The Art of War

by

Sun-tzu

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Water Symbol Icon

In The Art of War, Master Sun uses water as an example of how armies should move: fluidly, based on the terrain and the obstacles they encounter, and always taking the path of least resistance. As such, water represents the importance of efficiency in war—that is, of conserving and then later powerfully unleashing one’s energy at the enemy’s weakest points. This approach reflects Sun’s understanding of the world as ordered by natural laws, despite it seeming chaotic. If a general can understand the world’s ordered chaos and move his men through its turbulence fluidly, as water does, he can achieve a flawless victory. These natural laws that define the Way of the world are primarily the laws of physics, but also extend to more psychological concepts such as morale. For example, it is easier to attack downhill, with gravity on your side, just as water flows downhill and not up: “A victorious army / Is like / Pent-up water / Crashing / A thousand fathoms / Into a gorge.” By acting like water, the army uses its strength to the maximum effect, making victory all the more likely. Sun writes, “A rushing torrent / Carries boulders / On its flood;/ Such is the energy / Of its momentum”—and when the army follows the example of water and attacks in the most efficient way, nothing can withstand its might.

Water Quotes in The Art of War

The The Art of War quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Yin and Yang Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of The Art of War published in 2002.
Chapter 4 Quotes

A victorious army
Is like
Pent-up water
Crashing
A thousand fathoms
Into a gorge.

Related Characters: Master Sun (Sun-Tzu) (speaker), The General, The Enemy, The Men
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

A rushing torrent
Carries boulders
On its flood;
Such is the energy
Of its momentum.

A swooping falcon
Breaks the back
Of its prey;
Such is the precision
Of its timing.

Related Characters: Master Sun (Sun-Tzu) (speaker), The General, The Men
Related Symbols: Water, Animals
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Military dispositions
Take form like water.
Water shuns the high
And hastens to the low.
War shuns the strong
And attacks the weak.
Water shapes its current
From the lie of the land.
The warrior shapes his victory
From the dynamic of the enemy.

Related Characters: Master Sun (Sun-Tzu) (speaker), The General, The Enemy, The Men
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 37-38
Explanation and Analysis:

War has no
Constant dynamic;
Water has no
Constant form.
Supreme military skill lies
In deriving victory
From the changing circumstances
Of the enemy.

Related Characters: Master Sun (Sun-Tzu) (speaker), The General, The Enemy
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
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