[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.
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.