Daodejing Chapter 69: advancing without advancing

Richard Brown
2 min readOct 10, 2023

Military commanders
Have an old saying:
I would rather be a guest
Than a host.
I would rather retreat a foot
Than advance an inch.
This is called
Advancing without advancing,
Raising your hand
Without baring your arm,
Holding your weapon
Without using it,
Attacking your enemy
Without engaging it.
There is no greater disaster
Than underestimating the enemy.
In doing so you risk
Losing your treasures.
When two armies engage in battle,
The side filled with regret wins.

「用兵有言曰:吾不敢為主,而為客;吾不敢進寸而退尺,是謂行無行,攘無臂,執無兵,扔無敵。禍莫大於輕敵,輕敵幾喪吾寶;故抗兵相加,哀者勝矣!」

Defense is the best offense. Let the enemy make mistakes by rushing into battle and outwit them by remaining cool-headed in the face of their attack. Just be sure not to underestimate its strength and determination. Even the best strategy fails with poor execution.

Notes
1.) This is the only chapter in the Daodejing that is solely devoted to military strategy and warfare. It summarizes the tactical guidelines provided in the previous two chapters. A winning strategy rests on patience, deterrence, and watchfulness rather than bravado, speed, and aggression.

2.) In the saying quoted by Laozi, the host is the aggressor who initiates operations against the enemy just as he would be expected to take care of all the arrangements for a guest. The guest waits to respond. To advance even just a short distance is to invite battle; to retreat is to avoid it. Victory goes to those who fight with a heavy heart, not those who delight in slaughter.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.