The Grand Historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien gives the following biography of Sun Tzu:
Sun Tzu was a native of the Ch’i State. His “Art of War” made him famous and earned the attention of Ho Lu, King of Wu.
Ho Lu said to him “I have carefully read your 13 chapters. May I test your theory of managing soldiers?
Sun Tzu replied “you may.”
Ho Lu asked “Can I use women for the test?”
Sun Tzu again said “you may.”
Arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two groups and placed one of the King’s favorite concubines in charge of each. He then asked the ladies to take spears in their hands and spoke thus:
“I assume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?”
The women said “yes.”
Sun Tzu went on. “When I say ‘eyes front,’ you must look straight ahead. When I say ‘turn left,’ you must face towards your left hand. When I say ‘right turn,’ you must face towards your right hand. When I say ‘about turn,’ you must face towards your back.”
Again the women agreed. Having thus explained the commands, Sun Tzu began the drill. To the sound of drums he gave the order “right turn.” But the women only laughed. Sun Tzu said “if words of command are not clear and distinct, if the orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is at fault.”
What is Sun Tzu doing? Why does he question himself publicly in front of the king and the concubines?
So he started the drilling again, this time giving the order “left turn,” whereupon the women once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu said “if words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear and the soldiers nonetheless disobey, then it is the fault of the officers.”
So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two groups to be executed. Now, the King of Wu was watching and he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurried to send this message.
“I am satisfied that General Sun Tzu can handle troops. If I am bereft of these two concubines, my food and drink will lose their flavor. I wish you do not execute my concubines.”
Sun Tzu answered “His Majesty has entrusted me as a general of his troops. It is my duty to prepare the troops as best I can. To fulfill my duty, there are certain of His Majesty’s commands I am unable to accept.”
What sorts of commands should you ignore from your “kings,” whether those kings be older teachers, the principal of your school or parents of your students?
Accordingly, Sun Tzu had the two concubines executed and chose two more concubines to lead the groups of women. When this had been done, he again sounded the drums and began the drills. This time the women performed all of the general’s commands perfectly, turning right or left, marching ahead or marching back, kneeling or standing with perfect accuracy and precision. Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King.
“Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined. They are ready for Your Majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use their king may desire. Order them to go through fire and water, they will not disobey.”
But the King replied “let our general cease drilling and return to the camp. I have no desire to come down and inspect the soldiers.”
Sun Tzu replied to the King of Wu, saying “the King loves only words and cannot make his words into deeds.”
Why does Sun Tzu criticize the King?
After that, King Ho Lu of Wu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army and appointed him general.
1. Does Sun Tzu appear cruel to you? If he seems cruel, explain a better way to train the concubines. If he doesn’t appear cruel to you, explain why he was justified in killing the women.
2. Why does Sun Tzu ask the concubines twice? Why doesn’t he execute the concubine leaders after the first failure?
3. Why does Sun Tzu refuse the king’s request to save the concubines?
4. Aside from fear, why do the concubines follow Sun Tzu?
5. What techniques from Sun Tzu can you use to lead?