36 Strategies

“Six multiplied by six equals thirty-six.
Calculations produce tactics which in turn produce calculations.
Each side depends upon the other.
Based on this correlative relationship, ploys against the enemy are devised.
Rigid application of Military theory will only result in defeat on the battlefield.”

This incredible (and very old) work can, of course, be adapted to our everyday life.

The Thirty-Six Strategies is a unique collection of ancient Chinese proverbs that describe some of the most cunning and subtle strategies ever devised. Whereas other Chinese military texts such as Sun Zi’s 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.

Introduction

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. Over 118 anecdotes are included to both explain and offer examples of each strategy’s application. By learning from the old masters of the art of deception, one is better able to spot the modern pretenders, for, though the players come and go, the game remains the same.

History of the Thirty Six Strategies

The origins of the Thirty-Six Strategies are unknown. No author or compiler has ever been mentioned, and no date as to when it may have been written has been ascertained. The first historical mention of the Thirty-Six Strategies dates back to the Southern Chi dynasty (AD 489-537) where it is mentioned in the Nan Chi Shi (History of the Southern Chi Dynasty). It briefly records, “Of the 36 stratagems of Master Tan, running away is the best.” Master Tan may be the famous general Tan Daoji (d. AD 436) but there is no evidence to either prove or disprove his authorship. While this is the first recorded mention of Thirty-Six Strategies, some of the proverbs themselves are based on events that occurred up to seven hundred years earlier. For example, the strategy ‘Openly Repair the Walkway, Secretly March to Chencang’ is based on a tactic allegedly used by the founder of the Han dynasty, Gaozu, to escape from Szechwan in 223 BC. The strategy `Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao’ is named after an incident that took place even earlier in 352 BC and is attributed to the famous strategist Sun Bin.

All modern versions of the Thirty-Six Strategies are derived from a tattered book discovered at a roadside vendor’s stall in Szechwan in 1941. It turned out to be a reprint of an earlier book dating back to the late Ming or early Ching dynasty entitled, The Secret Art of War, The Thirty-Six Strategies. There was no mention of who the authors or compilers were or when it was originally published. A reprint was first published for the general public in Beijing in 1979. Since then several Chinese and English language versions have been published in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Without any other information, current speculations about the origins of the Thirty-Six Strategies suggest that there was no single author. More likely they were simply a collection of idiomatic expressions taken from popular Chinese folklore, history, and myths. They may have first been recorded by general Tan and handed down verbally or in manuscript form for centuries. It is believed that sometime in the early Ching dynasty some enterprising editor collected them together and published them in the form that comes down to us today.

I. Stratagems when in a superior position
1…Fool The Emperor To Cross The Sea.
2…Besiege Wei To Rescue Zhao.
3…Kill With A Borrowed Sword.
4…Await The Exhausted Enemy At Your Ease.
5…Loot A Burning House.
6…Clamour In The East, Attack In The West.
II. Stratagems for confrontation
7…Create Something From Nothing.
8…Openly Repair The Walkway, Secretly March To Chancan.
9…Observe The Fire On The Opposite Shore.
10..Hide The Dagger Behind A Smile.
11..Let The Plum Tree Wither In Place Of The Peach.
12..Seize The Opportunity To Lead The Sheep Away.
III. Stratagems for attack
13..Beat The Grass To Startle The Snake.
14..Borrow A Corpse To Raise The Spirit.
15..Lure The Tiger Down The Mountain.
16..To Catch Something, First Let It Go.
17..Toss Out A Brick To Attract Jade.
18..To Catch The Bandit First Capture Their Leader
IV. Stratagems for confused situations
19..Steal The Firewood From Under The Pot.
20..Trouble The Water To Catch The Fish.
21..Shed Your Skin Like The Golden Cicada.
22..Shut The Door To Catch The Thief.
23..Befriend A Distant Enemy To Attack One Nearby.
24..Borrow The Road To Conquer Guo.
V. Stratagems for gaining ground
25..Replace The Beams With Rotten Timbers.
26..Point At The Mulberry, But Curse The Locust Tree.
27..Feign Madness, But Keep Your Balance.
28..Lure Your Enemy Onto The Roof, Then Take Away The Ladder.
29..Deck The Dead Tree With Silk Blossoms.
30..Exchange The Role Of Guest For That Of Host.
VI. Stratagems for desperate situations
31..The Strategy Of Beautiful Women.
32..The Strategy Of Open City Gates.
33..The Strategy Of Sowing Discord.
34..The Strategy Of Injuring Yourself.
35..The Strategy Of Combining Tactics.
36..If All Else Fails Retreat.

01 Stratagem when in a superior position

Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea

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 hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.

Japanese Folk Tale

There once lived a Samurai who was plagued by a large and clever rat who had the run of the house. This annoyed the Samurai to no end so he went to the village to buy a cat. A street vendor sold him a cat that he said would catch the rat and indeed the cat looked trim and fit. But the rat was even quicker than the cat and after a week with no success the Samurai returned the cat. This time the vendor pulled out a large and grizzled cat and guaranteed that no rat could escape this master mouser. The rat knew enough to stay clear of this tough alley cat, but when the cat slept, the rat ran about. Half the day the rat would hide, but the other half he again had the run of the place. The Samurai brought the cat back to the vendor who shook his head in despair saying he had given the Samurai his best cat and there was nothing more he could do. Returning home with his money, the Samurai happened upon a monk and sought his advice. After hearing the Samurai’s story the monk offered him the services of the cat that lived in the temple. The cat was old and fat and he scarcely seemed to notice when he was carried away by the doubtful Samurai. For two weeks the cat did little more than sleep all day and night. The Samurai wanted to give the cat back to the temple but the monk insisted he keep him a while longer assuring him the rat’s days were close to an end. The rat became accustomed to the presence of the lazy old cat and was soon up to his old tricks even, on occasion, brazenly dancing around the old cat as he slept. Then one day, as the rat went about his business without any concern, he passed close by the cat – who swiftly struck out his paw and pinned the rat to the floor. The rat died instantly.

02 Stratagem when in a superior position

Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao

When the enemy is too strong to attack 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.

Warring States Era China

This strategy derives its name from a famous incident that occurred in 354 BC. At this time one of China’s most renowned strategists, Sun Bin (A descendent of the even then famous Sun Zi) was an advisor to the king of Qi. Sun had earlier been at the court of Wei but another minister, Pang Juan, became jealous of Sun’s cleverness. Through court intrigues he had Sun framed as a spy, sentenced to mutilation, and imprisoned. Sun escaped and fled to Qi. Several years later the king of Wei appointed the same Pang Juan as commander of the army and sent him to attack the capital of Zhao. The king of Zhao immediately appealed to Qi for help. The king of Qi consulted his advisors who all spoke in favour of rushing to aid their ally, only Sun Bin recommended against attacking. Sun advised: ” To intervene between two warring armies is like trying to divert a tidal way by standing in its path. It would be better to wait until both armies have worn themselves out.” The king agreed to wait.

The siege of Zhao had lasted more than a year when Sun Bin decided the time was ripe to come to Zhao’s aid. The king of Qi appointed prince Tian Ji as general and Sun as military advisor. Tian Ji wanted to attack the Wei forces directly to lift the siege of Zhao, but again Sun advised against direct intervention saying: ” Since most of Wei’s troops are out of the country engaged in the siege, their own defence must be weak. By attacking the capital of Wei, we will force the Wei army to return to defend their own capital thereby lifting the siege of Zhao while destroying the Wei forces in turn.” Tian Ji agreed to the plan and divided his army into two parts, one to attack the capital of Wei, and the other to prepare an ambush along the route to the capital.

When the Wei general Pang Juan heard that the capital was being attacked, he rushed his army back to defend the capital. Weakened and exhausted from the year long siege and the forced march, the Wei troops were completely caught by surprise in the ambush and suffered heavy losses. Chao was thus rescued while Pang Juan barely escaped back to Wei to recoup his losses. Sun Pin would later defeat his nemesis Pang Juan using another classic strategy.

03 Stratagem when in a superior position

Kill with a Borrowed Sword

When you do not have the means to attack your enemy directly, then attack using the strength of another. Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him.

Warring States Era China

Chang Tuo defected from Western Zhou and went to Eastern Zhou where he revealed all of Western Zhou’s state secrets. Eastern Zhou rejoiced while Western Zhou was furious. Minister Feng Chu said to the king of Western Zhou: “I can assassinate that man if your highness will give me thirty catties of gold.” The king consented and the next day Feng Chu sent an agent to the Eastern Zhou court bearing the gold and a letter addressed to Chang Tuo. The letter read: `This is to remind Chang Tuo that you must complete your mission as soon as possible for the longer the delay the more likely you will be found out.’ Before the first agent departed, Feng Chu then sent another agent to the Eastern Zhou border guards informing them that a spy would be crossing the border that night. When the second agent arrived at the border he was stopped and searched. The border guards found the gold and the letter to Chang Tuo and turned them over to the Zhou court officials. Shortly afterwards Chang Tuo was executed

04 Stratagem when in a superior position

Await the Exhausted Enemy at Your Ease

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.

Chinese Folk Tale

The emperor Xuan of Zhou loved to gamble on cock fights and kept a stable of specially bred fighting roosters. Although they were strong and fierce they would nevertheless lose against the roosters trained by Ji Xing Ze. The emperor therefore hired Ji to train his roosters.

Ten days had passed when the emperor went to the stables to ask if they were ready to fight.

“No.” said Ji, ” They are far too fierce and proud of their strength. They rush to attack even the slightest noise.”

After another ten days passed the emperor returned to enquire again.

“Not yet. They are still haughty and jump at everything that moves.”

After another ten days the emperor again asked the question.

“No, still not yet. Although they no longer rush to attack, they still raise their hackles and stare fiercely at the slightest provocation.”

After yet another ten days the emperor again asked if the roosters were ready.

“Yes, they are nearly ready. Although some still crow from time to time, none ever change their countenance. From a distance they appear as steady is if they were made of wood. Before them, their untrained opponents would not dare accept their challenge and could only turn back and run.”

05 Stratagem when in a superior position

Loot a Burning House

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.

Warring States Era China

Qi and Han were allies when Chang Yi attacked Han with the combined forces of Qin and Wei. Han asked Qi for assistance. The king of Qi said:” Han is our ally and since Qin has attacked her we must go to her rescue.” But his minister Tian-chen Su disagreed saying: “Your majesty’s planning is faulty. You should merely agree to assist Han but take no action there. However, in the kingdom of Yan, their king has recently resigned the throne to his despised prime minister. This has enraged both the noble houses and the common people causing turmoil at court. Now if Qin attacks Han, Chu and Chao will surely come to her aid and this will be as good as heaven bestowing Yan upon us.”

The king approved and promised the Han envoy assistance before sending him back to Han believing he had Qi’s backing. When Qin attacked Han, Chu and Chao intervened as expected. While all the major kingdoms were thus engaged in the battle for Han, Qi quickly and quietly attacked Yan. Within thirty days Yan was captured.

06 Stratagem when in a superior position

Clamour in the East, Attack 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.

Song Dynasty China

Once there was an official who was transferred to the capital. The front part of the inn where he stayed was a teahouse, and across the street was a shop that sold expensive dyed silks. Whenever he had nothing to do, he would sit at a table watching the people and activity on the street. One day he noticed with surprise that several suspicious looking characters were walking back and forth observing the silk shop with great interest. One of them came up to his table and whispered: “We’re in the robbery business and we’re here to steal those fine silks. Since you noticed us I came to ask you not to mention it.”

“That has nothing to do with me,” the official replied. “Why should I say anything about it?”

The fellow thanked him and left him. The official thought to himself: ‘the silk shop has its wares openly displayed on a busy street. In broad daylight, with a thousand eyes watching, if they have the skill to steal those silks, then they must be smart thieves indeed.’ So he watched carefully to see how they would manage it. But what he saw was only the same people walking back and forth in front of the silk shop. Sometimes they gathered on the left, sometimes on the right. The official sat watching until after sunset when everyone had gone and the shop had closed. “Those fools.” said the official to himself. “They were putting one over on me.” When he returned to his room to order some food, he discovered that all his belongings were gone

07 Stratagem for confrontation

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.

Tang Dynasty China

During the An Lushan rebellion in 756 AD the Tang general Chang Shun was under siege by the forces of general Linghu Chao. Outnumbered twenty to one, the defending Tang forces soon ran out of arrows. To remedy this general Chang ordered his men to make straw dummies and to dress them in black uniforms. That night the dummies were lowered over the city walls by ropes, accompanied to the beat of war drums and gongs. General Linghu thought the enemy was launching a surprise night offensive and ordered his archers to shower the figures descending the walls with arrows. Once the dummies where riddled with arrows the Tang soldiers pulled them back up the walls and thus restored their supply of arrows.

The next day general Linghu realized he had been tricked and attacked the walls in revenge for being humiliated. That night the Tang again lowered the dummies but General Linghu ordered his men to ignore them believing it was the same trick to get more arrows. When general Chang saw that no one was firing at the straw dummies, he ordered that five hundred of his best troops be lowered instead. They made a lightning raid on the encamped soldiers who were caught completely by surprise. The siege was lifted and general Linghu’s army fled the field.

08 Stratagem for confrontation

Openly Repair The Walkway, Secretly March to 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.

Muromachi Period Japan

In 1560 one of Japan’s greatest warlords, Oda Nobunaga, then still a minor commander, marched his force of 2,000 men to stop the incursion of a rival warlord Imagawa Yoshimoto. Even though Nobunaga was outnumbered twelve to one he set out humming a tune. Nobunaga’s scouts reported that Imagawa was resting his troops at a village that was nestled near a narrow gorge that Nobunaga knew would be ideal for a surprise attack.

The scouts further reported that Imagawa’s troops were celebrating and viewing the heads taken in a previous battle. Nobunaga devised the following ploy. He made camp some distance away from the village. He placed numerous flags and had straw dummies made to give the impression that a large host had arrived. Imagawa’s forces thus expected an attack to come from the direction the enemy camp. Meanwhile Nobunaga’s troops secretly made a forced march in a wide circle in order to come up from behind the Imagawa encampment. Weather favored Nobunaga’s scheme for late in the day there was a heavy downpour. Taking advantage of the foul weather, Nobunaga’s troops launched a sudden attack from the rear. So unexpected was this attack that Imagawa a first thought that a brawl had broken out among his own troops. Only when he saw two enemy Samurai charging towards him did he realize he was under attack. The realization came too late and Imagawa was beheaded and his troops scattered. The battle lasted only a few minutes but it made Oda Nobunaga’s reputation and he quickly rouse in power until he became one of Japan’s greatest warlords.

09 Stratagem for confrontation

Observe the Fire on the Opposite Shore

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.

Hojo Regency Japan

In 1583 the great general Toyotomi Hideyoshi was positioning his forces against Akechi Mitsuhide in what would be the battle of Yamazaki. Shortly after the battle had engaged, Tsetsui Junkeian, an ally of Mitsuhide arrived on the scene. Impressed by the superior forces of Hideyoshi, he refused to attack but instead ordered his men to line up in battle formation on a hill above the Hora-ga-toge pass where he could watch the battle before deciding which general to side with. Seeing Hideyoshi gaining the advantage he betrayed his ally and sent his troops over to Hideyoshi’s side. This incident was never forgotten and henceforth the Japanese equivalent of `Watching the fire…’ is known as `To wait at Hora-ga-toge.’

10 Stratagem for confrontation

Hide Your Dagger Behind a Smile

Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, you move against him in secret.

Warring States Era China

The king of Wei sent a beautiful courtesan to the king of Chu who took great delight in the new girl. His queen, Zheng Xiu, knowing how fond the king was of his new woman, treated the newcomer as a sister supplying her with gifts and treasures and whatever she needed. The king hearing of this summoned his queen and said: AA woman serves a man with her beauty and thus jealousy is a part of her very nature. Yet you, knowing how much the new woman pleases me, have treated her more kindly than I have myself. These actions are those of a child to her parents or a minister to his ruler, how unexpected it is to find this in a queen to her husband.” The queen thus knew that her husband did not suspect her of jealousy. When she next met with the new girl the queen told her: “His majesty is much taken with your beauty but he dislikes the shape of your nose. When next you serve him be sure to cover it with your hand.” Grateful for the advice, when she next served the king this is what she did.

The next day the king asked his queen: “The new woman covers her nose when she is with me. Do you know why?”

“I know.” replied the queen.

“Well then no matter how unpleasant you must tell me the reason.”

“It seems she does not like the way your majesty smells.”

“The shrew!” cried the king.

In a rage the king ordered that the unfortunate girl’s nose be cut off.

11 Stratagem for confrontation

Sacrifice the Plum Tree In Place of the Peach

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.

Three Kingdoms Period China

On one of his campaigns Cao Cao was running short of food. He asked his supply sergeant what he could do. The sergeant suggested reducing the rations by secretly using a smaller cup to parcel out the rice. Cao Cao praised the sergeant and gave his consent to use the smaller measuring cup. After a few days the soldiers began to complain and accused their commander of cheating them. Cao Cao again called in the supply sergeant and told him the situation.

“I will do anything I can to help but what would you have me do?” asked the sergeant.

“I’m afraid I am going have to borrow your head.” replied Cao Cao and he had the sergeant decapitated and his head stuck on a tall pole with a banner that read “Caught cheating on supplies by using a smaller measuring cup.”

12 Stratagem for confrontation

Seize the Opportunity To Lead a Sheep Away

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.

Yuan Dynasty China

During the final days of the Yuan dynasty, rebellion had broken out throughout the empire. Initially there were several contenders vying to be the first to found a new dynasty on the imminent fall of the house of Yuan, but the field was narrowed to two; Chu Yuan-Chang and Chen Yifu. The two armies met at Poyang Lake where a naval engagement was to take place. General Chen had the advantage of both troops and ships. His ships were large and sturdy and he had them lined up side to side across the entire expanse of the lake. He furthermore had the ships joined together with iron chains so as to create an impenetrable barrier. General Chu sent his ships to attack but they were defeated having failed to break through the cordon. Fortunately for Chu the next day a violent northwest gale began to blow. Since Chen’s flotilla was situated downwind, Chu took advantage of the situation to launch fireboats against the barrier. Soon Chen’s troops were in a frenzy to save their ships from both the rising storm and the fire, which was fanned into a blazing fierceness by the wind. Taking advantage of the panic and confusion that ensued, Chu launched his own fleet into the attack and they completely defeated Chen’s forces. An arrow through his eye killed General Chen while general Chu became the founder of the Ming Dynasty.

13 Stratagem for attack

Beat The Grass To Startle The Snake

When you cannot detect the opponent’s plans launch a direct, but brief, attack and observe your opponent reactions. His behavior will reveal his strategy.

Song Dynasty China

One day, in the county of Jian-zhou, there was a man who lost a precious object. The local magistrate Chen Shu-ku, was called in to investigate. He questioned several people, but no one could tell him who the thief was. So Magistrate Chen laid a trap for those he suspected. “I know of a temple,” he told them, “whose bell has great spiritual power that can tell a thief from an honest man. Since my investigation is at a standstill we must employ the supernatural powers of the bell to solve the matter.” The magistrate had the bell brought to the courthouse and displayed in the rear chamber. Then he had the suspects brought in to testify to their guilt or innocence. He explained to them that if an innocent man touched the bell it would remain silent, but, if a guilty man touched the bell it would ring out. After lighting incense and chanting prayers, the magistrate had curtains erected around the bell. Previously he had instructed one of his assistants to secretly smear ink on the bell after the curtains were closed. Each suspect was then told to place his hand through the curtain and touch the bell. As they withdrew their hands Chen would examine them. Everyone’s hands were stained except those of one man, who confessed to the theft. He did not touch the bell for fear it would ring.

14 Stratagem for attack

Borrow a Corpse to Raise the Spirit

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.

Han Dynasty China

When the emperor Huidi died in 188 BC he left no heir. His mother, the empress Lu, bought a child several years before his death and had her daughter-in-law pretend that it was her own. To cover her tracks the empress had the boy’s natural mother executed. After the emperor’s death, the empress had this boy installed on the throne with herself as regent. However, within two years the boy, after learning that his true mother had been executed, was heard to say: “When I become emperor I will know what to do.” When the empress’s spies reported the words spoken by the young emperor she had him murdered and another puppet set in his place. The empress ruled a prosperous empire for eight years through the six successive child emperors that she installed on the throne before dying of a mysterious illness. Rumor said her death was the result of a curse from one of her late husband’s concubines, who was horribly mutilated and tortured according to the empress’s precise instructions. The empress Lu is remembered in Chinese history as one of three notorious `dragon ladies’ who had seized the imperial throne.

15 Stratagem for attack

Lure the Tiger Down the Mountain

Never directly attack a well-entrenched opponent. Instead lure him away from his stronghold and separate him from his source of strength.

Three Kingdoms Period China

In the year 199, Sun Ce had consolidated his newly conquered territories in the south and his next goal was the prosperous area of Lujiang to the north. However, Lujiang had a professional army and was well defended. In addition it also had the advantage of terrain, being accessible only through a couple of easily defended passes. Sun Ce’s advisors cautioned against moving directly against such a well-entrenched and powerful state so they devised another scheme. Sun Ce sent an emissary laden with gifts and a letter to the king of Lujiang, Liu Xun. The letter praised the King’s military skills and begged for his assistance. Sun Ce wrote: ” For years the state of Shangliao has invaded my territory unhindered and carried away booty, yet we are too weak to launch a retaliatory raid. If Your Majesty would attack Shangliao we would give assistance and you could annex the state for yourself.” Flattered and covetous of increasing his domains, The king of Lujiang disregarded the advice of his counselors and attacked the state of Shangliao. Several weeks later, while the king of Lujiang was busy laying siege to Shangliao’s capital, Sun Ce attacked the almost undefended Lujiang and easily seized the capital. Without the expected support from Sun Ce, The king of Lujiang failed to take the capital of Shangliao and he returned only to find his own capital already in enemy hands. Sun Ce now had the advantage of the Lujiang terrain and the former king could do nothing but flee with his army.

16 Stratagem for attack

To Catch Something, First Let It Go

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.

Six Dynasties Period China

During the Southern Song period, general Tan Dao-Ji launched an attack against the north on behalf of the emperor. Throughout the campaign he seized cities and destroyed fortifications, taking more than four thousand prisoners. His advisors suggested that he should execute them all and erect a victory mound with the dead. Tan Dao-Ji replied: “At this time we have attacked the guilty and consoled the people. The army of a true king takes the upright as its position, so why is it necessary to slay the people?” He released all the prisoners and sent them back to their homes. These former prisoners told their kinsmen of their capture and release and of the fair treatment they received at the hands of general Tan. Thereupon the barbarians dwelling in the region were elated, and wherever general Tan, went a great many came forward to give their allegiance to the emperor.

17 Stratagem for attack

Toss Out A Brick To Attract 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.

Warring States Era China

The earl of Zhi was preparing to attack Lesser Wei. To prepare for his attack he presented the king of Wei with four hundred mustangs and a beautiful white jade Bi. The king was overjoyed and his ministers all offered their congratulations, but one minister, Nan-wen Ci looked distressed. The king seeing his demeanor asked: “The great state is very pleased with us! Why then do you look troubled?” The minister replied: “One must always examine thoroughly a reward given for no merit and deference shown where no force has been applied. Four hundred mustangs and a white jade Bi constitute the kind of gift a small state might give when serving a great one. But in this case the larger state makes the gift. Your majesty should ponder this.” As a precaution, the king of Wei told his commander of the border guards what his minister had cautioned and ordered his troops to be on full alert. Shortly thereafter, as the minister intimated, the earl of Zhi arrived at the border at the head of a large army. But when the earl saw the border guards posted at full strength, he retired saying: “Alas, there are worthy men in Wei, for they have anticipated my plans.”

18 Stratagem for attack

To Catch the Bandits First Capture Their Leader

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.

Spring and Autumn Period China

In 756 BC the rebel commander Yin Ziqi led an army to lay siege against the strategic city of Suiyang. The defending commander, Zhang Xun, noticed that Yin Ziqi oversaw the siege from well outside the range of the city’s archers. He believed that if he could take out the leader the rebel’s morale would sink and he would be able to launch a counter attack. He devised a plan with his best archers. The next time the rebels assailed the wall they were to shoot back using the branches of trees. When Yin Ziqi heard that the defenders were reduced to shooting with branches he felt certain the city was ready to be taken. Before the next assault he moved in closer to better oversee the final victory. Riding atop his horse he unknowingly came within range of the archers who had saved their arrows for just such a moment. One arrow hit Yin Ziqi in the left eye killing him instantly. The spectacle of their commander’s death in front of almost the entire rebel army served to demoralize them to such an extent that they dispersed the field.

19 Stratagem for confused situations

Steal The Firewood From Under the 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.

Legendary Era Japan

Japan’s ancient hero Yamato Takeru was one of the eighty children of emperor Keiko. One day he was sent to kill a notorious outlaw who was such an expert swordsman that all who had gotten in his way were killed. Yamato Takeru did not intend to duel with the bandit and pretended to be ignorant of the man’s reputation in order to befriend him. They became such good friends that they even went swimming together on a regular basis. When Yamato Takeru was assured the bandit harbored no suspicions he was ready to act. One day when they went swimming he brought with him a wooden sword that he hid in his travel kit. They were in the habit of racing each other around a small island but this time while they were racing Takeru let the bandit take the lead and, once he was out of sight behind the island, Takeru swam back to shore and quickly replaced the bandit’s sword with the wooden one. After they had gotten dressed Takeru turned to the bandit and revealed his true purpose. The bandit immediately went for his sword, but the wooden sword had become wedged in the scabbard. While he was struggling to draw the wooden sword, Takeru took the bandit’s head off in a single stroke.

20 Stratagem for confused situations

Trouble The Water To Catch The Fish

Before engaging your enemy’s forces create confusion to weaken his perception and judgment. 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.

Spring and Autumn Period China

In 632 BC the armies of Jin and Chu faced each other at Chengbu before the battle of the same name. Chu sent an envoy to Jin requesting to fight a chariot duel the next day to which the Jin ruler, Duke Wen, agreed. In the morning Duke Wen climbed to the top of an observation tower and looking down on his camp’s preparations said: A Young and old conduct themselves according to ritual. They are fit for use!” He then ordered his troops to cut down trees to be used as part of an unorthodox tactic. While the chariot duel was underway Duke Wen launched a sudden cavalry attack against the Chu right wing causing it to collapse in. At the same time as the right was being pushed into the main body, the Jin troops in the center raised the retreat pennants and began pulling back. As the Jin troops retreated they dragged behind them the trees they had cut down earlier that morning. This raised such a dust cloud that the Chu commanders thought the Jin were fleeing in panic and eagerly gave chase. When the main body of the Chu army was enveloped in the cloud of dust they were unable to see that the Jin forces had split into two divisions and had turned around. The Jin attacked in a classical pincer movement on both of the Chu flanks. The result was a resounding defeat after which the Chu general was ordered to commit suicide. Duke Wen had taken advantage of the distraction provided by the chariot duel to launch both a surprise attack, and a retreat, manipulating the Chu forces into a trap.

21 Stratagem for confused situations

Shed Your Skin Like the Golden Cicada

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.

Three Kingdoms Period China

The warlord Cao Cao of Wei, was pursuing the fleeing army and population of Shu led by the heroes of the Peach Grove, Liu Pei and Chang Fei. The retreating column came upon the Changpan bridge over the Wei river with the enemy army only hours behind. On the opposite side of the river there was heavy forest. Chang Fei turned to his general Liu Pei and said: “This bridge is the only crossing point for miles and provides us with an advantage. You take the army and people across while I hold off the Wei army to give you as much of a lead as possible.” After the Shu army had crossed over, Chang Fei sent his small group of cavalrymen across the bridge into the forest where they tied branches to their horses tails and rode around in circles. Chang Fei remained sitting on his charger in the middle of the bridge. When the pursuing army of Wei came upon the sight of Chang Fei alone on the bridge they stopped. Cao Cao noticed the huge dust cloud in the distance behind the woods and suspected a trap. Chang Fei roared out a challenge to the Wei army but Cao Cao, now convinced this was a ruse, turned his men around to retreat. Chang Fei seeing the Wei army turn about spurred his charger towards the Wei as though to attack them single handedly. This so unnerved the Wei forces that they made a mad scramble to escape the area convinced a trap was closing around them. This trick bought Lui Pei and Chang Fei enough time to escape with their men and regroup at Chianling.

22 Stratagem for confused situations

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.

Warring States Era China

In 449 BC the state of Wu had invaded the state of Yue and carried off its duke Guo Jian holding him prisoner for three years before releasing him back to his kingdom. When he returned Guo Jian planned his revenge. For seven years he ruled with benevolence and generosity making a reputation as a wise and virtuous ruler until he felt his loyal subjects were prepared to undergo any hardship for him. He accordingly assembled his forces and attacked Wu gaining a decisive victory.(See Chapter 5) The king of Wu had to flee but it would only be a matter of time before he was caught. He sent ambassadors to Guo Jian begging for mercy. They reminded him of how Wu, though she had him firmly in her grasp, had released him to return to his state. The king of Wu now asked to be granted the same favor. Guo Jian was contemplating granting this appeal when his prime minister Fan Li intervened and said: “When heaven gave the duke of Wu the grand opportunity for gaining power he did not take advantage of it and so he is a fugitive today. Should you fail to accept what fortune has now given you, you may be driven from your state, and then all the years of hardships you have bourn will have been endured in vain.” The duke was swayed by the argument and sent the ambassador back with the message that he would not grant any mercy. When the king of Wu received the message he gave up all hope and committed suicide.

23 Stratagem for confused situations

Borrow the Road to Conquer 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.

Spring and Autumn Period China

The small states of Yu and Guo bordered the larger state of Jin. Duke Xian of Jin desired to conquer both states. This desire was not unknown to the two smaller states and both had taken steps to defend their borders with Jin. The duke’s general, Xun Xi, suggested they make a roundabout attack at Guo through the state of Yu to catch them by surprise. General Xun suggested that since the duke of Yu was a greedy man he could be bribed with gifts of jade and horses in exchange for safe passage through his territory. Duke Xian objected to the idea of giving away so much treasure and asked: “What if the duke of Yu accepts our gifts but refuses us passage?” but general Xun replied: “If he doesn’t intend to let us through, then he wouldn’t accept them, but if he does accept the gifts, and he does let us through, then it will only mean that the treasure is stored temporarily in his storehouse rather than ours.”

When the bribe was sent to the duke of Yu one of his ministers, Gong Ziqi, cautioned against accepting them saying: “Yu is to Guo, like lips are to teeth. Our ancestors had a saying; `If the lips are gone, the teeth will be exposed to cold’. That Guo is able to exist depends on Yu while Yu’s ability to survive hinges on Guo. If we make way for Jin, then the day will see Guo perish in the morning to be followed by Yu in the evening. Why should we ever let Jin pass?” The duke of Yu, however, refused to listen to this advice. Jin was given safe passage and succeeded in conquering Guo. On their way back they stopped to conquered Yu. After taking the Yu capital and recovering the treasure, general Xun returned the jade and horses to the duke. Duke Xian was pleased and said in good humor “The jade is untouched but the horses seem to have gained some more teeth!”

24 Stratagem for confused situations

Borrow the Road to Conquer 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.

Spring and Autumn Period China

The small states of Yu and Guo bordered the larger state of Jin. Duke Xian of Jin desired to conquer both states. This desire was not unknown to the two smaller states and both had taken steps to defend their borders with Jin. The duke’s general, Xun Xi, suggested they make a roundabout attack at Guo through the state of Yu to catch them by surprise. General Xun suggested that since the duke of Yu was a greedy man he could be bribed with gifts of jade and horses in exchange for safe passage through his territory. Duke Xian objected to the idea of giving away so much treasure and asked: “What if the duke of Yu accepts our gifts but refuses us passage?” but general Xun replied: “If he doesn’t intend to let us through, then he wouldn’t accept them, but if he does accept the gifts, and he does let us through, then it will only mean that the treasure is stored temporarily in his storehouse rather than ours.”

When the bribe was sent to the duke of Yu one of his ministers, Gong Ziqi, cautioned against accepting them saying: “Yu is to Guo, like lips are to teeth. Our ancestors had a saying; `If the lips are gone, the teeth will be exposed to cold’. That Guo is able to exist depends on Yu while Yu’s ability to survive hinges on Guo. If we make way for Jin, then the day will see Guo perish in the morning to be followed by Yu in the evening. Why should we ever let Jin pass?” The duke of Yu, however, refused to listen to this advice. Jin was given safe passage and succeeded in conquering Guo. On their way back they stopped to conquered Yu. After taking the Yu capital and recovering the treasure, general Xun returned the jade and horses to the duke. Duke Xian was pleased and said in good humor “The jade is untouched but the horses seem to have gained some more teeth!”

25 Stratagem for gaining ground

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.

Six Dynasties Period China

In 383 emperor Fu Jian of Qin, personally led an advance guard of 5,000 horses to attack the Jin general Xie Shi. Discovering that the Jin forces were greater than he anticipated, the emperor had his army form defensive positions along the bank of the river. The Jin armies likewise encamped on the opposite side. Neither side wished to cross first since it was well known that an army is most vulnerable when crossing a river. General Shi sent an envoy across the river with a message that read: ” My lord, your army has entered deeply into our territory, and in deploying your ranks you have crowded upon the river. This is the plan for a lengthy stalemate. Do you really want to fight? If you will order your men to withdraw to a safe distance and allow us to cross we can then fight it out and settle the matter quickly.”

The emperor agreed to the request. When his advisors objected, emperor Fu Jian told them that he planned to turn his army about and attack the Jin after half their troops had crossed. But general Xie anticipated the emperor’s treachery and sent scouts disguised as imperial troops to infiltrate the Qin ranks. When the emperor ordered his army to pull back, the disguised Jin troops began to incite panic by spreading the rumor that Qin was withdrawing in defeat and that Jin was in hot pursuit. The retreat quickly turned into a rout as the Qin troops broke formation to escape. The emperor and his generals raced frantically after the fleeing soldiers with whips in hand to stop them, but to no avail. The Jin army quickly crossed the river and pursued the Qin forces inflicting enormous casualties. The emperor was wounded and narrowly escaped. He was captured and strangled a few weeks later.

26 Stratagem for gaining ground

Point At The Mulberry But Curse 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.

Han Dynasty China

After Gaozu had become Emperor he invested many of his followers. One day while he was strolling along the balcony of his palace he noticed several ministers milling about below speaking in hushed tones. “What are they talking about?” he asked his advisor Chang Liang. “Your majesty does not know? They are plotting a revolt.”

“But peace has been restored to the empire. Why should they be planning a revolt?”

“When your majesty rose from among the common people, it was through these men that you seized control of the empire. You have become the Son of Heaven, but those whom you have invested have all been close friends from the old days. Now these younger officers of your army, reckoning up the merits they have won, believe that there is not sufficient land in the whole empire to invest them all. So some of them fear they will not receive their just allotment. Therefore they plot rebellion.”

“What should I do?” asked the Emperor

“Among all your followers whom do you dislike the most?”

“Yong Chi and I are ancient enemies,” replied the Emperor.

“You must hurry and invest Yong Chi before anyone else, and make known what you have done to your other followers. When they see Yong Chi has been invested, they will all feel assured of their own rewards.” said Chiang

The emperor agreed and held a feast honoring Yong Chi with lands and titles. When the other ministers left the banquet they said to each other happily, “If even Yong Chi can become a marquis, the rest of us have nothing to worry about!”

27 Stratagem for gaining ground

Feign Madness But Keep Your Balance

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.

Sui Dynasty China

During the final years of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty there appeared a ballad that foretold the fall of the house of Sui and the ascent of a man named Li as emperor. The ballad became immensely popular among the disaffected subjects of Emperor Yang’s infamous rule. The emperor, being superstitious and believing in the prophecy himself, began a campaign to search out and execute anyone of importance with the surname Li. He had numerous ministers and officials along with their entire families put to the sword. A minor official whose name was, Li Yuan, was serving as superintendent in the provinces when he was summoned to the court. Li Yuan delayed appearing in court by claiming poor health. Li Yuan had a niece who was a palace maid and one day the emperor asked her where her uncle Li has been. The lady replied that her uncle was ill. The emperor said: “I wonder if he is courting death?” When Li Yuan heard this he was certain that if he obeyed the summons to court he would never return. Thereupon he feigned madness and pretended to become an incorrigible drunk. When the imperial spies reported Li’s behavior the emperor thought that a madmen could never fulfill the prophesy and was no longer suspicious of Li. Surprisingly, two years later the Sui emperor placed Li in charge of a field army to defend the empire against barbarian incursions. Li fought bravely, won the respect of his troops, marched on the capital, and went on to found the illustrious Tang dynasty thus fulfilling the prophecy.

28 Stratagem for gaining ground

Lure Your Enemy Onto the Roof, Then Take Away the Ladder

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.

Han Dynasty China

After defeating the rebel kingdom of Wei, the famous Han general Han Xin was sent to quell the other two kingdoms that had revolted, Qi and Chu. General Han set out towards Qi but Chu sent its general Long Chu with a force of two hundred thousand men to intercept Han’s invasion of Qi. The two armies met on opposite sides of the Wei river. General Han ordered his men to fill over ten thousand sandbags and carry them up-river to dam the flow of water. The next morning General Han led his army across the lowered river and attacked Chu, but after a short engagement pretended defeat and fled back across the river. General Long announced, ” See I always knew Han Xin was a coward!” and he led his army across the river in pursuit. Through a prearranged signal, General Han had his men break the dam and free the pent up waters. Only half of the Chu army was across the river when the flood cut the army in half drowning those caught midstream. General Han then wheeled around his retreating forces and attacked the advance guard of Chu killing its general Long Chu. The remaining troops panicked and fled in all directions but were captured by the pursuing Han soldiers.

29 Stratagem for gaining ground

Tie Silk Blossoms to the Dead Tree

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, useful.

Three Kingdoms Period China

During the final years of the Three Kingdoms, Suma Yan usurped the throne of Wei, made himself king, and changed the name of the kingdom from Wei to Jin. News of this reached the neighboring king of Wu who knew that his kingdom would be the next likely target of the ambitious Suma. He worried so much that he died several days later. Sun Hao then inherited the throne of Wu and immediately took to pleasure and vice neglecting state affairs. Over the next few years the new king of Wu grew increasingly paranoid and had dozens of his advisors and commanders and their entire families executed on the slightest suspicion and as a result he was widely reviled. Hearing that the people of Wu despised their king, Suma ordered a naval attack led by commander Wang Chun. The king of Wu had no idea of what to do against the impending naval attack. He convened what remained of his council and one advisor recommended stringing a bamboo barrier across the river to prevent the fleet from reaching the Wu capital of Jian Yeh. The king agreed and heavy bamboo cords were made and strung just below the surface. When Commander Wang heard about the barrier he laughed. He ordered his men to build huge rafts from timbers on which were erected straw dummies dressed in armor and holding weapons. The dummies were soaked in oil and a trip mechanism was attached that would ignite the dummies when the rafts struck the barrier. The rafts burned through the bamboo and continued on down stream to the Wu capital. The spectacle of a fleet of rafts full of burning men so frightened the Wu troops that they fled in terror. Suma captured Wu and went on to found the short-lived Jin dynasty.

30 Stratagem for gaining ground

Exchange the Role of Guest for that of Host

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.

Japanese Folk Tale

In feudal Japan there lived a venerable Kendo master who decided to test his three highest-ranking students. He brought them one by one to an old temple in the nearby mountains where he told each student the following: “You have studied with me many years, now lets see if my teaching has been in vain. There within the temple awaits your test, pass and you will have graduated.”

Within the dimly lit temple the Master had hidden four Samurai armed with clubs and instructions to jump anyone who entered the temple. The first student entered the temple and before his eyes could adjust to the light, was surprised and beaten by the Samurai. “I am sorry, you have failed.” Said the master.

The second student entered the temple and sensed the attackers. He was able to deftly evade their attack and defeat them. The student came out of the temple triumphant, but again the master said, “I am sorry, you have failed’

Finally the third student was brought to the temple and told about the test. The student replied, “But venerable master, protocol dictates that when entering a temple the master must always precede the student, so if you please, I shall follow you in.” To which the master replied, “You rascal, you have learned all I can teach you.”

31 Stratagem for desperate situations

The Strategy of Beautiful Women

Send your enemy beautiful women to cause discord within his camp. This strategy can work on three levels. First, the ruler becomes so enamored with the beauty that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane. Second, other males at court will begin to display aggressive behavior 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.

Han Dynasty China

In 199 BC the Han emperor, Gaozu personally led his army against the invading Xiongnu. The emperor, however, was no match against the cunning tribesmen and he was led into a trap and suffered serious casualties. (See chapter 15) He and his remaining forces retreated to the city of Pingcheng for refuge but were surrounded by some 300,000 horsemen. There the emperor remained surrounded for seven days with no possibility of bringing in either provisions or reinforcements. The emperor thought here was nothing left to do but surrender when his advisor, Chen Ping, came up with another strategy. Chen had a painting made of a beautiful Chinese princess that he secretly delivered to the wife of the Xiongnu commander. Along with the painting he sent a message that read: `My Emperor intends to surrender to your husband and so to win his favor he is sending him a present of one of China’s famous beauties to be his concubine.’ When the Xiongnu commander’s wife saw the painting and read the note she was mad with jealousy. Fearing that such a beautiful rival would steal her husband’s affections, she persuaded her husband to lift the siege and return home. The next morning when the emperor awoke he discovered the Xiongnu had left and he was able to return safely to his capital.

32 Stratagem for desperate situations

The Strategy of Open City Gates

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 behavior will arouse suspicions. With luck he will be dissuaded from attacking.

Three Kingdoms Period China

In 234 BC, Kong Ming the famous strategist of Shu, launched an attack against the state of Wei by sending an advance force to scout for the enemy. Leading the army of Wei was Suma-I who also sent an advance force of fifty thousand troops. The two vanguards met and engaged in battle but the Wei forces were superior and won the day. The defeated Shu vanguard raced back to the main body of Kong Ming’s army whose troops, seeing the look of fear in the faces of their comrades, thought that the enemy was upon them and fled in panic. Kong Ming and a few bodyguards fled to the city of Yangping with the Wei army in hot pursuit. Vastly outnumbered and unable to either retreat or sustain a siege, Kong Ming played a last resort strategy that made him famous throughout China. He removed all the guards and battle flags from the walls and had all four of the city gates flung open. When Suma-I approached the city he could see only a few old men nonchalantly sweeping the grounds within the gates. Kong-Ming was seen sitting in one of the towers smiling and playing his lute. Suma-I remarked to his advisors: “That man seems to be too happy for my comfort. Doubtless he has some deep laid scheme in mind to bring us all to disaster.” As they stood spell bound, the strains of Kong Ming’s lute reached their ears and this only heightened their sense of foreboding. Such peculiar behavior was too suspicious and, fearing a clever trap, Suma-I turned his army back and retreated. After the army left Kong Ming and his remaining troops departed in the opposite direction and made their way safely back to their capital.

33 Stratagem for desperate situations

The Strategy of Sowing Discord

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.

Six Dynasties Period China

In the later Wei dynasty, the emperor Tai Wu led a hundred thousand troops against the Song general Zang Zhi. The emperor, with his superior forces, chased general Zhang to the city of Yu where he was cornered. The city was strongly fortified and so the emperor planned to surround it and starve the defenders into surrender. Feeling confident of his position, the emperor sent a cart carrying a large jar of wine to the city gate with the message asking for the traditional exchange of wine before commencing his siege of the city. Zang Zhi knew that he needed to fight a decisive battle quickly, or suffer defeat, saw this as an opportunity. He sent some soldiers to gratefully accept the jar of wine and in turn deliver another large jar sealed with the wine maker’s stamp. When a cup of this wine was poured for the emperor it was discovered to be urine. This caused the emperor a humiliating loss of face before his own troops and in a rage ordered an immediate assault on the city. The defenders were well prepared and the bodies of the slain imperial troops piled up nearly to the top of the ramparts.In his haste and anger the emperor lost half his forces.

34 Stratagem for desperate situations

The Strategy of Injuring Yourself

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.

Edo Period Japan

During the Tokugawa period, Kaei Juzo a former spy had come under suspicion and was in danger of being assassinated. It turned out that the man sent to kill him was a former acquaintance called Tonbe. Not wishing to kill his old friend, Tonbe and Juzo worked out the classic ploy as follows. Tonbe brought Juzo back as a prisoner to the Shogun. Juzo begged the Shogun to allow him one last dignity, permission to commit Harakiri. The Shogun, curious to see the notorious spy’s bravery in death, allowed him that privilege. Juzo was given a tanto (dagger) that he plunged into his belly, and, cutting sideways, spilled his intestines onto the ground before falling over. The guards removed the body and threw it in the castle’s moat. A short time later Juzo quietly swum to shore and escaped the district. Knowing that his warrior’s reputation would merit him the right of committing Harakiri, Juzo had strapped a dead fox across his abdomen, when the fox’s intestines spilled out it was indistinguishable from human intestines.

35 Stratagem for desperate situations

The Tactic 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.

Warring States Era China

In 284 BC the state of Yan attacked and defeated Qi. The remaining Qi forces under the command of Tien Tan fled to the city of Ji Mo for a last stand. First, Tien Tan had the womenfolk line the city walls and beg for a peaceful surrender while he sent gold and treasure collected from the city’s wealthiest citizens to general Qi Che with a note asking that the women and children be spared in return for the peaceful surrender of the city. These events convinced Qi Che that the city was truly about to capitulate and he allowed his troops to relax their guard. After this careful preparation Tien Tan felt the time was right to launch his counter attack. First he had the citizens of the city gather with drums and cooking pots and instructed them that on a signal they were to make as much noise as possible. He then had breaches made along the city walls from the inside. Next a herd of cattle was painted in bizarre patterns and knives and sickles tied to their horns and torches tied to their tails. Just before daylight three events occurred in rapid succession. The citizens within the city struck up a cacophony of noise that startled the sleeping Yan troops. Then the torches on the tails of the cattle were lit and they were released through the breaches in the wall. The enraged animals ran madly about the Yen camp killing stunned troops with their horns and setting fire to tents with their tails. Then Qi’s crack troops rushed out from the gates to attack the now terrified and utterly confused troops. Tien Tan defeated the Yan army and went on to take more than seventy cities.

36 Stratagem for desperate situations

If All Else Fails Retreat

If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat then retreat and regroup.

Ming Dynasty China

The Ming emperor Hwei Ti, had disposed of all his uncles except one who feigned madness. This very uncle, the prince of Yan, in 1403 led a huge army to the capital of Nanking to seize the throne. The city was surrounded and the emperor considered committing suicide when he was stopped by a eunuch who told him that his grandfather, the emperor Hong Wu, had left a chest in his care with orders that should any great crisis occur to threaten the dynasty then the reigning emperor should open the chest.

“Let us open it at once then,” said the emperor, “and see what my father would do were he here now.” When the lid was lifted the box was found to contain the robes of a Buddhist monk, a diploma, a razor, and ten ingots of silver. The emperor understood the meaning at once and with a handful of attendants fled the palace through a secret tunnel to a Buddhist temple. There he shaved his head and put on the robes. He made his way out of the city and all the way to Sichuan province where he lived in obscurity in a remote monastery.

Meanwhile the palace had burned down during the fighting and it was assumed that the emperor had died in the fire. Forty years later during the rein of emperor Ying Tsung (the fourth since Hwei Ti’s time) an old Buddhist priest arrived at court and claimed to be the old emperor Hwei Ti. It turned out the man was an imposter but a rumor began that Hwei Ti was still alive. To quell the rumors and settle the issue, an official investigation was made which discovered that Hwei Ti was indeed still alive living as a Buddhist priest. The old emperor was invited back to the capital with great ceremony and he lived out his last days as a guest in the palace. However, he was kept under a watchful eye.

Content on these pages are taken from the book:
“The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China by Stefan Verstappen”,
China Books & Periodicals, San Francisco, 1999, ISBN:0-8351-2642-0

See also: