Sun Tzu: Training the Imperial Concubines

· Sun Tzu Art of War

Training the Imperial Concubines

“Training the Imperial Concubines” is found in the Shih Chi (see below). There it is alleged to be “Sun Tzu’s biography,” while other commentators state it is a demonstration of Sun Tzu’s ruthlessness before the king of Wu. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the story “proves” Sun Tzu’s brutality, hatred of women, and lack of control. Wee et al. without explanation say only that it is “an illustration of the genius and ability of Sun Tzu.” None of this is correct. It is not found in Ping-fa (what some incorrectly  call Sun Tzu’s Art of War), and its relationship to that work is tenuous despite the central character being “Sun Tzu.”

The concubine story is a persuasion. It played a role – along with hundreds of other persuasions and Ping-fa, in helping bring about the first empire of China. This story illustrates the importance of delegation and empowerment in engagement, and the dangers of interfering when delegation has been made. Robin Yates and translator Calthrop both saw that message. No engagement begins until the strategy is conferred and the engagement leader is empowered. Ping-fa chapters VII and VIII start with the same instruction: “the general receives his commands from the sovereign.”

The occupation and sex of the “soldiers” is irrelevant. Their untrained, “civilian” status is not. With the conferral of a commission, the leader had to develop a disciplined team. Teams need the clear instruction and training that is the responsibility of the leader.

The persuasion indicates that when the team is ready to engage, the sovereign withdraws his support. Here is interference, brought about because decisions have been made that seemed inappropriate or unpopular. Despite being set adrift, Sun Tzu carries on as he had been ordered: “there are commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed” (VIII.3).

Malaysian Business (1 April 1997) referred to the story as a “horror,” in the midst of a review of a Khoo Kheng-Hor work on Sun Tzu. Rudnicki (1996, 5–6) says it perfectly illustrates Sun Tzu’s “unnecessarily cruel” belief in “the expendability of individual life in the interest of discipline and absolute authority.” Though Giles originally had doubts about the legitimacy of the story, he finally says we should not question whether the records consulted by the Han historian Sima Qian were authentic.(In my view, care is not needed in evaluating Sima Qian’s sources so much as is needed regarding his assertions regarding Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu and China’s first and second dynasty with a very large salt grain).

Though Giles believes the suggested source to be genuine, he concludes that the story is “utterly preposterous and incredible.” Griffith and Clavell quote the full story without comment. Huang says that it is, “no more than a popular Warring States period legend” and that “it is absolutely ridiculous.” Griffith (1963, 2) says Yao Ch’i-heng, a seventeenth-century doubter of Sun Tzu’s authenticity, believed this story to be “fantastic” and “not worthy of belief.” Both Sawyer and Rudnicki consider it apocryphal. Sawyer says,

Ch’I Ssu-ho, among others, does not believe Sun-tzu would have ever been allowed to commandeer palace women to illustrate his theories of military discipline nor that the execution of the two captains would have been understood as having proved anything. He therefore views the entire episode as an exaggeration. Wu Ju-sung believes that rather than being a lesson about discipline, the incident illustrates Sun-tzu’s fundamental teaching that a general—once he is in command of an army—does not accept orders from the ruler; this is in accord with his particular understanding of Sun-tzu’s major contribution as having been the isolation and characterization of the professional general (1993, 152 note 19).


Sawyer misses altogether what this persuasion is telling us about authority, leadership and empowerment in engagement. He suggests the point of the story is to embolden the king of Wu, showing him how he can build his empire by creating, training, and mobilizing an army and attacking neighboring states (1996, 7). This astonishing statement has no known source in the literature.


Please buy my book and help me to continue my research. Above is an excerpt from The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War, the authoritative text on Ping-fa, incorrectly referred to as “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” due to mistakes in history and translation. It turns out that “Sun Tzu” was actually an academy for research and teaching established by the Qin Kingdom. The subject of is diplomacy, not war. It is the tactical and operational companion to the Tao Te Ching which is Qin’s treatise on values and governance. The School of Sun Tzu is available from,,, a host of re-sellers and the author.


The Great Historian’s Rendition: The Training of the Imperial Concubines


Sima Qian gives the following biography of Sun Tzu.

Sun was a native of the Ch`i State. His Art of War brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, King of Wu.[1] Ho Lu said to him, “I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?” Sun Tzu replied, “You may.” Ho Lu asked, “May the test be applied to women?” The answer was again in the affirmative, so arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the palace.

Sun Tzu divided them into two companies and placed one of the king’s favorite concubines at the head of each. He then made 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 girls 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 girls 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 the girls 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 girls once more burst into fits of laughter. 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 saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to 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 following message: “We are now quite satisfied as to our general’s ability to handle troops. If we are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savor. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded.”

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 straightaway 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, and the girls went through all the evolution, 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, “Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, we have 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, Ho Lu saw that Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army and finally appointed him general. In the west, he defeated the Ch`u state and forced his way into Ying, the capital. To the north he put fear into the states of Ch`i and Chin and spread his fame abroad among the feudal princes. And Sun Tzu shared in the might of the king.




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