Ancient Chinese Strategies
The Thirty Six Strategies are a unique collection of ancient Chinese proverbs that describe some of the most cunning and subtle strategies ever devised by man.
Whereas other Chinese military texts such as Sun Tzu The Art of War focus on military organization, leadership, and battlefield tactics, the Thirty Six Strategies are more suitably applied in the fields of politics, diplomacy, and espionage.
These proverbs describe not only battlefield strategies, but tactics used in psychological warfare to undermine both the enemy's will to fight - and his sanity.
Tactics such as the 'double cross', the 'frame job', and the 'bait and switch', can be traced back through thousands of years of Chinese history to such proverbs as 'Hide the Dagger Behind a Smile', 'Kill With a Borrowed Sword', and 'Toss out a Brick to Attract Jade' respectively.
Though other Chinese military works of strategy have at least paid lip service to the Confucian notion of honour, the Thirty-Six Strategies make no pretence of being anything but ruthless.
For the western reader the Thirty Six Strategies offers timeless insights into the workings of human nature under conditions of extreme stress.
Many of the proverbs are based on events that occurred during China's Warring States Era (403-221 BC).
This was a time so infamous, that a later Emperor banned history books of that era on the grounds that they contained accounts of such a devious nature, they would morally corrupt all who read them.
Many of those accounts are presented here along with the exploits of some of the orient's greatest generals, kings, emperors, and shoguns.
The Six Winning Strategies
1. Deceive the sky to cross the ocean
Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy's guard you must act in the open and hide your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.
2. Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào
When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that in all things he cannot be superior. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead. The origins of this proverb is from the Warring States Period. The state of Wèi attacked Zhao and laid siege to its capital Handan. Zhào turned to Qí for help, but the Qí general Sun Bin determined it would be unwise to meet the army of Wèi head on, so he instead attacked their capital at Daliang. The army of Wèi retreated in haste, and they were ambushed and defeated at the Battle of Guiling, with the Wèi general Pang Juan slain on the field.
3. Kill with a borrowed knife
Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one's own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy's own strength against him.
4. Substitute leisure for labor
It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.
5. Loot a house on fire
When a country is beset by internal conflicts, when disease and famine ravage the population, when corruption and crime are rampant, then it will be unable to deal with an outside threat. This is the time to attack.
6. Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west
In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy's mind through the use of a feint.
The Six Confrontation Strategies
7. Create something from nothing
You use the same feint twice. Having reacted to the first and often the second feint as well, the enemy will be hesitant to react to a third feint. Therefore the third feint is the actual attack catching your enemy with his guard down.
8. Sneak through the passage of Chencang
Attack the enemy with two convergent forces. The first is the direct attack, one that is obvious and for which the enemy prepares his defense. The second is the indirect, the attack sinister, that the enemy does not expect and which causes him to divide his forces at the last minute leading to confusion and disaster. This (confrontation strategies) proverb is literally translated as "openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang". The phrase originated from the Chu-Han contention, where Liu Bang retreated to the lands of Sichuan to prepare for a confrontation with Xiang Yu. Once he was fully prepared, Liu Bang sent men to openly repair the gallery roads he had destroyed earlier, while secretly moving his troops towards Guanzhong through the small town of Chencang instead. When Xiang Yu received news of Liu Bang repairing the gallery roads, he dismissed the threat since he knew the repairs would take years to complete. This allowed Liu Bang to retake Guanzhong by surprise, and eventually led to his victory over Xiang Yu and the birth of the Han Dynasty.
9. Watch the fires burning across the river
Delay entering the field of battle until all the other players have become exhausted fighting amongst themselves. Then go in full strength and pick up the pieces.
10. Hide a knife behind a smile
Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, you move against him in secret.
11. Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree
There are circumstances in which you must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal. This is the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not. Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms Period demonstrated this strategy. During a siege, Cao supplies ran low so he called in the supply captain and told him to dilute the rice with water to save grains. When the soldiers started to complain, Cao ordered for the captain to be killed. He would explain to his troops that the captain has been selling supplies to the enemy. This raises the army morale and they were victorious in a few more days.
12. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat
While carrying out your plans be flexible enough to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, however small, and avail yourself of any profit, however slight.
The Six Attack Strategies
13. Startle the snake by hitting the grass around it.
When preparing for battle, do not alert your enemy to your intentions or give away your strategy prematurely.
14. Borrow another's corpse to resurrect the soul.
Take an institution, a technology, or a method that has been forgotten or discarded and appropriate it for your own purpose.
Revive something from the past by giving it a new purpose or to reinterpret and bring to life old ideas, customs, and traditions.
15. Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair
Never directly attack an opponent whose advantage is derived from its position. Instead lure him away from his position thus separating him from his source of strength.
16. In order to capture, one must let loose.
Cornered prey will often mount a final desperate attack. To prevent this you let the enemy believe he still has a chance for freedom.
His will to fight is thus dampened by his desire to escape.
When in the end the freedom is proven a falsehood the enemy's morale will be defeated and he will surrender without a fight.
17. Tossing out a brick to get a jade
Prepare a trap then lure your enemy into the trap by using bait.
In war the bait is the illusion of an opportunity for gain.
In life the bait is the illusion of wealth, power, and sex.
This proverb is based on a story involving two famous poets of the Tang Dynasty.
There was a great poet named Zhao Gue and another lesser poet by the name of Chang Jian. While Chang Jian was traveling in Suzhou, he heard news that Zhao Gu would be visiting a temple in the area.
Chang Jian wished to learn from the master poet, so he devised a plan and went to the temple in advance, then wrote a poem on the temple walls with only two of the four lines completed, hoping Zhao Gu would see it and finish the poem.
Zhao Gu acted as Chang Jian forsaw, and from this story came the proverb.
18. Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief
If the enemy's army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money or threats, then take aim at the leader.
If the commander falls the rest of the army will disperse or come over to your side. If, however, they are allied to the leader through loyalty then beware, the army can continue to fight on after his death out of vengeance.
The Six Chaos Strategies
9. Remove the firewood under the cooking pot
When faced with an enemy too powerful to engage directly you must first weaken him by undermining his foundation and attacking his source of power.
20. Catch a fish while the water is disturbed
Before engaging your enemy's forces create confusion to weaken his perception and judgement. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy's suspicion and disrupt his thinking. A distracted enemy is thus more vulnerable.
21. Slough off the cicada's shell
When you are in danger of being defeated, and your only chance is to escape and regroup, then create an illusion. While the enemy's attention is focused on this artifice, secretly remove your men leaving behind only the facade of your presence.
22. Shut the door to catch the thief
If you have the chance to completely capture the enemy then you should do so thereby bringing the battle or war to a quick and lasting conclusion. To allow your enemy to escape plants the seeds for future conflict. But if they succeed in escaping, be wary of giving chase.
23. Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbour
It is known that nations that border each other become enemies while nations separated by distance and obstacles make better allies. When you are the strongest in one field, your greatest threat is from the second strongest in your field, not the strongest from another field.
24. Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo Borrow the resources of an ally to attack a common enemy. Once the enemy is defeated, use those resources to turn on the ally that lent you them in the first place.
The Six Advance Strategies
25. Replace the beams with rotten timbers
Disrupt the enemy's formations, interfere with their methods of operations, change the rules in which they are used to following, go contrary to their standard training. In this way you remove the supporting pillar, the common link that makes a group of men an effective fighting force.
26. Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree
To discipline, control, or warn others whose status or position excludes them from direct confrontation; use analogy and innuendo. Without directly naming names, those accused cannot retaliate without revealing their complicity.
27. Play dumb
Hide behind the mask of a fool, a drunk, or a madman to create confusion about your intentions and motivations. Lure your opponent into underestimating your ability until, overconfident, he drops his guard. Then you may attack.
28. Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof.
With baits and deceptions lure your enemy into treacherous terrain. Then cut off his lines of communication and avenue of escape. To save himself he must fight both your own forces and the elements of nature.
29. Deck the tree with false blossoms
Tying silk blossoms on a dead tree gives the illusion that the tree is healthy. Through the use of artifice and disguise make something of no value appear valuable; of no threat appear dangerous; of no use appear useful.
30. Make the host and the guest exchange roles
Defeat the enemy from within by infiltrating the enemy's camp under the guise of cooperation, surrender, or peace treaties. In this way you can discover his weakness and then, when the enemy's guard is relaxed, strike directly at the source of his strength.
Desperate Situations Strategies31. The honey pot
Send your enemy beautiful women to cause discord within his camp.This strategy can work on three levels.First, the ruler becomes so enamoured with the beauty that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane.Second, other males at court will begin to display aggressive behaviour that inflames minor differences hindering co-operation and destroying morale.Third, other females at court, motivated by jealousy and envy, begin to plot intrigues further exasperating the situation. Even though this has been done many times, perhaps the most famous historical example is Xi Shi who was sent to the State of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period.
32. The empty fort strategy
When the enemy is superior in numbers and your situation is such that you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all pretence of military preparedness and act casually.Unless the enemy has an accurate description of your situation this unusual behaviour will arouse suspicions.With luck he will be dissuaded from attacking.
33. Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp
Undermine your enemy's ability to fight by secretly causing discord between him and his friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers, and population. While he is preoccupied settling internal disputes his ability to attack or defend, is compromised.
34. Inflict injury on one's self to win the enemy's trust
Pretending to be injured has two possible applications. In the first, the enemy is lulled into relaxing his guard since he no longer considers you to be an immediate threat. The second is a way of ingratiating yourself to your enemy by pretending the injury was caused by a mutual enemy.
This strategy was perhaps best demonstrated during the Spring and Autumn Period.
After his defeat by King Fu Chai of Wu, King Gou Jian of Yue pretended to go to Wu to become a servant of Fu Chai.
After gaining Fu Chai's trust, Guo Jian was allow back to Yue. There he strengthen his military and in 482 BC while Fu Chai was trying to gain hegemony, he attacked and conquered the capital. Some years later in 478 BC, he annexed Wu and forced Fu Chai to commit suicide.
35. The strategy of combining tactics
In important matters one should use several strategies applied simultaneously. Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme; in this manner if any one strategy fails you would still have several others to fall back on.
36. If all else fails, retreat
If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat then retreat and regroup. When your side is losing there are only three choices remaining: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat.
As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance.
This is the most famous one of the 36th strategy, immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: "Of the Thirty-Six Strategies, fleeing is best."