History Lessons

Sun Bin

Getting the numbers right

Sun Bin

Rumour has it that Sun Bin, one of the best known military strategists in ancient China, was the descendant of Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War. Indeed, the two strategists do seem to share more than a surname: both were clever and cunning.

Sun Bin was born in Qi, one of the seven states in China’s Warring States Period (476-221 BC). The King of Qi appointed Sun to be his chief strategist in a conflict with his neighbour, Wei.

At first, Wei seemed successful in fending off Qi’s attack. After the Qi army had retreated, Wei’s commander Pang Guan went to inspect the ground previously occupied by Qi. He counted the number of cooking pits and estimated that they could serve about a hundred thousand soldiers; Pang was terrified.

On the next night, Pang followed the Qi’s to their next camp. To his relief, he only found enough cooking pits to serve fifty thousand soldiers.On the third night, Pang again followed the Qi army, this time only counting enough cooking pits for twenty thousand soldiers. He was elated; he reckoned that in the past three days over two thirds of the Qi army had deserted.

Pang ordered his troops to quickly catch up with the Qi army. After marching all day and night, the Wei soldiers finally established contact. However, not only were they surrounded by an ambush of archers, they were far outnumbered.

Sun had deceived Pang into thinking that the Qi army was getting smaller, knowing that Pang would immediately give chase to try to vanquish them.

But that meant the Wei armies were so exhausted they barely put up a fight and were quickly defeated.

The lesson: beware of bad data.

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