Helping a Desperate Flea

Should a state help a weak neighbor? In one of the first lessons in his history of China up to his day (Song dynasty), Sima Guang counsels, by implication : Certainly not for the neighbor’s sake, but still…perhaps it could be advantageous to one’s own agenda.

魏 庞 涓 伐 韩。 韩 请 救 于 齐。 齐 威 王 召 大臣 而 谋 曰:“ 蚤 救 孰 与 晚 救?” 成 侯 曰:“ 不如 勿 救。” 田 忌 曰:“ 弗 救 则 韩 且 折 而 入于 魏, 不如 蚤 救 之。” 孙膑 曰:“ 夫 韩、 魏 之兵未 弊 而 救 之, 是 吾 代 韩 受 魏 之兵, 顾 反 听命 于 韩 也。 且 魏 有 破 国 之志, 韩 见 亡, 必 东面 而 诉 于 齐 矣。 吾 因 深 结 韩 之 亲 而 晚 承 魏 之 弊, 则 可受 重利 而得 尊 名 也。” 王 曰:“ 善。” 乃 阴 许 韩 使而 遣 之。 韩 因 恃 齐, 五 战 不胜, 而 东 委 国 于 齐。

[司马光 (2012-11-23). 资治通鉴(1) (Kindle Locations 277-279). . Kindle Edition.]

When the Chinese Warring States period state of Wei threatened tiny Han, Han asked Qi for help. Strategist Sun Bin counseled the Qi king to wait until Han was attacked and turned in desperation to Qi, then to rescue it for the double purpose of enabling him to take revenge against Qi for personal reasons and to achieve fame (presumably for the state, though this is ambiguous). Exactly what kind of “fame” Sun Bin wanted to achieve by this duplicitious behavior may be questioned. By the same token, the purpose that Sima Guang had in selecting this historical vignette from among many for inclusion in his history is equally ambiguous. The sneering nature of the Qi counselors is indicated by their use of the word “flea” [蚤] to describe their Han neighbor.

Multiple lessons can be derived from the broader story, among which is a lesson taught by the personal story of Sun Bin. As a successful strategist in his later years for the state of Qi, he both helped his new state and took revenge for his personal mistreatment in earlier years as an official in Wei, revenge that destroyed the power of Wei. Let the powerful think twice before mistreating subordinates.

Note: This strategic analysis led to the Battle of Maling. For Sima Qian’s account, see the Sun Zi’s Biography in the Shiji.

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