Monday, February 13, 2012

Sun Tzu's The Art of War

I’ve been reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Happy Valentine's Day.

It's been interesting. As a writer, I'm used to putting two armies at war, (good and evil, love and conflict, humor verses dread), and I've learned more than I expected.

But the thing that taught me the most was on the very first page of the introduction. This is a biography of Sun Tzu by Ssu-ma Chien...

Sun Tzu Wu was a native of the Ch'i Stat. His ART OF WAR brought him to the notice of Ho Lu, King of Wu.
 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 Yes, 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 on of the King's favorite concubines at the head of each.

He then bade 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 comment are 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: "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."

 love letter...Valentines Day...
it all makes sense.
 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 Majesties 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." 

Love letter...Denied.
Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway 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 revolutions, 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 majesties inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them to go through fire and water, and they will not disobey."

I find that fascinating. So often I've read books that spend a ton of words watching a soldier learn how to use the sword, or a gun, or train physically for whatever task they must accomplish. I think that can be a waste of words. I think anyone anywhere could kill another person, with anything, if they have the correct mindset.

Writer Warrior
We’ve been talking a lot about focus here at The Prosers, and this story really struck me. I feel like one of those women sometimes. Embarrassed, like I’m dressed up to be a writer, but really I’m just a giggly young girl. Whenever I feel unfocused, it’s because, I now realize, it’s not a life or death thing if I become a writer. 

My family won’t suffer if I don’t, the world won’t even notice if my name is never on a spine of a library book that some fourteen year old girl will pull down. It’s not life and death for me.

But it might be for that young girl.

 I can remember several books that saved my life when I was a teenager, and several more that just distracted me from how hard my life was. And I lived a privileged and simple life, with no great tragedy.

But, even that isn’t enough to really change my focus, and turn me into a soldier.

The truth is...It is a life and death thing. Everyone of us are going to die someday. I’m going to die someday.

 I refuse to die with my stories still inside me.

With the publishing world the way it is right now, anyone can publish a book and get a few readers. Anyone anywhere can find an audience IF the have the correct mindset, and push through till the sound of the drum.

I need to stop being embarrassed, or weak, or scared, or too busy, or not dedicated. Because someone needs to write the stories in my head, and no one else is going to write them, except for me.

I wonder now, what happened to those concubines, those one hundred, seventy eight women, who were trained as soldiers. What happened next? There's a story there, a cool story, and if I'm not going to tell it, then who will? 

I don't want to be forgotten, and I don't want those girls, and the other characters who show up in my head, to become forgotten either.

And I'm the only one who can protect them.


  1. You are so right. I've come to believe more and more that writing and storytelling is a gift (okay, and a curse too, depending on my mood). Thanks for the inspiration to look at the big picture.

    I must add, though, that I'm a little disturbed by the story of those poor concubines! Yikes! (and yes, you should definitely write their story - probably about one of the replacement concubines - talk about pressure to perform)

  2. What a fascinating story. Did that really happen or was it more like a parable?

    I'm with you on this. I feel like there are stories burning in me just fighting to get out. I'm not sure why, but it is enough to make me lose sleep to write them. And I LOVE to sleep.

  3. Every woman should read Sun Tzu. She should read about Tomoe Gozen and Mary Edwards Walker too. Being powerful does not make you dangerous; it makes you effective. Strength and courage are merely foundations essential to the art of bringing your intention into the world. By itself, a sword is lifeless and benign, but it will inevitably express the content of the character of its owner.

    Pens work exactly the same way. Write those stories.

    Best wishes,

    D. M. Kenyon
    Author of The Lotus Blossom

  4. Very insightful, and very true. What you speak of is part of what motivates me to say all the things I say that so irritate some people. I don't want to let my characters...or my ideas, settings, concepts or feelings...down. That means neither neglecting them, nor disfiguring them in the name of marketability.
    I think it is good, also, for all of us to remember the potential impact, the power for the good that our stories can have. The world needs stories. It needs our stories and those of anyone else with tales to tell.

    Which is an extended way of saying, I agree with Sheena.

    I'd heard that story about the concubines before. I don't know if its considered to be factually true or not, but knowing the Chinese it wouldn't surprise me at all if it is.

  5. Sheena, thank you for that post. I needed to read it today. :)


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