General Sun Trains Court Ladies

Sun Wu came to the southern kingdom of Wu and volunteered his service. King Helu, having heard about Sun's dexterity in military affairs, quickly received him. It was the 6th century B.C., when the numerous feudal lands in China fought one another for survival and expansion. The lords all over China were therefore quite eager to recruit talented men for the benefit of their own kingdoms.

King Helu asked: "I know you wrote about military affairs. But can you actually train troops?"

"Surely I can," replied Sun.

"What about women? Can you train women too?" The king asked playfully. 

"Surely I can," replied Sun.

What a spectacle that would be! King Helu, feeling mischievous, immediately gathered some of his court women, 180 of them, and asked Sun to train them for a parade on the drill ground.

Sun furnished each woman with a halberd, divided them into two teams, and appointed two of the king's favorite concubines as their team leaders.

"Do you all know left, right, front and back?" Sun asked. The women responded positively. 

Drums rolled and Sun gave the order to march right. The ladies, however, moved about randomly, all laughing out hard.

Sun called a stop and said: "It must be that orders were not explained clearly. This is the commander's fault. Let me give instructions one more time." And so he did.

Drums rolled again and Sun ordered the ranks to move left. But again the ladies laughed as they ambled about at will. 

Sun said: "The commander had explained his order clearly but the units did not follow instructions. This is the fault of the team leaders, who failed to discipline their troops." On the spot he ordered the execution of  the two team leaders for dereliction of duty.

King Helu, who had watched all this gleefully up to this point, was now greatly shocked. He interposed hurriedly: No, no, do not kill them! 

It was too late. "A general, when in command, has the prerogative to ignore some of his monarch's orders." With this declaration Sun had the two team leaders killed.

The death of the two royal concubines terrified everyone. The court ladies were now all somber and followed Sun's orders strictly.

Sun reported to the king: "The troops are ready for drills. Your majesty can now review them."

King Helu woefully answered: "The general may now retire to the guest house. I'm in no mood to review."

Sun remarked: "The king loves the idea of marshalling troops, but he cannot deal with hard reality."

King Helu did put Sun in command of his army later. Led by Sun, King Helu's forces won several wars against neighboring feudal domains and turned the state of Wu into a strong regional power. (

Terracotta Warriors from the Qin Dynasty of China
(Terracotta Warriors, the Qin Dynasty. Photo: Aaron Greenwood)