The twin battles of Guiling and Maling (354 and 342 BC respectively) during China’s Warring States period made the reputation of the otherwise little known Sun Bin, a supposed descendant of Sunzi. These battles were also of epochal importance by breaking the military power of the State of Wei and, indirectly, making the rise of Qin possible.
With the partitioning of the “Super-State” of Jin in 453 and the three states that resulted formally recognized by the Royal Zhou in 403, the most powerful successor was Wei. Its strength derived from its control over the central regions of Jin. However, Wei also possessed significant strategic weaknesses since its territory comprised two large halves connected by a narrow strip. Additionally, both of Wei’s capitals were located on flat terrain that left them completely exposed to attack.
Nevertheless under the able rule of Prince Wen (445-396) the state underwent radical internal reforms. In this, he was aided by capable individuals like Li Kui, Ximen Bao, and the military administrator Wu Qi. Wei grew in power steadily, causing the other Jin successor states, Hann (different Chinese character then the Han Dynasty) and Zhao, to become wary and break off their existing alliances. In 370 Wen’s grandson, Prince Hui came to power following a civil war and invasions by Hann and Zhao. Hui, an ambitious ruler, immediately began expanding in all four directions.
By 356 Prince Hui felt powerful enough to force attendance by the minor states of Lu, Song, Wey (different Chinese character then Wei), and Zheng to a formal conference to affirm Wei superiority. Zhao was also supposed to attend, but instead formed a mutual defense pact with the State of Qi, now a great northeastern power. Two years later Wei led Hann, Zhao, and Wey in expanding their territories at the expense of their perimeter enemies. Zhao though failed to profit and now felt pressure to find some way to continue keeping up with Hann and Wei.
Later that year Zhao launched a mass invasion of Wey, forcing it to pay homage. This action was poorly received by Wei, as Wey was previously paying tribute to them. Prince Hui ordered a single, great, surgical strike directly at the Zhao capital of Handan aiming for a short war that would empower his state. As a first stroke, Wei forces besieged Chiqiu before heading on to the capital.
The other feudal states of China reacted badly to this move, wishing to prevent Wei from being able to wield power like Jin had done before the Warring States. Zhao sent a desperate plea for aid to Qi and Chu (a great southern power). Duke Wei of Qi was undecided about what to do and allowed his retainers to argue it out. The arguments of Sun Bin and Duanhan Lun (who might have been the same person) to “rescue” Zhao won out. Sun and Duanhan did not advocate for immediate intervention, but waiting until the two sides had worn each other out. Thus, Qi would be left in a position of strength by the end of the fighting.
To that end, they advanced a three-point plan:
- Attack Xiangling with Song, Wey, and Chu to fool the Wei forces into thinking that Qi intended to attack their supply lines and primary staging area in the south.
- Send a dispatch to Handan to let Zhao know that help was on the way.
- Allow Handan to fall and Zhao to teeter on the brink of collapse before actually moving forward.
Sun Bin as depicted in a Ming Dynasty portrait. See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This let Qi appear as if it was fulfilling its obligations but also let it take advantage of the situation. Qi forces were mobilized and a small, but highly skilled, the army was sent to besiege Xiangling. When Handan fell a year later, Qi gathered its forces to attack.
The army sent to Wei was commanded by General Tian Ji, with Sun Bin as his strategist. Sun suggested an attack on Pingling, another southern supply depot and staging area as a feint. To do this, he had the general send two detached columns under incompetent commanders. On receiving word of the columns’ defeat Tian Ji and Sun Bin dispatched their light chariots and light infantry to attack the suburbs of Daliang, Wei’s greatest city in the east. Chu was also active in this campaign, posing its own a threat to Daliang.
An already rattled Prince Hui desperately called for aid from his general Pang Juan, still in Zhao. Pang, believing the Qi army to be relatively small, departed for Daliang with only his elite light troops with him. While the Wei forces marched south, Sun Bin called forth his tactical reserves from across the border and planned an ambush. The site he chose was Guiling, through which Pang Juan would have to pass to reach Daliang. The Qi forces deployed in depth and partially concealed.
As a result when the Wei forces finally did arrive they were taken completely by surprise. Suffering both from the after-effects of siege warfare and the quick march south the forces of Pang Juan crumbled under the press of the Qi assault. Sun Bin’s forces were well-rested and supremely motivated, allowing him to defeat Pang’s Wei forces handily.
In the chaos, the Wei commander was captured and General Tian allowed Sun Bin to decide his fate. For the strategist, this was an opportunity for revenge. Pang Juan and Sun Bin had once been competitors for Prince Hui’s favor, and Pang won the contest by mutilating and exiling Sun. Strangely Sun Bin allowed Pang Juan to live and sent him back to Wei in disgrace. The campaign had ended in smashing victory for Qi, allowing Zhao to recover and ending the myth of Wei military invincibility. In the west Qin, sensing opportunity, invaded Wei. At the battle of Yuanli, they defeated Prince Hui’s troops and annexed Shaoliang, part of Wei’s home territory.
Sun Bin and the Qi army’s spectacular feat was not enough to end Wei’s hegemonic ambitions. In 352 Prince Hui, with Hann assistance, was able to defeat the allied armies at Xiangling and conclude terms. The next year Handan was returned to Zhao and a peace settlement reached on friendly terms. This allowed Prince Hui to turn his attentions on Qin. Shaoliang was reclaimed, and the city of Dingyang captured. In 350 Prince Hui was able to force Duke Xiao of Qin to do homage and accept Wei overlordship. In 344 Prince Wei declared himself equal to the Zhou king and gave himself a royal title. Qi’s Duke Wei followed suit, the two rulers agreeing to recognize the other’s independence from Zhou.
In a display of strength, Wei called a conference at Fengze to affirm its power and superiority. Song, Wey, Zou, Lu, and Hann were all summoned to attend. Hann was the only absence, building up strength under the guidance of its Legalist chief counselor, Shen Buhai. In 343 Hann armies attacked minor states nearby, which coupled with Hann’s general aim since Guiling of strengthening their position in the center of the plains, posed a serious threat to Wei.
King Hui, therefore, had three reasons to attack Hann. First, Hann territory intersected Wei and divided them into halves. Second, Hann’s growing strength posed a threat to Wei hegemony. Third, Hann’s refusal to show up at Fengze was perceived as an insult.
Pang Juan was dispatched to attack Xinzheng, the Hann capital. Much like with Zhao twelve years earlier, King Hui was aiming for clean surgical strike straight at the enemy capital to bring the war to an end quickly. Hann called on Qi for aid, judging that Qin was in no position to help and that Chu would just swallow up their southern half.
King Wei asked his retainers to argue it out. Eventually, the arguments of Sun Bin and Tian Chensi won out. Wary of Hann’s growing power and hoping to increase Qi’s prestige Sun and Tian advocated waiting for one year to allow both sides to tire out. A repeat of the strategy adopted when Wei invaded Zhao. Like before, Hann was given assurances of support.
A year later Hann, having been defeated by Pang Juan five times in major battles, sent a second plea for aid. They even agreed to recognize Qi overlordship in their desperation. Qi, which had been gathering its troops along the border, swung into action. Tian Ji (given certain chronological difficulties, Tian Ban is sometimes suggested instead) and Tian Ying were both appointed generals and Sun Bin as their strategist.
Under Sun Bin’s advice, Tian Ji led his army on a march to Daliang. King Hui responded by recalling Pang Juan from his siege of Xinzheng, the Hann capital. He also mobilized a fresh army under his heir, Crown Prince Shen (also called Jia), which would unite with Pang’s army to overwhelm the Qi forces with sheer weight of numbers.
The Qi army withdrew in the sight of the two Wei columns. Sun Bin knew Pang Juan would be wary of ambush, so he concocted a clever ruse. Over three days he ordered the number of cooking fires reduced to less than half the original to make it appear as though their troops were deserting. In the meanwhile, Tian Ji and Tian Ying had been leading the army to Mt. Maling, near modern Tancheng in Shandong.
Sun Bin had chosen his site carefully. The road to the mountain passed through a valley marked by ravines and wooded hillsides. Here Sun laid out an ambush force in a circular formation along the sides and the far end of the valley, erected fortifications, and held most of the Qi army in reserve at the mouth of the valley. Pang Juan, meanwhile, had abandoned the greater part of his army to race ahead with his elite vanguard at double pace. He arrived at Maling by dusk, with Crown Prince Shen lagging behind.
According to the Records of the Grand Historian Sun Bin, had scraped some bark off of a tree and wrote: “Pang Juan died under this tree”. He also left orders to his crossbowmen to rise and fire as one when they saw a torch. The results were predictable. Pang perished in a hail of bolts (alternatively he escaped the initial volley only to commit suicide later), and his army thrown into disarray as the Qi army sprung its trap. Crown Prince Shen’s troops were soon caught up in the trap as well as they found themselves attacked from behind by the Qi reserve. The Wei forces found themselves trapped in a killing zone with no way out and destroyed.
A map of the Maling campaign. By Tzhu (the English language Wikipedia (log)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Historical records differ as to the fate of the Wei crown prince, with him either falling in battle, being captured, or committing suicide. In any case, the Qi victory at Maling was another smashing success and confirmed Sun Bin’s reputation. Qin and Zhao allied with Qi to make considerable territorial gains at Wei’s expense. Qin, in particular, prospered at the direction of Shang Yang, who attacked Wei in 340, capturing the new Wei crown prince and forced King Hui to cede all territory west of the Yellow River. Wei then moved its capital to Daliang to escape Qin and never recovered its former power. Qi meanwhile enjoyed undisputed hegemony in eastern China for the next several decades before its decline.