The King of Principle was Defeated

In Axial China, about two thousand years after the first dynasty was established, a king and his army were waiting at the border for a battle with their neighbouring state, and the enemy had to cross a river to be in the best fighting position.

When the enemy were all in the water but were yet to climb to the bank, the generals suggested to the king, “If we attack the enemy now, we can sure to win the battle since they are almost defenceless.”

“No,” the king said. “How can we attack our neighbour’s army when they are in the middle of crossing the river?”

When the enemy arrived on land, they were still in a state of disorder with half of the soldiers either looking for weapons or for their normal positions in the army. The generals suggested again, “The best time to attack has passed but we can still manage to win the battle if we attack the enemy now.”

“No,” the king said. “How can we attack our neighbour’s army when they are not lined up in a fighting position?”

After both sides were in battle formation and announced that they were ready, the battle was fought and the neighbouring state won. On the way home all the generals made their complaints against the king saying the defeat was the king’s fault. Finally the king explained his thoughts on the matter:

“War is ominous, and famine always follows a big battle. To attack the defenceless is like draining a pond to catch fish. Of course you can get the fish but no fish for next year. If big states attack small ones, small states attack civilians, and civilians attack children. Of course you can win but what is the use of it if you do not have any peace left to enjoy life?”(from A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, Chapter 14)