||This article may contain original research. (January 2010)|
- Unless otherwise specified, Chinese texts in this article are written in "Traditional Chinese／Simplified Chinese, pinyin" format. In cases where traditional and simplified Chinese characters are identical, the Chinese term is written once.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems was a Chinese essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, as well as in civil interaction.
The Stratagems are often misnamed as strategies; however, a stratagem (synonymous with ruse) is not the same thing as a strategy (being a long-term plan or outline).
The name of the collection comes from the Book of Qi, in its seventh biographical volume, Biography of Wáng Jìngzé (王敬則傳／王敬则传). Wáng was a general who had served Southern Qi since the first Emperor Gao of the dynasty. When Emperor Ming came to power and executed many members of the court and royal family for fear that they would threaten his reign, Wáng believed that he would be targeted next and rebelled. As Wáng received news that Xiao Baojuan, son and crown prince of Emperor Ming, had escaped in haste after learning of the rebellion, he commented that "of the thirty-six stratagems of Lord Tán, retreat was his best, you father and son should run for sure." Lord Tán here refers to general Tan Daoji of the Liu Song Dynasty, who was forced to retreat after his failed attack on Northern Wei, and Wáng mentioned his name in contempt as an example of cowardice.
It should be noted that the number thirty-six was used by Wáng as a figure of speech in this context, and is meant to denote numerous stratagems instead of any specific number. Wáng's choice of this term was in reference to the I Ching, where six is the number of Yin that shared many characteristics with the dark schemes involved in military strategy. As thirty-six is the square of six, it therefore acted as a metaphor for numerous strategies. Since Wáng was not referring to any thirty-six specific stratagems however, the thirty-six proverbs and their connection to military strategies and tactics are likely to have been created after the fact, with the collection only borrowing its name from Wáng's saying.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems have variably been attributed to Sun Tzu from the Spring and Autumn Period of China, or Zhu Ge Liang of the Three Kingdoms period, but neither are regarded as the true author by historians. Instead, 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. Some stratagems reference occurrences in the time of Sun Bin, approx. 150 years after Sun Wu's death.
The original hand-copied paperback that is the basis of the current version was believed to have been discovered in China's Shaanxi province, of an unknown date and author, and put into print by a local publisher in 1941. The Thirty-Six Stratagems only came to the public's attention after a review of it was published in the Chinese Communist Party's Guangming Daily newspaper on September 16, 1961. It was subsequently reprinted and distributed with growing popularity.
Thirty-Six Stratagems 
The Thirty-Six Stratagems are divided into a preface, six chapters containing six stratagems each, and an afterword that was incomplete with missing text. The first three chapters generally describe tactics for use in advantageous situations, whereas the last three chapters contain stratagems that are more suitable for disadvantageous situations. The original text of the Thirty-Six Stratagems has a laconic style that is common to Classical Chinese. Each proverb is accompanied by a short comment, no longer than a sentence or two, that explains how said proverb is applicable to military tactics. These 36 Chinese proverbs are related to 36 battle scenarios in Chinese history and folklore, predominantly of the Warring States Period and the Three Kingdoms Period.
Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems 
Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean 
- (瞞天過海／瞒天过海, Mán tiān guò hǎi)
- Prepare too much and you lose sight of the big picture; what you see often you do not doubt. Yin (the art of deception) is in Yang (acting in open). Too much Yang (transparency) hides Yin (true ruses). This stratagem means that you can mask your real goals, by using the ruse of a fake goal that everyone takes for granted, until the real goal is achieved. Tactically, this is known as an 'open feint'; in front of everyone, you point west, when your goal is actually in the east. By the time everyone realized it, you have already achieved your goal. Harro von Senger notes in the German-Language "Die Liste" that to grasp the full meaning, it would be something like "to deceive the holy virgin Mary" in the West. This stratagem makes use of the human failing to become unaware of common everyday activities, or events that appear normal. The best secrets are carried out in broad daylight. The best hoax is to repeat it so often that people are convinced that the next move is also a hoax. When this happens, it is the best moment to carry out one's previously hidden true objective.
- This stratagem references an episode in 643 AD, when Tang emperor Tang Gaozong Li Simin, balked from crossing the sea to a campaign against Koguryo. His General Xue Rengui thought of a stratagem to get the Emperor across and allay his fear of seasickness: on a clear day, the Emperor was invited to meet a wise man. They entered through a dark tunnel into a hall where they feasted. After feasting several days, the Emperor heard the sound of waves and realized that he had been lured onto a ship! General Xue drew aside the curtains to reveal the ocean and confessed that they had already crossed the sea: Upon discovering this, the emperor decided to carry on and later completed the successful campaign.
- In the Second World War, Adolf Hitler spread misinformation about a planned date for the Invasion of France, but later delayed the date. This was repeated many times, and eventually France and England grew used to the false information, and regarded all Germany planned invasions as hoaxes. Eventually, Germany invaded France with lightning speed, conquering France.
- In the Second World War, the Allies' Operation Quicksilver created a phantom army in Kent complete with faked radio chatter which divided German attentions regarding the actual Allied armies and their intended objective of the Normandy landings.
- (圍魏救趙／围魏救赵, Wéi Wèi jiù Zhào)
- When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that he cannot be superior in all things. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead. The idea here is to avoid a head on battle with a strong enemy, and instead strike at his weakness elsewhere. This will force the strong enemy to retreat in order to support his weakness. Battling against the now tired and low-morale enemy will give a much higher chance of success.
- The origin of this proverb is from the Warring States Period. The state of Wèi attacked Zhao and laid siege to its capital Handan. Zhào turned to Qí for help, but the Qí general Sun Bin determined it would be unwise to meet the army of Wèi head on, so he instead attacked their capital at Daliang. The army of Wèi retreated in haste, and the tired troops were ambushed and defeated at the Battle of Guiling, with the Wèi general Pang Juan slain on the field. Note that this campaign is also described explicitly in the Art of War of Master Sun Bin the younger.
- In the Second Punic War at the Battle of Zama Scipio Africanus was able to defeat Hannibal's army in Italy not by facing him in the field but by destroying his power base in Spain and menacing his home city of Carthage.
Kill with a borrowed knife 
- (借刀殺人／借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)
- Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one's own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy's own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a 3rd party to do the deed.
- During the Three Kingdoms era, Guan Yu, one of the head generals of the Kingdom of Shu, was engaged in the Battle of Fancheng against Cao Cao. Cao Cao sent an advisor to Sun Quan to encourage him to attack and capture Jing Province. Cao Cao promised that all lands south of Yangtze River will be Sun Quan's after this act. Several weeks thereafter, the Kingdom of Wu (Sun Quan), which had secretly allied itself with Wei (Cao Cao), attacked Guan Yu's army at Jiangling. Sun Quan, a previous ally of the Kingdom of Shu, surprised and defeated the Shu forces there, forcing Guan Yu to lift the siege on Fancheng and retreat. During his retreat, Guan Yu was captured by Sun Quan's forces and was executed. This caused great hatred between Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and eventually the hatred led to many battles between the two states. Although Cao Cao did not live to see it, these conflicts eventually allowed the Kingdom of Wei (Cao Cao) to conquer the Kingdom of Shu Liu Bei and the Kingdom of Wu Sun Quan, allowing the Kingdom of Wei (Cao Cao) under the leadership of general Sima Yan who later on would overthrow Cao Huan's throne to conquer China and unify it under the rule of the Kingdom of Jin (Sima Yan).
- In 1936, Stalin began to second guess his most trusted advisors and generals. Hitler made a list of the most dangerous generals within Russia, and created an underground report regarding them selling Russian information to Germany. Many false mails between them were also made. Russian spies got hold of this detailed list of the Russian generals and the mails they had allegedly sent to Germany. 8 generals were immediately imprisoned. After a 30 minute trial, all of the generals were judged guilty of treason, and all were executed within 12 hours. When Germany and Russia engaged in combat later on, Russia had to fight without some of its best generals.
Wait at leisure while the enemy labors 
- (以逸待勞／以逸待劳, Yǐ yì dài láo)
- 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. The idea is to have your troops well-prepared for battle, in the same time that the enemy is rushing 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.
- In the Battle of Maling, Wei had both the number and morale advantage over the Qi troops. Sun Bin ordered his Qi troops to retreat, while encouraging the Wei troops to pursue them with haste. The end result was that the Qi forces were well prepared and well located for an ambush, while the Wei forces were tired from the speedy march. The battle was really one sided due to this difference.
Loot a burning house 
- (趁火打劫, Chèn huǒ dǎ jié)
- 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 totally destroy it to prevent future troubles.
- Before the Battle of Gaixia, both Chu and Han forces were tired from a long lasting siege. After a peace treaty, the tired Chu troops began retreating out of Han territory. Han Xin and Zhang Liang both advised to Liu Bang: "We already control half of the empire. Even within Chu, many governors favour us being the ruler, and will not give Xiang Yu support unless forced to. The Chu troops are currently tired and face serious food shortages. The heavens have decided to end Xiang Yu's power. If we let Xiang Yu escape, it will be like keeping a tiger alive only to kill its owner later. We must strike now and end this threat." After some thinking, Liu Bang gave the order to attack Xiang Yu, and eventually ended Chu.
Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west 
- (聲東擊西／声东击西, Shēng dōng jī xī)
- 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. The idea here is to get the enemy to focus his forces in a location, and then attack elsewhere which would be weakly defended.
- In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte had planned an invasion of Egypt, but in order for his ground troops to be transported into Egypt, he would have to get through, at the time, a superior British Navy. Napoleon decided to avoid a direct confrontation during the transportation, since a defeat here would cost many lives. Napoleon informed his Mediterranean fleet that they were to join up with the fleet in the north, and attack Ireland. As a result of this news, Horatio Nelson stationed his fleet in the west of the Mediterranean, in order to block the French fleet from moving up north. Napoleon then quickly ordered his Mediterranean fleet to transport ground troops into Egypt. By the time Horatio discovered Napoleon's plans, about three weeks had passed and a large French army had gathered in Egypt. Although the French Mediterranean fleet was eventually destroyed in the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon was able to conquer Egypt with his ground troops.
- In the Second World War, the Allies deliberately created confusion in Kent, indicating that the main object for the forthcoming invasion would be Calais, where the Continent is nearest to Great Britain and the supply lines would be shortest. The Germans never believed that the Normandy landings would be the main invasion, but that the invasion would indeed target Calais.
- In the 1991 Gulf War the coalition, through deception, was able to convince the Iraqis that the coalition intended an amphibious attack into Kuwait and was able to fix Iraqi forces in positions that could play no effective part when the real attack came.
Chapter 2: Enemy Dealing Stratagems 
Create something from nothing 
- (無中生有／无中生有, Wú zhōng shēng yǒu)
- A plain lie. Make somebody believe there was 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.
- During the Battle of Fei River, Former Qin had an overwhelming manpower over Jin. But instead of backing down to defend, Jin attacked Former Qin forces early and formed wide formations, giving an illusion that Jin had the manpower to match Former Qin's forces. Fu Jiān began planning his moves in fear, and later on ordered his vast forces to back out from the river banks. The low morale Former Qin troops went into chaos, and Jin came out of the battle victorious.
- During the Battles of Yongqiu and Suiyang, the Tang soldiers in Yongqiu were running out of arrows. Zhang Xun ordered about 1,000 scarecrows to be made. At night, soldiers put their own armor onto the scarecrows, and hung them down from the Castle walls. Yan forces saw this and shot many arrows at the scarecrows, since they thought they were Tang soldiers. By the time the Yan forces found out what happened, the Tang troops had already received about 200,000 arrows. When this happened again later, Yan soldiers did not shoot one single arrow at them. But these dark figures were real Tang soldiers, who quickly attacked the sleeping Yan ranks. The vast Yan forces were forced to retreat from their position.
- During the Battle of Chi Bi, when Liu Bei retreated his army and left Wu to fight Wei, Shu took most of the allied army's arrows. When Zhuge Liang stayed with Wu to help defeat Cao Cao, he and Lu Su rallied boats with scarecrows that wore Wu armor therefore looked like Wu soldiers. Cai Mao's fleet fired arrows at them and they got more than a hundred thousand arrows.
- During 1944, the Allies built up Potemkin villages of inflatable mock-up tanks, military vehicles and aircraft, creating an illusion of forces that in reality did not exist. Likewise, they created illusory vehicle tracks on fields, creating an illusion of excercizes, to give an impression of troop concentrations in places where they weren't.
- In advance fee frauds, victims are lured by making them believe there was a large amount of money waiting for them ("Something") while there is in fact "Nothing".
- In the Biblical story of the judge, Gideon in the Book of Judges, the smaller Israelite army, led by Gideon, was able to defeat the larger Midianite army by first carrying torches and trumpets, thus appearing as the torch bearers of a much larger force that had surrounded the Midianite encampment.
Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang 
- (明修棧道,暗渡陳倉／明修栈道,暗渡陈仓, Míng xiū zhàn dào, àn dù chén cāng)
- Deceive the enemy with an obvious approach that will take a very long time, while surprising him by taking a shortcut and sneak up to him. As the enemy concentrates on the decoy, he will miss you sneaking up to him. This tactic is an extension of the "Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west" tactic. But 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 what they meant to do what they were falsely doing, to avoid drawing the enemy's suspicion.
- The phrase originated from the Chu-Han contention, where Liu Bang retreated to the lands of Sichuan to prepare for a confrontation with Xiang Yu. Once he was fully prepared, Liu Bang sent men to openly repair the gallery roads he had destroyed earlier, while secretly moving his troops towards Guanzhong through the small town of Chencang instead. When Xiang Yu received news of Liu Bang repairing the gallery roads, he dismissed the threat since he knew the repairs would take years to complete. This allowed Liu Bang to retake Guanzhong by surprise, and eventually led to his victory over Xiang Yu and the birth of the Han Dynasty.
- In 263 during the Three Kingdoms era, Deng Ai was facing off against Jiang Wei in one of the many battles between the two. Jiang Wei's goal was to take one of the Wei fortresses. Deng Ai engaged Jiang Wei's forces and was able to win a few early battles, and Jiang Wei retreated for a short distance before making camp. Deng Ai order his troops to set up defences along a river, since the nearby Jiang Wei forces would certainly return. After 3 days, Jiang Wei's forces did indeed return. But they simply camped and did not prepare to cross the river. Deng Ai sensed that Jiang Wei's main forces had gone around the river to take the fortress directly, so he ordered all forces to retreat back to the fortress to defend. Everything was just as Deng Ai had predicted, and due to his prior preparations, Jiang Wei's siege at the fortress ended in a failure. Jiang Wei had used the tactic wrongly, because his forces at the river did not draw enough enemy attention to cause them to stay at the river.
- Prior to the Battle of Normandy, the Allies wanted to draw the Axis attention away from Normandy. An entirely fictitious First U.S. Army Group ("FUSAG"), was created for this purpose. Dummy tanks, trucks, planes and camps were made. They were placed in an area which led Germany to believe that the actual large scale invasion would take place in Pas de Calais. The air defense in this area was at a minimum, to allow Luftwaffe to photograph them easily. Allied naval bombardment was focused on Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. Dummy paratroopers were also used to create further uncertainty on the Germany side regarding the actual location of the invasion. This led the German defense forces into disorder, and allowed the Normandy operation to be carried out with relative ease.
- Instead of directly attacking the Japanese 1944, the Allies created a twofold strategy: the Americans concentrated on island hopping. The Japanese concentrated their forces against the Americans, while the Commonwealth troops were free to attack from west, at Burma and Sumatra, effectively re-conquering the territories lost 1941-1942.
Watch the fires burning across the river 
- (隔岸觀火／隔岸观火, Gé àn guān huǒ)
- 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.
- This has been US foreign policy when it comes to dealing with complex international conflicts, since at least the First World War, and onwards.
Hide a knife behind a smile 
- (笑裏藏刀／笑里藏刀, Xiào lǐ cáng dāo)
- Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, move against him in secret.
Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree 
- (李代桃僵, Lǐ dài táo jiāng)
- 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.
- Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms Period demonstrated this strategy. During a siege, Cao's supplies ran low so he called in the supply captain and told him to dilute the rice with water to save grains. When the soldiers started to complain, Cao ordered for the captain to be killed. He would explain to his troops that the captain had been selling supplies to the enemy. This raised the army's morale and they were victorious in a few more days.
Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat 
- (順手牽羊／顺手牵羊, Shùn shǒu qiān yáng)
- 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.
Chapter 3: Attacking Stratagems 
Stomp the grass to scare the snake 
- (打草驚蛇／打草惊蛇, Dá cǎo jīng shé)
- Do something unaimed, but spectacular ("hitting the grass") to provoke a response of the enemy ("startle the snake"), thereby giving away his plans or position, or just taunt him. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy's suspicion and disrupt his thinking. More widely used as "[Do not] startle the snake by hitting the grass". An imprudent act will give your position or intentions away to the enemy.
Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul 
- (借屍還魂／借尸还魂, Jiè shī huán hún)
- Take an institution, a technology, a method, or even an ideology 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 bring to life old ideas, customs, or traditions and reinterpret them to fit your purposes.
Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair 
- (調虎離山／调虎离山, Diào hǔ lí shān)
- Never directly attack an opponent whose advantage is derived from its position. Instead lure him away from his position thus separating him from his source of strength.
In order to capture, one must let loose 
- (欲擒故縱／欲擒故纵, Yù qín gū zòng)
- 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.
Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem 
- (拋磚引玉／抛砖引玉, Pāo zhuān yǐn yù)
- Bait someone by making him believe he gains something or just make him react to it ("toss out a brick") and obtain something valuable from him in return ("get a jade gem").
- This proverb is based on a story involving two famous poets of the Tang Dynasty. There was a great poet named Zhao Gu (趙嘏) and another lesser poet by the name of Chang Jian (常建). While Chang Jian was traveling in Suzhou, he heard news that Zhao Gu would be visiting a temple in the area. Chang Jian wished to learn from the master poet, so he devised a plan and went to the temple in advance, then wrote a poem on the temple walls with only two of the four lines completed, hoping Zhao Gu would see it and finish the poem. Zhao Gu acted as Chang Jian foresaw, and from this story came the proverb.
- Casino operators use such schemes to attract potential gamblers into their casinos, by offering little rewards such as free buffet or a complimentary hotel room. In the end, the casinos usually gain back much more than what they initially gave away, in the forms of gambling losses by the gamblers during their stays.
- This is effectively the situation which gave idea to Robert Heinlein for his idiom TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). There is a similar Finnish expression jokaisessa madossa on koukku, "every worm contains a hook", implying that anything given free is actually a bait to lure any targets to the ruse.
Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief 
- (擒賊擒王／擒贼擒王, Qín zéi qín wáng)
- If the enemy's army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money, superstition 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.
- During the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great focused his attack against Darius III of Persia's location. Darius fled out of fear and the Persian army fell into chaos.
- During the battle of Cajamarca 1532, the conquistadors of Francisco Pizarro effectively ignored the vast Inca army and instead targeted its commander-in-chief, Inca Atahuallpa. After his capture the Inca army effectively collapsed.
- Mercenary forces only fight for money or survival. When deprived of their money, they will retreat or change sides.
Chapter 4: Chaos Stratagems 
Remove the firewood from under the pot 
- (釜底抽薪, Fǔ dǐ chōu xīn)
- Take out the leading argument or asset of someone; "steal someone's thunder". This is the very essence of indirect approach: instead of attacking enemy's fighting forces, the attacks are directed against his ability to wage war.
- During the battle of Tali-Ihantala 1944, the Finnish Air Force and Luftwaffe attacked against the Soviet fuel supplies, thus preventing the Soviet tanks from refuelling and thus denying their mobility and putting out the very impetus of the Soviet attack. The Finns were able to halt the Soviet onslaught, and by a counterattack push the Soviets back and stabilize the lines.
Disturb the water and catch a fish 
- (渾水摸魚／浑水摸鱼 or 混水摸鱼, Hún shuǐ mō yú)
- Create confusion and use this confusion to further your own goals.
Slough off the cicada's golden shell 
- (金蟬脱殼／金蝉脱壳, Jīn chán tuō qiào)
- It's a strategy mainly used to escape from enemy of a more superior force. One uses this strategy by slough off one's shell, which tricked the enemy to believe to have grasped one's essential. Mask yourself. Either leave flamboyant traits behind, thus going incognito; or just masquerade yourself and create an illusion to fit your goals and distract others.
Shut the door to catch the thief 
- (關門捉賊／关门捉贼, Guān mén zhuō zéi)
- To capture your enemy, or more generally in fighting wars, 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 can reach them.
Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor 
- (遠交近攻／远交近攻, Yuǎn jiāo jìn gōng)
- 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.
Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo 
- (假道伐虢, Jiǎ dào fá Guó)
- 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.
Chapter 5: Proximate Stratagems 
Replace the beams with rotten timbers 
- (偷梁換柱／偷梁换柱, Tōu liáng huàn zhù)
- Disrupt the enemy's formations, interfere with their methods of operations, change the rules in which they are used to follow, 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.
Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree 
- (指桑罵槐／指桑骂槐, Zhǐ sāng mà huái)
- 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.
Feign madness but keep your balance 
- (假痴不癲／假痴不癫, Jiǎ chī bù diān)
- 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.
- Lucius Junius Brutus feigned idiocy for many years while he secretly prepared to depose Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last King of Rome.
- Emperor Claudius feigned a feeblemind for years, giving an impression he was an unambitious simpleton, not worthy of assassination. After the murder of Caligula, he then seized the imperial power.
- The Forty-seven Ronin used this strategy to take revenge for their master. They waited over a year and when the opponent let his guard down, they took their revenge.
Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof 
- (上屋抽梯, Shàng wū chōu tī)
- 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.
- The Grande Armee was destroyed in the 1812 invasion of Russia by a combination of the Russian winter, a scorched earth strategy, and the Russian army. Napoleon had been spurred on by the prize of capturing Moscow and with it the defeat of Russia; however, all he found was a burnt out and empty city and his forces cut off in hostile terrain and weather with no supplies.
Deck the tree with false blossoms 
- (樹上開花／树上开花, Shù shàng kāi huā)
- 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 appear useful. This is the same stratagem as using a Potemkin village.
Make the host and the guest exchange roles 
- (反客為主／反客为主, Fǎn kè wéi zhǔ)
- 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.
Chapter 6: Desperate Stratagems 
- (美人計／美人计, Měi rén jì)
- Send your enemy beautiful women to cause discord within his camp. This strategy can work on three levels. First, the ruler becomes so enamoured with the beauty that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane. Second, other males at court will begin to display aggressive behaviour 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.
The empty fort strategy 
- (空城計／空城计, Kōng chéng jì)
- When the enemy is superior in numbers and your situation is such that you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all presence of military preparedness, act calmly and appear disrespect of the enemy, so that the enemy will think you have hidden huge power and you want to trap them into the fort with your calm and easiness. This has to be used when in most of the cases, you do have huge power hidden under the disguise and you only play the real empty fort rarely.
Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp 
- (反間計／反间计, Fǎn jiàn jì)
- 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.
Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust 
- (苦肉計／苦肉计, Kǔ ròu jì)
- 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.
- This strategy was perhaps best demonstrated during the Spring and Autumn Period. After his defeat by King Fuchai of Wu, King Goujian of Yue pretended to go to Wu to become a servant of Fuchai. After gaining Fuchai's trust, Guo Jian was allowed back to Yue. There he strengthened his military and in 482 BC while Fuchai was trying to gain hegemony, he attacked and conquered the capital. Some years later in 478 BC, he annexed Wu and forced Fuchai to commit suicide.
Chain stratagems 
- (連環計／连环计, Lián huán jì)
- In important matters, one should use several stratagems applied simultaneously after another as in a chain of stratagems. Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme; however, in this manner if any one strategy fails, then the chain breaks and the whole scheme fails.
- (走為上／走为上, Zǒu wéi shàng) cf. 退避三舍
- If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat, then retreat and regroup. When your side is losing, there are only three choices remaining: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance. In western military thinking, this stratagem is summed as a rhyme The one who runs away, fights another day. This is the most famous of the stratagems, immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: "Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best".
Relevance in the West and Asia 
Senger notes that as ruses were mostly condemned as "the last means of the incapable when all other has failed" (Clausewitz) and un-Christian, there is no culture of applying and discovering stratagems in the west. This leads to:
- Ruses that are applied normally are executed dilettantish and badly planned.
- Ruses applied by the more stratagem-competent far-eastern world are not discovered and countered.
- While the expertise of stratagems allows somebody to plan and evaluate his ruses ethically, western ruses normally are applied un-planned and ruthlessly.
- In communication with East Asians, it frequently leads to misunderstandings as westerners do not have stratagem expertise, while all they communicate is analyzed stratagemically. Senger explains that this was particularly true for the frequent references to human rights by western politicians. Senger brings examples how Chinese politicians wittily win battles of words when confronted directly, and explains that many Chinese come to the conclusion that the west itself uses the subject as a ruse to weaken the evolving China as a future economic and global power and stage it mainly as a show for their own voters. Differences in stratagemic background have not prevented Western critics from coming to the same conclusion.
Senger cites a Chinese newspaper article discussing whether stratagem expertise should be imparted in children's education, that comes to the conclusion that this was not a question of "if", but of "how". ("Die Kunst der List", 2001).
He states that there are two modes of stratagem usage:
- Active - to apply stratagems to reach one's own goals.
- Passive - to analyze actions and statements of others with regard to stratagem usage.
This view, however, is not completely valid. For example, the surviving Roman and Byzantine manuals list several stratagems, many found in the list below, and political thinkers, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, see ruses as perfectly good means of politics and warfare. Clausewitz actually encourages the use of stratagems when at disadvantaged position; he doesn't advocate them as silver bullets since they usually are more likely to fail than succeed and attempting them may divert resources off where they are needed (as happened with the Japanese in the Battle of Midway). Many of the stratagems listed in the 36 stratagems have been carried out successfully in the West just as well.
Ethics and stratagems 
Ethics and stratagems are one of Clausewitz's major subjects; while he states that the use of ruses was not despised by Christian teachings (he cites Matthew 10,16: I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (NIV)), he divides stratagem usage into four categories:
- Stratagem usage to inflict damage.
- Stratagem usage to serve a goal.
- Stratagem usage to make a prank.
- Ethically ambivalent stratagem usage.
Although the ability to use stratagems competently was important, stratagem expertise was necessary to discover stratagems used by others to damage oneself.
- "Original Text of the Biography of Wáng Jìngzé, Book of Qi (Traditional Chinese)". Retrieved 2006-11-27.
- "Introduction to the Thirty-Six Strategies (Traditional Chinese)". Retrieved 2006-11-27.
- "Exploring the Thirty-Six Strategies (Simplified Chinese)". Chinese Strategic Science Network. 2006-07-11.
- The Thirty-six Strategies Of Ancient China by Stefan H. Verstappen
- The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene
- The Book of Stratagems by Harro von Senger. ISBN 0140169547
- The 36 Stratagems for Business: Achieve Your Objectives Through Hidden and Unconventional Strategies and Tactics by Harro von Senger. ISBN 9781904879466
- Greatness in Simplicity: The 36 Stratagems and Chinese Enterprises, Strategic Thinking by Cungen GE. ISBN 7802076420
- Original text of Thirty-Six Stratagems (Simplified Chinese) With comments and explanations to the preface, six chapters, and afterword
- English and French translation of the Thirty-Six Stratagems
- English introduction to the Stratagems with translation of each accompanied by examples taken from Chinese and Japanese history]
- The 36 Stratagems compendium (German)
- "An Electronic Art of War in 36 Stratagems" (French/English)