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The Art of War | Study Guide

Sun Tzu

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The Art of War | Biography of Sun Tzu | Summary

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Summary

This translation of the historian Sima Qian's description states that Sun Tzu was originally from Ch'i, but he presented his book to Ho Lu, king of Wu. The king tells Sun Tzu he read it with interest, and would like to know if its principles of troop movement could be tested using women. When Sun Tzu tells the king it can, he is given permission to instruct over 100 court women. Sun Tzu divides the women into two companies (military units of soldiers)—one on the right and one on the left— each under the command of two of the king's favorite concubines. He makes sure they understand his instructions and shows them how to hold halberds (a 15th- and 16th-century weapon where an ax and a spike are mounted on a long handle). When the women tell him they understand, he arranges the executioner's tools, and gives them "the orders three times and explained them five times."

Sun Tzu then gives these women soldiers the signal to perform the movements, but they laugh at him. He goes through the process again, saying that if the instructions are not clear it is the commander's fault, but the women again laugh at him. At this, he lays blame on the two women acting as subcommanders, whereupon they are to be executed for disobedience. The king objects, but Sun Tzu reminds him that because the king has made him his commander, these troops are under his orders exclusively and that the commander "need not accept all the sovereign's orders." The two women are executed and new subcommanders appointed. This time, the women go through the troop movements Sun Tzu has taught them, and the king appoints him his general. Under this arrangement, the king of Wu overcame several of his more powerful neighbors and earned the respect of the remaining feudal lords.

The second story Ssu-ma Ch'ien relates in this biography concerns a descendant of Sun Tzu who, nearly a century later, made a careful study of his ancestor's treatise and overcome extraordinary odds. This descendant was Sun Pin, and he studied military strategy with a rival named P'ang Chuan. P'ang Chuan became commander to King Hui of the State of Wei, but he was jealous of Sun Pin's exceptional abilities, and on false charges had Sun Pin condemned as a criminal. Sun Pin was branded and his feet cut off. Sun Pin escaped to the state of Ch'i, where his military advice and successful strategic plans—based on the instructions of his ancestor Sun Tzu—brought success to his adoptive state. Sun Pin would not accept the position of general to the forces of Ch'i because he had been condemned as a criminal, but he accepted the post of chief of staff, and gave sound guidance traveling "in a baggage wagon, and made his plans while sitting." Using patience, and a very careful study of enemy encampments—including taking advantage of P'ang Chuan's overconfidence and arrogance—the troops of Ch'i easily defeated those of Wei. Realizing the inevitability of defeat at the hands of his abused rival Sun Pin, P'ang Chuan took his own life, and "because of this, Sun Pin's reputation was worldwide and generations have transmitted his strategy."

Analysis

At first glance, these two anecdotes seem to have little in common, but there are two threads connecting them. The first is that Sun Tzu's advice can spell the difference between victory or defeat under even the most adverse conditions. The second is that his advice is as valid a century after his time as it was when he first demonstrated it, provided the soldiers' general really studies and understands how it works.

In the first story, Sun Tzu demonstrates the effectiveness of his methods using a group of over 100 court women—the most unlikely candidates for soldiers. Yet Sun Tzu shows that even such "spoiled" women can be quickly forged into an obedient unit. Based on this impressive demonstration, the implication is that if Sun Tzu can get women to perform basic military drills with precision, what could he accomplish with troops of men?

The second story makes the point that even with a physical handicap and the stigma of having been branded a criminal, Sun Tzu's descendant Sun Pin was able to attain a significant command post. In this capacity, Sun Pin amply demonstrated his keen understanding of his ancestor's principles of war-making. Biding his time, Sun Pin not only brought his patron's forces to victory but was able to make his enemy realize Sun Pin's superior understanding of The Art of War. Facing inevitable defeat at the hands of a strategist who could not even walk, P'ang Chuan took his own life.

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