The Intellectual Duel Between Sun Bin and Pang Juan-孙膑庞涓斗智


Sun Bin and Pang Juan’s Intellectual Duel

Sun Bin was a native of the State of Qi during the mid-Warring States period and a descendant of Sun Wu, the Saint of Military Arts. Orphaned at a young age, he lost his mother at four and his father at nine. As he grew older, he became a disciple of Guiguzi to study military strategy. Joining him in the study of military strategy was a younger fellow disciple named Pang Juan. Although Pang Juan was intelligent and excelled academically, his talent was not as remarkable as Sun Bin’s, and he always fell slightly short compared to Sun Bin. Sun Bin not only had a high level of comprehension but also possessed a righteous and generous character. Guiguzi, recognizing Sun Bin’s exceptional military talent and good character, privately imparted Sun Wu’s “Thirteen Chapters of Military Strategy” to him. Sun Bin memorized all thirteen chapters within three days and returned the book to his master. During their apprenticeship, Sun Bin and Pang Juan had a good relationship. However, Pang Juan had a narrow mind and was deceitful. Despite his outward kindness toward Sun Bin, he harbored intense jealousy toward him. Sun Bin, being kind-hearted, treated Pang Juan with sincerity and always considered him a good friend.

After several years of studying under Guiguzi, both Sun Bin and Pang Juan made significant progress in military strategy and tactics. At this time, King Hui of Wei, following the example of King Xiaogong of Qin, offered substantial rewards to attract talented individuals. Pang Juan, originally from the State of Wei, lured by fame and fortune, decided to leave the hardships of the mountains despite not completing his studies, and headed down the mountain. Sun Bin accompanied him on his way down, and before parting, Pang Juan promised to recommend Sun Bin to King Hui in the future when he received favor. Touched by this gesture, Sun Bin bid him farewell.

Upon arriving in Wei, Pang Juan used every means to finally meet King Hui. He poured out all his knowledge and eloquently presented strategies for governing the country, securing the state, and leading armies in battle, boasting that he could unify Wei with the other six states. King Hui was greatly pleased and appointed him as the marshal in charge of Wei’s military affairs. Although Pang Juan was not as skilled as Sun Bin, he indeed had his own abilities. He commanded the Wei army in battles against neighboring states such as Song, Lu, Wei, and Zheng, achieving successive victories and bringing these states under Wei’s control. Pang Juan was soon promoted to the rank of Chief General and became a renowned figure in Wei, earning King Hui’s utmost trust.

Pang Juan enjoyed his days of success, but he always harbored a hidden worry—Sun Bin. Knowing that Sun Bin’s military talent far surpassed his own, Pang Juan feared that once Sun Bin emerged, his own position would be seriously threatened. However, he had also promised Sun Bin that he would recommend him to King Hui. Just when Pang Juan was troubled about what to do, King Hui learned about Sun Bin’s talents from Mozi and sent a letter to request Sun Bin’s presence. Mozi, being a close friend of Guiguzi, recommended Sun Bin to King Hui during his visit, impressed by Sun Bin’s outstanding abilities. With the situation unfolding this way, Pang Juan had no choice but to act accordingly.

Sun Bin received Pang Juan’s letter with gratitude and bid farewell to his master, descending from the mountain to Wei. Although Pang Juan greeted him warmly outwardly, inwardly, he was extremely unhappy. When King Hui met Sun Bin and showed great respect for him, intending to appoint him as the deputy military adviser to share military authority with Pang Juan, Pang Juan felt deeply envious. He did not want to work alongside Sun Bin and suggested to the king that Sun Bin should take a subordinate position under him, claiming it would be a waste of Sun Bin’s talent to serve under him directly, so he recommended Sun Bin to be a guest official instead. A guest official was a position that enjoyed high status but held no real power. King Hui, not wanting to neglect Sun Bin, accepted Pang Juan’s suggestion and also praised Pang Juan’s character.

Pang Juan, fearing that once Sun Bin’s military talent was revealed, it would surpass his own, secretly plotted against him. Later, during a conversation with Sun Bin, Pang Juan learned that Sun Bin had lost contact with his relatives in the State of Qi for a long time. Pang Juan saw an opportunity and arranged for someone to impersonate a relative from Qi, claiming to have brought a letter from Sun Bin’s cousin, inviting Sun Bin to return to Qi to serve the state. Knowing that he was in Wei, Sun Bin politely declined in his reply. Pang Juan altered the contents of the letter to create the illusion that Sun Bin was secretly communicating with Qi, then presented the letter to King Hui. Enraged, King Hui announced that Sun Bin was colluding with Qi, ordered his arrest, and subjected him to the cruel punishment of cutting off his kneecaps and branding his face with words.

Pang Juan took Sun Bin back to his residence and secretly had him monitored. He also requested Sun Bin to transcribe “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Grateful for Pang Juan’s apparent kindness, Sun Bin tirelessly copied the book day and night. Later, a servant who cared for Sun Bin heard that Pang Juan intended to starve Sun Bin to death once he finished transcribing the military treatise, so he informed Sun Bin of this plan. Sun Bin suddenly realized the truth, reflecting on past events and realizing that it was Pang Juan, whom he had regarded as a brother, who had caused his current predicament. Feeling both pain and hatred, Sun Bin knew that if he wanted revenge, he had to first break free from Pang Juan’s control, so he devised a plan.

The next day, Sun Bin began transcribing the military treatise again. As he wrote, he suddenly rolled his eyes, trembled uncontrollably, and soon collapsed to the ground. When he woke up, he cried and laughed alternately, displaying irrational behavior, and then inexplicably became angry, grabbing the completed military treatise and throwing it into the fire pit before throwing himself into it. People were shocked and quickly rescued him, reporting to Pang Juan that Sun Bin had gone mad.

Upon hearing the report, Pang Juan hurried to Sun Bin’s residence and witnessed him behaving erratically, but he still couldn’t believe that Sun Bin was truly insane. Consequently, Pang Juan ordered Sun Bin to be put in a pigsty. Sun Bin, disheveled and covered in mud from the pigsty’s filth, cried and laughed intermittently. When food was brought to him, he overturned it and instead picked up the pig dung and put it in his mouth. Only then did Pang Juan begin to believe that Sun Bin was indeed insane. However, being naturally suspicious, he continued to have Sun Bin’s movements monitored. Upon learning that Sun Bin was crawling around covered in filth, whether in the horse stable or the pigsty, and sleeping wherever he felt tired, Pang Juan finally believed that Sun Bin was truly mad and gradually relaxed his surveillance.

While feigning madness, Sun Bin searched for an opportunity to escape. Knowing that Mozi had recommended him to King Hui, Sun Bin realized that Mozi understood his predicament and knew that he was feigning madness to avoid harm. Mozi informed Tian Ji, a great general of Qi, about Sun Bin’s situation and praised Sun Bin’s talents and wisdom. Consequently, Tian Ji sent an envoy to rescue Sun Bin.

One night, the envoy secretly visited Sun Bin, and taking advantage of the darkness, switched the real Sun Bin with a decoy, hiding the real Sun Bin in his carriage, and then quickly departed from Wei. By the time Pang Juan discovered that Sun Bin had escaped, Sun Bin had already returned to the State of Qi. Upon returning to his homeland, Sun Bin met General Tian Ji, who greatly valued his talent and treated him with the utmost respect.

In the State of Qi, horse races were a common form of entertainment, and the outcome of these races was often a subject of gambling. The races were divided into three categories—superior, medium, and inferior—with three races held to determine the overall winner. As Tian Ji’s horses were inferior to those of the King of Qi, he often lost all three races, feeling extremely discouraged. On one occasion, Sun Bin watched the races and offered advice to Tian Ji, suggesting a rearrangement of the horse lineup. He proposed using Tian Ji’s superior horse against the King of Qi’s medium horse, Tian Ji’s medium horse against the King’s inferior horse, and Tian Ji’s inferior horse against the King’s superior horse. When the races ended, Tian Ji won two out of three races, surprising the King of Qi, as Tian Ji rarely won. Although seemingly trivial, this incident demonstrated Sun Bin’s extraordinary wisdom and Tian Ji greatly admired him, using the opportunity to recommend him to the King of Qi. The King of Qi received Sun Bin, found him to be exceptionally eloquent and insightful, and indeed a remarkable talent, addressing Sun Bin as “Master” and showing him great respect.

After Sun Bin’s escape, Pang Juan continued to wield military power in the State of Wei, always seeking to enhance his reputation through military achievements. In 354 B.C., Pang Juan led eighty thousand Wei troops to attack the State of Zhao, besieging its capital city, Handan. Zhao sent envoys to Qi seeking assistance. Inside Qi, there were differing opinions—some advocated for intervention, while others urged caution. King Qi sought Sun Bin’s opinion, and Sun Bin proposed a compromise, suggesting that they initially agree to Zhao’s request and let them fight to the best of their ability, while awaiting assistance. Then, when both sides were weakened, they could launch an attack on Wei. This way, they could effortlessly strike the exhausted Wei army, rescuing the endangered State of Zhao. King Qi greatly appreciated this strategy and once again appointed Tian Ji as the chief general and Sun Bin as the military adviser to lead the rescue mission.

Tian Ji intended to lead the main force directly to Handan and engage the Wei army in a head-on confrontation to relieve the siege on Zhao. However, Sun Bin believed that Wei’s elite troops were besieging Zhao, leaving their domestic forces weak. Therefore, he suggested that Tian Ji should attack Wei’s capital, Daliang, to force the Wei army to retreat and relieve the predicament of Zhao. Simultaneously, it would tire out the Wei army while the Qi army waited comfortably. Tian Ji thought the plan was excellent and immediately adopted it, leading the Qi army to Daliang.

The Qi army approached, and Daliang was besieged, causing Pang Juan to abandon the siege of Handan and rush back to Daliang. Sun Bin suggested that the Wei army, considering itself brave, would be eager for battle, so they could pretend to be timid and fearful to lure the enemy into a trap. He instructed Tian Ji to lead the troops in a retreat and reduce the number of cooking stoves each day.

Pang Juan’s army rushed back to Daliang, only to find the Qi army had retreated. Seeing the chaotic scene with trees obstructing the path, Pang Juan hurried to investigate. He found trees strewn about, but one large tree stood tall and firm by the roadside, seemingly bearing words on its bark. He ordered someone to light a torch. As he approached the tree with the torch, just as he could make out the words “Pang Juan dies under this tree,” he suddenly realized he had been tricked. Before he could shout “retreat,” the Qi army unleashed a volley of arrows, causing chaos among the Wei soldiers. Realizing that defeat was inevitable and seeing no way out, Pang Juan drew his sword and took his own life.

The Qi army pursued the retreating Wei forces, inflicting a major defeat, and captured the Wei crown prince, whom they brought back to Qi. Sun Bin’s reputation also soared due to this battle.