The 36 Strategies is an ancient Chinese collection of strategies for dealing with all manner of situations. It is a well known part of the folk literature of China, and is believed to be about 1,500 years old. It is traditionally composed of six sections, each containing six related strategies. There are different versions of The 36 Strategies, but the arrangement of six sections of six strategies. is always the same because of the significance of the number six in the I Ching and also the common perception among Chinese that the number six is associated with deceit.
The Chinese maintain that their study of these strategies is not motivated by a desire to deceive others, but rather to recognise and prevent these strategies from being used against them.
STRATEGY 1 Deceive the Sky and Cross the Ocean
To accomplish one’s objective, it is sometimes necessary that a falsehood be openly displayed and the truth hidden. An opponent’s attention is thereby-focused on the false situation, allowing the real objective to be accomplished easily without detection. This-s is similar to the distraction a magician creates to divert his audience’s attention from his sleight-of-hand. Chinese history includes a number of occasions on which this strategy was utilised.
STRATEGY 2 Surrounding Wei to Rescue Zao
Instead of taking a strong enemy head-on, one should divert the enemy’s strength, attack vital points, and avoid direct confrontation. This strategy was used in 354 B.C., the period of the Warring States, when Zao was under siege by the country of Wei. Zao requested assistance from the country -of Chi. Chi -sent General Tian- and his forces as well as Sun Bin, the master strategist. General Tian wanted to lift the siege of Zao by direct attack but Sun Bin counselled otherwise: “The entire army -of Wei is presently besieging Zao; Wei itself is unprotected. If we attack Wei, the army will naturally return to defend its own land.” General Tian saw the wisdom in Sun Bin’s plan and marched on the undefended Wei. As Sun Bin had predicted,-the army of Wei immediately lifted the siege of Zao. As they hastened homeward, the army of Wei marched into the ambush that Sun Bin had laid and was destroyed.
‘Is there a strategy that can use one to attack ten? ” asked the king. Sun Bin replied, ‘Yes. Attack the enemy’s weak point; attack the enemy where he least expects it. “
When attacks are aimed directly toward an enemy’s weak points, the advance becomes irresistible.
STRATEGY 3 Borrow Another’s Hand to Kill
This strategy is used to destroy an opponent without bloodying one’s own hands.–It is accomplished by introducing a third element into the struggle between you and your opponent. It may mean creating or intensifying an existing enmity between your opponent and the party you wish to use. This will cause the third party to do the injury you wish done to your enemy.
STRATEGY 4 Make Your Enemy Work While You Wait at Leisure
If you are in a weak position and engaged with a strong enemy, delay the confrontation and continue to delay. The enemy will tire and lose his enthusiastic spirit. While you delay, rest and wait for a change of fortune. If one can cause an enemy’s position to worsen when one’s own position remains unchanged, one moves from an inferior to a superior position.
Those who arrive on the battle field early will have time to be rested as they wait for the enemy. Those who arrive late rush into battle when they are already exhausted. The one who is skilled in warfare forces the enemy to encounter hardship in coming to him while he waits in ease.
Sun Tzu Bing-Fa
STRATEGY 5 Use the Opportunity Offered by a Fire to Rob Others
Victory is gained by benefiting from the misfortunes of your opponent. When someone’s house is on fire, utilise the resulting chaotic situation to steal their possessions. There are two kinds of fire. The first is set deliberately as a diversion by one who wishes to rob another. The second is the result of unknown or accidental causes and one merely takes advantage of it. In ancient China, when a country was in distress from natural calamities such as flood or drought, its neighbours often took advantage of its weakened condition to attack the country and conquer it.
STRATEGY 6 Display Your Forces in the East and Attack on the West
Disguise the intended point of your attack by feigning preparations to attack at another point. Your enemy will be expecting you to employ some sort of feint, so it requires the greatest creativity to devise a feint that will fool him. Tie most important element of this deception is the ability to correctly anticipate the enemy’s reaction.
STRATEGY 7 Create Something from Nothing
The objective of this strategy is to make the unreal seem real; the empty, frill. If there is no wind, there are no waves. Wind must be created if waves are desired.
STRATEGY 8 Secretly Utilise the Chen Chang Passage
One should vary his plans according to the situation of the enemy in order to obtain victory. In the beginning, when enticing the enemy to battle, one may appear to be as shy as a young maiden Theta when the enemy shows an opening, one must move as fast as a fleeing hare and catch the enemy by surprise …
… one should attack the enemy where he is least prepared and when he is least expecting it; and one must feign weakness to make the enemy grow arrogant.
Sun Tzu Bing-Fa
STRATEGY 9 Watch the Fire Burning Across the River
Watching the fire burning across the river is the act of exercising the proper patience and allowing favourable events to progress. A good strategist understands the best time for action and inaction, Internal struggles weaken the enemy’s strength and make for an easy y victory. An attack from without may very likely become a unifying: force.
STRATEGY 10 Knife Hidden Under the Smiling Face
This strategy is used to gain an advantage over an opponent by inspiring trust in him so that he lets down his guard.
STRATEGY 11 The Plum Tree Sacrifices for the Peach Tree
According to an old Chinese fable, there was a plum tree with a peach tree growing next to it. Insects attacked the roots of the peach tree. Because the peach tree was the more valuable of the two, the plum tree volunteered to take the place of the peach tree and sacrifice itself to the insects. In the business world, negotiators must always keep the primary objective in sight and be willing to sacrifice the less important parts to preserve the more important elements of their agenda. This is- the principle of giving the insignificant and in return gaining what is significant.
STRATEGY 12 Take the Sheep Home, Just Because It Is There
If you see a sheep beside the road without anyone tending it, take the sheep home and make it yours. This means that when you come across an opportunity for a small advantage, you should act upon it swiftly, turning the carelessness of your enemy to your benefit.
STRATEGY 13 Disturb the Snake by Hitting the Grass
To disturb the snake by hitting the grass can be, according to circumstances, either a desirable or an undesirable action. When the intention is to catch the snake by surprise, disturbing the grass would be a mistake. If, however, a direct confrontation with the snake is wanted, then hitting the grass is recommended so that the snake will make itself visible.
STRATEGY 14 Borrow Another’s Body to Return the Soul
According to Chinese mythology, Li was a meditation master. One day, he told one of his students that he would be travelling in spirit to visit Heaven and that he would be back in seven days. The student was to guard Li’s body during those seven days and to look after it with great care. On the sixth day following Li’s departure, the student received an urgent request to come home because his mother was gravely ill. The student wanted to see his mother again before she died. Li had been gone for six days, and the student wondered if he might remain in Heaven, never returning to reclaim his body. So, the student burned Li’s body and left to see his mother. When Li returned on the seventh day, he was unable to find his body so his soul entered the body of a beggar who had just died on the roadside. Thus the beggar’s corpse was given new life. When a Chinese company is on the brink of failure, through some stroke of luck it may run into an uninformed Western company that will enter into a joint venture with the dying company, thereby breathing new life into it.
STRATEGY 15 Entice the Tiger to Leave the Mountain
The tiger is powerful only when it is in its natural environment – the mountain. Examine your adversary’s source of power, and if the source is an individual, remove that individual. if an individual’s source of power comes from his adviser, then remove the adviser. Entice the tiger to leave the mountain. The key word is entice. It may not be easy to entice a way tiger from the mountain. The nature of the tiger must be understood so that appropriate bait can be used.
STRATEGY 16 In Order to Capture, One Must Let Loose
If the enemy has no way to retreat, desperation will increase his valour. The enemy should be given room to retreat. Retreat will sap) his strength and his spirit. When the enemy’s resolution is completely gone, then he can be captured with minimal effort, and will be a passive prisoner.
When you surround an enemy, you must leave an outlet for him to go free. Do not press a desperate enemy too hard.
-Sun Tzu Bing-Fa
STRATEGY 17 Trade a Brick for a Piece of Jade
Exchanging a common brick for a valuable piece of jade would be an advantageous transaction. But how would you convince someone to take your brick in exchange for their jade? You must convince him that your brick is of greater value than his piece of jade. If you are to convince him, an understanding of his character is essential The bait must be tempting enough for rim to react to it.
STRATEGY 18 Defeat the Enemy by Capturing Their Chief
Defeat through capture of the enemy’s chief is a principle everyone can understand . Throughout history, there are thousands of proofs of the effectiveness of this strategy.
In the world of business, the chief, the decision-maker, must first be identified, then he must be captured.
Know yourself, know your opponents; one hundred battles, one hundred victories.
-Sun Tzu Bing-Fa
STRATEGY 19 Remove the Firewood Under the Cooking Pot
The strength of the fire determines whether the water will boil. The strength of the fire comes from the burning wood. One may not wish to confront the boiling water directry. By taking the wood from under the cooking pot, one can cool the water. In other words, do not confront your opponent’s strong points. Rather, avoid his strong points and remove the source of his strength.
STRATEGY 20 The Guest Becomes the Host
The host has a great advantage in controlling the outcome of meetings. In preparing the meeting place and controlling the agenda, he can create conditions favourable to his own interests. It is possible for a clever guest to assume some of the perquisites of the host and turn the advantage to himself or herself.
STRATEGY 21 The Golden Cricket Sheds Its Shell
When a cricket has grown to a certain stage, it sheds its outer shell. The cricket then goes away, leaving the empty shell behind. But after it has been abandoned, the empty shell is often mistaken for the real cricket. While -you are displaying the empty shell, your actual force comes from behind the enemy lines for an unsuspected attack.
STRATEGY 22 Accuse Others of Murder by Moving the Corpse
During the Tang Dynasty, a concubine named Wou gained the favour of the emperor. Not content to be the first among his concubines, Wou asked the emperor to dismiss his empress and make her his wife. But, without proof of some great wrongdoing, even the emperor could not dismiss the empress. Such an action also required the approval of council and ministers of state. Unable to achieve her ambition immediately Wou set out to gain the confidence and affection of the empress herself The lavish gifts that the emperor showered on her, she, in turn, gave to the empress. The empress was warned by loyal and perceptive members of her staff that Wou was not to be trusted, but she did not listen. When Wou delivered her first child, the empress visited Wou’s chamber. She held the infant daughter and praised the baby’s beauty. When the empress left, Wou strangled her own child and claimed the empress had done the despicable deed out of jealousy because she herself was childless. The possibility that Wou had killed her own daughter was unthinkable to most of the court since Wou had always feigned a gentle and kind nature. The empress’s motivation was clear: She had failed to provide an heir and was in danger of being put aside. The empress was executed and Wou was put in her place.
STRATEGY 23 Kill the Rooster to Frighten the Monkey
Monkeys are very intelligent animals. Although they can easily be trained, they are often disobedient. Years ago in China, when a monkey did not obey, the trainer would kill a- rooster in front of the disobedient monkey. Witnessing the poor rooster’s death agony in the hands of the trainer, the monkey immediately gave up any resistance to control and become totally submissive.
STRATEGY 24 Steal the Dragon and Replace It with the Phoenix
During the Sung Dynasty, Emperor Zhen Zhoung (who reigned from A.D. 997 to 1022) had a-beloved concubine who threatened the position of the empress by giving birth to a prince. The empress paid the doctor who delivered the baby to switch the baby prince with a dead fox. The empress then took the newborn prince and claimed she had given birth to the baby boy. Because the concubine had apparently given birth to a fox, she was branded a witch. The concubine was sent from the palace and the empress secured her position by becoming the mother of the next emperor.
STRATEGY 25 Attack When Near, Befriend When Distant
It is prudent military policy to advance in an orderly fashion, keeping lines of supply open and secure. You should never engage a distant enemy because of the uncertainty of conducting operations across some intervening territory not under your complete control. Rather, it is advisable to form alliances with those at a distance, and engage adversaries who border on your territories.
STRATEGY 26 The Hidden Message
The Asian peoples do not always say things directly, especially if what they have to say is unpleasant. It is common for them to criticize someone who is not present, but through subtle hints indicate that the criticism is meant to apply to someone present. It is a way of saying what needs to be said without provoking a confrontation. This strategy can be very effective in a sensitive situation if employed tactfully. Asians are trained to understand these hints, but foreigners often do not.
STRATEGY 27 Pretend to Be a Pig in Order to Eat the Tiger
When a hunter goes to the mountain to hunt the tiger, he can lure the tiger by dressing as a pig. When the tiger draws near, he can be killed. When a strong enemy appears, pretend to be weak and servile to put the enemy off guard. Wait until the right moment to spring your trap.
When the enemy is strong, one must be careful in making preparations. One should avoid strength and attack weakness. Mien one is capable, he must feign being incapable.
-Sun Tzu Bing-Fa
STRATEGY 28 Cross the River and Destroy the Bridge
A bridge is useful for crossing a river. Once the river is crossed, if there is no need for return, the bridge can become a liability. In Chinese history, the people who suffered hardships and sacrificed greatly for new rulers, and supported and contributed the most to a new regime, often ended up dead. Like the bridge, these supporters were no longer useful and could be destroyed.
STRATEGY 29 Be Wise but Play the Fool
When one faces strong opposition, it is best not to take premature action that may lead to defeat. One should instead play the fool, posing no threat, arousing no suspicion.
The essence of war is deception The capable must display incompetence. When ready to attack, demonstrate subservience. When close, pretend to be far, but when very far, give the illusion of being near.
-Sun Tzu Bing-Fa
STRATEGY 30 Provoke Strong Emotion
Provoking strong emotion within others is the key to controlling their actions. Anger is an especially powerful emotion. Anger can conquer the world, but more commonly it blinds one’s judgment and causes fatal mistakes. Anger has caused generals to lose battles and kings to lose kingdoms. Properly channeled, the energy in anger can enable one even to face death without fear.
STRATEGY 31 The Beauty Trap
From the earliest times, sex has been used as a weapon of espionage and intrigue.
STRATEGY 32 The Empty City
During the Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220-265), King Min sent his troops off to battle. His city was left without good protection. His greatest enemy, Si Ma, the commander of the army of Wei, made an unexpected approach while king Min was in this vulnerable position. But Kung Min used the empty-citv strategy to defend the city. He sent an old man to open the city’s front gate and sweep the entrance way. Kung Min then went to his tower to prepare food and wine. He played a musical instrument and sang poetry as if he had not a care in the world. Commander Si Ma approached the city gates, but hesitated to enter. He was wary of tricks- and feared a trap was waiting because of this obvious lack of security. Si Ma ordered his troops to retreat and wait so he might discover the true situation. While Si Ma waited and wondered, Kung Min’s soldiers returned from their campaign and the city was once more defended.
A deliberate display the weakness can conceal true vulnerability and confuse the enemy. Creating a mystery by hiding your real strength is an effective weapon.
STRATEGY 33 Espionage and Counterespionage
T’he history of espionage and counterespionage is nearly as long as history itsell Information on the condition of an enemy is vital to the survival of a nation. It is also,vital to the survival of a business.
STRATEGY 34 Mutilate One’s Body
This strategy is very persuasive when one wishes to make a convincing demonstration of commitment or loyalty.
STRATEGY 35 Create Chain Links
Chain-link strategies are the combining of all tricks, devices, and schemes into one interconnected arrangement, like the links of a chain.
STRATEGY 36 Escape Is the Best Policy
Retreat is another form of advance. A good man does not fight a losing battle.
These 36 Strategies form part of a book on Asian Strategies which will shortly become available in PowerPoint (pdf) format – with caligraphy and pictures. If you are interested please contact me.
Dr Brian Monger