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Sun Bin:   The Art of Warfare (Military Methods)

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

Sun Bin:  The Art of Warfare book cover

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.

Introduction to Sun Bin

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 Sun Tzu.

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'üeh-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 Sun Tzu, 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 Sun Tzu.

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 is 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 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." --- Sun Tzu

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 Kung'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.

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