The Nine Varieties of Ground

From The Art of War, translation by Samuel B. Griffith .

In respect to the employment of troops, ground may be classified as dispersive, frontier, key, communicating, focal, serious, difficult, encircled, and death.

1) When a feudal lord fights in his own territory, he is in dispersive ground.

  • Here officers and men long to return to their nearby homes.

2) When he makes but a shallow penetration into enemy territory he is in frontier ground.

3) Ground equally advantageous for the enemy or me to occupy is key ground.

4) Ground equally accessible to both the enemy and me is communicating.

  • This is level and extensive ground in which one may come and go, sufficient in extent for battle and to erect opposing fortifications.

5) When a state is enclosed by three other states its territory is focal. He who first gets control of it will gain the support of All-under-Heaven (the Empire is always described as ‘All-under-Heaven’).

6) When the army has penetrated deep into hostile territory, leaving far behind many enemy cities and towns, it is in serious ground.

  • This is ground difficult to return from.

7) When the army traverses mountains, forests, precipitous country, or marches through defiles, marshlands, or swamps, or any place where the going is hard, it is in difficult ground.

8) Ground to which access is constricted, where the way out is tortuous, and where a small enemy force can strike my larger one is called encircled.

  • …Here it is easy to lay ambushes and one can be utterly defeated.

9) Ground in which the army survives only if it fights with the courage of desperation is called ‘death’.

  • Blocked by mountains to the front and rivers to the rear, with provisions exhausted. In this situation it is advantageous to act speedily and dangerous to procrastinate.

And therefore, do not fight in dispersive ground; do not stop in the frontier borderlands.

Do not attack an enemy who occupies key ground; in communicating ground do not allow your formations to become separated.

In focal ground, ally with neighboring states; in deep ground, plunder.

In difficult ground, press on; in encircled ground, devise stratagems; in death ground, fight.



  1. It is always good to remind ourselves of Sun Tsu’s wisdom so well expressed in his Art of War.

    Wish the lessons of this great general and statesman had been better understood by people pretending to lead the West to salvation by stupidly occupying difficult ground in the cradle of civilization and committing all manner of atrocities by virtue of which they can only make matters worse.

    It seems no one ever heard of winning a war without fighting – yet it is one of the most basic lessons of Sun Tsu.

  2. That’s it right on the money Sepp, I couldn’t agree more. Boy oh boy, doesn’t anybody read history (or tactics) anymore?

    How about this: Donald Rumsfeld has been called to resign by the four branches of the US military…

    Gutsy move, but it’s clear that nobody was paying attention to reality when (not) planning this stupid war.

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