- James Houser
April 10, 1972 - The Discovery of Sun Bin's Art of War & the Sun Tzu/Sun Bin Story
Updated: Jun 7, 2021
April 10, 1972. In Shandong Province, China, the diggers excavating several Han Dynasty tombs unearth a series of bamboo slips. The Yinqueshan Han Slips, dating back to the 130s BC, contain not only the earliest known version of the famous Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, but another text thought lost for over 1400 years – another book called “The Art of War” by his descendant Sun Bin. Let’s take a trip back to ancient China.
Even someone who has never studied history has heard quotes from Sun Tzu’s classic “The Art of War,” or at least seen them on a tacky motivational poster. Sun Tzu is quoted as often as he is misquoted, and is taken as an inspiration to men as diverse as Mao Zedong, Colin Powell, Napoleon, Japanese corporate executives and, um, Bill Belichick. He is justifiably famous worldwide, despite many of his aphorisms offering what some might call common sense. It’s hard to get around Sun Tzu’s fame.
Who the hell was he, though? And who was this guy Sun Bin, who claimed to be his descendant, and may have written the bulk of “The Art of War” himself?
Most articles about Sun Tzu start with the lukewarm fact that he is “traditionally” credited with writing “The Art of War,” which is true. We know very little about Sun Tzu the man, but Sun Tzu the myth has lived long and fruitfully in China. We know exponentially more concrete historical facts about, say, Jesus Christ or Leonidas of Sparta than we do Sun Tzu.
The great Chinese chronicler Sima Qian placed Sun Tzu’s life from around 550-490 BC, around the time that Athens was forming a democracy, Darius ruled Persia, and Celtic tribesmen were learning how to make chariots in England and France. China was in what was called the “Warring States” period, where no one ruler dominated the land and many powerful kingdoms vied for supremacy. This period, from about 600 to 200 BC, is the source of a lot of Chinese origin stories and legends, similar to how Westerners view Greek, Roman and Jewish tales and stories as their founding myths. Among these was the story of Sun Tzu.
Almost all the ancient Chinese historians (say, in the early Han Dynasty when most surviving histories were written, so about 100 BC-100 AD) disagreed about where Sun Tzu was born – remember, he was ancient to them as Martin Luther is to us - but it is generally agreed that he served King Helu of the State of Wu starting at around 512 BC. He was allegedly a commander in the war against the rival state of Chu, where he *may* have commanded the decisive Wu victory at the Battle of Boju in 506 BC. Sima Qian, for instance, reported that he led the army, but no other earlier historical texts mention him being there. Sima later said that it was his service for the King of Wu that inspired him to write “The Art of War.”
One of the most well-known stories about Sun Tzu comes from Sima Qian. The King of Wu was deciding whether or not to hire Sun Tzu, so decided to give him a fun test: to train a company of 360 harem concubines to be efficient soldiers. Harem women were “famously” soft and frivolous. Sun Tzu appointed the King’s two favorite concubines (this was ancient China, they had favorite concubines, don’t ask me to elaborate) as the two commanders of the company. When Sun Tzu ordered the concubines to execute a right face, they fell over themselves giggling. When he asked whether they understood the command, they affirmed it, and when he repeated the command they laughed again. Then Sun Tzu had the two “ranking” concubines executed, over the king’s protests.
Sun Tzu’s justification for this was that if soldiers understand the general’s commands but do not obey, the officers must be held responsible. He appointed two new prostitutes to lead the unit, and all of a sudden, each maneuver was performed flawlessly. This confirmed the King of Wu’s decision to appoint Sun Tzu to command his armies.
This little story, suitable for children of all ages, probably reflects a lot of Chinese attitudes about women, the relationship of the servant to the state, and the authority of a patriarchal figure. It also reeks of something that was completely made up. Indeed, the above facts are basically all Sima Qian recorded about Sun Tzu, and there is no record telling us much more about him - except the book that bears his name.
By the 1100s AD, many Chinese scholars began to doubt whether Sun Tzu had ever existed, especially considering that he was not mentioned in most other records written prior to Sima Qian’s great work. Sima Qian wrote his records 400 years after Sun Tzu allegedly performed his great deeds, and indeed Sima Qian’s record was the first historical mention of Sun Tzu at all.
Some came to believe that “Sun Tzu” was actually a pseudonym for a different general, and the name had been a mistranslation of “Xun Wu” meaning “fugitive warrior.” In this historical take, Sun Tzu was actually the descriptive name of another, more well-known commander. (For context, imagine if future historians found multiple mocking references to “Tronald Dumpf” and thought he and Donald Trump were two completely different people.) This is the conclusion many medieval Chinese historians came to.
Who was their leading candidate for the *real* Sun Tzu and, maybe, the *real* author of “The Art of War?” That would be Sun Bin. Here’s his story, as told by ancient historians.
Sun Bin lived 200 years after the alleged period of Sun Tzu, in the 300s BC. He was an alleged descendant of Sun Tzu, and could recite his ancestor’s “Art of War” from memory. Sun Bin was marked from early age to be educated as a military strategist, and was best friends with another student named Pang Juan. Both men soon found themselves in the service of King Hui of Wei, but Sun Bin was clearly the better and more successful general. Pang grew jealous and framed Sun Bin for treason.
When Hui ordered Sun Bin’s execution, Pang pled for mercy on his friend’s behalf. Hui ordered that rather than death, Sun Bin would be punished by disgraceful tattoos on his face and the removal of his kneecaps, permanently crippling him and marking him as a traitor. Pang had not actually wanted mercy for his friend; instead, he wanted Sun’s military secrets copied into a book that he could learn from, after which Pang would murder him. Sun Bin was wise to the plot, though, feigned madness until Pang let his guard down, and then escaped to the State of Qi, the mortal rival of Wei.
Starting from the bottom again, Sun Bin’s brilliance and good graces slowly gained him a top rank in the King of Qi’s council. He declined a frontline role due to his infirmity, but served as the top military strategist. In this capacity, he led major campaigns against his old friend Pang Juan’s armies of Wei, defeating him first at Guiling in 354 BC. Ten years later, Pang was itching for a rematch. Sun Bin created a ruse by first feigning defeat, then ordering his army to use half their normal number of cookfires, deceiving Pang into thinking his army was much smaller than it was. Pang fell for the trap, and his army marched to its defeat at Maling in 342 BC.
The traditional story is that Sun Bin carved the words “Pang Juan dies under this tree” in the middle of a clearing. As Pang’s army arrived, he saw the writing on the tree and rode forward with a torch to see what they said. On cue, Sun Bin’s archers emerged and stuffed him full of arrows, and Pang died under the tree as he saw his army disintegrate.
Again, a great story. Unlike Sun Tzu’s story, though, Sun Bin’s has much more corroborating sources from the time period and later to back it up. Even if the melodrama of two best friends trying to kill each other wasn’t true, the battles themselves are more or less confirmed as fact, as well as the fact that Sun Bin led them. There’s just one problem – Sun Bin was supposed to have written a military treatise of his own, a great book on military strategy and tactics - a book long lost.
So here’s where the confusion comes in. Sun Tzu has barely any records as a general and lived much earlier, but there’s a great work of military strategy bearing his name that’s come down through the ages. Sun Bin, meanwhile, has more recorded sources of his life and career, and was supposed to have written a book – but the book was nowhere to be found. Could these be the same person? Could “Master Sun’s Art of War” actually have been Sun Bin’s Art of War, and the earlier Sun Tzu be a fabrication or a mistranslation?
For many years, that is what Chinese historians thought: Sun Tzu was actually a name for Sun Bin. This was backed up by seeming anachronisms in The Art of War, like a mention of siege weapons that weren’t supposed to have existed until much later. Case closed, right?
On April 10, 1972, the Yinqueshan Han Slips were discovered within tombs dating to before the great Sima Qian’s histories. They were a revelation. Not only did they contain 13 fragmentary chapters from Sun Tzu’s Art of War – the oldest copies to be found. They also revealed, for the first light of day in over a millennium, the 16 chapters of Sun Bin’s Art of War. Lost for 1400 years, the OTHER Sun’s Art of War had finally been found – and it was a completely different book.
Well, mostly. The Sun Bin text had some considerable overlap with the Sun Tzu text, but each book had portions that were completely separate from the other. The Sun Tzu text, in fact, was almost identical to the current translation in office desks, military libraries, and pregame speeches worldwide – a remarkable testament to the preservation of this ancient story.
The Sun Bin text, though, reveals just as much: “the Art of War” had been a family project, edited and refined through the generations, from Sun Tzu down to his heir Sun Bin. The Chinese historians’ confusion, therefore, is understandable.
This is why history is always evolving and changing, why what was true a few years ago is no longer true now. The more we learn, the more we understand, the more comes to light.
Two master Suns, not one. Who was better? Well, Sun Bin didn’t have his kneecaps.
Book Recommendation: Sun Tzu’s Art of War stands alongside other great Chinese military texts in Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (New York: Basic Books, 2007).