Asian Strategy – The 36 Strategies

Developed by Dr Brian Monger (Mengbo Yuan)

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 phrase “thirty-six strategies” is a common Chinese expression used to describe someone’s actions as deceitful.  Even Chinese children are aware of its meaning.

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.

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.  “

 Sun Bin Bing-Fa

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.

This strategy is the basic element of current Chinese negotiating techniques.

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

During the battle between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, at the end of the Chin Dynasty (208 B.C.), Liu was forced to retreat to Sichuan Province.  Liu wanted to allay Xiang’s suspicions of immediate counterattack, so he destroyed the only road to Sichuan.  Later, when Liu was ready to march back into central China, he openly began to repair the destroyed road.  This led Xiang to believe Liu would not be attacking him until he finished the road.  Instead, Liu used the previously unknown Chen Chang passage and took Xiang by total surprise, thus defeating him and establishing the Han Dynasty.

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.

When an enemy has conflicts within, it is best to watch from across the river and let the fire do its work.

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

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.

This strategy demonstrates a soft approach, showing that kindness can be effective.  In business management, for example, instead of severely punishing an erring employee, a doze of compassion and a light punishment might result in a more loyal staff.

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, and then he must be captured.  You must obtain a thorough understanding of exactly what the chief is looking for, and then put your-self in a position to help him.

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 directly.   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.


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.

This strategy is especially popular in Asian literature and heroic folk tales.  The making of a hero lies not in the moment of victory when he is eating the tiger, but rather in his period of endurance, his apparent acceptance of disgrace by acting like a pig.  To Asians, endurance beyond any normal human’s capacity is the true proof of manhood.

When the enemy is strong, one must be careful in making preparations. One should avoid strength and attack weakness.  When 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.  When a country enters a way, the first order of business for the commander-in-chief is to kindle anger in both the military and civilian personnel.  A soldier’s willingness to die for his country is dependent in large part upon how well his anger and hatred are aroused.  The same principle applies in times of peace.  The more a worker’s emotions are stimulated to work toward company objectives, the more successful the company will be.

It is important to cultivate the ability to provoke strong emotions in others, but it is just as important that others are unable to stir up strong emotions in you.  To remain untouched by another’s provocation prevents another from weakening your judgment and controlling your actions.  The wise man practices a detachment from his emotions.  He is indifferent to praise or abuse.  He will not succumb to provocation and become the victim of his own emotions.

STRATEGY 31 The Beauty Trap

From the earliest times, sex has been used as a weapon of espionage and intrigue.  Even in today’s business world, the gift of women is not uncommon in Asian societies.  It is the host’s duty to understand tacitly and provide for the desires of the guests.  It is felt that the barrier between host and guest, buyer and seller, may be removed in an atmosphere of wine, women, and song, and a closer business relationship achieved.

STRATEGY 32 The Empty City

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

The history of espionage and counterespionage is nearly as long as history itself 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.

Because the investment of time and money in research and development can be very high Asian businesses often prefer to obtain technological information through covert means rather than develop their own.  They feel it is much more efficient and cost-effective for them to acquire and refine another’s technology.  This is often accomplished simply by purchasing a piece of equipment, disassembling it, and analyzing the parts.  Asians may request training courses to accompany a purchase of new equipment.  The Asian buyer does this not simply to learn the usage of the product, but rather to learn how to reproduce it.  Seemingly harmless questions will be asked in order that a missing piece to the puzzle may be passed to them by an unwary engineer.

STRATEGY 34   Mutilate One’s Body

This strategy is very persuasive when one wishes to make a convincing demonstration of commitment or loyalty.

The Bing-Fa master Wu Tzu lived during the Spring-Autumn period.  As a young man, he traveled through China from the court of one feudal lord to another, trying to convince them of his brilliance so that he would receive a worthy post.  After countless rejections and personal tragedies, he finally obtained a minor position in the court of Lu.  The king of Lu noticed Wu Tzu’s talents and appointed him commander of the army in the face of an imminent attack by their neighbour, Chi.

Advisors to the king, jealous of Wu’s ability, put his loyalty in question by noting that Wu Tzu’s wife was a native of Chi.  To demonstrate his unquestionable devotion to the king, Wu Tzu killed his wife.

STRATEGY 35  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

When faced with unfavourable conditions, retreat.  Attack when conditions are more favourable.  In order to attain the ultimate victory, it is sometimes necessary to accept a temporary defeat and, by escaping, to preserve one’s strength.  For some, though, it may be more difficult to accept the shame of retreat than to die with glory.

Escape may not be heroic, but it does ensure that one can fight another day.  In such a large place as China, if one cannot win a battle immediately, escape is usually easy.


Dr. Brian Monger is the Executive Director of MAANZ International and Principal Consultant with The Centre for Market Development.  He is available for consulting tasks and speaking engagements  His profile can be found on LinkedIn.

These notes form part of a wider set of notes used in workshops and presentations (with caligraphy and ancient Chinese warfare images) on Asian Strategy by Dr Monger

These notes also form part of a book on Asian Strategy (prinically Chinese and Japanese) by Dr Monger (sendan email to for more information)

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