Air University Review , July-August 1980

Sun Pinís Art of War: A Summary

Dr. John W. Killigrew

IN 1972 the Chinese government announced the discovery of certain burial sites and tombs dating from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to AD. 220). One of the more momentous discoveries occurred at Yin-Chueh-shan in Lin-i county, Shantung province, where a tomb contained important works on history, philosophy, and military affairs. Of special significance was the discovery of the work entitled Sun Pin Ping-fa (literally "military tactics" or "rules of war") or Sun Pin's Art of War. This work, lost for over 1700 years, had been the focus of debate over the centuries, and scholars were confused over the identity of Sun Pin and Sun Wu: Were there two persons or one person, and was the Sun Pin Ping-fa part of the famous Sun Wu Ping-fa? In the edition of Sun Tzu's Art of War edited by Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith, USMC (Ret), there is a brief biography of Sun Pin, but it is not clear as to the real existence and reality of a Sun Pin.1 These recent excavations have shed more light on ancient Chinese history and biography and are important in giving us more detailed knowledge and understanding of the role of military affairs in ancient Chinese history, as well as knowledge of ancient Chinese military thought.

Sun Pin lived during what is known in Chinese history as the Warring States period, and he rose to fame as adviser or chief of staff of the army of the state of Ch'i. This was a time of intense military and diplomatic rivalry among the various states during the late Chou period, and Sun Pin assisted the state of Ch'i in its military affairs and advised Ch'i in victory in two famous battles: the Battle of Kuei-ling in 352 B.C. and the Battle of Ma-ling in 341 B.C. In contrast to his famous predecessor, Sun Tzu of Wu, it appears that Sun Pin actually commanded troops, because his writings give much more detail concerning tactical formations and maneuvers as well as general instruction in overall strategic and political principles. Scholars give no exact dates for the life of Sun Pin.

The Sun Pin Ping-fa discovered in 1972 consists of inscribed bamboo strips bound together by leather thongs. The document is divided into thirty sections or chapters, with the titles written at the top or on the back side of the first tablet or strip of each section or at the end of the section. Not all the inscriptions are legible, and thus some inference or extrapolation must be made in respect to the meaning of certain passages. Since its discovery, some publicity has been given to the Sun Pin Ping-fa in Chinese journals devoted to archaeology and cultural relics, and two editions have been published in the Chinese language.

This article, a brief summary of the military thought of Sun Pin, is based on the author's translation of the Taiwan edition of the Sun Pin Ping-fa.2 Four main themes or factors stand out in the Sun Pin Ping-fa: (a) a prudent and cautious attitude toward war, such caution described as "kingly deportment"; (b) the use of guile or stratagem in order to bring about a favorable tactical situation, ideally an ambuscade; (c) the interplay and interaction of contradictions as found in the yin and yang principle; and (d) considerable attention and stress on various tactical and combat formations and the attack and defense of walled cities.

Appropriately, the Sun Pin Ping-fa begins with an account of a battle situation in which stratagem and guile figure predominantly. Sun Pin at this time was an adviser to the King of Ch'i, and the enemy of the state of Ch'i was the state of Wei. The Wei army under the command of its general, P'ang Chuan, had attacked an ally of Ch'i, the state of Chao. The question proposed to Sun Pin was what policy and decisions should be made by the state of Ch'i in coming to the aid of its ally. Then Sun Pin advised various stratagems and traps that would lead or cause P'ang Chuan to become arrogant, overconfident, and careless. For example, he advised that two Ch'i cities vulnerable to Wei attack be garrisoned and commanded by two incompetent and ineffective commanders. These cities would be sacrificed in order to tempt P'ang Chuan. Second, Sun Pin advised advancing some of the Ch'i forces in an ineffective assault against the powerful walled Wei city of Sang-liang. Even after this move and the loss of the border cities, Sun Pin advised sending some light chariot forces against the Wei capital of Ta-liang. His purpose was to demonstrate a gross military incompetency and weakness on the part of the Ch'i state. Tempted and enticed by such military inferiority, P'ang Chuan withdrew his forces from Chao state, abandoned his wagon and supply trains, and in forced marches rushed his entire army to attack the capital of Ch'i. Thereupon Sun Pin set up an ambush in the hilly and difficult terrain near Kuei-ling and defeated P'ang Chuan as he crossed the border of Ch'i en route to the capital. Thus Ch'i was able to force a withdrawal of the Wei army from Chao and in addition defeated and captured P'ang Chuan and destroyed his army.3

Following this the Sun Pin Ping-fa gives an account of the visit of Sun Pin to King Hui of Ch'i. The conversation between the two, in dialogue form, is to the effect that military affairs are in constant flux and a perpetual military advantage of one state over another cannot be depended on. Furthermore, Sun Pin notes that even a state victorious in war suffers damage, and military affairs are a most important and necessary element in statecraft. Even the legendary founding emperors of China, Yao and Shun and the Duke of Chou, were unable to achieve any success toward establishing a benevolent and righteous rule without first organizing a military force in order to subjugate and reform the empire. (pp. 33-39)

In another section King Hui asks Sun Pin to discourse on the principle in the deployment and use of troops. The king sets forth various hypothetical situations, and in each reply Sun Pin emphasizes the need for guile and stratagem in order to create a battlefield situation whereby the enemy is ambushed. Even when one's own forces are numerically and organizationally superior to the enemy, Sun Pin advises the king to dispatch a force to make a side or auxiliary attack so that the unity of the king's forces would appear to be in disarray and without any discipline. The purpose is to bring about a situation where the enemy would be enticed to attack prematurely and be destroyed in a set ambush. (pp. 51-52)

During the visit to King Hui, T'ien Chi, a general of the state of Ch'i, asks Sun Pin to name the most important aspects of military affairs. The reply lists such factors as calculating the terrain, knowledge of the enemy and the psychology of its leaders, and taking the tactical offensive as the most important. (p. 54) After leaving the palace, Sun Pin is questioned by some of his disciples as to the military wisdom of the leaders of the state of Ch'i. Sun Pin notes that their wisdom is incomplete and that they had far to go to grasp the basic principle of warfare: the use of the army without detailed preparation would lead to a disaster, and to exhaust the army and the nation in constant campaigns would bring destruction to the state of Ch'i in three generations. (p. 55) To Sun Pin the "ever-victorious" general would produce a calamity by "weakening the people and wasting the state." (p. 75)

leadership and combat principles

In discussing the qualities of generalship, five characteristics are listed: having the confidence of the ruler, the ability to coordinate various tactical units, the ability to capture and hold the hearts of the troops, and the ability to know the enemy. (p. 67) Sun Pin underlines the point that the general and ruler who are eager for military action would perish, and those who covet glory and victories would be disgraced. Furthermore, battlefield conditions, political circumstances, and a favorable military advantage could change rapidly, and that war was to be entered into with great caution. There was nothing more valuable than the unity of the people; therefore, the ideal situation was where the strategic defensive had been obtained as a consequence of one's own land being invaded and one's own people being killed by the aggressor. (p. 75) Military commanders are urged to have acknowledge of and an insight into the principle of the universe or the Tao of the cosmos: the principle of yin and yang. Knowledge of the psychology of the masses or the "hearts of the people" and of the enemy situation and circumstances is also enjoined. Another factor in the "knowledge" equation is to know the theory and practical principles involved in various tactical formations, where and when to use the formations and how to entice the enemy into an ambush. Sun Pin advocates dividing the force into three main infantry units or divisions: one up and two back with support and aid from chariot and mounted troops on the flanks and rear, in all some eight distinct tactical divisions are outlined. (pp. 75-78)

This "formation-eight" developed during the Warring States period. At the time of the establishment of the Chou Dynasty, around 1027 B.C., the main battle element of the Chinese army was the four-horse chariot, but by the time of Sun Pin, during the fourth century B.C., this situation had changed and infantry had become the chief element with chariots and mounted forces employed as supporting arms. The effect was that battles were not as quickly or decisively decided as during the earlier period; more men were involved, wars were longer and more intense, and the size of the battlefield was larger. Midway in the Sun Pin Ping-fa there is an interesting analogy between a bowman and a military force. The arrow is the army, the bow is the general, and the one who fires or shoots the bow and arrow is the ruler. The arrow is the formation that the army takes, and it is important that the heavy and sharp end come first and be followed in the rear by a light feather: the analogy being that the battle formation of an army in deployment should be comparable to the structure of an arrow. The bow is the general; if it is held incorrectly and not coordinated with the arrow, then, although the arrow is constructed correctly, it will not hit the target. "If generals are not coordinated even though the formation is correct the army will not hit the target and be victorious." Should the arrow be balanced correctly, the bow stretched correctly, yet if the shooter is incompetent and not trained, there will still be an error. Therefore, Sun Pin notes that for an army to be successful, there must be coordination and skill between the army, the general, and the ruler. (p. 99)

Section IX of the Sun Pin Ping-fa discusses what is termed the "four elements of battle": formation, power and strength, change in circumstances (or perhaps what is commonly known as the "fog of battle"), and opportunity. Here again analogy is made to certain symbols. The double-edge sword is the symbol of the tactical formation taken by the army; the strength of a military force is symbolized in the bow that contains stored-up power with a potential to kill at 100 feet; a boat or chariot is described as the symbol of change in that combat can be waged either on land or water: one can change to meet the circumstances; and, finally, the spearman or lancer, who grasps the pike or lance, is the symbol of grasping or taking advantage of an opportunity that is presented. (p. 97) The four factors are thus interrelated: the formation is the cutting edge that crushes the enemy, victory lies in strength being superior to the enemy; the creation of superiority lies in the ability to change; and taking advantage of change and power lies in grasping the opportunity of a new situation. (p. 97)

Consistent with the military thought of other ancient Chinese traditions, Sun Pin stresses the importance of morale and "spirit of the people" that is embodied in the army.4 "In order to mobilize it is necessary to arouse the spirit of the people": this aroused spirit must be maintained from the time the army is mobilized when war breaks out, through the movement of the army to its forward encampment, through its movement to the border area, and as the army advances into battle. (p. 123)

Following this section on morale and spirit, Sun Pin engages in a dialogue with a military officer who proposes several tactical formations that a hypothetical enemy might employ and asks Sun Pin how to deal with each. This is similar to the earlier account of a dialogue with King Hui in that in each case Sun Pin advises the same solution to the problem: bring about a situation in which the enemy regardless of his formation is enticed into a rash attack and then falls into an ambush. (pp. 144-45)

One of the most interesting sections in the Sun Pin Ping-fa is a treatise on what is termed "guest and host." The guest is an army of occupation, whereas the host is the army that is called on to carry out a protracted war of resistance against occupying force. The host, although weak in military power, is able through prior arrangements and planning to force the guest to follow his plans. The host has the initiative; the guest can only respond and follow the initiative of the host.5 The host, because of his innate knowledge of his native geography, uses this factor to his advantage and is at ease in his own country. The guest does not have knowledge of the geography and is almost blind and in constant danger and a state of anxiety. (p. 153)

Skill in the art of war finds its zenith in the Sun Pin Ping-fa when one can divide and dissolve the enemy forces and thus render numerical, materiel, and resource superiority evanescent: "a nation although rich is not necessarily secure; a poor nation is not necessarily in danger; although military forces are numerous they are not necessarily victorious; a military force few in numbers is not necessarily defeated." (pp. 153-54) Skill in war, therefore, lies in the ability to cause the enemy to be divided, dispersed, to squander his arms and resources, to be short of supplies at the critical point of battle, and thus rendered ineffective. This theme is repeated from time to time in other sections of the Sun Pin Ping-fa. Skill in the conduct of battle also requires careful investigation and understanding of the terrain features so that it is used to one's advantage: bring about a situation in which the enemy forces are dispersed, scattered, and isolated. "If he has plentiful food supplies cause him to be hungry; if he has secure bases cause them (enemy) to be worried about fleeing for their lives." (p. 159) Sun Pin notes that in battle there are four roads or approaches to take: advance, retreat, movement-left, and movement-right; in addition there are five dispositions for a tactical unit to take: advance, retreat, left, right, and waiting in secrecy and silence for the opportunity to take one of the four roads or approaches. A skillful commander must be secure in taking any of the four roads and five dispositions and cause the enemy to be insecure and in dread of movement. (pp. 157-58)

As in the Sun Tzu Art of War, there is considerable attention given to portraying the traits or characteristics of a military commander such as loyalty, bravery, righteousness, trustworthiness, and the confidence and trust of superiors and inferiors: "confidence and trust are the two legs of military affairs." (p. 173) A general is advised to be daring yet cautious and concerned in using the army because it is an "invaluable jewel." (p. 175) The trait or characteristic of wisdom is defined as never slighting or underestimating a minor or weak enemy and never being intimidated by a strong or major enemy. The monarch of a state is admonished neverto bypass the military commander and give direct orders to the troops once the commander has been given authoritative power. (p. 180)

During the Warring States period, it appears that the various states had different politico-military postures and policies depending on their geographical and political situation. Sun Pin's list gives five kinds of politico-military postures that a state might embody: (a) powerful, stern, and dignified; (b) proud and arrogant; (c) obstinate, self-reliant, and stubborn; (d) jealous, suspicious, and anxious; and (e) mild, soft, and yielding, yet scrupulously exact in foreign relations. Each of these postures in turn is to be met by an appropriate matching politico-military strategy: in meeting the first posture, one is advised to be bending and flexible in the use of political stratagems, diplomacy, and psychological gambits; in meeting a boastful and arrogant force, one should be respectful but carry out a war of endurance and protraction; in meeting a stubborn or self-reliant enemy, one should entice and tempt him; in meeting a suspicious and anxious enemy, one should aggress his front, flanks, rivers and dikes, and cut off his supplies; in meeting the weak, entice him to start the conflict and then by disturbances terrify and push him unprepared into battle.

This same section of the Sun Pin Ping-fa contains a lengthy treatise concerning military administration or civil affairs in an occupied territory. An occupying force is advised not to act overly respectful and condescending in its deportment toward the occupied country; the occupier will be treated with contempt, and his administration will be ineffective. Likewise an overbearing and harsh rule will bring about resistance, and the occupation will be subverted. Therefore, Sun Pin advocates the pairing together and mutual interdependence of "respectful action and overbearing action." (p. 164)

the Tao of military affairs:
grasping yin and yang

In a section entitled "military defeat," Sun Pin notes again the need to adhere to yin and yang. For example, to "contend with the enemies strength" instead of striking at his weaknesses brings about defeat through the "maltreatment of one's own forces." Furthermore, even if one has knowledge of tactical formations, knows the terrain, and seemingly has the spirit of the people behind him, it is still possible to fall into a trap or difficulty because of ignorance and lack of understanding of the limits of national strategy. (p. 167) National strategy can be defined as the goals or objectives of the politico-military posture of a state. If the national strategy does not complement the actual political reality of a state, there develops what is termed in the modern world a "credibility gap." Disaster and defeat, according to Sun Pin, are imminent when a state has a positive and forward national strategy and there exists within that same state a political situation that will not sustain and support such a strategy. Other aspects that lead to defeat are listed as the failure to take advantage of opportunities, ignorance of one's mistakes and errors, lack of insight into changing circumstances, doubts and anxieties, lack of comprehensive preparations, and politico-military policies that are not in harmony with the psychology and desires of the people.

The ability or inability to understand and grasp these intangible factors is termed the ability or inability to understand the Tao of military affairs. (p. 167) Furthermore, Tao gives a leader what might be termed charisma, insight, or a "sixth sense," so to speak. "To be coveted and fawned upon yet remain self-reliant; to receive favors yet remain respectful; to be weak yet strong; to yield yet remain firm is to have Tao." (p. 167)

The Sun Pin Ping-fa lists some nineteen factors that bring about the "loss of virtue" on the part of the commander and of course are to be avoided: included are such factors as boastful arrogance, jealousy, indecisiveness, recklessness, vindictiveness, and being incompetent yet thinking one is competent. (p. 185) There follows yet another list of some thirty-two factors that cause defeat in battle, some not necessarily reflecting conspicuous bad leadership: disunity, insubordination, troops bitter or weary, constant change in orders, partiality, disorganization of unit formations, and poor treatment of the wounded. In a section entitled "five rules and nine objectives," Sun Pin notes that weapons, training, food, numbers of personnel, and time and space required for reinforcements to arrive are pivotal on the battlefield; if one is not superior to the enemy in a tactical situation in any of these factors, then battle is to be avoided. The nine objectives refer to the tactical objectives of battle: such as capturing provisions, gaining access to the use of water, the capture of a bridgehead to cross a river, the capture of a line of communications in order to cut off the supplies of an enemy, and the capture of a strategic point such as a frontier pass. (p. 201)

The concluding section of the Sun Pin Ping-fa is a tour de force on the interplay of yin and yang. Reflecting ancient Chinese cosmological principles, the text notes that factors in politics and strategy transform each other and revert to their opposites. Surpluses and shortages mutually interact; a short cut and the long way interact; many and few interact; tranquility and anxiety interact:

Therefore do not use accumulation or concentration to face accumulation and concentration; do not use your scattered force to face scattered forces; do not use speed to face speed; do no; use many to face many; and do not use few to oppose few. (p. 204)

The ideal is to complement and use the yin to face the yang; it should be yin against yang. Sun Pin continues:

the enemy is concentrated then disperse to oppose; enemy has surplus then use emptiness to meet him; enemy takes short cut then take the long way; enemy moves quickly then move slowly. In all things adapt to him. (p. 205)

This theme is continued when Sun Pin speaks of "orthodox and the unorthodox." This is one of the longest sections in the Sun Pin Ping-fa and refers to the yin and yang of any situation. The Tao of the universe is the unity of opposites or the reversion of opposites; when something arrives at its full or limit, a decrease or wane sets in. This means that within any politico-military situation, as well as in the cosmological order of the universe, opposites are present; within an apparent superior and overwhelming military force, there is an inherent inferiority. "When there is life there is death, as in all myriad things." (p. 207) The text notes that everything that has a form or shape can be classified and given a name; everything that can be given a name can be overcome because it will have its insufficiency or inferiority within its apparent sufficiency and superiority: this is the principle of yin and yang that one is enjoined to adhere to in military affairs. A military force or military situation that has its "yang" of superiority has an inherent "yin" of inferiority; an apparent "yin" or hopeless situation or an apparent "yin" weak military force has its inherent "yang" of superiority. The military sage is to use this cosmological law in order to overcome and defeat the enemy. In warfare every situation or circumstance will have mutual inferiority and superiority; if this is the case, then every situation can be mastered if one is able to detect and understand and recognize the inferiority that is inherent in the apparent superiority of the enemy, or the converse, recognize the superiority that is inherent in one's inferiority. (p. 207) The Tao of military affairs is to understand and grasp the yin and yang that permeates politico-military reality.

Brockport, New York


1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated and edited by Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963). I am indebted to Professor Ho Ping-ti, James Westfall Thompson Professor of History at the University of Chicago, for introducing me to the newly discovered text of the Sun Pin Ping-fa while I was attending the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar in Chinese History at the University of Chicago, 1976. Professor Ho was Seminar Director.

2. I have studied two editions of the Sun Pin Ping-fa: Hsu P'ei-ken and Wei Ju-lin, editors, Sun Pin Ping-fa Chu-shu (A Commentary of Sun Pin's Art of War) (Taipei: Li Ming Publishing Company, 1976) and Chan Li-po, editor, Sun Pin Ping-fa (Peking: Wen Wu Publishing Company, 1975). An account of the excavation and a summary of the Sun Pin Ping-fa, with considerable ideological and political embellishment, can be found in an article by Chan Li-po entitled: "An introduction to the Fragmentary Bamboo Strips with the Text of the Sun Pin Art of War," Selections from Peopleís Republic of China Magazines (Hong Kong: U.S. Consulate General, June 17, 1974), pp. 1-14. The Taiwan edition was used in the preparation of this article because it is written in regular characters. I am more familiar with this form of script than with the simplified characters of the Peking edition. The notes and notations of the two editions appear to be quite similar in content; the Taiwan edition bas a detailed and at times superfluous commentary at the end of each section of the Sun Pin Ping-fa.

3. Hsu P'ei-ken and Wei Ju-lin, editors, Sun Pin Ping-fa Chu-shu, p. 29. Subsequent references to this edition are entered in parentheses throughout the article.

4. Wei Ju-lin, Chung-kuo Chun-shih Szu-hsiang shih (A History of Chinese Military Thought), (Taipei: National Defense College, 1968).

5. To better understand the subtlety in the Chinese meaning of initiative, see Scott A. Boorman, The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch'i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 31-32.


John W. Killigrew (M.A., Ph.D., Indiana University) is professor of history at the State University of New York College at Brockport. He is presently planning a trip to China for the next academic year on a research exchange program at Peking University to study Chinese documents. He is author of The Impact of the Great Depression on the Army, 1929-1936 (1979) and has published articles on Chinese military history and affairs in Journal of Asian History and Military Affairs.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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