The King Likes Only Empty Words

From The Art of War, this translation and introduction by Samuel B. Griffith (a wonderful version, available Here).

Biography of Sun Tzu (as it appears in the Shih Chi, Sun Tzu Wu Chi’s Lieh Chuan).

Sun Tzu [?circa 453-221 B.C. – The Warring States Period ] was a native of Ch’i who by means of his book on the art of war secured an audience with Ho-lu, King of Wu.

Ho-lu said, “I have read your thirteen chapters, Sir, in their entirety. Can you conduct a minor experiment in control of the movement of troops?”

Sun Tzu replied, “I can.”

Ho-lu asked, “Can you conduct this test using women?”

Sun Tzu replied, “Yes.”

The King thereupon agreed and sent from the palace one hundred and eighty beautiful women.

Sun Tzu divided them into two companies and put the King’s two favourite concubines in command. He instructed them all how to hold halberds. he then said, “Do you know where the heart is, and where the right and left hands and the back are?”

The women said, “We know.”

Sun Tzu said, “When I give the order ‘Front,’ face in the direction of the heart; when I say ‘Left,’ face toward the left hand; when I say ‘Right‘ toward the right; when I say ‘Rear,’ face in the direction of your backs.”

The women said, “We understand.”

When these regulations had been announced the executioner’s weapons were arranged.

Sun Tzu then gave the orders three times and explained them five times, after which he beat on the drum the signal “Face Right.” The women all roared with laughter.

Sun Tzu said, “If regulations are not clear and orders are not thoroughly explained, it is the commander’s fault.” He then repeated the orders three times and explained them five times, and gave the drum signal to face to the left. The women again burst into laughter.

Sun Tzu said, “If instructions are not clear and commands not explicit, it is the commander’s fault. But when they have been made clear, and are not carried out in accordance with military law, it is a crime on the part of the officers.” Then he ordered that the commanders of the right and the left ranks be beheaded.

The King of Wu, who was reviewing the proceedings from his terrace, saw that his two beloved concubines were about to be executed. He was terrified, and hurriedly sent an aide with this message: “I already know that the General is able to employ troops. Without these two concubines my food will not taste sweet. It is my desire that they be not executed.”

Sun Tzu sent the reply:

“Your servant has already received your appointment as Commander and when the commander is at the head of the army he need not accept all the sovereign’s orders.”

Consequently he ordered that the two women who had commanded the ranks be executed as an example. He then used the next senior officers as company commanders.

Thereupon he repeated the signals on the drum, and the women faced left, right, to the front, to the rear, knelt and rose all in strict accordance with the prescribed drill. They did no dare to make the slightest noise.

Sun Tzu then sent a messenger to the King and informed him: “The troops are now in good order. The King may descend to review and inspect them. They may be employed as the king desires, even to the extent of going through fire and water.

The King of Wu said, “The General may go to his hostel and rest. I do not wish to come to inspect them.”

Sun Tzu said, “The King liks only empty words. He is not capable of putting them into practice.”

Ho-lu then realized Sun Tzu’s capacity as a commander, and eventually made him a general. Sun Tzu defeated the strong State of Ch’u to the west and entered Ying; to the north he intimidated the Ch’i and Chin.

That the name of Wu was illustrious among the feudal lords was partly due to his achievements. (The Yueh Chueh Shu says: “Outside the Wu gate of Wu Hsieh, at a distance of ten li, there was a large tomb which is that of Sun Tzu.”)