on 18 June 2011
Sun Bin was a military strategist born into the violent Warring States period in China. A descendent of the more famous Sun Wu ('Master Sun' or Sunzi) he is credited with writing the text which bears his name. Though references to it survived the Sun Bin itself was lost for two thousand years until parts of it were discovered in 1972, written on bamboo strips found during the archaeological excavation of a tomb dated to between 140-118 BC in Shandong province. This book presents the text itself and discusses its background and significance.
The first 90 pages are an introduction which places the Sun Bin firmly in context. It can be approached as a work of philosophy, a historical document, or an operational military manual. The authors consider all these aspect as well as the similarities and differences between the Sun Bin and Sunzi. For example, warfare had changed in the period between the two being written. Cavalry had been introduced, offensive weaponry improved and great advances in organising armies, all of which led to bigger and bloodier battles. Importantly the cultural and philosophical background of classical China is discussed without an understanding of which the Sun Bin cannot properly be appreciated. This introduction makes interesting reading, though some parts are a little dense as they have to summarise classical Chinese philosophy.
The next 96 pages present a translation of the Sun Bin text itself. It must be emphasised that the state of the recovered bamboo strips mean that the Sun Bin we have is only a part of the original document. Nearly 5,000 bamboo strips were excavated of which 187 complete, 109 partial and 68 fragmentary strips have been identified as being part of the Sun Bin. These form 16 chapters from a work which historical sources say comprised over 80 chapters. An additional 15 chapters from the same tomb dealing with military affairs but which cannot be said to be part of the Sun Bin are presented, as well as a short section of texts related to the Sun Bin from other sources. The translation is backed up with 40 pages of notes.
Some of the Sun Bin's chapters are complete or nearly so, some are very fragmentary. They usually describe how historical campaigns were won or take the form of a question and answer session, with a general or king asking Sun Bin questions on military matters which he answers. The Sun Bin is more concerned with the practicalities of how to wage war rather than the profound insights into the nature of conflict itself which makes the Sunzi so relevant even today.
A brief appendix describes the tomb's excavation, dating evidence, the tomb's occupants and the bamboo strips themselves. The book is rounded off with a bibliography and index.
While it generally lacks the depth of the Sunzi, the Sun Bin provides a window into early military philosophy. This book serves its purpose well by allowing the reader to appreciate it in many different ways.