again after I got my degree. All three times I read the same words, but had a much deeper appreciation.

    One of my favorites is knowing yourself and your enemies before engaging in battle. I think one has to go through a few failures before appreciating this one.

  3. Thomas,
    It is the Art of War after all, not the Art of Living; to be any less belligerent would cheapen the meaning of both War and Peace.

    I had the same experience. My first time through years ago, it seemed obtuse, but now it is quite clear–probably due in part to Ames’ superior translation.

    Right. I typed this up with the intent of linking back to it, as I elaborate on my interpretations of these points.

  4. The Art of War never gets old. We have that book here at home and I recently saw a new cover for it a few months ago. We may not be soldiers involved in an actual battle but we are still soldiers of life. These strategies can be applied to almost anything. It can be used in business or even in dealing with the children.

  5. I have studied and used the art of war theories in business. They can apply pretty much to anything in life. People that are interested in Sun Tzu would also like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Clauswitz on strategy.

  6. I was introduced to the Art of War via a business contact who was reading it for the MBA. Loved the book, but what I am loving more is the parody that is in bookstores now named Sun Tzu Was a Sissy – Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends and Wage the Real Art of War by Stanley Bing who is a columnist for Fortune magazine. This book is hilarious even if you never read the original! A great read for the road warriors while you can’t use your laptop during take off and landings 😉

  7. Sun Tzu’s monumental work is one of the principle texts used extensively within the Asian Martial Arts. The book discusses martial and military strategy in an incredibly profound manner, and is required study in many systems. With experience, application and practice, the lessons of Sun Tzu unfold like a rose, with multiple layers of application; most of which can be applied at both the macro and micro level of the martial arts.

    In terms of Chris’ original article, I would respectfully disagree with one aspect of his opening statement; where he says “… Here is a summary of Sun Tzu’s most important points…” I would respectfully say that Chris has noted many of Sun Tzu’s most important concepts, but not all of them… particularly given the sample quotes are only from ten of the thirteen core chapters.

    In reference to Thomas’ comment [1], I would also respectfully disagree with one aspect. He notes that Sun Tzu did not contain a “defensive position,” and only encourages going on the offensive. This is incorrect. The work of Sun Tzu contains advice on both the Yin and Yang aspects of strategy and warfare. Defensive strategy is discussed at some length within Chapters 4 and 9… but also in many other areas.

    Very Respectfully,

    Rick Bauer

  8. Richard, if you were to add three more important points to this summary, which would you choose?

  9. Hi Chris,

    I would respectfully add the following thoughts:

    The Chinese historical records of Ssuma-Ch’ien tell us that Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, working for the King of Wu. He lived in China during the fifth century BC, at a time of vast strife and constant bllod-shed. It was during this time that Sun Tzu wrote his masterpiece on military methods, startegy and martial philosophy, known as the Art of War .

    The Art of War is a profound study of warfare, and the fundamentals of strategy and tactics. It is a rich and complex text; its core concepts and tenents are as valid today as when they were written over 2,000 years ago. The Art of War was originally written to describe the Tao (Dao) of warfare, so it could be understood and studied by the princes of China. By the third century BC, Sun Tzu’s book was widely in use throughout Asia; its core lessons were rapidly being applied and studied within the various martial and military schools of China.

    The text of the Art of War is presented within 13 chapters – each covering a specific aspect of warfare. A general overview of the Chapters is as follows:

    Chapter 1 (Appraisals / Initial Assessments) : The opening chapter of The Art of War discusses the basis for the military, and the importance of studying military methods. It also establishes the criteria of assessing victory or defeat.

    One of the most famous tenents of Sun Tzu is presented in this chapter:

    “All warfare is based on deception.” (Griffith, p. 66)

    Chapter 2 (Doing Battle / Waging War): This chapter contains the earliest known discussion on the economic and logistical roles in warfare, which it covers in considerable detail. It stresses the important interrelationship of human, material and financial resources for making war, and stresses the value of a quick victory, as opposed to a protracted campaign.

    This chapter contains two of the most famous passages of Sun Tzu:

    “… there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benifited” (Griffith, p. 73)

    “… what is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.” (Griffith, p. 76)

    Chapter 3 (Strategy of Attack / Strategic Offensive): This is one of the most important chapters of Sun Tzu, and intoduces the central notion of winning with the minimum amount of force possible. It also discusses the merits of only going to battle when you have a clear advantage, and closes with the famous dictum about knowing oneself and one’s opponent.

    Chapter 4 (Formation / Tactiacl Dispositions): This chapter discusses important strategic practices, comapred and contrasted in paired concepts. It advises to strike at an enenmy from a vantage point, seek out weaknesses, and provide for solid defenses.

    Chapter 5 (Energy / Strategic Military Power): This chapter discusses the general’s ability to command an army, by maximizing its potential through the use of conventional and unconventional tactics, as well as the ever changing configuration of power in the field of battle.

    This chapter introduces one of the key tactical concepts of Sun Tzu:

    “… when in battle… use the orthodox to engage [the enemy]. Use the extraordinary to attain victory.” (Denma Translation, p. 32)

    Chapter 6 (Weakness and Strength / Emptiness and Fullness): This chapter contains further examples of the duality of warfare (i.e., the paths to victory and defeat), which was begun in Chapter 4. It covers such themes as the need to manipulate the enemy, and to avoid being manipulated by them, and also the variations of form during battle.

    Chapter 7 (Manoevre): This chapter covers practical matters of marshalling an Army in the field. It covers issues, such as forestalling the enemy by securing conditions which favor victory, and by manoevering into superior positions on the ever-changing battlefield.

    The major theme of warefare being premised on deception, first mentioned in Chapter 1, is once again discussed… but in a much fuller sense.

    “War is premised upon deception, motivated by advantage, and modified by dividing and joining.” (Mair, p. 102)

    Chapter 8 (The Nine Variables / Nine Transformations): This chapter discusses variations of topography, and their affect on the course of a battle, as well as the traits of a general in the field. It advises on awareness of both advantages and disadvantages of certain actions.

    Chapter 9 (Marching the Army / Maneuvering the Army): This chapter discusses methods of ordering a march and positioning an Army, observing enemy troop movements, and interpreting physical evidence on the battlefield, to assess the enemy’s movements and intentions.

    Chapter 10 (Terrain Types / Configurations of Terrain): This chapter further discusses the principles for moving an army across different types of terrain. Emphasis is given on studying the battlefield and its topography, and on utilizing it to your offensive or defensive advantage. It discuses the rights of a battlefield commander to make adjustments during the course of a battle, and stresses the value of awareness of the conditions and progress of the battle.

    The concept of knowing oneself and one’s enemy, first discussed in Chapter 3, is once again stressed.

    Chapter 11 (Nine Types of Terrain / Nine Variations of Ground): This chapter continues the discussion of using different types of terrian during a battle. It also discusses the important role that speed can have on a military operation, and stresses pursuing coordinated attacks to particular battlefield objectives, rather than indisciminate actions across a broad front.

    Chapter 12 (Attack by Fire): This chapter discusses the uses of fire (and also to a certain degree, water) during a military campaign. It also discusses the generals motives for attacking.

    Chapter 13 (Employing Spies / Espionage): This last chapter discusses the role that valid military intelligence and espionage can play in a battle, with the central tenent that knowledge is a key to victory.

    There are several excellent websites which discuss Sun Tzu in detail. A few that I would recommend would be:

    1. The Sonshi Website, at

    2. The Denma Website, at

    All the best,

    Rick Bauer

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