The Art of War is a world famous book that has been studied and interpreted for centuries—yet, despite this, its author, Sun Tzu (or Master Sun), remains quite a vague figure in history. One of the few ancient Chinese sources that attempted to give historical information about Sun Tzu was The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, who lived around 145-85 BCE. In his history, Sima Qian recorded a really strange tale about Sun Tzu training a troop of concubines for warfare, but most historians do not believe that this story actually occurred. Nevertheless, the tale is interesting and entertaining and deserves to be told.
Sima Qian wrote that Sun Tzu gained an audience with his admirer, King Ho-Lu (r. 514-496 BCE), who ruled the Kingdom of Wu. The king had studied Sun Tzu’s work and was impressed by the strategist’s ideas and methods. Yet, before he put his faith in this man’s military philosophy, the king wanted proof that Sun Tzu could apply his ideas practically. King Ho-Lu then called for a demonstration of Master Sun’s skills—he demanded that Sun Tzu train some fresh recruits into hardened soldiers. For added difficulty, the king decided that these soldiers would be nearly two hundred of his own concubines.
Sun Tzu agreed to train the women without question. He divided the concubines into two companies and promoted two concubines to command their respective companies. When his recruits were ordered and outfitted with weaponry, Sun Tzu called the women out for training and gave them instructions for some basic military drills. The first drill merely consisted of commanding the women to look in certain directions on command. He wanted the women to look forward if he commanded, “eyes front,” and to obey similar commands to direct their attention left, right, and back. When the concubines claimed to understand the drill, Sun Tzu called them to attention.
Despite having just claimed that they were prepared to run through the drill, the women soon began to lose interest. Once Master Sun began the actual drill for the first time, the concubines burst into a fit of giggles. Sun Tzu took sole responsibility for this breach of discipline—he proclaimed that he must not have explained the drill adequately to the women, resulting in his orders not being followed correctly.
For a second time, Sun Tzu instructed the women on how to complete the drill. Look forward, left, right and back on command. Again, the women asserted they were ready to complete the exercise. Nevertheless, as soon as the concubines began the drill, giggles and laughter overtook them, once more.
With this second failure, Sun Tzu had enough. He called in an executioner and condemned to death the two concubine ‘officers’ whom he had appointed to command the two companies of women. These two women, however, were the king’s favorite concubines, and Sun Tzu soon received a message that the women should be given a lesser sentence. In response, Sun Tzu simply stated that, as the king’s appointed general, he had the power and obligation to ensure that the kingdom’s military ran smoothly.
Despite the king’s courtiers trying to dissuade Sun Tzu from his decision, the two concubines were executed. Understandably, after the two officers had been put to death, the rest of the concubines completed any drill Sun Tzu commanded of them in utter, disciplined silence. According to Sima Qian, this was an adequate representation of Sun Tzu’s abilities, and King Ho-Lu invited Master Sun into the inner circle of the Kingdom of Wu.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.