This is a compilation of a discussion between Tang Tai Zhong, also know as Li Shimin (李世民) and his General Li Jing (李靖) who is confered the title Duke of Wei (卫). There are references to other military works such as Tai Gong Six Teachings and Sun Zi Art of War. So it would be strongly recommended that you read these works before approaching this work.
Tai Zhong inquired: “Gao Li has encroached Xian Luo several times. I dispatched an emissary to command them to desist but they have not accepted our edict. I am about to send forth a punitive expedition. What do you think?”
Li Jing replied: “According to what we have been able to find out about them, Gai Su Wen relies upon his own knowledge in military affairs. He thinks that China lacks the capability to mount a punitive expedition, thus contravenes your mandate. I request an army of thirty thousand men to capture him.”
Tai Zhong said: “Your troops will be few while the place is distant. What strategy will you employ?”
Li Jing said: “I will use orthodox troops.
Tai Zhong said: “When you pacified the Tu Jue, you employed unorthodox troops. Now you speak about orthodox troops. How is that?”
Li Jing said: “When Zhuge Liang captured Meng Huo seven times, it was not through any other ways. He employed orthodox troops, that’s all.”
Tai Zhong said: “When Ma Long of the Jin Dynasty conducted a punitive campaign against Liang Zhou, it was also in accord with the ‘Diagram of Eight Formations, and he built narrow chariots. When the terrain was broad, he deployed ‘deer-horn chariots’ encampments, and when the road was constricted he built large wooden box and placed one each upon individual chariots so they could both fight and advance. I believe it was orthodox troops which the ancients valued!”
Li Jing said: “When I conducted the punitive campaign against the Tu Jues, we travelled west for several thousand li. If they have not been orthodox troops, how could we have gone so far? Narrow chariots and ‘deer-horn chariots’ encampments are essentials to the deployment of troops. They allow controlling the expenditure of energy, provide a defense to the fore, and constrain the regiments and squads. These three advantages when gained interchangeably can improve the prowess of the troops. This is what Ma Long learned so thoroughly from the ancients.”
Tai Zhong said: “At the battle in which I destroyed Sung Lao Sheng, when the fronts clashed our righteous army retreated somewhat. I then personally led our elite cavalry to race down the Southern Plain, cutting across in a sudden attack on them from the flank. After Lao Sheng’s troops were cut off the rear, we severely crushed them and subsequently captured him alive.
Were these orthodox troops? Or unorthodox troops?”
Li Jing replied: “Your majesty is a natural military genius, not one who learns by studying. I have examined the art of war as practiced from the Yellow Emperor on down. First be orthodox, and afterwards unorthodox; first be benevolent and righteousness, and afterward employ strategy and craftiness. Moreover in the battle at the Huo Yi, the army was mobilized out of righteousness, so it was orthodox. When Qian Cheng fell off his horse and the Right Army withdrew somewhat, it was unorthodox.”
Tai Zhong commented: “At that time, our slight withdrawal almost lead to the failure of our great affair, so how can you refer to it as unorthodox?”
Li Jing replied: “In general, when troops advance to the front, it is orthodox. When they deliberately retreat to the rear, it is unorthodox. Moreover, if the Right Army had not withdrawn somewhat, how could you have gotten Lao Sheng to move forward? The Art of War states: “Display profits to entice them, create disorder in their forces and take them.” Lao Sheng did not know how to employ his troops. He relied on courage and made a hasty advance. He did not anticipate his rear being severed nor being captured by your Majesty. This is what is referred to as ‘using the unorthodox as the orthodox.’”
Tai Zhong said: As for Huo Qu Bing’s tactics unintentionally cohering with those of Sun Zi and Wu Zi, was it really so? When our Right Army withdrew, Gao Zu, turned pale. But then I attacked vigorously and, on the contrary, it became advantageous for us. This unknowingly cohered with Sun Zi and Wu Zi. My lord certainly shows your knowledge.”
Tai Zhong said: “Whenever an army withdraws, can it be termed as unorthodox?”
Li Jing said: “It is not so. Whenever the soldiers retreat with their flags confused and disordered, the sounds of the large and small drums not responding to each other and their orders shouted in a clamor, this is true defeat, not unorthodox strategy. If the flags are order, the drums respond to each other and the commands and orders seem unified, then even though they may be retreating and running, it is not a defeat and must be a case of unorthodox strategy. The Art of War says: ‘Do not pursue an enemy who pretends to retreat in desperation.’ It also says: ‘When you are capable, feign incapability.’ These all refer to the unorthodox.”
Tai Zhong said: “At the battle of Huo Yi, when the Right Army withdrew somewhat, was this a question of heaven’s effort? When Lao Sheng was captured, was this due to the effort of man?”
Li Jing said: “If the orthodox troops had not changed to unorthodox and the unorthodox to orthodox, how would you have gained the victory? Thus for one who excels at employing the army, unorthodox and orthodox lie with man, that is all! He changes them from one form to the other so often that it becomes difficult to discern them, which is the reason they are attributed to Heaven.”
Tai Zhong nodded his head.
Tai Zhong said: “Are the orthodox and unorthodox distinguished beforehand or are they determined at the time of battle?”
Li Jing said: “According to Duke Cao’s Xin Shu, ‘If you outnumber the enemy two to one, then divide your troops into two with one section being orthodox and the other being unorthodox. If you outnumber the enemy five to one, then three sections should be orthodox and two sections should be unorthodox.’ This states the general point. As Sun Zi said: ‘In war, there are only the direct and indirect forces. However the combinations and changes between the two are infinite. Their interactions and combinations are like two never-ending, interlocking rings where possibilities of its beginning and endings cannot be determined.’ This captures it. So how can distinction be made beforehand?
If the officers and troops are not yet trained in my methods, if the assistant generals are not yet familiar with my orders, then we must break the training into two sections. When teaching battle tactics, in each case the soldiers must recognize the flags and drums, dividing and combining in turn.
These are the techniques for teaching warfare. When the instructions and the evaluation of their implementation have been completed and the masses know my methods, only then can they be raced about like a flock of sheep, following wherever the general points. Who then makes a distinction of unorthodox and orthodox? What Sun Zi refers to as ‘Thus, if I can uncover the dispositions of the enemy while remaining concealed myself’ is the pinnacle in employing the unorthodox and orthodox. Therefore, such a distinction beforehand is merely for the purpose of instruction. Determining the changes at the moment of the battle, the changes are inexhaustible.”
Tai Zhong said: “Profound indeed! Duke Cao’s must have known it. But what the Xin Shu teaches is only what he conveyed to his generals, not the fundamental method of the unorthodox and the orthodox.”
Tai Zhong said: “Duke Cao states, ‘Unorthodox troops attack from the flank.’ My lord, what do you have to say about this?”
Li Jing replied: “I recall that, in commenting on Sun Zi, Duke Cao said: ‘Going out first to engage in battle is orthodox; going out afterward is unorthodox.’ This is different from his discussion of flank attacks. I humbly refer to the engagement as orthodox, and those which the general himself sends forth to capture opportunity as unorthodox. Where is the restriction of first, or later, or flank attack?”
Tai Zhong said: “If I cause the enemy to perceive my orthodox as unorthodox, and cause him to perceive my unorthodox as orthodox, is this what is meant by ‘displaying a form’? Is employing the unorthodox as orthodox, the orthodox as unorthodox, unfathomable changes and transformation, what is meant by Sun Zi as ‘being formless’? “
Li Jing bowed and said: “Your Majesty is indeed wise. Your understanding has past those of ancients, beyond what I can attain.”
Tai Zhong said: “If ‘dividing and combining are changes,’ wherein lies the unorthodox and orthodox?”
Li Jing said: “For those who excel at employing troops, there are none that are not orthodox, none that are not unorthodox, thus they cause the enemy never to be able to discern them. Thus with the orthodox, they are victorious, with the unorthodox, they are also victorious. The officers of the army only know they achieve victory; none knows how it is attained. Without being able to fully comprehend the changes, how could the outstanding generals attain this? As for where the dividing and combining come from to create the orthodox and unorthodox, only Sun Zi was capable of comprehending it. From Wu Zi on, no one has been able to attain it.”
Tai Zhong said: “What was Wu Qi’s strategy like?”
Li Jing said: “Permit me to speak about the general points. Marquis Wu of Wei asked Wu Qi about the strategy to be employed when two armies confront each other. Wu Qi said: ‘Gather some lower ranks men who are courageous and have them lead some light shock troops to test him. hen the enemy responds to the attack, they, the shock troops, should pretend to run off. When they flee, do not punish them, but observe whether the enemy advances to take the bait. If they sit as one and arise as one, and do not pursue your fleeing troops, the enemy has good strategists. If all their troops pursue the fleeing forces, some advancing, some halting, in disordered fashion, the enemy is not talented. Attack them without hesitation.’ I think that Wu Qi’s strategy is generally of this sort, not what Sun Zi would refer to as ‘In battle, use the direct forces to match the enemy, and use the indirect forces to win the enemy.’.”
Tai Zhong said: “My Lord, your uncle Han Qing Hu once said you could discuss Sun Zi and Wu Zi with him. Was he referring to the orthodox and unorthodox?”
Li Jing said: “How could Qing Hu know about the pinnacle of deploying orthodox and unorthodox? He only took the unorthodox as unorthodox, and orthodox as orthodox! He never knew about the ‘mutual changes of the unorthodox and orthodox into each other, the inexhaustible cycle.’”
Tai Zhong said: “When the ancients approached enemy formations and then sent forth unorthodox troops to attack where unexpected, were they also using the method of ‘mutual changes’ for orthodox, unorthodox troops?”
Li Jing said: “In antiquity, most battles were a question of minimal tactics conquering those without any tactics, and of some minor degree of excellence conquering those without any capabilities. How can they merit being discussed as the art of war? An example is Xie Xuan’s destructions of Fu Jian. It was not because of Xie Xuan’s excellence but probably Fu Jian’s incompetence.”
Tai Zhong ordered the attending officers to find Xie Xuan’s biography and read it. After reading the biography, he said: “Fu Jian’s management in which area was not good.”
Li Jing said: “I observe that Fu Qian’s biography records that ‘Qin’s army had all been broken and defeated, with only Mu Rong Chui’s single force still intact. Fu Jian the Qin king, leading more than a thousand cavalry, raced over to join him. Chui’s son Bao advised Chui to kill Fu Jian but without results. From this, one sees that when the Qin’s armies were in turbulence, only Mu Rong Chui’s forces remain intact, so it is obvious that Fu Jian was probably betrayed by Chui’s treachery. Now to be betrayed by others and yet still hope to conquer the enemy, is it not difficult? Thus I say that men such as Fu Jian lacked tactics.”
Tai Zhong said: “Sun Zi said that ‘one who plans extensively will conquer one who does less planning, so thus we know some planning will conquer no planning.’ All affairs are thus.”
Tai Zhong said: “The Yellow Emperor’s Art of War has been transmitted by previous generations as the Classic of Grasping the Unorthodox and as the Classic of Grasping Opportunities as well. What do you have to say about this?”
Li Jing said: “The pronunciation of the character ‘unorthodox’ is the similar as that for ‘opportunity’. Thus some have transmitted the title as the latter, but the meaning is the same. If we investigate the actual writing, it says: ‘Four formations as orthodox, four formations as unorthodox. The remaining forces are for “grasping opportunity”.’ Here the character ‘unorthodox’ means troops. Because pronunciation of the character ‘unorthodox’ is the similar as that for ‘opportunity’ My foolish opinion is that in war there are opportunities everywhere, so we should stress on ‘grasping’ in speaking about it. It ought to be focus on the excess, then it would be correct.
Now orthodox troops receive their mission from the ruler, while unorthodox troops are ordered forth by the general. Sun Zi said: ‘When orders are regularly enforce and used to train the soldiers, they will be obedient.’ This means that orders for orthodox troops are what are received from the ruler. Moreover, he says: ‘The employment of the troops cannot be spoken of beforehand.’ and ‘there are commands from the ruler which are not accepted.’ These are orders that the general himself issues.
For the generals: If they employ orthodox tactics without any unorthodox ones, they are defensive generals. If they employ unorthodox tactics without any orthodox ones , they are aggressive generals. If they employ both, they are generals to preserve the state. Thus ‘grasping opportunity’ and ‘grasping the unorthodox’ are not fundamentally two methods. Students of military strategy thoroughly understand this point !”
Tai Zhong said: “The Classic of Grasping Opportunities states: ‘The number of formations is nine, with the center formations under the commanding general’s control. The “four sides” and “eight directions” are all regulated by center unit. Within the main formation, contains smaller; within the platoons, contains smaller platoons. They can take the front to be the rear, the rear to be the front. When advancing, they do not run quickly; when withdrawing, they do not race off. There are four heads, eight tails. Wherever they are struck is made the head. If the enemy attacks the middle, the adjoining two heads will both come to the rescue. The number begins with five and end with eight.’ What does all this mean?”
Li Jing said: “Zhuge Liang use stones to make eight rows. The layout for the square formation is similar. When I instructed the army, we invariably began with this formation. What generations have passed down as The Classic of Grasping Opportunities only includes its rough outline.”
Tai Zhong said: “Heaven, Earth, wind, clouds, dragons, tigers, birds, and snakes – what is the meaning of these eight formations?”
Li Jing said: “There was an error made by those who transmitted them to later generations. The ancients wants to secretly concealed which orders is given to which troops, so they craftily created these eight names. The eight formations were originally one, then being divided into eight. For example, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’ originated in flag destinations; ‘wind’ and ‘clouds’ originated in the pennant names. ‘Dragons,’ ‘tigers’, ‘birds’ and ’snakes’ originated in the distinctions of the platoons and squads. Later generations erroneously transmitted them. If they were cleverly creating formations in the image of animals, why would they just stop at eight?”
Tai Zhong said: “The numbers of formations begin with the five and end with eight, so if they were not set up as images of animals, then they are really ancient military systems. Would you please explain them for me?”
Li Jing said: “I observe that the Yellow Emperor governed the army according to the methods by which he first established the ‘village and well’ system. Thus the ‘well’ was divided by four roads, and eight families occupied it. Its shape was that for the Chinese character for ‘well’ (井), so nine squares were opened therein. Five were used for formations, four were empty. This explains why the numbers started with five.
The middle was left vacant to be occupied by the commanding general, while around the four sides the various companies were interconnected, so this is what is meant by the number of formation end with eight. As for the changes and transformations to control the enemy:
Intermixed and turbulent, their fighting appeared chaotic, but their method was not disordered. In a nice flow of movement, from their deployment of circular transformation from square formation, their formation are not dispersed. This is what is meant by ‘when they dispersed and become eight, reunite and again become one’.”
Tai Zhong said: “The Yellow Emperor’s governance of the army was profound indeed! Even if later generations have men with the wisdom of Heaven and great planning ability, none will be able to exceed his scope! After this who came near to him?”
Li Jing replied: “When the Zhou Dynasty first flourished, the Tai Gong substantially copied his methods. He began at the Qi state capital by establishing the well acreage system, constructing three hundred chariots, and training three hundreds Tiger Guards in order to establish a military organization. They practiced advancing ’six paces, seven paces’ making ’six attacks, seven attacks,’ so as to teach them battle tactics. When he deployed the army at Mu Ye, with only a hundred officers as vanguard, the Tai Gong controlled the army and established his military achievements. With forty-five thousand men, he conquered King Zhou’s mass of seven hundred thousand.”
“In the Zhou dynasty, Sima Fa was based upon the Tai Gong. When Tai Gong died, the people of Qi (岐) obtained his bequeathed strategies. When Duke Huan became hegemon to the Zhou Kingdom, he relied on Guan Zhong who again cultivated the Tai Gong methods. Their army was referred to as a ‘restrained and governed’ and all the feudal lords submitted.”
Tai Zhong said: “The Confucians mostly say that Guan Zhong was merely the minister of a hegemon, so they truly do not know that his military methods were founded upon the ancient military system. Zhuge Liang had the talent of to be a king’s right hand man, and he compared himself with Guan Zhong and Yue Yi. From this we know that Guan Zhong was also the true talent to a king. But when the Zhou declined the king could not use him, so he borrowed the state of Qi, under Duke Huan, and mobilized an army there.”
Li Jing bowed twice and said: “Your Majesty is indeed wise! Since you understand people well. Being able to serve you, giving my best and till death I would not be shameful to meet ancient Worthy.
I would like to speak about Guan Zhong’s methods for organizing the state of Qi. He divided Qi to compose three armies. Five families comprised the fundamental unit, so five men made up a squad of five. Ten fundamental family units composed a hamlet, so fifty men composed a platoon. Four hamlets constituted a village, so two hundred men composed a company. Ten villages constituted a town, so two thousand men composed one battalion. Five towns made up an army, so ten thousand men composed one army. It all proceeded from the Sima Fa’s meaning that one army consist of five battalions, while one battalion consists of five companies. In actual fact, these are all bequeathed methods of Tai Gong.”
Tai Zhong said: “People say that the Sima Fa was composed by Rangju. Is this true or not?”
Li Jing said: “According to the Biography of Rangju, in Records of the Grand Historian, he excelled in commanding the army at the time of Duke Jing of Qi, defeating the forces of Jin and Yan. Duke Jing honored him with the post of Commander of Horses (known as Sima), and from then on he was called Sima Rangju. His sons and grandsons were then surnamed Sima. In the time of Duke Wei of Qi, they sought out and talked about the method sof the ancient Commanders of the Horse and also narrated what Rangju had studied. This subsequently became a book in ten chapters called Sima Rangju. Moreover, what has been transmitted from the military strategists and remains today is divided into four categories: ‘balance of power and plans’, ‘disposition and strategic power’, ‘yin and yang’, and ‘techniques and crafts’. They all come out of the Sima Fa.”
Tai Zhong said: “During the Han, Zhang Liang and Han Xin ordered the books on military art. Altogether, there were one hundred and eighty two thinkers, but after they collated and edited them to select the important ones, they settled on thirty five. Now we have lost what they transmitted. What about this?”
Li Jing said: “What Zhang Liang studied was the Tai Gong’s Six Secret Teachings and The Three Strategies. What Han Xin studied was the Sima Rangju and Sun Zi. But the main principles do not go beyond the Three Focus and Four Schools, that is all.”
Tai Gong asked:”What are the Three Focus?”
Li Jing said: “I find that in the eighty one chapters of the Plans of Tai Gong, military strategies cannot be exhausted; the seventy chapters of the Sayings of Tai Gong, troops cannot be exhausted; and the eighty five chapters of the Warfare of Tai Gong, resources cannot be exhausted. These are the Three Focus.”
Tai Zhong said: “What is meant by the Four Schools?”
Li Jing said: ” These are what Ren Hong from Han has discussed. Four classes of military strategists, ’strategies and tactics’, ‘circumstances and developments’, ‘yin and yang’ and ‘techniques and crafts’. ”
Tai Zhong said: “The Sima Fa begins by mentioning the Spring and Winter ceremonial hunts. Why?”
Li Jing answered: “To accord with the seasons and the ritual of paying respect to the spirits, then put in the schedule for training, this is to pay attention to priorities. Thus agriculture and rituals that pay respect to spirits are the most important government affairs according to the Zhou Rites. King Cheng held the spring hunt on the southern side of Mount Qi. King Kang held the assembly at Feng Palace. King Mu held the assembly at Mount Tu. These are affairs of the Son of Heaven.
When Zhou rule declined, Duke Huan of Qi assembled the armies of the feudal state at Zhao Ling, while Duke Wen of Jin made his alliance with the feudal lords at Jian Tu. In these cases, the feudal lords respectfully performed the affairs of the Son of Heaven. In actuality, they used the Law of Nine Attacks to overawe the irreverent. They employed the pretext of the hunt to hold court assemblies, accordingly conducting tours and hunts among the feudal lords, conducting military exercise. The Sima Fa states that unless there is a national emergency, the army should not be wantonly mobilized, but that during the times between the agricultural seasons, they should certainly not forget military preparations. Thus it is not profound that it placed the hunts of spring and winter at the beginning chapters!”
Tai Zhong said: “During the Spring and Autumn period, the ‘Methods for the Double Battalion of King Zhuang of Chu’ stated that ‘the hundred officers should act in accord with the symbolization of things, military administration should be prepared without official instructions.’ Did this accord with the Zhou regulations?”
Li Jing said: ‘According to the Zhuo Zhuan, ‘King Zhuang’s chariot battalions consisted of thirty chariots per battalion. Each chariot in the battalion had a company of infantrymen plus a platoon for the flanks.’ ‘When the army was advancing the ones on the right deployed by the shafts.’ They took the shafts as their defining measure. Thus they stayed close to the shafts to fight. These were all Zhou regulations.
“In the case of Chu, I refer to one hundred men as a company, while fifty men are called a platoon. Thus each chariot is accompanied by one hundred and fifty men, many more than in the Zhou organization. Under the Zhou, each chariot was accompanied by seventy two infantry men and three armored officers. Twenty five men, including an officer, formed one platoon, so three Zhou platoons were seventy five men altogether. Qi is a country of mountains and marshes; chariots were few, men numerous. If they were to be divided into three platoons, then they would be functionally the same as the Zhou.”
Tai Zhong said: “During the Spring and Autumn period, when Sun Wu attacked the Di, he abandoned his chariots and use infantry units instead. Were they also orthodox troops? Or unorthodox troops?”
Li Jing said: “Sun Wu used strategy for chariot warfare, that is all. Although he abandoned the chariots, his strategy is still found therein. One force acted as the left flank, one force acted as the right flank, and one resisted the enemy in the front. Dividing them into three units, this is one tactic for chariot warfare. Whether one thousand or ten thousand chariots, it would be the same. I observe that in Duke Cao’s Xin Shu, it states: ‘Attack chariots are accompanied by seventy five men., To the fore, to oppose the enemy is one unit; to the left and right corners are two more units. The defense chariots have an additional unit. It consists of ten men to prepare the food, five to repair and maintain the equipment, five to care for the horses and five to gather firewood and fetch water – altogether twenty five men. For a pair of attack and defense chariots, altogether there are one hundred men.’ If you mobilize one hundred thousand men, you would employ one thousand each of the light attack and heavy defense chariots. This is the general outline of Sun Wu’s old methods. “
“Moreover, I observe that in the period from Han to Wei, army regulations had five chariots compose a platoon, with a supervisor to command them. Ten chariots formed a regiment, under a chief commandant. For one thousand chariots, there were two men, a general and lieutenant general. If more chariots, the organization followed this pattern. If I examine it in comparison with our present methods, then our probing force is the old cavalry; our frontal assault troops are the old infantry and cavalry, half and half; and our holding force goes forth with combined chariot tactics.”
“When I went to the west to rectify and punish the Tu Jue, we crossed several thousands li of treacherous terrain, I never dared change this system for the constraints and regulations of the ancients can truly be trusted.”