An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法

Mar 3, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法 "The Art of War by Sun Bin" is a military classic from ancient China which had been thought lost. It was rediscovered in 1972 in Yinqueshan 銀雀山 near Linyi 臨沂, Shandong, as part of a tomb library which included also other military classics, namely Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法, Weiliaozi 尉繚子, Liutao 六韜, and 13 chapters on "obeying ordinances and obeying orders" (shoufa shouling 守法守令).

Sun Bin's "Art of Warfare", in ancient times also called Qi Sunzi 齊孫子 "[Book of] Master Sun from the state of Qi 齊" (in contrast to Wu Sunzi 吳孫子, i.e. Sunzi bingfa written by Sun Wu 孫武 from the state of Wu 吳), stood in the tradition of China's oldest military classic, the Sunzi bingfa.

Sun Bin 孫臏 (d. 316 BCE), the putative author, is said to have been a descendant of Sun Wu 孫武 (545-470), the great Master Sun. Bin is not the real name of the person, but an epithet given to him after he had been punished by cutting off his kneecaps (bin 臏, see five punishments). Sun Bin studied the art of war by the general Pang Juan 龐涓 and Master Guiguzi 鬼谷子. Pang Juan was envious of Sun Bin's skills and slandered him, with the result that his sovereign, the ruler of Wei 魏 punished him cruelly. Thereafter, Sun Bin managed to escape to Qi, where he served King Wei 齊威王 (r. 378-343) and carried out, together with general Tian Ji 田忌, some very successful campaigns against Wei. Last traces of the two are found concerning the battle of Maling 馬陵 (Shenxian 莘縣, Henan) in 341.

General Sun Bin's military tactic was to attack that part of the inimical army that was weak and which was in high need of support by other parts of the corps, which therefore would not be able to exhibit its full strength at all parts of the battle array. His strategy was to encircle Wei and to support the state of Zhao 趙. Later on he had to leave Qi and went to the state of Chu 楚, where he probably died. Some scholars argue that Chu had been his home state.

Sun Bin was very famous in ancient times and is mentioned side by side with Wu Qi 吳起, general in the state of Wei (and putative author of the military treatise Wuzi 吳子), and is in several texts listed as one of the most famous persons of the Eastern Zhou period 東周 (770-221 BCE).

In the imperial bibliography Yiwen zhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, the book Qi Sunzi is mentioned as a book with 89 chapters and enriched with 4 juan of illustrations. The book must have still been in circulation after the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), but was already lost during the early Tang period 唐 (618-907). It is quoted in Cao Cao's 曹操 commentary on the Sunzi bingfa (3rd cent. CE), in Zhao Rui's 趙蕤 Changduanjing 長短經, and Du You's 杜佑 (735-812) encyclopaedia Tongdian 通典.

Figure 1. Bamboo slips inscribed with the text of the Sun Bin bingfa 孫臏兵法
From Shandong Sheng Bowuguan/Linyi Wenwu Zu (1974).

The preserved version from Linyi is written down on 364 bamboo slips and included 15 chapters in 2 juan. In the first part, the personal history of Sun Bin (ch. 1), as well as his most important statements ("Master Sun said…") are recorded, while the second, more discursive, part contains military treatises presented in a quite confuse manner and not systematically arranged. In 1985, the text was republished after thorough revision, and was supplemented by another chapter called Wuxiaofa 五教法 "The five kinds of training methods".

The reconstruction of the text on the highly damaged bamboo slips was only possible with the help of quotations from the Sun Bin bingfa in other books. The chapters of the first part can clearly be identified as part of the Qi Sunzi, while those from the second part cannot be attributed to a concrete military classic. Some parts prove that it belongs to the tradition of the Sunzi bingfa, while others are closer to other late Warring-States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) writings like Weiliaozi or Liutao. The text was, according to hints in the content, probably written during the reign of King Xuan of Qi 齊宣王 (r. 342-324), but the bamboo slip version dates from the early decades of the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).

The Sun Bin bingfa is a rich source for the study of campaigning (with historical information on the battles of Guiling 桂陵 [Changyuan 長垣, Henan, in 354] and Maling), military equipment, formations, tactics, and the study of the relation between philosophy and military treatises. In some parts, the book is structured in a dialogue between Master Sun and a questioner, perhaps King Wei of Qi. The dialogues are concerned with the importance and ineluctable nature of war with regards to the state, factors like terrain or wheather, human and material resources, training and promotion, the morale of the soldier, deployment in formations and during sieges, the character of a commander, and the use of strategic advantages (shi 勢), deployment (zhen 陣), adaptability (bian 變), and the weighing of chances (quan 權).

The authors of the Sun Bin bingfa, perhaps disciples from a Sun lineage (Lau & Ames 2003: 18) stress the importance of military action for the survival of the state, and renounce the Confucian values of ritual, etiquette and kindheartedness. A strong army can only be established, if the state is rich enough to support its troops. The soldiers themselves have to be trained regularly, are to be disciplined by military law, and have to be led by a competent commander. Victory lies in the selection of valiant troops, and their bravery lies in discipline. Discipline can only be enforced by the right application of reward and punishment. The commander must possess charisma, trust, loyalty and respect. He must know how to employ troops usefully and effectively, how to activate their spirits and strength, how to change tactics flexibly according to circumstances, and how to profit from chances opening in the course of a battle.

The selection of the right personnel was most important for successful leadership. A general had to know the Way of Heaven (weather) and the patterns of the earth (topography); he must be in control over the hearts of his troops, to know the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and how and when to apply the eight different battle arrays. Preparation of a campaign was almost more important than fighting itself. In the face of a strong enemy, troops had to simulate power; in the face of a weaker enemy, one had to pretend faintness; and an equally strong enemy had to be tempted to disperse his forces before attacking him with concentrated forces.

Sun Bin also compared military activities with the Five Agents (wuxing 五行) in correlative thinking. The text adapts the increasing importance of Yin-Yan theory 陰陽 (with pairs of opposites like regular/irregular, dense/dispersed, reward/punishment, wen (civil)/wu (military), fast/slow, non-action/action, etc.) and embeds military affairs into a cosmological frame. This stands in contrast to the many historical, dialogical, and illustrative chapters of the preserved text. Confucian concepts like "righteousness" (yi 義) and "virtue" (de 德) are applied—with slightly different meanings—with respect to the commander, who owns "appropriateness" and "excellence". Sun Bin's book also reflects technological changes, as seen in the widespread use of the crossbow, the increasing importance of siege warfare, and the intensified use of cavalry (see Zhou military).

Table 1. Chapters of the Sun Bing bingfa 孫臏兵法
Known chapters
1. 禽(=擒)龐涓 Qin Pang Juan Capturing Pang Juan
2. 見威王 Jian Weiwang An audience with King Wei [of Qi]
3. 威王問 Weiwang wen King Wei's questions
4. 陳(=田)忌問壘 Tian Ji wen lei Tian Ji inquires about battlefield defences
5. 篡(=選)卒 Xuanzu Selecting troops
6. 月戰 Yuezhan The moon and warfare
7. 八陳(=陣) Bazhen The eight battle arrays
8. 地葆(=寶) Dibao The treasures of the earth (i.e. terrain)
9. 埶(=勢)備 Shibei The preparation of strategic advantages
10. 兵情 Bingqing The real nature of troops
11. 行篡(=選) Xingxuan Carrying out the selection [of personnel]
12. 殺士 Shashi Sacrifice in battle
13. 延氣 Yanqi Raising and keeping morale high
14. 官一 Guanyi Coordinating military assignments
15. 五教法 Wu jiaofa The five kinds of training methods
16. 強兵 Qiangbing Strengthening the military
Supplementary chapters of the Yinqueshan version
1. 十陣 Shizhen Ten military formations
2. 十問 Shiwen Ten questions
3. 略甲 Lüejia Overwhelming an armed infantry
4. 客主人分 Ke-zhu renfen The positions of invader and defender
5. 善者 Shanzhe The expert [commander]
6. 五名五恭 Wuming wugong Five postures and five situations [in which an army respects conventions]
7. 兵失 Bingshi Military mistakes
8. 將義 Jiangyi The rightness of the commander
9. 將德 Jiangde The excellence of the commander
10. 將敗 Jiangbai Fatal weaknesses of the commander
11. 將失 Jiangshi Fatal mistakes of the commander
12. 雄牝城 Xiongpincheng "Male" and "female" fortifications
13. 五度九奪 Wudu jiuduo Five considerations and nine objectives
14. 積疏 Jishu Concentrated and sparse troops
15. 奇正 Qizheng Straightforward and surprise operations
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Deng Zehong 邓泽宗, Chen Jikang 陈济康 (1987). "Sun Bin bingfa dui Sunzi bingfa de fazhan 《孙膑兵法》对《孙子》兵法的发展", Junshi lishi 军事历史, 1987 (1): 23-26.
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