Sun Tzu: a Leader of Concubines?

By | December 8, 2018

[December 8, 2018]  As a young boy, I often heard the story of Sun Tzu and the King’s concubines.  I remember it well, much like the dirtier Canterbury Tales, and for a similar reason; it involved pretty women and sex … or maybe not.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general who is thought to have lived between 722 and 481 B.C.

The period was a time of conflict between seven nations seeking to control all of China.  It is said that Ho Lu, the King of Wu, tested Sun Tzu’s skills in military tactics by commanding him to train 180 concubines into soldiers.

Perfect discipline and clarity of communication was the key to Sun Tzu’s success; as you can tell from recorded history.

Sun Tzu divided the concubines into two companies and placed one of the King’s favorites at the head of each. He then bade them all take spears in their hands and addressed them thus:

“I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?”

The concubines replied: “Yes.” Sun Tzu went on:

“When I say ‘Eyes front,’ you must look straight ahead. When I say ‘Left turn,’ you must face towards your left hand.  When I say ‘Right turn,’ you must face towards your right hand. When I say ‘About turn,’ you must face right round towards your back.”

Again the concubines assented. The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order “Right turn.” But they only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said:

“If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order “Left turn,” whereupon the concubines once more burst into fits of laughter.  Once again Sun Tzu said:

“If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

So after saying this, he ordered the leaders of the two groups be beheaded.

Now the king of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion and when he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was greatly alarmed and hurriedly sent down the message that he was satisfied with Sun Tzu’s command abilities.  He went on to note that the execution of the two concubines would displease him.  Sun Tzu replied:

“Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.”

Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded and immediately installed the pair next in order as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more.  The concubines then went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound. Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King saying:

“Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty’s inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.”

But the King replied that Sun Tzu should cease drilling and return to camp. The king said he had no wish to come down and inspect the troops. Thereupon Sun Tzu said:

“The King is only fond of words and cannot translate them into deeds.”

After that, King Ho Lu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army and appointed him general.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “Sun Tzu: a Leader of Concubines?

  1. Willie Shrumburger

    This article on leadership from long ago illustrates that lessons of the past are never worthless and will have an impact on us if we only learn from them. Too many people are quick to dismiss old historical lessons because they are old and outdated. However, people really haven’t changed that much psychologically over the past few thousand years.

  2. Joe the Aussie

    Thank you, General Satterfield for bringing this story to our attention. Many good lessons from it.

  3. Greg Heyman

    It’s all about leadership !!!
    “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!”

  4. Martin Shiell

    Sun Tzu commends operations that will harm enemy morale: splitting alliances, evading battle, attacking by surprise; he condemns those that may undermine one’s own society, such as the attrition that might result from besieging a walled city.

  5. Danny Burkholder

    Sun Tzu sees war not so much as a matter of destroying the enemy materially and physically (although that may play a role), but of unsettling the enemy psychologically; his goal is to force the enemy’s leadership and society from a condition of harmony, in which they can resist effectively, toward one of chaos, which is tantamount to defeat.

  6. Albert Ayer

    Long studied in Asia, Sun Tzu’s work became known in the West only in the late eighteenth century and was not properly translated until the twentieth.

  7. Max Foster

    In my opinion, the point of the King of Wu chosing a great general was that the kingdom faced an existential threat from other warring tribes. By selecting the best generals, a king could ensure his own survival. Captured kings could expect to be beheaded and their entire family put to the sword. There was no room for worrying about the individual. Either you were all in and supported the kingdom or you were put to death.

    1. Doug Smith

      Excellent point. The warring states were trying to gain control over the entirity of the region. Only the strongest, smartest, and most cunning survived.

    2. Len Jakosky

      Well said. Most folks have no idea of the mental focus you get when others want to kill you.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected – Sun Tzu, the Art of War

    1. Anita

      Actually, not much was thought of the concubines or any one else other than the King and maybe his best generals.

  8. Army Captain

    As a kid, I never heard of it but once I got to the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA, one of our required readings was his book, The Art of War. Thanks for a great summary of this event.

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