Sun Tzu and the Concubines
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The tale of the Sun Tzu and his ‘interview’ with Ho Lu, King of Wu is a great story. It is irrelevant in some ways as to whether it ever took place or this is an accurate depiction of the event. This tale is commonly stated to showcase the genius of Sun Tzu and promote the wisdoms of his book, the Art of War or the 13 Chapters. So what can be learned from this tale? How much of the Art of War did Sun Tzu display in his interaction with Ho Lu? It is a question worth pursuing
Ssu-ma Ch‘ien gives the following biography of Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu Wu was a native of the Ch‘i State. His ART OF WAR brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, King of Wu. Ho Lu said to him: “I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?”
Sun Tzu replied: “You may.”
Ho Lu asked: “May the test be applied to women?”
The answer was again in the affirmative, so arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, and placed one of the King’s favourite concubines at the head of each. He then bade them all take spears in their hands, and addressed them thus: “I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?”
The girls replied: Yes.
Sun Tzu went on: “When I say “Eyes front,” you must look straight ahead. When I say “Left turn,” 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 right round towards your back.”
Again the girls assented. The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order “Right turn.” But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”
So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order “Left turn,” whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu: “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 nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”
So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded. Now the king of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion; and when he saw that his favourite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurriedly sent down the following message: “We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If we are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savour. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded.”
Sun Tzu replied: “Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.”
Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway installed the pair next in order as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more; and the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound. Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King saying: “Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.”
But the King replied: “Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, we have no wish to come down and inspect the troops.”
Thereupon Sun Tzu said: “The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds.”
After that, Ho Lu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army, and finally appointed him general. In the west, he defeated the Ch‘u State and forced his way into Ying, the capital; to the north he put fear into the States of Ch‘i and Chin, and spread his fame abroad amongst the feudal princes. And Sun Tzu shared in the might of the King.
One principle shown in this tale that transcends the two thousand year gap is that a demonstration of skills is better than a simple interview. This is a powerful realization when you think about it. How many interviews could you have improved on if you set out to demonstrate your skills and skillset instead of merely showing how good you could answer a series of questions? How often are we told our actions speak louder than words? This is a classic principle that has not changed over time. Consider the quote, the more things change the more they stay the same.
If you are not a student of ancient Chinese mindsets you may not be aware of the thought that women should be or were capable of being trained as soldiers was scandalous. This is why Ho Lu challenged Sun Tzu to demonstrate his skills to train his concubines for battle, it was a trap that was meant to display the foolishness of the thirteen chapters. So for general to prove his point is far greater than first perceived. It seems we have another theme of this tale that crosses the time gap. Women not holding equality in leadership or front line military positions due to preconceived notions about the weaker and stronger sex.
In chapter one, Sun Tzu lays out that the Art of War is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline. So did Sun Tzu meet these five factors? When he stated that Moral Law causes his people to be in complete accord with their ruler, in this case general, he doesn’t actually state how one should go about it. He does not show a preference for buying, bribing or using executions to instil this desire to be followed faithfully until later chapters were his speaks about treating followers with justice, benevolence and discipline. He simply states that a leader is only as good as the bond between him and his followers. The significance of know Heaven and Earth is proven by his understanding of the dangers of executing the first two concubines. The executions show something else that is critical but we will address this later. When considering that the thirteen chapters says a commander, general or sovereign should have the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness. The virtue of benevolence seems to be somewhat strained in this tale, however this could be a very long debate in and of itself. Lastly Sun Tzu clearly proved that method could be used to instil a very high level of discipline. Without discipline an army turns into a mob and then everyone becomes endangered. As Sun Tzu was aware and able to employ these five constant factors, he was victorious. A secondary theme in this tale may be seen as the comparison of the two different characters of the two protagonists, Ho Lu and Sun Tzu.
There are at least three more points from chapter one included in this tale: Attack where your enemy or opponent is unprepared, appear where you are not expected, your tactics that leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand and many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose. Ho Lu was certainly taken by surprise, Sun Tzu tactics were certainly unexpected because he did not divulge his tactics beforehand. Surely if Ho Lu knew what Sun Tzu had in mind he would not have allowed his two favourite concubines to be beheaded? So the calculations of Sun Tzu delivered him victory. He must have been confident of his choices not to lead to him also being executed. This begs the question: what did Sun Tzu know to base this belief and subsequent actions on? The element of surprise can take many different forms, form jumping out of bushes or a door to a change in behaviour or a detail that has not been addressed in an argument or debate.
We read in chapter two that it is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on. So in war then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns. Sun Tzu did not waste any time making his point. He knew what victory meant for him and he choose the most extreme tactic to make his point and end the interaction. Could it be he choose to use the death of the King’s two favourite concubines for a specific reason? To so visibly bring the evils of war to the court must have contained a huge risk. Yet by doing so, Sun Tzu showed he knew how to get the job done and was willing to be as ruthless as needed to get the job done as quickly as possible. This ruthlessness seems to fly in the face of values and modern ethics on how far we should let our generals and political leaders should be allowed to go. Common sense should be applied here to adapt the idea to modern ideals and values. There has to some adjustment from values of past eras and those of today.
The opening tenants of chapter three seem to be completely ignored by Sun Tzu in this situation. In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemys country whole and intact; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. Sun Tzu killed two of the women, this is not ‘taking enemys country whole’. That the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy's plans. He didn’t take the ‘enemys country’ whole and seems to have passed by baulking whatever the Kings plan was. Why would Sun Tzu ignore these seemingly fundamental concepts or was his actions
demonstrating another point contained in this chapter? Later in this chapter we are told that the army animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks will win. Clearly at the end of the demonstration the concubines were animated by the same spirit – fear. So Sun Tzu could confidently claim that ‘they can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.’ By his actions he had usurped the power held by the king, the power of life and death. As with all laws and the refinement of an art, choices must be made to use or prioritise some rules or ‘truths’ over others. The lesson seems to be that we must choose the most applicable law to the situation, regardless of others to determine the most profitable way. Nowhere in the book does the author state or infer that war should always be fought in a bloodless manner, it is simply his preferred method. To the contrary he makes it quite plan that the cost of war is always too high and this is why he promotes the idea that the greatest achievement of a leader, general or sovereign is to break all resistance without fighting. This is also stated as ‘breaking the will to fight’. Sun Tzu achieved the breaking of Ho Lu’s spirit to do much of anything except to yield the contest of wills to the general. If this is the highest aim of all generals to strive for, then Sun Tzu seems to have achieved this goal in abundance. He lived his words.
The premise that our safety lies in our hands but the opportunity of defeating our opponent is provided by the opponent himself and we, the victorious strategist, should only seeks battle after the victory has been won is the theme of chapter four. Not first fight and afterwards look for victory and so be assigned to defeat is addressed in chapter four. So it is up to us to ourselves into a secure or safe position before we look to take down those who oppose us. We are to see victory before it is within the understanding of others, the common herd is a bit harsh. This is the acme of excellence, to know and understand victory first, before all others. We have so many examples to study and learn from. Sun Tzu showed that by cultivating the moral law, and strictly adhering to method and discipline, it is in our power to control success.
The principles in chapter five or the application thereof, is where I have had the most conflicted thoughts. It is how to understand this chapter in relation to the concubine tale that creates the most confusion. The chapter is summed up in this one line: To ensure that your whole host may withstand the brunt of the enemy's attack and remain unshaken - this is effected by manoeuvres direct and indirect. We are urged to use direct and indirect action in both defence and attack and that they are unending in supply. We simply have to learn how to apply them efficiently. These are some of the questions that come to mind when applying this chapter to this tale. How else could Sun Tzu have made his point? Why is it not recorded that he warned or informed the concubines that death awaited some of them if they did not followed his orders to his satisfaction? Why did he choose such an extreme example or is the story not about the concubines or Sun Tzu but about something altogether different? Could Sun Tzu have achieved his victory using other means and tactics?
There is one word that when applied seems to go to someway explaining why the women were executed. That word is ‘efficiently’. Sun Tzu urges the reader/general not to waste time, not to get involved in long campaigns or dither when making decisions. Carefully consider the information at hand but do not dally when it comes to taking action. This action could be to stay where you are and be patient. When one reads the effect the beheadings, one can understand how he avoided a lengthy talk fest by taking swift lethal action. This is one point that is made over and over, if you thrust into a war, then win it using the minimum effort and resources and do it efficiently. Was the cost of two lives the most efficient manner? Maybe this is where modern ideology conflicts the times of the Warring States era. He demonstrated that one principle can take precedence over another depending on the situation and the victory sought.
It is not until we read chapter eleven that we get an insight of what he was doing. ‘At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand’. It is this line that we must combine with what is said in this chapter to maybe achieve a better understanding. The path to understanding this book does not take a straight line.
Breaking the will to resist, taking a kingdom whole: all sounds great but how does it apply to this tale. Chapter six gives great insight to this. We are told to impose our will on the enemy and not allow them to impose theirs on us. So if we can know the place and the time of the coming battle we may concentrate from the greatest distance in order to fight. In a word we are told to prepare in advance. It can also explain how great general or fighters achieve victory before fighting. It takes in knowing your enemy, yourself, Heaven and Earth and Method and Discipline. Knowing all this is how you devise your plans, strategies and tactics. It is how we can impose our will on them. If we know their weaknesses and strengths, we bring our strengths to their weaknesses while simultaneously hiding our weaknesses. Sun Tzu brought his most appropriate strength to Ho Lu weakness, ruthlessness against a weak character. Sun Tzu had won before entering the hall, before the executions. All he had to do was follow through his strategy and tactic. In this tale, Sun Tzu had imposed his will on the women, the King and maybe even the reader.
When we read the line: How victory may be produced for them out of the enemy's own tactics--that is what the multitude cannot comprehend. Can we truly understand the exact tactic Ho Lu was using that Sun Tzu turned to his advantage? Was it having an interview, asking for a demonstration or something else we are yet to perceive? Was it using women to prevent Sun Tzu from proving the effectiveness of his knowledge? Can we ever truly accurately and for certain know what the man was thinking in his mind so long ago? This is an interesting principle when reading history books and the like. How can any current human, regardless of intellect and talent, make the claim they knew what a dead man was thinking?
Such is the art of warfare. This is the last sentence of chapter seven. Is this an indicator that this is the most important chapter of all? The first three lines seem written with the tale of the concubines specifically. They are: 1) In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign. 2) Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonise the different elements thereof before pitching his camp. 3) After that, comes tactical manoeuvring, than which there is nothing more difficult. The difficulty of tactical manoeuvring consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.
Sun Tzu received his command from a sovereign, collected is army (the concubines), then moved onto tactical manoeuvring – turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain. The point mentioned in this chapter that was being tested is manoeuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous. So Sun Tzu was as good as his words in the thirteen chapters. Uncanny.
The opening line for this chapter is a summary to the first three lines of chapter seven: in war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces. Just a curiosity I thought worth mentioning. This method of repackaging information is common in this book. Once you know and understand this, it can be of great assistance to peeling away the layers.
The first theory in this chapter that the actions of Sun Tzu demonstrates, is that a wise leaders will blend and balance the advantages and disadvantages of what he has, where he is and what he is trying to accomplish. It is his endeavour to understand all pros and cons, to accurately understand the strengths and weaknesses of all involved, while developing a strategy and tactics. He can then plan for any outcome or problems that might arise. In essence he has more than just plan A. Because he has pondered on all the outcomes at various stages of his plan, if things go wrong he can call on an advantage to save his hide. The general may know that he had to rely on plan C or D, the onlooker and historian will only see a seamless execution of a plan. Maybe this is what he means with an earlier line, all men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. We can only witness the calm exterior, we cannot see what is going on in his mind. We cannot know, unless he tells us, if he was victorious with his first plan or if he had to shift to other options because not all went as predicted and even then we would have to examine if he is trying to deceive us. On the reading of the tale, we are meant to believe Sun Tzu predicted all, prepared for all that happened, execute his perfect plan perfectly and so his victory was achieved before the Ho Lu and Sun Tzu woke up the morning of the meeting.
We can’t know for sure, however we can ponder on whether Sun Tzu was relying on his declared five dangerous faults of a general. These are recklessness, cowardice, hasty temper, a delicacy of honour and over-solicitude for his men. It may be a bit presumptuous but it is likely he had some idea of the weakness he was dealing with in Ho Lu. It was not recklessness, cowardice, a hasty temper or a delicacy or honour. He would have known this was a critical fault was over-solicitude for his men, in this case, his concubines. This is revealed to us with Ho Lu’s comment: “We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If we are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savour. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded.” It would be nice to when Sun Tzu believed this to be the weakness he was targeting. If he had made a mistake here, the Art of War may never have been held in the esteem it currently is. There are two thoughts in chapter nine we can see demonstrated in the tale above. The first is that ‘he how makes light of his opponent is sure to be captured by his opponents. There is not a lot of description about the character of Ho Lu, however what is included leads us to believe he was not of a strong character.
The second is that he who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponent is sure to be captured by them. The tale makes it apparent that Ho Lu was taken by surprise that Sun Tzu would execute any of the women, especially his two favoured concubines, his reaction of not stopping the execution indicates no forethought or spine. Although he was wise enough to know eventually that the man before him was the general to command his army.
The test of a great general constitutes knowing that the natural formation of the country is the soldier's best ally, the ability of estimating an adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and the ability to shrewdly calculate difficulties, dangers and distances. This is the main message displayed from chapter ten. Interesting to note the phrase, the forces of victory. It covers such a wide array of factors, both the tangible and the intangible. What also should be understood, is that it is not enough to know these things but when forces have engaged each other, the general must be able to put this knowledge into practice to win. He who knows these things, and in fighting puts his knowledge into practice, will win his battles. He who knows them not, nor practices them, will surely be defeated warns Sun Tzu.
The most obvious line demonstrated in the thirteen chapters in regards to the tale above, is that if fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it. This is the crux of the story. So the second half of the line then must also be believed: if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding. Elsewhere we are told the same message, one of the five essentials for victory is knowing when to fight and when not to fight.
Hence the experienced soldier, once in motion, is never bewildered; once he has broken camp, he is never at a loss, is repeated in different ways in other parts of the book. This is a key to decode and understand the Art of War, many ideas appear in different sections of the book written differently.
The one line that encapsulates the actions of Sun Tzu in this tale is one of the most often quoted. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.
To deepen ones understanding of this book and how to apply it requires the reader to be able to take what is written and translate it to current life. If one can understand that when in chapter eleven, Sun Tzu speaks of terrain, we can replace the word terrain with another word, situations, so we can then apply the comments to everyday life. Both terrain and situations can be classified as dispersive; facile; contentious; open; intersecting highways; serious; difficult; hemmed-in and desperate. As in the previous chapter, he spoke of forces of victory. Here, if our imagination is sufficient, we can overlay the ideas put forward on terrain and apply them to situations. If you are being chewed out by your boss in his office and there is no escape, this can be seen as both hemmed in ground and a hemmed in situation. If you then have to fight for your job, this is surely both desperate ground and situation. So when later in the chapter, Sun Tzu speaks on how to make the best of both strong and weak--that is a question involving the proper use of ground, he can also be understood of the proper use of situations. So when we are told that there are different measures suited to the nine varieties we can adapt them accordingly. Especially when some of the considerations are the expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics; and the fundamental laws of human nature. These are things that must most certainly be studied.
So what has the penultimate chapter have to offer in regards to this tale? The sixteenth line reads: Hence the saying: The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources. It would seem that Sun Tzu did this. He had his experiences, his beliefs and the concubines. By the tale we can judge that he must have given some thought to the meeting before it took place. This follows on with the knowledge in the second line: In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness. It is the first part of this line that really stands out: having the means available to carry out an attack. This applies to not to just having the ability, it also applies to having the authority. Not just the legal or social authority but the Moral Authority earlier referred to in chapter one.
Now onto the chapter of spies. By applying this chapter to the tales we can gain a deeper insight into Sun Tzu and the tale itself. Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge. The obvious knowledge being addressed in this chapter is how to use people to gain and bring you the vital information you need to achieve victory. However, there is another layer to be appreciated. What does Sun Tzu refer to when he speaks about foreknowledge apart from the obvious of details of where and how big the enemy is. Another version of foreknowledge could be experience and what a general already knows. The whole point of gathering information is to blend it with what is already known so a more complete and current picture can be drawn of the situation being faced. This is a part of the foreknowledge Sun Tzu brought to the confrontation. Do we know if Sun Tzu knew which women were the kings’ favourite concubines? We don’t, this is not addressed in the tale. However imagine that he did know and going by what is written in the thirteen chapters, it is a fair assumption, he would have applied his experience and wisdom to using this piece of information in his plans to surprise and maximise the impact of his actions.
Contemplate this line from the last chapter: hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying and thereby they achieve great results. Spies are a most important element in water, because on them depends an army's ability to move. If we use this line, we can extrapolate the Sun Tzu would have used some kind of spy network to know a great deal about the court, the king, the concubines and much more before appearing before King Ho Lu. We cannot know for sure however it is reasonable to make this hypothesis. The story states very clearly that the king had read the book, so why would Sun Tzu not use what he was campaigning? The man himself tells us to be patient until a time to strike appears and to know when the time is right we should study our opponents. Thus it is not wrong to assume he had this foreknowledge and applied it to achieve his victory.
So there we have, a study into how much of what is written in the Art of War is being exhibited in the story of Sun Tzu and the concubines. This is not a detailed study, there are others better qualified to produce such a study. However this offering should highlight some points to ponder, dissect, kick about or ignore in a personnel study for anyone who is so inclined.
When thinking about this tale, its truthfulness, its content and such, I leave you with one last line to hold in your mind whenever you read, watch or listen to any discourse in regards to the tale or the tale itself: Without subtle ingenuity of mind, one cannot make certain of the truth of their reports.
Thank you for your time.