Anyone thinking about doing business in China needs to at least know about the 36 Stratagems.
Here’s my take on this classic.
BACKGROUND on the 36 STRATAGEMS
- First appeared in the official history of Southern Qi about 1,500 years ago.
- No one knows who wrote them or even if it was one or many authors.
- The 36 Stratagems emphasizes the use of deception, subterfuge or hidden tactics to achieve one’s objectives. Hence the title the Secret Art of War.
- They are grouped into six sets; the first three are designed for use when one holds the advantage, and the second three for when one is at a disadvantage.
- The term “stratagem”, should not be confused with the term ‘strategy’; a stratagem is a clever, sometimes unconventional solution to a problem, can also be described a tactics. Think of it like this, strategies are big picture and they don’t change whereas tactics are specifics and flexible. Tactics are the set of actions taken to fulfill a strategy.
- Good to use in combination with Sun Tzu’s Art of War which focuses on strategies.
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
– Sun Tzu (Chinese General, circa 500 BC)
Secret Art of War: The 36 Stratagems
Stratagems – When in a Superior Position
1.瞒天过海(man2 tian1 guo4 hai3) – Deceive the sky to cross the ocean
Moving about in the shadows or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard, act in the open and hide your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.
Is this not the action of the con-man? Actions and behavior done in the open, that are done naturally and convincingly, lulls the target into dismissing any negativity.
2.围魏救赵 (wei2 wei4 jiu4 zhao4) – Besiege Wei to rescue Zhào
Do not directly attack a strong opponent, first attack something he holds dear and then strike when they are distracted.
The origin of this proverb is from the Warring States Period.
Zhào turned to Qí for help, but the Qí determined it would be unwise to meet the army of Wèi head on, so instead attacked the Wei’s capital city. The Wei army retreated in haste to defend, then while en route was ambushed and defeated.
3.借刀杀人(jie4 dao1 sha1 ren2) – Kill with a borrowed knife.
Use others or get help from others to accomplish your goals; either because you need the assistance, because it conserves your own resources or because you want to keep your nose clean.
Trick another competitor into attacking your target, corrupt an official to cause trouble, entice an insider to turn traitor etc…
4.以免待劳(yi3 mian3 dai4 lao2) – Relax as your enemy labors.
Encourage your opponent to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. Send them on wild goose chases, or by make them come to you from far away while you stand your ground. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.
5.趁火打劫(chen4 huo3 da3 jie2) – Loot a burning house
Use others’ troubles as opportunities to gain something for yourself.
6.声东击西(sheng1 dong1 ji1 xi1) – Feint east, strike west.
Make the opponent to concentrate his defenses on one front and thereby leave another front vulnerable to attack. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint, be it spreading misleading information about your intentions, or make false suggestions.
A.k.a. Attack where it’s least expected.
Similar to and can be used in combination with Number 11. – Sacrifice a plum for a peach
Stratagems – During Confrontation
7.无中生有(wu2 zhong1 sheng1 you3) – Create something from nothing.
Either conveying the impression that you have what you do not (not necessarily an out and out lie, it may be a half-truth or an exaggerated truth such as agreements not yet signed, partnerships as yet secured, you get the point). Resulting in appearing more formidable than you are and thus able to acquire promises, resources, permissions, or even partnerships out of thin air.
Or, 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.暗渡陳倉(an4 du4 chen2 cang1) – Sneak through the passage of Chen Cang
This proverb is a shortened form of “明修棧道,暗渡陳倉” (ming2 xiu1 zhen4 dao4, an4 du4 chen2 cang1), literally translated as “openly repair the mountain pass, but sneak through the passage of Chen Cang”.
Attack with two convergent forces, the first is direct and obvious and the one your opponent prepares for. The second is the indirect and unseen, and which causes him to divide his attention at the last minute leading to confusion and disaster.
Used in the Allied invasion of Normandy using the Pas de Calais deception)
This comes from the Warring States Period of Chinese history when rebellions broke out following the death of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
The rebel forces were lead mainly by Xiang Yu and while Xiang Yu was preoccupied with the Qin army elsewhere, his rival, Liu Bang was able to capture Guangzhou which should have been awarded to Liu Bang. Xiang Yu however had the far stronger army and revoked his promise, sending Liu Bang to Hangzhou instead.
As a ruse, Liu Bang destroyed the mountain pass connecting Guanzhong and Hanzhong to assure Xiang Yu that he would not return to contend his rule thereby gaining time to raise and train a larger army in peace. Once he was fully prepared, Liu Bang sent men to openly repair the mountain pass he had destroyed earlier, while secretly moving his troops towards Guangzhou through the small town of Chen Cang instead.
When Xiang Yu received news of Liu Bang repairing the mountain pass, he dismissed the threat since he knew the repairs would take years to complete. This allowed Liu Bang to retake Guangzhou by surprise, and eventually led to his victory over Xiang Yu and the birth of the Han Dynasty.
9.隔岸观火(ge4 an4 guan1 huo3) – Watch the fires burning from across the river.
Wait until all the other players have become exhausted fighting amongst themselves and then go in with full strength and pick up the pieces.
Used in combination with #5 – Loot a burning house
10.笑里藏刀(xiao4 li3 cang2 dao1) – Hide a knife in a smile.
This one is a real bastard.
Charm and ingratiate yourself to your target and then once you have gained their confidence and trust, you move against him in secret.
11.李代桃僵(li3 dai4 tao2 jiang1) – Sacrifice a plum for a peach.
There are a number of ways to interpret this one. Either giving up something of little value for something of greater value, sacrificing short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal or, it’s the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not.
This works well in combination with #29.- Put flowers on the tree
12.顺手牵羊(shun4 shou3 qian1 yang2) – Stealing a goat along the way
This is a simple reminder that while carrying out your plans to be flexible enough to always take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself and gain any profit along the way
This comes from the story of a destitute traveler who, while walking on a road came upon a flock of sheep. Making his way through them, he behaved so calmly and naturally, when he emerged from their midst he had taken a sheep with him. And as he behaved as if he had been leading his own sheep to market all along, the shepherd never noticed the theft.
Stratagems – for Attacking
13.打草惊蛇(da2 cao3 jing1 she2) – Beat the grass to startle the snakes.
When you cannot detect your opponent’s plans, create some sort of stir to see how they will react. Their behavior will reveal their strategy.
Also a Zen practice used primarily to test people and find out what they are like.
14.借尸还魂(jie4 shi1 huan2 hun2) – Raise a corpse from the dead.
Of all the Stratagems, this one seems to be the most creative, non-deceptive and quite practical.
It can mean don’t use what everyone else is using, but use what others aren’t using. Or can mean reviving something that has dropped out of use through neglect, or finding uses for things that had hitherto been ignored or considered useless.
15.调虎离山(diao4 hu3 li2 shan1) – Lure the tiger from its mountain.
Most people like having the home court advantage. Take that away, they become uncomfortable and therefore vulnerable.
16.欲擒故从(yu4 qin2 gu1 zong2) – Let go, in order to capture
If your opponent feels they are in a hopeless situation they will often launch a final desperate attack. To prevent this you let your opponent believe he still has options, diluting his will to fight by adding the desire to survive. When given the room to run, he’ll be distracted, lose his focus and then can be taken without further trouble.
17.抛砖引玉(pao1 zhuan1 yin3 yu4) – Toss out a brick to attract a jade
This can be interpreted as using bait to trap your opponent. Bait can be the illusion of an opportunity, wealth, power, and/or sex.
Use something of superficial or apparent value to persuade the other party to produce something of real value.
Similar to #7 – Create something from nothing
18.擒賊擒王 (qin2 zei2 qin2 wang2) – Capture the enemy by capturing their chief.
When confronted with a massive opposition,why waste energy and resources fighting when you can simply focus on turning or persuading the real decision maker.
Stratagems for Creating Chaos
19.釜底抽薪(fu3 de5 chou1 xin1) – Remove the firewood under the cooking pot.
When you are in a weaker position and cannot win a head-to-head confrontation, start by undermining your opponent’s foundation; be it their resources, morale or any source of power or strength.
Similar to #25 – – Replace the beams with rotten timbers.
20.混水摸魚(hun2 shui3 mo1 yu2) –Stir up the waters to catch fish.
Create a disruption and use confusion to your advantage as a distracted opponent is always more vulnerable.
21.金蟬脱殼(jin1 chan2 tuo1 qiao4) – The gold cicada molts its shell.
This is another tactic about using false appearances to mislead your opponent whereby the façade gives you time to slip out the back and regroup. (Similar to #6 – Feint east, strike west and #8 – Sneak through the passage of Chen Cang)
22.關門捉賊(guan1 men2 zhou1 zei1)– Shut the door to catch the thief.
If you have the chance to completely defeat/finish/capture your opponent, then do so. Don’t give your opponent another chance because it just means future conflict.
23.遠交近攻(yuan3 jiao1 jin1 gong1) – Make allies at a distance, attack nearby.
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.
When you are more vulnerable to those close by than you are to those far away, you can defend yourself by keeping those around you off balance, in the meantime cutting of their field of maneuver by securing a broader ring of alliances surrounding them.
24.假道伐虢(jia3 dao4 fa2 guo2) – Borrow a route to conquer the Kingdom 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.
You secure the temporary use of another party’s facilities in order to move against a mutual enemy. After having used these facilities to prevail over the enemy, you then turn and use them against the party from whom you borrowed them.
Stratagems for Gaining Ground
25.偷梁換柱(tou1 liang2 huan4 zhu4)– Replace the beams with rotten timbers.
This one could as easily go into the Creating Chaos category as it calls to apply just about any means available to disrupt your opponent operations from cash flow, internal team to disrupting their supply chain.
Ie. Recruit, bribe or hire away their top talent, customers and or main suppliers.
26.指桑罵槐(zhi3 sang1 ma4 huai2)– Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust.
Basically, pointing at one to reprimand another. Useful when you need to discipline, control, or warn others whose status or position protects them from direct confrontation; use analogy and innuendo. Without directly naming names, those accused cannot (overtly) retaliate without revealing their involvement.
This one is used very often and probably the reason why people try to interpret what you are saying with another meaning.
27.假痴不癲 (jia3 chi1 bu1 dian1) – Play dumb without talking too much.
Hide behind a false front to create confusion about your true intentions and motivations and wait until your opponent drops their guard. Then you may attack.
28.上屋抽梯(shang4 wu1 chou1 ti1)– Remove the ladder after they have climbed to the roof.
With baits and deceptions (ie. opportunities and advantages) lure your enemy into a point of no return, and then cut off their avenue of escape.
I call this ‘Getting you on the boat’, and is a very common stratagem used in sales and partnerships.
To free yourself, you risk throwing away what you have already put in.
29.樹上開花(shu4 shang4 kai1 hua1) – Put flowers on the tree.
Tying silk blossoms on a dead tree gives the illusion that the tree is healthy. Through the use of pretense, disguise and deception make something of no value appear valuable; of no threat appear dangerous; of no use appear useful.
Dazzle with displays or baffle with bullshit.
30.反客為主(fan3 ke4 wei2 zhu3) – Turn the guest into the host.
Defeat from within by infiltrating under the guise of cooperation, surrender, or friendship. In this way you can discover weaknesses and strengths.
What happens when the minority partner takes control.
Stratagems when Facing Defeat
31.美人計(mei3 ren2 ji4) – The beauty trap.
This refers to the using the charms of beautiful women to influence or disrupt your target. This can work on three levels. First, the target becomes so enamored that he neglects his duties and allows his attention to be distracted. Second, other males may lured as well resulting in loss of trust, inflame minor differences, hindering co-operation and destroying morale. Third, others motivated by jealousy and envy, may begin to plot, further exacerbating the situation.
32.空城計(kong1 cheng2 ji4) – The empty fort trap.
When the other side is superior and your situation is dire, drop all pretence of defense or strength and act casually. Unless your opponent has an accurate description of your situation your unusual behavior may arouse suspicions, they may be dissuaded from attacking and lead to defeat themselves by one of three reactions: they may become conceited and complacent, leading to their downfall; they may become arrogant and aggressive, leading to their destruction; or they may assume you are setting up an ambush, leading them to flee of their own accord.
33.反間計(fan3 jian1 ji4) – The double agent trap
Spread false information. 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.
It’s called the double agent trap because you let your opponent’s own spy sow discord in their camp.
34.苦肉計(ku3 rou4 ji4) – The self inflicted injury trap
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 is a technique particularly for undercover agents.
35.連環計(lian2 huan2 ji4) – The Chain trap.
In important matters one should apply several stratagems simultaneously. Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme so if any one fails, you would still have several others to fall back on.
When facing a more powerful enemy, you don’t oppose by force, and don’t concentrate all your resources on only one avenue of strategy; you keep different plans operating simultaneously in an overall scheme.
36.走為上策(zou3 wei2 shang4 ce4) – 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. This is immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: “Of the Thirty-Six Strategies, fleeing is best.” (三十六計，走為上策)
For more information or historical uses of the 36 Stratagems, go to Wikipedia.
That is where I initially took these and only edited the text where I thought I could add value.