Battle of Maling, 342 BC

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T’ien Qi and Sun Pin versus Prince Shen and P’ang Chuan: A Qi army under T’ien Qi and Sun Pin plans a daring ruse to defeat a Wei army under Prince Shen and P’ang Chuan, known as the Tactic of the Missing Stoves. Will the Wei commanders see through this deception or will Sun Pin retain his masterful reputation?

maling preview 1


Pure examples of warring states periods are relatively unique across history but they nonetheless produce much great literature of war. It was the Chinese Warring States period in which Sun Tzu wrote, and the Italian Wars in which Machiavelli wrote. Both of these authors can teach us much about operating in an environment filled with threats and deceit. What is interesting about such periods of intense competition among many powers is the ambivalence of outcomes. A victory, like the Qi victory at Maling, can result in overall defeat if one cannot handle the hegemony that comes with it; one can become a target for strong coalitions and lose more than the spoils of the victory that gained one such pre-eminence. Any player of the board game Risk is well-aware of this. In international relations theory, such time periods and concepts support realism, a theory based on the assumptions that the primary actors in politics are states, that they all seek power, and that the great competition between states is a zero-sum game. As stated previously, such time periods are relatively unique.


This battle immortalized the Tactic of the Missing Stoves as an ingenious ploy. It may seem that such a deception plan can only truly work once since any future commanders will recognize the ploy when utilized against them. However, this illustrates the intelligence dilemma commanders and their intelligence staffs (which they hopefully possess) face when trying to assess the enemy’s capabilities, intent and objectives. If one assumes that the decreasing numbers of stoves indicates a deception plan, how is one able to recognize when the enemy soldiers are actually deserting? One simple answer is to use multiple sources; an effective reconnaissance could have gained the Wei commanders more insight into the Qi army’s capabilities. However, Sun Pin’s deception plan was accepted more easily because it fit the Wei commanders’ low opinion of Qi soldiers and P’ang Chuan’s own assumptions:

rather than profiting from his expensive historical lesson at Kuei-ling, he succumbed to the dangerous error of evaluating military intelligence and analyzing behavior through the matrix of his own expectations and desires. Naturally this is a complex issue, for raw, unevaluated information may easily prove worse than useless, leading to completely skewed actions. However, assessments based upon false premises, which detect in enemy behavior the confirmation of these premises, are equally fatal. In this Sun Pin’s genius for “knowing the enemy” proved vastly superior. While P’ang Chuan’s reaction may be interpreted as simply anger and arrogance, in fact the more fundamental issue may be termed fostered misperception, Sun Pin having exploited a tendency he recognized in P’ang Chuan by structuring events to sustain and nurture it. (Sawyer, 1995: 53)

In modern military terms, Sun Pin was able to “get inside the enemy’s decision cycle” and completely defeat Wei. For more information on this concept, commonly referred to as the OODA loop, please check out John Boyd’s briefings available online.

maling preview 2


This is the first of hopefully many animations from China’s rich military history, especially the Warring States period.

There are no casualties listed for this battle because I did not encounter any figures aside from Sawyer’s vague “100,000 men from Wei could have easily been killed and captured [if such and such happened” (1995: 57). Wikipedia lists casualty figures but they appear to be pulled out of nowhere as there is no citation.

This battle was actually quite difficult to animate as it took place outside my realm of knowledge. From my general reading, I possess a good idea of what ancient Roman or Greek warfare looks like, but I could not assume that ancient Chinese warfare operated along the same lines. I found myself continuously referring back to my sources just to answer simple questions. For example, what role do chariots play? In ancient Chinese warfare, they are often employed as stationary weapons platforms on the defensive. Due to the scanty sources for this battle, much of the animation is based on such presuppositions: what tactics were often utilized at the lowest levels, and how were weapons and units often employed. Future animations for this region and time period will be much better as I familiarize myself with the topic.

– Jonathan Webb

Works Consulted

Lau, D.C. and Robert T. Ames. Sun Pin: The Art of Warfare. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

Peers, C.J. and Angus McBride. Ancient Chinese Armies 1500-200 BC. London: Osprey, 1990.

Sawyer, Ralph. D. Sun Pin: Military Methods. Oxford: Westview, 1995.


Qi soldiers:

Sun Pin:

Wei soldiers:


If you enjoyed the Battle of Maling 342 BC battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:

Gate Pa 1864, another battle featuring an ambush:

gate pa preview 1

Battle of Mukden 1905, another battle fought in modern day China:

mukden preview 1

Battle of Sacheon 1592, another battle fought in Eastern Asia:

sacheon preview 1Thank you for visiting The Art of Battle: Animated Battle Maps.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Hi Jonathan. I know I have posted these suggestions elsewhere on this website, but if you’re looking to expand into Chinese military history, I recommend doing the Battle of Chengpu (632 BC) between the Jin and the Chu. It’s a very detailed battle with lots of different tactical maneuvers (Envelopment of a single flank, feigned retreat and finally a double envelopment).

    Another one worth looking into from this time period is the Battle of Changping (260 BC) between the Qin and Zhao. The tactics used in the battle include a “Cannae-style” feigned retreat, a double envelopment, and an attack from a defensive position.

    • Chengpu seems to be requested a lot. It has been on my list for awhile but perhaps it should be short-listed. Changping is one I am not familiar with. Could you suggest any good English sources?

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