History Lessons

Sun Bin

Ambush at the felled tree

During the Warring States period, Sun Bin and Pang Juan were both disciples of the same teacher.

After they graduated, Pang became a general in the state of Wei. But he was jealous of Sun’s talents and plotted to ruin him. On one occasion, Sun was badly hurt when Pang attacked him unexpectedly. Sun fled to state of Qi and became a military strategist.

The pair’s final duel took place at the Battle of Maling in 341 BC. The state of Wei attacked the Han, who immediately sought help from Qi.

One evening, Sun saw that the Wei army was about to pass through a narrow valley ideal for a night-time ambush.

He felled a tree and whittled off the bark and wrote on the exposed white wood: “Pang Juan will die by this tree!”

Then he gathered 10,000 of his best archers, hid them along the narrow road and ordered: “Shoot together if you see a fire lit!”

Pang eventually came across the place where the tree had been felled. He saw the whittled area and that there was something written on it, so he lit a torch.

Before he could finish reading, ten thousand crossbows fired together. The Wei forces fell back in disorder. Too vain to surrender, Pang committed suicide. His last words: “It is too bad that this battle will make that man [Sun] famous!”

The lesson: know your opponent.

Sun knew that Pang would be curious to read what was on the tree. It was Pang’s undoing.


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