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the nine battlegrounds – chapter 11 – the art of war

The Art of War

Chapter 11

The Nine Battlegrounds

The principles of warfare are:

There are

  • Dispersive ground
  • Marginal ground
  • Contentious ground
  • Open ground
  • Intersecting ground
  • Critical ground
  • Difficult ground
  • Surrounded ground
  • Deadly ground.

Where the rulers do battle in their own ground, this is called dispersive ground.

Where one enters the other’s ground but not deep, this is called marginal ground.

Where it is advantageous if you occupy it and it is advantageous if the enemy occupies it, this is called contentious ground.

Where one can come and go, this is called open ground.

Where ground is surrounded by others, and the first one to reach it will gain the support of the masses, this is called intersecting ground.

Where one enters deep into enemy ground, with many walled cities and towns to his back, this is called critical ground.

Where there are mountains and forests, defiles and ravines, swamps and wetlands, and places difficult to pass, this is called difficult ground.

Where the entrance is narrow, the exit circuitous, allowing the enemy to attack his few to our many, this is called surrounded ground.

Where if one who does battle with full force survives, and one who does not do battle with full force perishes, this is called deadly ground.

Therefore, on dispersive ground, do not do battle.

On marginal ground, do not stop.

On contentious ground, do not attack.

On open ground, do not become separated.

On intersecting ground, form alliances.

On critical ground, plunder.

On difficult ground, press on.

On surrounded ground, be prepared.

On deadly ground, do battle.

In ancient times, those skilled in warfare were able to prevent the unity of the enemy’s front and back, the many and the few, the noble and the peasants, and the superiors and the subordinates. Have the enemy be separated and unable to assemble; if the enemy is assembled, it should not be organized. Move when advantageous, stop when not advantageous.


If the enemy is large in number and advances, what should be the response?

I say:

Seize what he values, and he will do what you wish.

The essential factor in warfare is speed. To take advantage of the enemy’s lack of preparation, take unexpected routes to attack where the enemy is not prepared. Generally, the Way of invading is when one has penetrated deep into enemy ground, the troops are united; the defender will not be able to prevail. If you plunder the fertile fields, the army will have enough provisions. If you take care of your health, avoid fatigue, you will be united, and will build strength. When moving troops and calculating plans, be formless.

Throw your troops into situations where there is no escape, where they will die before escaping. When they are about to die, what can they not do? They will exert their full strength. When the troops are in desperate situations, they fear nothing; having penetrated deep in enemy ground, they are united. When there are no other alternatives, they will fight. Therefore, though not disciplined, they are alert; though not asked, they are devoted; though without promises, they are faithful; and though not commanded, they are trustworthy.

Prohibit omens, and get rid of doubts, and they will die without any other thoughts. The soldiers do not have wealth, but not because they dislike material goods; they do not live long, but not because they dislike longevity. On the day the men are issued orders to do battle, the sitting soldiers’ tears will soak their sleeves, and the lying soldiers’ tears will roll down their cheeks. However, if you throw them into a desperate situation, they will have the courage of Chuan Chu or Ts’ao Kuei.

Therefore, those skilled in warfare are like the shuaijan. The shuaijan is a serpent on Mount Chang. If you strike its head, its tail attacks; if you strike its tail, its head attacks; if you strike its middle, both the head and tail attack.


Can forces be made like the shuaijan?

I say:

They can.

The men of Wu and Yueh hated each other, however, encountering severe winds when crossing a river on the same boat, they assisted each other like left and right hands. Therefore, hobbling horses and burying chariot wheels are not enough.

The Way of organization is uniting their courage, making the best of the strong and the weak through the principles of Ground. Therefore, one who is skilled in warfare leads them by the hand like they are one person; they cannot but follow.

It is important for a general to be calm and remote, upright and disciplined, and be able to mystify his men’s eyes and ears, keeping them ignorant. He changes his methods and plans, keeping them from knowing. He changes his campsites and takes circuitous routes, keeping them from anticipating. The day the general leads his troops into battle, it is like climbing up high and throwing away the ladder. He leads his troops deep into enemy ground, and releases the trigger. He burns his boats and destroys the cooking pots. He commands his troops like herding sheep; being herded to and fro without them knowing where they are going.

Assembling the masses of the army, and throwing them into danger are the responsibility of the general. Adaptations to the nine grounds, the advantages in defensive and offensive maneuvers, and the patterns of human emotions must be examined.

Generally, the Way of invading is:
  • When troops are deep in enemy ground, they are united;
  • When troops are not deep in enemy ground, they are scattered.
  • Where you leave your country, and lead the troops across the border into enemy ground, this is called isolated ground.
  • Where there are four sides open, this is called intersecting ground.
  • Where you penetrated deep in enemy ground, this is called critical ground.
  • Where you penetrated little in enemy ground, this is called marginal ground.
  • Where the back is impassable and the front is narrow, this is called surrounded ground.
  • Where there is nowhere to go, this is called deadly ground.


  • On dispersive ground, I have my troops united.
  • On marginal ground, I consolidate my troops.
  • On contentious ground, I hurry my back.
  • On open ground, I pay attention to our defenses.
  • On intersecting ground, I strengthen our alliances.
  • On critical ground, I maintain continuous supply of provisions.
  • On difficult ground, I press on quickly.
  • On surrounded ground, I block off openings.
  • On deadly ground, I show the troops our resolve to fight to the death.

Therefore, the nature of the army is:

  • To defend when surrounded, to fight hard when there are no other alternatives, and to obey commands promptly when in danger.

Therefore, one who does not know the intentions of the rulers of the neighboring states cannot secure alliances.

  • One who does not know the mountains and forests, gorges and defiles, swamps and wetlands cannot advance the army.
  • One who does not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground.
  • One who does not know any one of these matters cannot command the army of a ruler.

When the army of a ruler attacks a great nation, the nation’s masses cannot assemble. When its power overwhelms the nation, alliances cannot be formed. Therefore, one does not contend for alliances with other nations. One does not foster the power of other nations. If one pursues his aims, overwhelming the enemy, then, he can take the enemy’s cities and overthrow kingdoms.

Give out rewards transcending law, give out commands transcending policy. Command the masses like commanding one person. Give your troops tasks, but do not reveal them your plans. Get them to face danger, but do not reveal the advantages. Throw them into danger and they will survive; put them on deadly ground and they will live. Only if the troops are in situations of danger will they turn defeat into victory.

The concern of warfare is that operations are in accord with the enemy’s intentions. If one then concentrates his strength on the enemy, killing his general a thousand li away, this is called achieving objectives through wit and skill. Therefore, on the day war is declared, close off all borders, destroy all passports, and do not allow their envoys to pass.

Go through your plans in the temple and bring about the execution of those plans. If the enemy presents an opportunity, take advantage of it. Attack what he values most. Do not advance on any fixed day or time; calculate and adapt to the enemy to determine the matter of doing battle.

Therefore, be like a maiden; once the enemy opens the door, be like a scurrying hare. The enemy will be unable to prevail.

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