The Thirty-Six Stratagems is a Chinese collection of stratagems used in politics, war, combat, self-defense, sparring, as well as in civil interaction. The prevailing view is that the Thirty-Six Stratagems may have originated in both written and oral history, with many different versions compiled by different authors throughout Chinese history. The original hand-copied paperback that is the basis of the current version was believed to have been discovered in China's Shaanxi province in 1941. The Thirty-Six Stratagems only came to the public's attention after a review was published in the Chinese Communist Party's Guangming Daily newspaper on September 16, 1961. It was subsequently reprinted and distributed with growing popularity.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems are divided into a preface, six chapters each containing six stratagems, and an incomplete afterword. The first three chapters generally describe stratagems for use in advantageous situations, whereas the last three chapters contain ones that are more suitable for disadvantageous situations.
While all the stratagems relate to major conflicts, such as war, most are also applicable to one-on-one combat situations. War is hell, competition is a sport. In war, you are forced to do unethical things, while in competition or personal combat you are forced to do ethical things. Some of the following stratagems are ethical for competition and self-defense and I have included examples of their use. Some are unethical for competition. When this occurs, it is so noted.
Chapter 1: Winning stratagems
1. Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean. Mask your real goal by using the ruse of a fake goal, until the real goal is achieved. Tactically, this is known as an 'open feint,' one performed in front of everyone, such as you point west when your goal is to the east.
Ethical uses. In competition, as your group is preparing for sparring to begin, you act as though you are bored and do not want to be there. Do not show any flexibility, strength, or speed as you warm up. At the same time, observe your opponents for any strengths or weaknesses in their physical or mental abilities.
2. Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào. When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something the enemy holds dear. Know that the enemy cannot be superior in all things. Somewhere there is a gap in the armor, a weakness that can be attacked instead. The idea here is to avoid a head-on battle against a strong enemy and to strike at the enemy’s weakness. This will force the strong enemy to retreat to support the weakness. Battling against the now tired and low-morale enemy will give a much higher chance of success.
Ethical uses. You may not be able to defeat an opponent physically, but you may be able to weaken him or her emotionally by playing “head games” with him or her before a match. If you know what makes the person angry, use it to get them riled up before the match so they are not thinking clearly. Mention that you heard that you heard that his or her girlfriend or boyfriend was flirting with someone else in the audience, so the opponent’s attention is distracted.
3. Kill with a borrowed sword. Attack using the strength of another, in a situation where using one's strength is not sufficient. Trick an ally into attacking the enemy, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy's strength against it. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a third party to do the deed.
Ethical uses. If there is an opponent that you know will be a problem for you in the ring, tell a competitor that fights the opponent before you about a fighting weakness of the problem opponent. The fellow competitor may beat the opponent, or at least weaken him or her before you must face him or her in the ring.
4. Wait at leisure while the enemy labors. It is advantageous to choose the time and place for battle; you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend its energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When the enemy is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose. The idea is to have your troops well-prepared for battle while the enemy is in a rush to fight against you. This will give your troops a huge advantage in the upcoming battle, of which you will get to select the time and place.
Ethical uses. Sometimes an opponent’s enthusiasm works against him or her. Encourage your opponent to expend energy in futile attacks while you conserve your strength by avoiding him or her. When the opponent is exhausted, attack with ferocity. Use range to keep just outside of the opponent’s attacking range. If the opponent thinks he or she is within range, the opponent will probably attack. Mohammed Ali would bob and weave and avoid all punches until the opponent tired and left himself open for an attack.
Know your and the opponent’s range and use it to your advantage. This means you must keep moving, but you move strategically so you stay just outside the opponent’s range and only attack when you are within your range. Instead of always moving forward and backward, move at the angles of the attack or in a circular motion around the attack.
Keep your opponent moving a lot while you only move a little. As you avoid attacks, fire a few counterattacks to keep the opponent frustrated. Once the opponent is weakened, furiously attack!
5. 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. Keep gathering internal information about an enemy. If the enemy is currently in its weakest state ever, attack it without mercy and destroy it to prevent future troubles.
Ethical uses. Learn all you can about your opponents before a competition. This way you will be able to exploit any weaknesses they may have and prepare yourself to deal with their strengths.
6. Make a sound in the east, then strike 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 it least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy's mind using a feint. The idea here is to get the enemy to concentrate its forces in one place while you attack elsewhere.
Ethical uses. A jam and block fighter waits until the opponent attacks and then either jams or blocks the attack and counterattacks. This type of fighter is usually slow-moving but is stocky and powerful so he or she can absorb many attacks while delivering powerful attacks. To defeat this type of fighter, use feints so while the opponent’s attention is on the feint, you may strike with your true attack.
Unless you are using the strategy “create something from nothing” your first move should never be intended to score. Opening moves are usually perceived easily by opponents and thus have little chance of getting through. An opening move should look real, but it is intended as a distraction to hide the true attack. The key to using a feint is timing. If the attack follows the feint too quickly, the opponent does not have time to react as you intended. If the attack comes too slowly after the feint, then the opponent has time to reset and be ready to react to the true attack.
Chapter 2: Enemy dealing stratagems
1. Create something from nothing. Make somebody believe there is something when there is, in fact, nothing. One method of using this strategy is to create an illusion of something's existence while it does not exist. Another method is to create an illusion that something does not exist while it does exist.
Ethical uses. Use the same feint twice. After having reacted to the first and often the second feint, the opponent will be hesitant to react to a third attack, which is the real attack, so the attack may get through. As the 16th-century Japanese sword master, Musashi once wrote, “If the enemy expects fire, give him rain.”
In another example, most novice fighters routinely launch a mid-level kicking technique first to close the distance and cause the opponent to drop his or her guard, followed by a hand technique to score. Using the “create something from nothing” stratagem, you would use this combination a couple of times, causing your opponent to learn to anticipate a low attack followed by a high attack. Then you change up and attack high with the hands followed by a midsection kick. You will probably score with one or both attacks.
2. Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang. Deceive the enemy with an obvious approach that will take a long time, while surprising the enemy by taking a shortcut for a sneak attack. As the enemy concentrates on the decoy, it will miss you sneaking up. This tactic is an extension of the "make a sound in the east, then strike in the west" tactic. Instead of simply spreading misinformation to draw the enemy's attention, physical baits are used to increase the enemy's certainty on the misinformation. These baits must be easily seen by the enemy to ensure that they draw the enemy's attention. At the same time, the baits must act as if they are meant to do what they are falsely doing to avoid drawing the enemy's suspicion.
Ethical uses. Fake an injured shin on your non-favorite leg. Wrap it in a bandage and walk as if it is bothering you. Your opponent will probably concentrate his or her attacks on that leg, leaving you free to counter with your favorite leg or hands.
3. Watch the fires burning across the river. Delay entering the field of battle until all the other players have become exhausted fighting amongst themselves. Then go in at full strength and pick up the pieces.
Ethical uses. Getting a bye in the lineup has its advantages. All your opponents will have had to fight at least one more time than you do, so you will be fresher.
4. Hide a knife behind a smile. Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained the enemy’s trust, move to attack in secret.
Ethical uses. During a competition but before and after you enter the ring, be as kind and courteous as you can be to all your competitors. However, when you enter the ring, be ruthless.
5. Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree. There are circumstances in which you must sacrifice short-term objectives to gain a long-term goal. This is the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not.
Ethical uses. One defense is to sacrifice a weaker weapon to create an opening for the stronger weapon. You may take a block to a weaker arm attack to create an opening for your stronger arm. Or, you may take a blow to your strong abdomen, to create an opening for your vicious uppercut.
6. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goal. 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.
Ethical uses. If your opponent sprains a joint during your match, do not let up. The opponent may drop out, he or she does not have to continue. If the opponent chooses to fight, then you keep fighting as if nothing had happened. When Ronda Rousey was competing in judo, she once broke an opponent’s arm with an arm lock. The pressure was applied slow and steady as the rules allow so her opponent could have tapped out at any time. Her opponent let her arm be broken.
Chapter 3: Attacking stratagems
1. Stomp the grass to scare the snake. Do something unexpected, but spectacular, such as "stomping the grass to scare the snake” to provoke a response from the enemy where it may expose plans or position Do something unusual, strange, or unexpected to arouse the enemy's suspicion and disrupt the enemy’s thinking. This stratagem may also be interpreted to mean you should not “scare the snake by stomping the grass,” since it will reveal your presence. Such an imprudent act will give your position or intentions away to the enemy.
Ethical uses. When you cannot detect the opponent’s strategy, you launch a direct, brief attack, stopping just outside the opponents’ range and observe the opponent’s reaction, which will reveal his or her strategy. A seasoned warrior knows this strategy well and will not reveal his true intentions. However, inexperienced opponents who often make mistakes may overreact to feints and will thus reveal their intentions. This strategy may also mean that your actions should not alert your opponent as to your intentions.
2. Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul. Take an institution, technology, method, or even an ideology that has been forgotten or discarded and appropriate it for your purpose. Revive something from the past by giving it a new purpose or bring to life old ideas, customs, or traditions and reinterpret them to fit your purposes.
Ethical uses. Some people consider traditional techniques to be old-fashioned and out of date, so they have never learned them, and many have never faced any of them. By finding a forgotten technique that works for you, you will have an advantage. At least until the technique becomes popular again.
3. Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair. Never directly attack an enemy whose advantage is derived from its position. Instead, lure it away from its position thus separating it from its source of strength.
Ethical uses. When facing an opponent who constantly maintains a defensive position, waiting for you to attack, you should lure him or her out of the position of strength and safety. When attacking an opponent, you usually expose a target and an observant defensive fighter may hit that target before you hit his or her target. The defensive fighter may step to the side to avoid an attack and then launch a barrage of counterattacks, or, when attacked with hands, he or she may fire a lead mid-level kick that the attacker runs into, or when attacked with a mid-level kick, he or she may rush into the kick and jam it before it launches.
To defeat this type of strategy, one must entice the tiger (opponent) out of its lair (defensive position) by launching a few practice attacks to see the reaction of the opponent. Then when you launch your true attack, you know what counterattack to expect. You may go through all the motions of attacking with the same attack again, but instead, you lead with a block to stop the anticipated counterattack, then you launch your counterattack.
4. To capture, one must let loose. Cornered prey will often mount a final desperate attack. To prevent this, you let the enemy believe it still has a chance for freedom. The enemy’s will to fight is thus dampened by its desire to escape. When the chance for freedom is proven false, the enemy's morale will be defeated, and it may surrender without a fight.
Ethical uses. When you have an opponent backed into a corner, then you back up and let them step back into the ring before the referee says anything. After you do this a couple of times, when you do it again the opponent will probably relax his or her guard for a second; then is when you attack to finish the fight.
5. Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem. Bait the enemy by making it believe it gains something, or do it just make the enemy react to it ("toss out a brick") and obtain something valuable from the enemy in return ("get a jade gem").
Ethical uses. Let an opponent’s round kick to your ribs get through so you may nail him or her with a spinning hook kick to the head.
6. Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief. If the enemy's army is strong but is allied to the commander only by the lure of money, or superstition or threats, then aim at the leader. If the commander falls, the rest of the army may disperse or come over to your side. However, if the army is allied to the leader through loyalty, then beware, the army can continue to fight on after the leader’s death out of vengeance.
Ethical uses. During a team competition, defeat the other team’s leader so they will feel demoralized.
Chapter 4: Chaos Stratagems
1. Remove the firewood from under the pot. Take out the leading argument or an asset of someone, such as to "steal someone's thunder." This is the very essence of an indirect approach: instead of attacking the enemy's fighting forces, the attacks are directed against his ability to wage war.
Ethical uses. An intercept fighter is one who has the range to pick off an opponent before the opponent can get within his or her attacking range. For example, a tall fighter with a long reach who can use jabs to overwhelm an opponent before he or she is close enough to attack. Since the interceptor’s strength is his or her reach, you must take actions that neutralize the reach, such as staying close to the opponent at all times so the reach now becomes a weakness because there is not enough room to get power behind the attacks with the opponent’s long arms and legs. When you fight from the inside, the opponent’s reach is no longer an asset.
When you cannot risk coming in close to your opponent because of his or her strength or reach, then attack what is within your reach. When a long-legged opponent uses long-range kicks, viciously block the kicks, using the tips of your elbows as much as possible, striking the same spot each time, until the pain causes the opponent to stop kicking. The same strategy may be used against long-armed opponents. With pain and possible injury now bothering the opponent, he or she will be hesitant to attack, lessening the range advantage and allowing you to get inside to launch your attacks. Always consider a block to also be an attack and use it not only to stop an attack but to do damage at the same time. If the opponent does not want the pain, he or she may just stop attacking.
2. Disturb the water and catch a fish. Create confusion and use this confusion to further your own goals.
Ethical uses. The evade and counter fighter does not look intimidating and seemingly is avoiding a fight but will suddenly evade and use many counterattacks quickly. Against this type of fighter, you use many different tactics, so it is difficult for the opponent to know what is coming next. The confusion will slow the opponent’s reaction time.
One way to confuse an opponent is to use distraction. Practically anything out of the ordinary may cause a distraction; the key is for it to be strange, different, unexpected, or out of place. For example, suddenly stopping your actions and looking at something behind the opponent will probably cause the opponent to at least hesitate for a moment. This is not something you would use often, but, at the end of a tied match, it could let you score the winning point.
3. Slough off the cicada's golden shell. Mask yourself. Either leave your distinctive traits behind, thus becoming inconspicuous or masquerade as something or someone else. This strategy is mainly used to escape from an enemy of superior strength.
Ethical uses. This is the same as pretending to be hurt or not exposing your strengths before a match.
4. Shut the door to catch the thief. To capture or to deliver the final blow to your enemy, you must plan prudently if you want to succeed. Do not rush into action. Before you "move in for the kill," first cut off your enemy's escape routes, and cut off any routes through which outside help may come.
Ethical uses. Seldom may you enter the ring and dominate the opponent. Instead, you exploit the opponent’s weaknesses, circumvent the opponent’s strengths, cut off the ring, and then move in for the victory.
5. Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor. It is known that nations that border each other become enemies while nations separated by distance and obstacles make better allies. When you are the strongest in one field, your greatest threat is from the second strongest in your field, not the strongest from another field.
Ethical uses. In a competition, you will be fighting friends and other competitors from your school. They will be your greatest threat. You are prepared to face your enemies, but friends will stab you in the back. They know all your strengths and weaknesses.
6. Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo. Borrow the resources of an ally to attack a common enemy. Once the enemy is defeated, use those resources to turn on the ally that lent you them in the first place.
UNETHICAL uses. Borrow a fighter from another school to help your team win a tournament, and then convince the fighter to leave the other school and join your school.
Chapter 5: Proximate stratagems
1. 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, and 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.
Ethical uses. Try to get the rules changed at the last minute to favor your fighters.
2. Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree. To discipline, control, or warn others whose status or position excludes them from confrontation, use analogy and innuendo. Without directly naming names, those accused cannot retaliate without revealing their complicity.
Ethical uses. When confronting fighters, you know to be frauds, use questions and statements that get them to state their lies, and then use other questions and statements that expose lies without directly calling them liars.
3. 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 enemy into underestimating your ability until he or she becomes overconfident and drops his or her guard. Then you may attack.
Ethical uses. While at a competition, talk about not getting enough sleep and having a hangover from a night of partying. Act tired and unconcerned when out of the ring, even when
4. Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof. 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 forces and the elements of nature.
Ethical uses. Not much applicability to the ring here, but it may work on the street. After luring an opponent into an area known to you but unknown and treacherous to the opponent, you attack. Even if the opponent gets away, he or she must escape the area.
5. Deck the tree with false blossoms. Tying silk blossoms on a dead tree gives the illusion that the tree is healthy. Using artifice and disguise, make something of no value appear to be valuable, something of no threat appear to be dangerous, or something of no use appear to be useful.
Ethical uses. Use flashy techniques that look effective to the opponent to lure him or her into a position for your favorite scoring techniques.
6. Make the host and the guest exchange roles. Usurp leadership in a situation where you are normally subordinate. Infiltrate your target. Initially, pretend to be a guest to be accepted, but develop from inside and become the owner later.
Ethical uses. Beware of the ambitious student who seems loyal and dedicated to your school until he or she has enough experience to leave your school, start his or her school, take some of your students, and become a business competitor to your school.
Chapter 6: Desperate stratagems
1. The beauty trap (Honeypot). 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 exacerbating the situation.
UNETHICAL uses. Sending a beautiful female potential student to a rival school to flirt with the male students to cause rivalry among them, and to cause jealousy and envy among the female students. This will cause discord at the school and break down its team spirit.
2. The empty fort strategy. When the enemy is superior in numbers and your situation is such that you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all pretense of military preparedness, act calmly, and taunt the enemy, so that the enemy will think you have a huge ambush hidden for them. It works best by acting calm and at ease when your enemy expects you to be tense. This ploy is only successful if in most cases you do have a powerful hidden force and only sparsely use the empty fort strategy.
Ethical uses. When your opponents are better fighters than you and they know it, but you have a couple of very effective techniques they do not know about, act calm and at ease, so you do not appear to be a threat. Then when the opportunity presents itself, launch your secret techniques for a score.
3. Let the enemy's spy sow discord in the enemy camp. 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 with settling internal disputes, his ability to attack or defend is compromised.
UNETHICAL uses. Spread rumors and innuendos about your opponents to cause discord in their ranks.
4. Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust. 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.
Ethical uses. Again, using the false injury to make yourself less of a threat.
5. Chain stratagems. In important matters, one should use several stratagems applied simultaneously as a chain of stratagems. Keep different stratagems operating in an overall scheme. However, move with caution, if any one strategy fails, then the chain may break and the whole scheme may fail.
Ethical uses. Sometimes, no one of these stratagems will work, but used together they may produce victory, or they may cause an even greater defeat
6. If all else fails, retreat. If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat, then retreat and regroup. When your side is losing, only three choices are remaining: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeated, but escape is not defeating. If you are not defeated, you still have a chance. This is the most famous of the stratagems, immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: "Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best.”
Ethical uses. If you fight a lot, you will lose a lot, hopefully, you will win more times than you lose. When defeat occurs, leave it, and jump back in with the next opponent. A tie is not a loss, it's neutral. Sometimes, the best choice is to simply avoid a match you know you will lose. He who runs away lives to fight another day.
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- The Book of Stratagems by Harro von Senger. ISBN 0140169547.
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