Monday, July 12, 2010

Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare (Military Methods)

Following is an article that one of our associates have written many years ago.

Read, review, reflect and comment.

Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare (Military Methods)
By M.E.H.

Someone recently asked me what other Asian strategy and leadership books have I read besides Sunzi (Sun Tzu) and Zhuge Liang. Well, there are so many good books out there that I can't stop naming them.

One classic "strategy" book that I do recommend that is sometimes overlooked by general readers of strategy and leadership is Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare.

Sun Bin was believed to be a direct descendant of the distinguished military theorist Sun Tzu (Sun Wu), who flourished during the mid-fourth century B.C. during China's Warring States era, a period of unprecedented violence. He was named Sun Bin in ancient historic books because he suffered corporal punishment, which is named Bin, a form of punishment in ancient China. (Depending on the romanization, Sun Bin is also spelled as Sun Pin.)

The Warring States era was a period "… where independent nation states attempted to annihilate each other through incessant and escalating battles, and military tactics increased exponentially in sophistication and brutality (especially with the development of new war technologies). During mid-fourth century B.C. in China, it was common to see 80,000 soldiers perishing in a single defeat." At the same time, these wars of appropriation reduced the number of states to a group of seven powerful states. For that era, warfare was increasingly a way of life as well as a way of death. This quality of influence is found throughout Sun Bin's book.

Sun Bin was considered by many scholars as one of the most outstanding military strategist after Sunzi.

In April 1972 a large number of bamboo strips were unearthed by chance in an archeological find from a western Han (206 BC - 25 AD) tomb at Yin-ch'├╝eh-shan (Silver Sparrow Mountain) in Linyi County, Shan-dong Province in China. (The strips were dated somewhere between 140 - 118 BC.) Among the strips were Sun Tzu: The Art of War and Sun Bin: Military Methods (also know as The Art of Warfare).

The simultaneous discovery of both works from the same tomb provided conclusive evidence that both Suns existed in history, and that each had written a thesis on military strategic affairs. A millennium-long dispute was thus settled. A descendant of Sunzi, Sun Bin, summed up the military experiences prior to and during the mid-Warring States period (475 BC - 221 BC) on the basis of inheriting and enhancing the military thinking of Sunzi.

Scholars who analyzed the book, found that it was either technically uncompleted or in the process of being finished. Regardless of the incompleteness, the Sun Bin book on military strategy is now recognized as one of the essential texts of classical Chinese military philosophy.

Sun Bin possessed exceptional talent even in his early years. There were stories of Sun Bin having the ability to recite Sun Tzu: The Art of War and other Chinese classics by verbatim. His genius was envied by a classmate, Pang Juan, who later became a strategic general in the state of Wei. Afterward, Pang Juan deceived Sun Bin into going to Wei country and then framed him for being a traitor. Sun Bin suffered the corporal punishment of having his kneecap chopped off and the Chinese character "Traitor" stamped on the side of his head.

With assistance, Sun Bin escaped from the grasp of Pang Juan to the State of Qi. Once Sun Bin arrived at the State of Qi, he was immediately nurtured back to health and later, based on his reputation for strategic thinking, appointed to be the principal military advisor to King Wei of the Qi State.

* FYI: There are many different stories of how he escaped from Pang Juan to the State of Qi—from faking insanity to feigning his death.

The state of Wei, which was seeking total control of China, sent an army to attack the state of Zhao under the leadership of Pang Juan. The ruler of Zhao immediately asked the ruler of the Qi state for military assistance. Sun Bin was assigned the task of saving the Zhao state. He then devised a scheme of relieving the besieged by besieging the base of the besiegers. After a long battle, the Wei army gave up attacking Zhao as expected and returned to their home state. The army of "Qi" then maneuvered ahead of them and laid an ambush on the way, inflicting a crushing defeat on the army of Wei.

The above picture is from Sun-bin.

The Redemption of Sun Bin

Before the final battle, Sun Bin gave the impression of "frailty and retreat," inducing his rival Pang Juan to pursue and attack.

"Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act." --- Sunzi

Upon the arrival at a locale called Maling (Horse Trout Way), Pang Juan fell into an ambush laid by the army of Qi. The army of Wei was completely annihilated and Pang Juan committed suicide by cutting his throat.

Tai Gong's (a strategist who lived between the end of Shang Dynasty and the early part of the Chou Dynasty) comment: "Make a display of weakness and want."

While Tu Mu (a ninth-century commentator) said: "If our force happens to be superior to the enemy's, weakness may be simulated in order to lure him on; but if inferior, he must be led to believe that we are strong, in order that he may keep off. In fact, all the enemy's movements should be determined by the signs that we choose to give him."

The strategic lesson here is that Sun Bin created the bait based on a deceptive rumor that he knew his counterpart would pursue.

After this incident, it has been said that Sun Bin retired from warfare, devoted himself to the research of military science, and completed his brilliant book Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare (Military Methods). Many scholars consider it to be a brilliant elaboration and a good supplementary text to Sun Tzu: The Art of War.

This classical 16 chapters thesis inherits and advances the military thinking of Sun Pin's grandfather (or great grandfather), Sun Tzu (Sunzi), by covering his outlook on war, strategies and tactics, battle arrays, utilization of terrain, selection of qualified generals, and so on. He places heavy emphasis on being strategically and tactically agile when being involved in a macro-scale war. He integrates the military experiences prior to and during the mid-Warring States period (475 BC - 221 BC), with philosophy, purpose, military strategic approach, and reflections on the nature of human conflict. Sun Bin also contemplated such principal concepts as the consummate ruler, the importance of strategy and morale, and the advantages to be gained from adaptability, display, and discretion; yet these texts are clearly intended to be practical and to be used on the battlefield.

What I found interesting was that his military principles were more tactically focused than those of Sun Tzu's.

If the reader does not mind some incompleteness in its content, the mention of "Bronze-Age war chariots" and the "Chinese crossbow" snipers in a battle, this is an "above-average" book on competitive operational strategy.

Based on my analysis, Sun Bin was an extremely gifted strategist. His work gives the general reader a "thoughtful" insight into the psychological and practical workings of Sun Tzu's teachings. The general reader can appreciate from this work the subtle insights into the nature of human beings in certain crisis situations. It has been said that Sun Bin was a student of Wang Xu, another great military strategic thinker and writer from ancient China. Wang Xu is reputed to have produced one of the most sophisticated treatises on strategy, The Master of The Ghost Valley  (The Master of Demon Valley) .

I believed that the chapter "Defeating Pang Juan" can be described as the "grand" overview of Sun Bin's basic theory of strategic warfare. This generalization can be summarized with this perspective "To be victorious against the major opposition, one must possess the strong character of quietly maintaining the deceptive state of shaping and influencing the opposition by avoiding direct conflicts and confrontations until the primary weak point of their opposition is pinpointed. At that stage, he or she focuses on conquering the opposition via one major battle with great speed and precision amount of force." It is a standpoint that allows the "quietly smart and steady of this world" to succeed against the "Goliath."

The following is an outline of chapters found in Roger Ames' translation of Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare::

  1. Capturing Pang Juan
  2. An Audience with King Wei of Qi
  3. The Questions of King Wei
  4. T'ien Chi Inquiring About Battlefield Defenses
  5. On Selecting the Troops
  6. The Moon and Warfare
  7. The Eightfold Division of Formations
  8. Terrain as a Treasure
  9. Preparing the Strategic Advantage
  10. The Real Nature of Military
  11. Carrying out the Selection of Personnel
  12. Sacrifice in Battle
  13. Raising and Keeping Morale High
  14. Coordinating Military Assignments
  15. The Five Kinds of Training Methods
  16. Strengthening the Military
  17. Ten Military Formations
  18. Ten Questions
  19. Overwhelming an Armed Infantry
  20. The Position of Invader and Defender
  21. The Expert Commander
  22. Five Postures and Five Situations in which an Army Respects
  23. Military Mistakes
  24. The Rightness (yi) of the Commander
  25. The Excellence (de) of the Commander
  26. Fatal Weakness of the Commander
  27. Fatal Mistakes of the Commander
  28. Males and Females Fortifications
  29. Five Considerations and Nine Objectives
  30. Concentrated and Sparse Troops
  31. Straightforward and Surprise Operations
  32. Ten Advantages of Using Cavalry
  33. Attacking the Heart and Mind
  34. Fragments

For a long time, people presumed Sunzi and Sun Bin were the same person. The household Chinese name, Sunzi, possess two different meanings. Besides referring to the great military strategist Sun Wu, it also refers to his descendant Sun Bin.

Sun Bin's perception of the consummate strategist can be described in this quote: "He who has mastered this art [of war] knows the way of heaven and earth, has the support of the populace, and is fully aware of the enemy situation. When he needs to determine his battle array, he knows how to set up the formations. He fights when there is assurance of victory. He stops fighting when there isn't. Such a commander is a general worthy of his sovereign. … For one who has really mastered the way of warfare, his enemy can do nothing to escape death."

Sun Bin's mentor Wang Xu was supposed to be the head of a relatively obscure Taoist school of thinking known as "Zongheng xue." This term can be translated as "the study of vertical and horizontal geographical patterns." It is a science of strategic diplomacy and statecraft that can be used in a rapidly changing world.

Sun Bin: The Art of Warfare shows Sun Bin to be both a pragmatic tactician and a philosopher. Not only does he discuss conflict and grand leadership as philosophical concepts, but also as practical matters, demonstrated by his battle-tested techniques. I can also say that this book is a metaphysical reminiscence of an ancient culture and deeply relevant to the contemporary concepts of strategy, authority, conflict, and leadership. The principles delineated from this work make it a strategy classic for all seasons. I believe this classic volume belongs in the libraries of all serious strategic readers.

Note: As a reminder to strategy novices, some of these military strategic principles can also apply to government, business, and social action.

As a reader, I also found Sun Bin's work to be a noteworthy key to understanding the physical and intellectual revolution that made such progress in the efficiency of warfare possible, though a portion of Sun Bin's work is missing. Whatever remains is still valuable to the reader. To some of my "overachieving" associates, Sun Bin is an inspirational character that rose from adversity to success with his tenacity and insightful wisdom.

Updated note

Click here for a more thorough reading on the practical application of the principles from Sun Bin's Military Methods.


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