Chapter 8. The Eastern Approach to Strategy

Marcus Guest
9 min readOct 20, 2021

At the time of writing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was number 4 on Amazon’s ‘Strategy & Competition’[⁠1] bestseller list. Why many modern strategists seek insights from a military text 2,500 years old is that war and business share two essential characteristics:

  1. Competition with rivals
  2. Uncertainty (not knowing rivals’ intentions or how they will act next).

However, many business strategists use Sun Tzu’s famous treatise as little than a source of pithy statements to sprinkle presentations with because The Art of War, despite being “often heard of and read [is] seldom understood in the West; despite its popularity”.[⁠2] What’s missing for modern western readers is a knowledge of the Chinese philosophical tradition it came out of.

The first line of The Art of War states that: “War is a vital matter of state” but, paradoxically, this work emerged out of “a culture in which warfare is neither celebrated nor glorified, and in which military heroism is a rather undeveloped idea”.[⁠3] The Chinese understood that all wars, even victorious ones, were devastating as they drain resources from those areas on which future prosperity depends: Infrastructure, education and culture. War therefore was seen as an act of last resort.

However, China’s endless history also taught them that war was unavoidable, meaning any leader who did not study warfare was thought irresponsible. This pragmatism explains why “many if not most of the classical Chinese philosophical works contain lengthy treatises on military thought”.[⁠4] Importantly though, the Chinese study of warfare was less about how to win on the battlefield and more about winning without needing a battlefield. The Art of War is a high-point of this approach:

“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” — The Art of War (chapter 3)

As the world’s longest continuous civilisation China retains an “intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy”.[⁠5] Chinese leaders today can invoke “strategic principles from a millennium-old event” and feel confident colleagues will “understand the significance of [these] allusions”. For example, when Mao Zedong felt threatened by a hostile Soviet Union to the North and an ambitious Vietnam to the South he resolved this perilous situation by invoking the classical Chinese principle of “defeating the near barbarians with the assistance of the far barbarians”.[⁠6] Rapprochement in 1972 with the ‘far barbarians’ to the West (the USA) helped reduce the threat of the ‘near barbarians’ in the North and South (the USSR and Vietnam) as Mao adroitly used their mutual antagonisms to keep them focused on each other, helping create the more stable conditions China needed to re-emerge as a great power. Mao’s openness to the US surprised many externally but, by invoking a well-known and successful stratagem from Chinese history, he had clearly and succinctly communicated his intention internally.

The question for modern strategists is how can they gain strategic advantage from reading The Art of War if they are ignorant of the historic-philosophical traditions it emerged from? The long answer is to learn Chinese and study their classics. A more pragmatic answer is to take a closer look at the key principle in The Art of War and explore how it shapes the eastern approach to strategy.

Shi (勢)

Shi has been described as the “key and defining idea”[⁠7] in The Art of War. Like many concepts in China— where the language is highly-contextualised and meaning depends on the situation — shi has no direct translation. To aid understanding of these subtle concepts Chinese philosophers used metaphors — comparing something unknown to something known, often from nature. Laozi, (a contemporary of Sun Tzu) used water metaphors: “Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it”.[⁠8] Shi — like water — takes no permanent shape, it adapts to the terrain and therefore can’t be attacked directly. When sufficient shi is accumulated upstream the force of its flow downstream creates inevitable, irresistible outcomes:

“the velocity of cascading water can send boulders bobbing about is due to its strategic advantage [shi]” — The Art of War (chapter 5)

Shi therefore may be described as unleashing the accumulated potential inherent in a situation. And one gains strategic advantage by working with this potential — as an old Taoist story explains:

An old man accidentally fell into river with rapids that led to a dangerous waterfall. Despite onlookers fearing for his life, he emerged downstream unharmed. When asked how he survived, he explained, “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived”.

This story reveals the two key concepts needed for harnessing shi:

  • Awareness, seeing the inherent potential (threats and opportunities) in a situation
  • Adaptiveness, having the ability to respond with this potential (rather than against it).

In Chinese philosophy even highly-uncertain situations are thought to unfold “according to a general pattern that can not only be anticipated, but can be manipulated to one’s advantage”.[⁠9] This requires awareness — adaptiveness: One actively waits for favourable conditions to form (awareness) and then exploits the inherent potential with right timing and action (adaptiveness) to unleash beneficial consequences. This is the source of competitive advantage at the heart of eastern strategy.

Intelligence

However, no two situations are considered identical in the Chinese philosophical tradition as “minute fluctuations can amplify into dramatic changes”[⁠10] — therefore there are no universal recipes to follow. Wise commanders must continually improve their awareness of the current situation to extract the rich sources of information from it by detecting commonly recurring patterns (ex, troops leaning on their weapons is a sign of tiredness suggesting they’re ripe for being attacked, while birds gathering in trees can point to unoccupied positions in enemy lines that can exploited⁠).[11]

Yet the wise commander is also aware of deception — when the enemy makes you think they’re far when they’re near, or tired when they’re rested:

“Warfare is the art of deceit” — The Art of War (chapter 1)

Increased uncertainty due to deception is why wise commanders do not allow those far from the situation — political leaders or advisors — to influence decision-making on the frontline. Those far from the frontline re-fight the last war as they lack up-to-date information on the current war and their strategic moves are easily predicted by a wise rival commander. Success therefore comes from being close to the action and taking intelligence “directly from the specific situation”. This is how the wise commander increases “his capacity to thus control events”[⁠12]:

“Intelligence is of the essence in warfare — it is what the armies depend upon in their every move” — The Art of War (chapter 13)

Five Factors

Sun Tzu provided commanders a framework of ‘Five Factors’ to enable them to asses the potential in a situation and ‘anticipate victory⁠’[13] in advance. He was clear about its importance:

“All commanders are familiar with these five factors, yet it is he who masters them who takes the victory, while he who does not will not prevail” — The Art of War, (chapter 1)

The First Factor is what Sun Tzu called tao — or the way[⁠14]which is concerned with how well aligned the troops and the commander are around a common direction or purpose.

The Second Factor is climate, which is concerned with the rotation of days and seasons.

The Third Factor is the terrain, which is concerned with the physical landscape and distances involved and is also affected by changes in climate.

The Fourth Factor is command, which is concerned with the decisions a commander makes (after considering tao, climate and terrain) and their “wisdom, integrity, humanity, courage, and discipline”.[⁠15]

The Final Factor Sun Tzu called regulations — “organisational effectiveness, a chain of command, and … logistical support”[⁠16], which is concerned with how well the commander’s forces can respond in different situations.

For Sun Tzu wise commanders consider how these Five Factors apply to the current situation:

  1. Which side has the more compelling mission?
  2. Which side benefits most from climate changes?
  3. Which side does the terrain favour more?
  4. Which side makes the better decisions?
  5. Which side has the more effective force?

And from these considerations wise commanders seek strategic advantage (shi) from the conditions:

  1. A wise commander makes moves on the battlefield that contribute directly to fulfilling the overall mission or objective of the campaign. This is seeking shi from the mission.
  2. Using changes in overhead conditions, such as darkness or heavy rain, a wise commander conceals the movement of forces so they can act undetected. This is seeking shi from climate.
  3. Facing a numerically superior army a wise commander manoeuvres forces to where the terrain is narrow, so it can be defended with few men. This is seeking shi from the terrain.
  4. Knowing that bravery and cowardice do not come from the troops themselves but from how wisely they’re deployed a wise commander seeks shi from making better moves.
  5. And a wise commander cultivates the morale of troops so they fight with energy, whilst taking every opportunity to disturb the equilibrium of rival troops, so they’re disheartened. This is seeking shi from the effectiveness of forces.

Victory doesn’t come from daring or courage but from shi. This is The Art of Strategic Advantage:

“the expert at battle [is one who] seeks his victory from strategic advantage (shi) and does not demand it from his men” — The Art of War (chapter 5)

Conclusion

Chinese philosophers recognised that “unforeseen circumstances may arise” in any situation, therefore “it is not always possible to draw up a plan in advance⁠”.[17] This is why the Chinese philosophical tradition encouraged leaders to cultivate superior awareness-adaptiveness in order to identify and be ready to exploit the potential (shi) in changing situations. They could tip the scales in their favour further by using deception to hinder their rivals’ awareness to create a mis-match between reality and their perception of it. Now, wise commanders — who have also developed sufficient adaptiveness in own troops so they respond effectively to a fluid situation — can turn the potential of a situation to their advantage by making unorthodox moves that confuse rivals; launching an attack that comes like a raging torrent crashing down a gorge, impossible to resist:

“… the strategist mastering shi is akin to water flowing downhill, automatically finding the swiftest and easiest course. A successful commander waits before charging headlong into battle. He shies away from an enemy’s strength; he spends his time observing and cultivating changes in the strategic landscape. He studies the enemy’s preparations and his morale, husbands resources and defines them carefully, and plays on his opponent’s psychological weaknesses — until at last he perceives the opportune moment to strike the enemy at his weakest point. He then deploys his resources swiftly and suddenly, rushing “downhill” along the path of least resistance, in an assertion of superiority that careful timing and preparation have rendered a fait accompli⁠”.[18]

1 https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Strategy-Competition/zgbs/books/2553

2 Yuen, Derek M. C.. Deciphering Sun Tzu. p.3

3 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.31

4 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.31

5 Henry Kissinger. “On China”. P21

6 Henry Kissinger. “On China” p93

7 Sun-Tzu The Art of Warfare (translated by Roger Ames) p.50

8 Tao Te Ching (Chapter 78)

9 Yuen, Derek M. C.. Deciphering Sun Tzu. p.53

10 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.62

11 The Art of War, chapter 9

12 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.63

13 The Art of War, chapter 3

14 Again, another very difficult concept to translate simply

15 The Art of War, chapter 1

16 The Art of War, chapter 1

17 Yuen, Derek M. C.. Deciphering Sun Tzu. p.82

18 Kissinger, On China p54

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Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straightforward; And wage war by being crafty. — Laozi, Tao Te Ching marcus@powermaps.net PowerMaps.net