Daodejing Chapter 69 breakdown: defence is the best offence

Richard Brown
3 min readOct 12, 2023

Chapter 69 of the Daodejing is the only chapter in the text that is solely devoted to military strategy and warfare. It emphasizes the importance of taking a subtle and flexible approach based on understanding and respecting the capabilities of your enemy while employing strategies that achieve goals without unnecessary risk or confrontation. This chapter’s teachings are not only applicable in military contexts but can also be extended to broader life situations where strategy and decision-making are involved.

Section 1
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.

The opening section of the chapter highlights the importance of adopting a strategic mindset that values flexibility and cautiousness in warfare. The analogy of preferring to be a guest rather than a host indicates the advantage of not being tied down and having the freedom to take the initiative when the time is right. Similarly, retreating a little to avoid a larger loss suggests that avoiding unnecessary risks can be more beneficial in the long run.

Section 2
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.

The second section advocates the use of mind games to enable you to achieve victory without having to cross swords with your enemy. Advancing without advancing implies making progress without overt confrontation. Raising your hand without baring your arm means demonstrating your strength without fully committing to a conflict. It reflects the idea that subtle, non-confrontational actions can be more effective than overt displays of force.

Holding your weapon without using it refers to using the threat of force to influence your opponent’s decisions without actually resorting to violence. It encourages strategic restraint and discourages the premature use of power or resources.

Attacking your enemy without engaging suggests that you can achieve your strategic objectives without direct confrontation. Instead of engaging in a costly battle, you can find ways to undermine or weaken the enemy’s position indirectly, such as through diplomacy or subversion.

Section 3
There is no greater disaster
Than underestimating the enemy.
In doing so you risk
Losing your treasures.

Not even the most brilliant strategies will be of any help to you if you make the cardinal error of failing to fully appreciate the capabilities of your enemy. Overconfidence and complacency are a sure recipe for defeat. Careful assessment and preparation are essential to prevent potential losses.

Section 4
When two armies engage in battle,
The side filled with regret wins.

Going to war should be a cause for sadness and sorrow rather than excitement and celebration. Even if you emerge as the victor, you and your enemy will suffer irreplaceable losses of people and treasure. By entering the conflict with a heavy heart, you will have a much better chance of avoiding rash decisions and ultimately prevailing.

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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.