36 Stratagems From China
36 Stratagems From China

36 Stratagems From China

What are the 36 Stratagems?

The 36 Stratagems, an ancient Chinese essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, and civil interaction, have stood the test of time. Their origin is somewhat nebulous, but they’re often attributed to Sun Tzu, the legendary military strategist and author of “The Art of War.” However, there’s no concrete evidence to solidify this claim. The stratagems were likely compiled over a long period, drawing inspiration from various military philosophers, strategists, and experiences from Chinese history. A comprehensive written record of the 36 Stratagems first appeared during China’s Ming dynasty, in a book titled “Secret Art of the Shaolin Monastery,” which delved into military tactics and strategy. Today, these stratagems are still studied worldwide for their wisdom and versatility, transcending their original military context to find adaptation in business, diplomacy, and personal interaction.

Here are the 36 Stratagems in English along with their respective Chinese characters:

  1. Crossing the sea under camouflage (瞒天过海): This strategy involves misleading one’s adversaries by concealing one’s real goals.
  2. Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao (围魏救赵): This tactic involves distracting an enemy’s army by attacking their weaker points or creating a threat elsewhere.
  3. Kill with a borrowed knife (借刀杀人): This strategy involves manipulating others to attack your enemy.
  4. Wait at leisure while the enemy labors (以逸待劳): This strategy emphasizes resting and strengthening oneself while exhausting the enemy’s army.
  5. Loot a burning house (趁火打劫): This refers to taking advantage of an enemy’s trouble or distress.
  6. Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west (声东击西): This tactic involves distracting the opponent’s attention to exploit or attack their weaker points.
  7. Create something out of nothing (无中生有): This tactic involves deceiving the enemy by making them believe in something that does not exist.
  8. The beauty scheme (美人计): This strategy utilizes a seductive and charming person to distract or manipulate an enemy.
  9. Incite internal strife (离间计) : This tactic involves creating conflict or division among an enemy’s forces.
  10. Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor (远交近攻): This strategy involves forming alliances with distant powers to attack a nearby enemy.
  11. Secretly form an alliance (暗渡陈仓): This tactic involves secretly forming alliances to surprise or deceive an enemy.
  12. Lure the tiger off its mountain lair (调虎离山): This strategy involves finding a way to lure powerful enemies out of their stronghold.
  13. Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean (欺天诈海): This tactic involves deceiving one’s opponent by creating illusions or false information.
  14. Create a bigger foe (借尸还魂): This tactic involves using the name or reputation of a powerful enemy to intimidate one’s real opponent.
  15. Replace the beams with rotten timbers (欲擒故纵): This strategy involves pretending to retreat or lose ground to lure an enemy into a vulnerable position.
  16. Deck the tree with false blossoms (树上开花): This tactic involves creating a false appearance of strength or prosperity to deceive an enemy.
  17. Openly repair the gallery roads (明修栈道,暗渡陈仓): This strategy involves publicly showing one’s intention to take a certain action, but secretly preparing to do something else.
  18. Watch the fire burning from across the river (趁火打劫): This tactic involves taking advantage of a chaotic or vulnerable situation to launch an attack.
  19. Hide a knife behind a smile (笑里藏刀): This strategy involves pretending to be friendly and harmless while secretly planning to harm one’s opponent.
  20. Sacrifice the plum tree for the peach tree (李代桃僵): This tactic involves sacrificing something of lesser value to save or protect something more valuable. For example, sacrificing a less important territory in order to defend a more strategically important one.
  21. Take the opportunity by the forelock (趁机打劫): This strategy involves taking advantage of a fortunate opportunity to gain an advantage over one’s opponent.
  22. Borrow a ladder to ascend over the wall (借梯登堂): This tactic involves seeking help or support from others in order to achieve one ‘s own goals.
  23. Replace the dead with the living (死者生还): This strategy involves replacing fallen soldiers or leaders with capable replacements in order to maintain strength and morale within an army.
  24. Strike at their weakest point (攻其无备): This tactic involves attacking an enemy where they are most vulnerable in order to maximize damage and minimize losses.
  25. Feign madness but keep your balance (假痴不颠): This strategy involves acting irrationally or unpredictably in order to confuse and deceive one’s opponent, while still maintaining control of the situation.
  26. Remove the ladder after ascent (上台阶后拔梯): This tactic involves cutting off any means of retreat or escape after successfully gaining an advantage over one’s opponent.
  27. Create something from nothing (无中生有): This strategy involves using deception and manipulation to create a false sense of security or opportunity for oneself, luring the enemy into a trap.
  28. Watch the fire burning across the river (隔岸观 火): This tactic involves taking a passive approach and observing from a safe distance while one’s enemy faces difficulties or struggles.
  29. Play dumb but preserve your strength (装傻充愣): This strategy involves acting ignorant or incompetent in order to lower the guard of one’s opponent, all while preserving one’s own strength and capabilities.
  30. Loot a burning house (趁火打劫): This tactic involves taking advantage of chaos and disorder to plunder and exploits resources from an already weakened or defeated enemy.
  31. Hide a knife behind a smile (笑里藏刀): This strategy involves using charm and deception to gain the trust of one’s opponent while secretly plotting their downfall.
  32. Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree (李代桃僵): This tactic involves sacrificing a lesser objective or resource in order to protect and maintain a more valuable one.
  33. Take the opportunity to fetch water (趁势取水): This strategy involves seizing opportunities presented by one ‘s opponent in order to gain an advantage or achieve a desired outcome.
  34. Befriend the distant enemy to attack the nearby (远交近攻): This tactic involves forming alliances and friendships with distant powers in order to have support when attacking a closer enemy.
  35. Exchange gifts, invite your neighbors to dinner (送礼,来请邻): This strategy involves using gifts and hospitality to build relationships and gain favors from nearby powers.
  36. Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree (指桑骂槐): This tactic involves disguising criticism or insults as praise in order to deceive and manipulate one’s opponent.

Destroying Morale

Certain stratagems outlined in the list above can be applied to strategically damage an opponent’s morale. For instance, the strategy of “playing dumb but preserving your strength” (装傻充愣) can be utilized to create a false sense of superiority within the enemy, leading to complacency and underestimation of your real capabilities. This may result in a dramatic shift in morale when the true strength is revealed.

Similarly, “looting a burning house” (趁火打劫) can be used to exploit situations of chaos and disorder, delivering a further blow to an already weakened enemy and demoralizing them.

“Hiding a knife behind a smile” (笑里藏刀) can sow seeds of doubt and suspicion within the enemy ranks, leading to confusion and a decrease in morale.

Stratagems like “befriend the distant enemy to attack the nearby” (远交近攻) and “exchange gifts, invite your neighbors to dinner” (送礼,来请邻) can create a sense of isolation and paranoia, as alliances shift and loyalties are questioned, which can effectively erode morale.

The tactic of “pointing at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree” (指桑骂槐) can serve to indirectly demoralize an opponent through veiled insults and criticism, causing a drop in confidence and morale.

Lowering Enemy’s Suspicion

Dealing with an enemy’s suspicion requires careful and consideration, and several stratagems can be applied to handle this effectively. The strategy of “playing deaf and dumb” (装聋作哑) can be employed to maintain a low profile and allow the enemy’s suspicions to subside naturally over time. Moreover, the tactic of “removing the ladder after the enemy has ascended the rooftop” (上屋抽梯) can serve to isolate the enemy and make them second-guess their own judgments, thereby effectively diverting their suspicion. Similarly, “the stratagem of sowing discord” (离间计) is aimed at creating internal strife within the enemy ranks, and their attention is then focused inward, defusing their suspicion towards you. Lastly, employing the tactic of “openly repairing the walkway, but secretly marching to Chencang” (明修栈道,暗渡陈仓) can be used to mislead the enemy into thinking you are advancing in one direction, while you secretly move in another, further distracting and confounding their suspicions.

Beauty Trap

The “Beauty Trap” (美人计), another stratagem, is a classic maneuver used to distract or manipulate an adversary using allure and attraction. This could be literally achieved through the use of a beautiful person to ensnare someone into making judgments clouded by desire. Metaphorically, this could also refer to the presentation of something enticing to divert attention or manipulate behavior. The beauty trap, if executed correctly, can lead an opponent to become impaired in their decision-making, thereby providing an opportunity to gain an upper hand in a competitive situation.

Handling Immediate Threats

When faced with an immediate threat, the stratagem known as “The Empty Fort Strategy” (空城计) can prove invaluable. This tactic involves making an adversary believe you have the upper hand, even when you are in a vulnerable position. By showing confidence and tranquility in the face of danger, the opponent may doubt their own advantage and hesitate, providing you with critical time to plan your next move. It’s essential, however, to understand your opponent’s mindset and confidence level before employing this strategy, as it can backfire if your opponent calls your bluff.

Dealing with Direct Confrontation

In a direct confrontation, the stratagem of “Chain Stratagems” (连环计) could be employed effectively. This involves the use of one stratagem leading to another, creating a chain of events that allows one to stay ahead of the opponent. For example, one could start by misleading the opponents with a diversion (‘The Beauty Trap’), then surprise them with a sudden move in a different direction (‘Repairing the Walkway’), and finally, when they are confused and vulnerable, using ‘The Empty Fort Strategy’ to make them believe you are stronger than you really are. This series of connected stratagems can cause the opponent to make mistakes out of confusion and fear, giving you the upper hand in the confrontation. However, it is imperative to be adaptable and react appropriately as the situation evolves, as the success of this strategy lies in the seamless execution of one stratagem leading into the next.

Dealing with Aggressive Behavior

When faced with aggressive behavior, the stratagem called “The Interlocking Stratagems” (连环计) might come in handy. This strategy involves taking a holistic approach, considering all possible responses and their potential outcomes before taking action. For example, it could be helpful to initially employ a calming posture, reflecting a sense of understanding and sympathy towards the aggressor (‘The Golden Cicada’), which may defuse the immediate hostility. If this does not work, shifting to a more assertive stance (‘The Plum Tree Sacrifice’) might be necessary, demonstrating your strength and willingness to stand your ground. Lastly, if hostility continues, using ‘The Chain Stratagems’ to confuse and distract the aggressor might be effective, creating an opportunity for resolution or escape. As always, the key to using these strategies effectively lies in observation, adaptability, and timely execution.

Thwarting Intelligence Gathering

In confronting a situation where an enemy seeks to gather intelligence about you, the stratagem known as “The Strategy of the Empty City” (空城计) may be applicable. This strategy suggests maintaining a calm and confident demeanor, creating the illusion of strength and preparedness, even when you may be at a disadvantage. By doing so, you can deter the enemy from attempting any aggressive actions, believing that you are ready for their advance. This tactic can be especially effective as it limits the enemy’s intelligence gathering abilities. Misleading information and feigned confidence can cause them to second-guess their tactics, providing you with an advantage. However, this strategy must be used with caution, as overuse or improper execution can lead to the enemy seeing through the facade. The essence of this strategy lies in its execution at the most opportune moment, driven by sharp observation skills and a keen understanding of the enemy’s mindset.

Sowing Discord

In situations where you seek to disrupt unity among your adversaries, the stratagem “To Sow Discord” (离间计) can be employed. This strategy involves creating mistrust or instigating conflicts among enemy lines, causing them to turn against each other. Doing so can significantly weaken their collective strength and effectiveness, affording you an opportunity for victory. This could be achieved through spreading rumors, highlighting existing disagreements, or exploiting personal rivalries. Implementing this strategy requires a deep understanding of the enemy’s relationships and dynamics, as well as subtlety in execution – any obvious attempts at manipulation could backfire. It’s also crucial to remember that, like all stratagems, its use should be considered carefully and ethically.

Create Confusion

To create confusion within the enemy’s ranks, the stratagem “Befuddle the Enemy” (混乱计) can be effectively utilized. This strategy involves performing actions that are unpredictable or out of the ordinary, making it difficult for the enemy to anticipate your next move. It could entail changing your tactics frequently, using unconventional fighting methods, or creating distractions. These actions can lead to chaos and disarray among the enemy, reducing their ability to coordinate effectively and providing you an opportunity to attack. It’s crucial, however, to ensure that your own troops are well-informed and prepared for these tactics, to prevent confusion spreading to your own ranks. Like other stratagems, using this strategy necessitates careful planning and execution, and a robust understanding of your enemy’s thought processes and expectations.

Dealing with a Mutual Enemy

When facing a mutual enemy, the stratagem “Forge an Alliance with a Distant State while Attacking a Neighbor” (远交近攻) can be applied effectively. This strategy entails forming alliances with distant yet strong parties that share the same adversary. The aim is to consolidate your resources and power, forming a united front against the common enemy. This can lead to the mutual enemy being overwhelmed and defeated due to the combined strength of the allied forces. However, forming such alliances requires delicate diplomacy and the maintenance of a balancing act – ensuring that the interests of all parties involved align and that no single entity becomes too powerful. As always, the use of this strategy requires careful consideration and ethical decision-making.

Dealing with a Strong Enemy

When confronting a strong enemy, the strategy “Borrow a Corpse to Resurrect the Soul” (借尸还魂) can be particularly effective. This stratagem involves using the resources or assets of other entities to bolster your own strength and, in turn, challenge a formidable opponent. This could mean allying yourself with smaller states that are also threatened by the powerful enemy, or utilizing abandoned or unused resources to enhance your strategic position. It’s important to remember that this isn’t about deceit, but about wise and responsible resource management. The objective is to level the playing field and give yourself a fighting chance against a stronger adversary. As with all strategies, careful planning, communication, and understanding of your allies are critical to successfully implementing this stratagem.

These strategies do not suggest a head on battle. Instead, these Chinese idioms such as these teach you to act calmly and use principles of military strategy when dealing with threats. One strategy can change everything and so can one imprudent act.

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