Sun Wu Military Training-孙武练兵


In the late Spring and Autumn period, a great military strategist emerged from the state of Wu, and his name was Sun Wu. He was not only a distinguished military theorist but also the author of “The Art of War” (Sun Tzu Art of War), a renowned work praised by later military strategists as the “sacred canon of military science.” Sun Wu was also respectfully referred to by later generations as Sunzi or Sun Wu Zi.

Sun Wu was originally from the state of Qi, born into the prestigious Tian family. His ancestors were descendants of Chen Guogongzi Wan, who sought refuge in Qi and was accepted by Duke Huan of Qi, eventually taking up the position of Gong Zheng, overseeing all handicraft industries in Qi.

During his tenure, Gongzi Wan excelled in his duties, and Duke Huan rewarded him with some estates. Gongzi Wan wished to settle anonymously in Qi, and since the characters “陈” (Chen) and “田” (Tian) had similar pronunciations, he changed his name to Tian Wan. Under Tian Wan’s management, the Tian family prospered and became a prominent clan in Qi. By the fifth generation, the family name changed to Tian Shu, and Sun Wu’s grandfather was Tian Shu. Tian Shu, attaining the rank of Daifu during Duke Jing of Qi’s reign, was later conferred the surname Sun for his military achievements, leading to the name change from Tian Shu to Sun Shu. Sun Shu’s son, Sun Ping, served as Shiqing (士卿) in Qi and became a renowned general, ultimately being Sun Wu’s father.

Sun Wu was born into this influential aristocratic family. Growing up during an era of frequent wars and societal unrest, coupled with being born into a family with a strong military background, Sun Wu was deeply influenced by a martial atmosphere from a young age. He developed a keen interest in military strategy, dedicating himself to the diligent study of ancient military masters’ tactics in the hope of uncovering the path to victory.

In 532 BCE, internal conflicts intensified among the four major aristocratic families in Qi: Tian, Bao, Guo, and Gao. Sun Wu, being a descendant of the Tian family, couldn’t remain indifferent to the turmoil. To avoid getting entangled in the power struggles, Sun Wu fled from Qi.

In 517 BCE, at the age of 18, Sun Wu traveled a long distance and arrived in the state of Wu. At that time, Wu Zixu’s father and brother had been killed by King Ping of Chu, and Wu Zixu himself was also pursued by the king. Sun Wu and Wu Zixu, sharing a common fate, became fast friends.

Upon arriving in Wu, Sun Wu secluded himself on Mount Qionglu, just outside the Wu capital (modern-day Suzhou, Jiangsu). During this time, he continued his study of military strategy and produced his enduring masterpiece, “The Art of War.”

Wu Zixu, aware of Sun Wu’s expertise in military matters, recommended him to King Helü of Wu. Sun Wu presented the thirteen chapters of his military treatise to King Helü, who, after reading it, highly praised the work. However, King Helü questioned whether these theoretical principles could be applied in actual warfare. To demonstrate the feasibility of his military principles, Sun Wu requested the opportunity to train palace maidens in the art of war. King Helü agreed and allocated 180 palace maidens for Sun Wu to command.

Sun Wu organized these palace maidens into two teams, with the two favorite consorts of King Helü serving as captains. Before the training, Sun Wu explained military discipline to them, emphasizing obedience to orders. He then taught them basic military commands, instructing them on movements with drum signals, such as advancing, retreating, shifting left and right, and changing formations.

Once ready, Sun Wu gave the order to start the training. However, the palace maidens, curious and unfamiliar with such formations, laughed and did not follow the commands upon hearing the drum beats. Sun Wu reiterated the rules and military discipline to the palace maidens, warning them to adhere to orders. He even threatened them with military punishment if they continued to disobey.

In the second attempt at training, despite Sun Wu’s efforts, the palace maidens still did not follow orders and continued to laugh. Sun Wu immediately ordered the two consort captains, who were also responsible for leading the teams, to be arrested and executed according to military law. Concerned about the fate of his beloved consorts, King Helü sent messengers to plead for mercy. However, Sun Wu sternly stated, “I am training soldiers according to the king’s command, and within the military, I must not deviate from orders.” Despite the king’s appeals, the two captains were executed, and new leaders were appointed to continue the training. Witnessing the seriousness of the situation, the palace maidens, now fearful, no longer dared to be lax in their discipline.

King Helü, although upset at the loss of his consorts, realized the profound meaning behind Sun Wu’s actions. Observing the disciplined and well-organized formation of the maiden troops, he understood that Sun Wu was the talented general who could help him achieve his ambitions. Consequently, Sun Wu was appointed as a general, entrusted with significant military authority.

Under Sun Wu’s training, the military strength of the state of Wu greatly increased. In 511 BCE, King Helü sought to eliminate the remnants of the loyalists of the deposed King Liao of Wu and dispatched Sun Wu to attack the fortified city of Yangdi (located southeast of present-day Shenqiu, Henan). This marked Sun Wu’s initial military experience, where he meticulously analyzed the situation, set clear objectives, and formulated the correct strategic policies, leading to the successful capture of Yang City and the defeat of Liao’s two brothers.

Although King Helü intended to continue the offensive and advance into the capital of Yingdu, Sun Wu believed that the Wu army, exhausted and heavily damaged from the previous battle, was not suitable for further combat. He advised King Helü to withdraw and regroup, patiently awaiting the right moment. King Helü heeded Sun Wu’s advice, preventing greater losses for the Wu army. This strategic decision laid a solid foundation for Wu’s subsequent major campaigns against the state of Chu.

After a period of rest and training, a few years later, Sun Wu led the Wu army to decisively defeat the Chu army and capture the Chu capital, Yingcheng. Wu Zixu retrieved the body of King Ping of Chu, lashed it three hundred times in revenge for his father and brother, and buried it. With assistance from the state of Qin, Chu was saved from complete annihilation. Following these events, Wu continued expanding its influence in the south, launching campaigns against Yue, an ally of Chu. Despite Yue’s tenacious resistance, King Helü died in battle, succeeded by his son Fucha, who avenged his father by defeating Yue.

According to legend, after accomplishing Wu’s dominance over the regional states, Sun Wu quietly withdrew and disappeared into the deep mountains.