Sun Tzu and the Lesson of the Concubines

One of my favorite excerpts from Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War. Posting it here on my blog as a reference for myself and for others.

Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War, earned him an audience with the King of Wu, who said, “I have thoroughly read your thirteen chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a small test?”

Sun Tzu replied, “Sir, you may.”

The King of Wu asked, “Can the test be applied to women?” Sun Tzu replied that it could, so arrangements were made to bring 180 beautiful women from the palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies with one of the King’s favorite concubines at the head of each. He then made all of them take spears in their hands and spoke to them: “I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand, and left hand?”

The women replied, “Yes.”

Sun Tzu continued, “When to the sound of drums I order ‘eyes front,’ look straight ahead. When I order ‘left turn,’ face toward your left hand. When I order ‘right turn,’ face toward your right hand. When I order ‘about turn,’ face around to the back.”

After the words of command had been explained, the women agreed they understood. He gave them spears so he could begin the drill. To the sound of drums, Sun Tzu ordered “right turn.”

In response, the women burst out in laughter.

With great patience, Sun Tzu said, “If the instructions and words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.” He then repeated the explanations several times. This time he ordered the drums to signal “left turn,” and again the women burst into laughter.

Then Sun Tzu said, “If the instructions and words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if commands are clear and the soldiers disobey, then it is the fault of the officers.” He immediately ordered the women who were at the head of the two companies to be beheaded.

Of course, the King was watching from a raised pavilion, and when he saw that his two favorite concubines were about to be executed, he was alarmed and swiftly sent down a message:

“We are now quite satisfied as to the general’s ability to manage troops. Without these concubines, my food and drink will not taste good. It is the King’s wish that they not be beheaded.”

Sun Tzu replied, “Having received the sovereign’s commission to take charge and direct these troops, there are certain orders I cannot accept.” He immediately had the two concubines beheaded as an example and appointed the two next in line as the new leaders.

Now the drums were sounded again and the drill began. The women performed all the maneuvers exactly as commanded, turning to the right or left, marching ahead, turning around, kneeling, or rising. They drilled perfectly in precision and did not utter a single sound.

Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King of Wu saying, “Your Majesty, the soldiers are now correctly drilled and perfectly disciplined. They are ready for your inspection. Put them to any use you desire. As sovereign, you may choose to require them to go through fire and water and they will not disobey.”

The King responded, “Our commander should cease the drill and return to his camp. We do not wish to come down and inspect the troops.”

With great calm, Sun Tzu said, “This king is only fond of words and cannot carry them into deeds.”

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