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Articles

The Sun Bin Redemption

William A. Reeves

China’s military generals changed history era after era, leaving legends behind them. They braved the battles, had great wisdom and were loyal to their kingdoms.They mastered warcraft and understood the hidden designs of fate. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the horses galloping across the battlefields.

The story of how a military genius, nearly destroyed by his sworn brother, passed his secrets of battle strategy to the world.

Sun Bin and Pang Juan were sworn brothers, trained together in military arts from a young age by the legendary Chinese hermit Guiguzi. Pang was the first to leave quietude — yearning to strive in the world of men. Their parting was grief-stricken, and Pang pledged his loyalty. “If I succeed in the Wei State, I will call for you!” he said tearfully. “If I don’t keep my promise, may I die from a thousand arrows!”

 
A portrait of Sun Bin, grandson of Sun Tzu, painted during the Ming Dynasty, after his death.

A portrait of Sun Bin, grandson of Sun Tzu, painted during the Ming Dynasty, after his death.

 

Sun said there was no need for such vows. But neither of them had any idea how true those words would become.

Pang did, in fact, succeed beyond his wildest dreams once he arrived in the State of Wei, one of the seven major powers during the Warring States period in China (475 BC – 221 BC). But he never took to heart the teachings of his master.

1972, ancient bamboo scrolls containing Sun Bin’s Art of War were unearthed on Yinque Mountain, Linyi, Shandong Province. The originals, two millennia old and dark with age, are pictured inset behind the replicas.

1972, ancient bamboo scrolls containing Sun Bin’s Art of War were unearthed on Yinque Mountain, Linyi, Shandong Province. The originals, two millennia old and dark with age, are pictured inset behind the replicas.

Sun, meanwhile, remained in obscurity, while Guiguzi passed to him his most powerful teachings: a body of knowledge written by Sun Bin’s grandfather, Sun Tzu, The Art of War. These codes of military strategy and thought, Guiguzi said, could help the world if used by a good man, but could bring chaos under heaven if they fell into the hands of a villain.

Miles away, Pang’s ambitions were degenerating into a lust for power. After he settled into his generalship in the state of Wei, he racked up a series of military victories, burnished his reputation and eventually called for Sun to join him.

Pang knew that Sun had learned great secrets of military strategy under the continued tutelage of Guiguzi, many more than Pang had. He was jealous, craved the teachings, and planned to cajole the secrets of military strategies out of Sun, and then kill him.

 
During the Battle of Maling (c. 342 BC), Sun famously defeated the savage-minded Pang using strategies from The Art of War. At the moment of his old friend’s death, Sun was grief-stricken.(Illustration by Mu Chuan)

During the Battle of Maling (c. 342 BC), Sun famously defeated the savage-minded Pang using strategies from The Art of War. At the moment of his old friend’s death, Sun was grief-stricken.(Illustration by Mu Chuan)

 

After Sun arrived, Pang began hatching his deadly trap. First, he lured Sun into writing a letter, which he intercepted and used to forge Sun’s handwriting. He quickly produced a fake, which claimed that Sun schemed to kill the King of Wei and take the throne. The King was furious and Sun would have been executed if Pang had not intervened: “Why not simply tatoo the Chinese characters ‘treason’ on Sun’s face and remove his kneecaps?” he suggested.

Sun was reduced to crawling on the ground. Pang pretended to be his friend, saving Sun from death and caring for him every day. Sun felt a deep gratitude and sense of debt, and under the gentle coaxing of Pang began to write down all that he had been taught by their master. The Art of War was about to fall into the hands of the treacherous Pang.

However, one of the servants overheard Pang’s plot to starve Sun to death once he completed the book. Sun was shocked. “How can I pass the teachings to so vicious a person?” He remembered what his master had told him, and realized that Pang could not gain The Art of War.

Casting about for ideas, he remembered what Guiguzi told him before he left: that if he was ever in trouble, he should open the tiny bag he had been given and read the characters scrawled inside. He read the two characters: “Feign Madness.”
And so Sun did, casting all he had written about the art of war into the fire, writhing around and mouthing nonsense like a madman, giving every impression that he had truly lost his mind.

Sun was so convincing as a lunatic that, within a few months, Pang turned his attentions elsewhere. Sun had averted death. Powerful sympathizers later brought him, the genius-in-disguise, to the state of Qi to serve behind the scenes as military advisor.

Before long, Pang and Sun stood on opposite sides of the battlefield. But Sun remained in the background and didn’t let Pang know that he was the guiding intelligence behind the devastating battle formations on the field.

In the ensuing battle, Pang found himself outclassed and outmatched, routed constantly, with troops destroyed and stratagems thwarted. During one battle, Pang thought he was fighting against General Tian Ji from Qi — but the style of battle formations seemed somehow familiar. Then the legendary sage of war ordered his soldiers to heave high the battle flags, which had “Sun” written on them. Pang, horrified, realized that his brother had escaped and was alive and well. Pang’s army was destroyed.

The last time Pang and Sun met in the battlefield, Sun employed a masterful strategy. Called “reducing stoves,” it meant having the troops gradually use fewer fires for their cooking every night. Pang kept scouts who noticed the change, that originally there were fires for 100,000 soldiers, then 50,000, and then 30,000, a pattern easily mistaken for a shrinking army.

Pang smacked his lips and set forth on a charge, personally leading 20,000 of his elite troops into battle, and walked directly into Sun’s trap.

At dusk, Pang arrived at Maling, where Sun’s troops had been. Fresh logs were blocking the road. “The Qi army is afraid of me,” Pang roared, “so they block the way!” He ordered the path be cleared and made his way to one of the largest logs, which had writing on it. He waved a torch over the words: “Pang Juan dies under this tree.”

Pang realized it was a trap and began shouting — but it was too late. Using the torch as their target, thousands of crossbowmen and archers took aim and riddled Pang’s body with arrows. It was just as Pang had promised when the brothers parted all those years ago. “If I don’t keep my promise, may I die from a thousand arrows.”

Sun held no grudges after Pang’s death and demanded mercy for Pang’s nephew, and rather than continue his military campaigns, retreated to the wilderness to live as a hermit, cultivating the Tao. There he compiled Sun Bin’s Art of War, a book that, alongside his grandfather Sun Zhu’s original tome, remains a classic of Chinese philosophy and thought to this day.