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The Story of Sun Wu


Sun Wu was born in the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period. When he moved to the State of Wu, he secured an audience with King Helu, thanks to his writings on the art of war.


Helu said, “I have read your thirteen chapters in their entirety. Can you give a simple demonstration of how troops should be commanded?”


Sun Wu replied, “I can.”


Helu asked, “Can you do it using women?”


Sun Wu said, “Yes.”


The King then dispatched from the palace 180 of his court ladies.


Sun Wu divided them into two contingents and appointed the King’s two favourite concubines unit commanders. He instructed them on how to hold the halberds. He then asked them, “Do you know where your heart, your right and left hands and your back are?”


The women replied, “We do indeed.”


Sun Wu said, “When I give the order ‘Front’, face in the direction of your heart; when I say ‘Left’, face towards the left hand; when I say ‘Right’, towards the right; when I say ‘About face’, turn in the direction of your back.”


The women said, “We understand.”


After he had repeatedly explained the drill and disciplinary regulations, Sun Wu pointed to an array of executioner’s axes to show he meant business. he then beat on the drum for them to face right, but the women merely burst into laughter.


“If you are not clear about the regulations, and unfamiliar with the orders, it is the commander’s fault,” admitted Sun Wu. After repeating the orders three times and explaining them five times, he drummed for them to face left. Again the women roared with laughter. Sun Wu declared, “If instructions are not clear and commands not explicit, it is the commander’s fault. But when they have already been made clear and yet are not carried out, it is the officers who are to blame.” He then decided to behead the right and left unit commanders.


The King of Wu, who was reviewing the proceedings from his terrace, saw that his two beloved concubines were about to be executed. Terrified, he rushed his aide down to Sun Wu with this message: “I’m already convinced of the general’s military ability, but it is my wish that these two concubines not be executed, for without them I will have no appetite.”


Sun Wu replied, “Your servant has already received your mandate as commander and when the commander is out in the field directing his troops, he is not bound by the sovereign’s orders.”


He thereupon ordered the execution of the two unit commanders as an object lesson to all and made the next in line unit commanders.


Following this, he repeated the drum signals and the women faced left, right, front and rear and knelt and rose, all in strict accordance with the prescribed drill. They did not dare to utter the slightest sound.


Sun Wu then sent a messenger to report to the King of Wu, “The troops are now well disciplined, Your Majesty may descend to inspect them. They may be employed as the King desires, even to the extent of going through fire and water.”


Shocked, the King replied, “I have no desire to inspect them. The Commander may go to his hostel and rest.”


“The King prefers to talk about the art of war, but is not ready to put it into practice,” observed Sun Wu.


Helu recognized Sun Wu’s ability and eventually appointed him Commander.


In the third year of Helu’s rule (512 B.C.), the State of Wu mounted an expedition against the State of Chu and captured Shu City. In December, the same year, it conquered the State of Xu. In 509 B. C., Chu invaded Wu. Together with Wu Yuan, Sun Wu was appointed commander of the Wu army and scored a decisive victory. In the winter of 506 B. C., Wu invaded Chu, and in a surprise attack, penetrated a thousand li into enemy territory. The expeditionary army won all five battles, defeating an army 300,000 strong with a force of only 30,000. It finally captured the Chu capital, Yingdu (northwest of present-day Jiangling in Hubei Province).


In the 12th year of the reign of King Fuchai (484 B. C.), Wu defeated Qi in the battle of Ai-ling. Two years later, King Fuchai met with the various kings in Huangchi (west of present-day Fengqiu, Henan Province) and became the acknowledged hegemonic ruler. Such an achievement could not have been possible without Sun Wu’s distinguished service.


Paucity of historical records renders it difficult to ascertain what eventually happened to Sun Wu. Whether he died of persecution or retired into obscurity is not clear. However, the thirteen chapters of his work, The Art of War, have been acknowledged as a military classic and he himself an established military strategist, both of which have assured him an outstanding place in history.


The Story of Sun Bin


Sun Bin, a descendant of Sun Wu, was also born in the State of Qi, but more than a hundred years after the death of the latter. He developed a great interest in the art of war and studied under the scholar Guiguzi. When his fellow student Pang Juan was appointed general by King Hui of the State of Wei, he was invited by Pang to work for Wei. Pang soon realized, however, that he could in no way compare with Sun Bin and feared his own talent would be overshadowed. When his jealousy developed into hatred, Pang had Sun Bin arrested in a frame-up, leading to his knee-caps being removed and his face tattooed — both forms of criminal penalty at the time.


To save his life, Sun Bin had to pretend madness. Some time later, he learned that an envoy from the State of Qi was in town. He called on the envoy secretly and had a long conversation with him. Impressed by Sun Bin’s extraordinary talent, the envoy smuggled him to Qi. The Commanding General of Qi, Tian Ji, took an enormous liking to him and treated him with respect and ceremony.


Tian Ji often went out on horseback to practice archery with the princes, betting large amounts of gold on who would win. Sun Bin noticed that their horses, which were more or less of the same strain, were classified into upper, middle or lower grades. He said to Tian, “The next time you compete, I can surely help you win.” Tian Ji took his word for it. He bet a thousand pieces of gold against the princes. Just before the race started, Sun Bin advised Tian Ji, “Pit your low-grade horses against their high-grade ones, your high-grade horses against their middle-grade ones and your middle-grade horses against their low-grade ones.” In the end, Tian Ji scored two to one to emerge as the winner of the thousand pieces of gold. Greatly impressed, Tian Ji recommended Sun Bin to King Wei of Qi, who asked him many questions about the art of warfare and later appointed him military advisor.


In 354-353 B. C., the State of Wei launched an attack on the State of Zhao. Imperiled, Zhao turned to Qi for help. King Wei wanted to make Sun Bin the commanding general of the Qi army, but Sun declined, saying, “It is inappropriate for a disabled person who has been penalized to be the commander.” So King Wei appointed Tian Ji instead and made Sun Bin the military advisor. Sun Bin went to war seated in a carriage and offered his strategies and tactics from behind a curtain. Tian Ji wanted to strike directly at Zhao, but Sun Bin said, “If you want to unravel a bunch of tangled rope, you cannot do it by picking and pulling at random. If you want to resolve a dispute, you mustn’t let yourself become entangled in it. Rather, you should avoid the enemy’s strong point and attack his weak point so that the enemy is bound to come to its rescue. In this way, he will be forced to change his deployment of forces and plan of action and the siege will break of itself. Since the State of Wei is now launching an attack on Zhao, its crack troops must be out on the battlefield, leaving only the old and the weak to guard its own territory. What you should do now is to speed your troops to Daliang (Wei’s capital), take its key communication points, attack its weak rear. The Wei troops will surely give up their attack on Zhao and hurry back to defend their home base, which means we will not only relieve Zhao of the siege but teach Wei a lesson as well.” Tian Ji did as advised. Sure enough, the Wei troops withdrew from Handan (capital of Zhao), turned back to fight the Qi troops at Guiling and suffered a bitter defeat. (See map in the front of the book.)


In the year 340 B. C., Wei and Zhao joined hands to attack the State of Han. Han pleaded for help from Qi. The King of Qi sent Tian Ji and his troops to attack the Wei capital, Daliang. On learning this, the Wei commander, Pang Juan, hurried back from Han. By then, the Qi army had already reached Wei territory. Sun Bin said to Tian Ji, “The troops of these three states, Wei, Zhao and Han, are known for their strength and prowess. They have always underestimated Qi’s strength, claiming the people of Qi are all chicken-hearted. A good commander should use this as a bait to deceive the enemy. It is said in The Art of War that to march a hundred li at double speed to gain advantages, we will lose some of our generals; to do so for 50 li, only half the soldiers will reach their destination as scheduled. As soon as we enter Wei territory, we should order our troops to fix up enough stoves to cook for 100,000 men. The next day, the number of stoves should be cut by half, and on the third day, have the number cut further to accommodate only 3,000.” Pang Juan was at the heels of the Qi troops for three days and was greatly elated by what he saw. “I knew it,” he exclaimed. “The Qi troops are so chicken-hearted that more than half their soldiers have deserted just three days after entering our territory.” He decided not to deploy his crack forces but instead led a small contingent in a round-the-clock hot pursuit. Sun Bin calculated that Pang would arrive at Maling (southwest of present-day Fanxian County in Henan Province) by night. The road at Maling was quite narrow and lined with thick woods, an ideal spot for an ambush. He peeled off the bark of a tree by the roadside and on the bare trunk wrote: “Beneath this tree Pang Juan shall die.” He also deployed 10,000 excellent archers to lie in ambush on both sides of the road, ordering them to shoot at once when they see the light of a fire in the dark that night. When Pang Juan came to the tree that night, and saw there were characters written on its trunk, he told his men to light a torch for him so he could read them. But before he could finish the sentence, 10,000 arrows shot forth from nowhere. The Wei troops fell into a panic. Knowing he had lost the game, Pang Juan drew his sword and killed himself, remarking bitterly, “I never thought I’d pave the way to fame for that fellow!” The Wei troops suffered a disastrous defeat and their commander-in-chief, Crown Prince Shen, was captured. Sun Bin’s fame spread far and wide. Generations after, people were still talking about Sun Bin’s stratagem.


About the Editors


Wu Rusong has been a longtime student of ancient Chinese military thinking. He is vice-president and secretary-general of the Chinese Research Society of Sunzi: The Art of War. A senior researcher, he is currently head of the research section on military strategies of the Chinese dynasties in the Department of Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences. He is also chief advisor for a series on Sunzi’s Art of War to be produced by China Central Television. His chief works include Sunzi’s Art of War Made Easy and New Theory on Sunzi’s Art of War, as well as a good number of articles on Sunzi’s military thinking. He was also a chief contributor to the Dictionary on Sunzi: The Art of War, The Best of Ancient Chinese Military Writings and Dictionary on Chinese Military Figures.


Wu Xianlin is editor-in-chief for foreign languages with the People’s China Publishing House, a book editor-in-chief with Beijing Review and also a senior editor for special books with New World Press. His chief editorial works include Sunzi’s Art of War and Health Care in English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese, Clinical Applications of the Yellow Emperor’s Canon on Internal Medicine in English and Spanish, China Tourism—999 Questions and Answers in English, French and German, Strange Tales from the Liaozhai Studio in English, and Sunzi: The Art of War and Sun Bin: The Art of War in French and German.



About the Translator


Lin Wusun is a writer of cross-cultural background, having received his education in China, India and the United States. He started his journalistic career in 1950 and since then he has used his knowledge andversatility to help readers overseas to have a better understanding of China and its culture.


Between l958 and l966 he was international affairs columnist of the weekly Beijing Review. He became deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine in the early 80s and in l987 its acting director. During this period he himself edited two popular series of books and pamphlets under the heading of “China Today” and “China and the World”. In 1988, he was appointed director of the Foreign Languages Publishing and Distribution Administration. He was also a founder and the first president of the China International Publishing Group. He retired from these administrative posts in 1993.


Lin Wusun’s interest in Chinese and Western thought dates back to the 1940s when he majored in philosophy at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. He has followed Chinese research in Sunzi and Sun Bin since the bamboo strips delineating the two masters Art of War were first unearthed from the same tomb in Shandong in the early 1970s.


Lin Wusun is executive vice-president of the Translators Association of China, Chairman of the Committee for Accredition of Senior Translators and council member of the International Federation of Translators.


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