War Banner in Sekiro

As I watched a friend play the ninja videogame Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I noticed this inscription on an enemy samurai’s war banner:


On its own, this is roughly

Having the honor of death, not the shame of life

This quotation comes from the Wuzi, a Chinese military classic by Wu Qi, a Legalist philosopher who lived during the Warring States period. He was a military leader in Wei and, later, a politician in Chu.

The full quote, reproduced below, is a sentence which concludes the first passage of the section 论将 Lùnjiàng.


The following full translation is likely incorrect, since I haven’t read the full passage yet.

Therefore, on the day that soldiers are dispatched, have the honor of death, not the shame of life.

Here I classify 有 and 无 as imperatives, and the characters after them as Noun-之-Adj constructs. The case for analyzing the two latter phrase as imperative ones is slightly strengthened by the fact that this is the kind of call to arms which would be printed on a war banner, as in the videogame.

Let’s journey further into the past: Classical Chinese writing use vertical formatting and no punctuation marks, as shown in this Ctext Project image of a physical copy of the Wuzi.


Finally (for now), the Wuzi was written in “traditional characters” (I won’t unpack that phrase here), so a few of those characters would have been written differently. In particular, 无 above would be 無, 师 would be 師, and 荣 would be 榮.