Monday, September 29, 2014

The Basics of 36 Strategies

Picture source: wikipedia

(excerpt from the book" 36 Strategies of the Chinese" by Wee Chow hou and Lan Luh Luh)

Historians today have still been unable to establish the exact time period and authors of the famous "Thirty-six Strategies". The most commonly used strategy, Strategy 36, "Escape - the best strategy" (三十六计, 走为上策), was first mentioned in "The Biography of Wang Jingze" (王敬则传) , a chapter appearing in Nan Qi Shu (南齐书) which writes that among "the thirty-six strategies of Master Tan, escape is the most supreme strategy" (檀公三十六策, 走为上计). The details of the escape of Master Tan or Tan Daoji (檀道济), a famous Song General, from the state of Wei was narrated in the 15th chapter of Nan Shi (南史), "The Biography of Tan Daoji" (檀道济传). The same phrase regarding the supremacy of the art of escape also appears in "Yuan Cai" (渊才), a chapter in The Night Tales of Leng Zhai (冷斋夜话). Judging from records, the "Thirty Six Strategies" should have a history of near two thousand years.

Although the "Thirty Six Strategies" is a summary of some of the war strategies used by the ancient Chinese warriors, the name "Thirty Six Strategies" may have come from Yi Jing's (or I-Ching) (易经) "Yin Yang Theory" (阴阳学说) which uses the Tai Yin number of 66 (太阴六六之数) to mean "many tricks". The main statement which sums up the "Thirty-six Strategies" writes:

Six multiplied by six is 36. The word "calculation" (数) conceals another word, namely "strategy" (术). In the application of a strategy, careful calculation is required. Once one is able to calculate the pattern of how situations develop, he will find the required strategy. A strategy cannot be detached from an objective assessment of a situation. It cannot work by subjective imagination.


The stategist holds the key to the appropriate application of a strategy to each situation. As situations (like war conditions) change, so must the strategies. Thus, how well a strategist assesses a situation determines how good he is in applying the right strategy. The process is dynamic and the strategist is the guru. There is no single answer to any problem or situation; the answer depends on the strategists.

Classification of the 36 Strategies

Generally, the Thirty-six Strategies are grouped under 6 categories. Each category contains 6 strategies. The six categories in turn can be used in two types of situations. The three categories, the "Advantageous Strategies" (胜战计), the "Opportunistic Strategies" (敌战计) and the "Offensive Strategies" (攻战计) are used in a winning situation. The other three categories, the "Confusion Strategies" (混战计), the "Deception Strategies" (并战计) and the "Desperate Strategies" (败战计) are used in a disadvantageous situation. However, the application and usage of these strategies can be mingled in various combinations. They are not intended to be used singly, nor are they only applicable in either a winning or losing situation. The possible combination and application of these strategies are limited only by the imagination and creativity of the strategist.

Other than Strategy 36, nobody can be certain of the content of the other thirty-five strategies. The most commonly-used version is that by an Anonymous author. Nevertheless, over the years, these strategies have been commonly cited and used by many generals as well chinese businessman.

Advantageous Strategies (胜战计)
The "Advantageous Strategies" are used in situations when time and resources are to one's advantage, when there is no need to rush, and detailed planning can be carried out. The six strategies in this category include the following:

1. "Deceiving the heavens to cross the sea"
(瞒天过海 or "Man Tian Guo Hai")

2. "Besieging Wei to save Zhao"
(围魏救赵 or "Wei Wei Jiu Zhao")

3. "Killing with a borrowed knife"
(借刀杀人 or "Jie Dao Sha Ren")

4. "Conserving energy while the enemy tires himself out"
(以逸待劳 or "Yi Yi Dai Lao")

5. "Looting a house on fire"
(趁火打劫 or "Chen Huo Da Jie")

6. "Making a feint to the east but hitting out in the west"
(声东击西 or "Sheng Dong Ji Xi") 

Opportunistic Strategies (敌战计)
The "Opportunistic Strategies" thrive on situations where vulnerabilities can be exploited. The idea is to capitalise on all opportunities so as to gain the advantage. The strategies include:

7. "Creating something out of nothing"
(无中生有 or "Wu Zhong Sheng You")

8. "Secret escape through Chen Cang"
(暗渡陈仓 or "An Du Cheng Cang")

9. "Observing the fire from the other side of the river"
(隔岸观火 or "Ge An Guan Huo")

10. "A dagger sheathed in a smile"
(笑里藏刀 or "Xiao Li Cang Dao")

11. "The plum dies in place of the peach"
(李代桃僵 or "Li Dai Tao Jiang")

12. "Stealing a goat along the way"
(顺手牵羊 or "Shun Shou Qian Yang") 

Offensive Strategies (攻战计)
Like the Advantageous Strategies, the "Offensive Strategies" are used in situations when time and resources are not constraining factors. However, these strategies seek to gain victory through direct attack. The six strategies include:

13. "Hitting the grass to startle the snake"
(打草惊蛇 or "Da Cao Jing She")

14. "Borrowing a corpse to resurrect a soul"
(借尸还魂 or "Jie Shi Huan Hun")

15. "Luring a tiger from its lair in the mountain"
(调虎离山 or "Diao Hu Li Shan")

16. "Releasing the enemy to recapture him later"
(欲擒故纵 or "Yu Qin Gu Zong")

17. "Tossing out a brick to get a jade"
(抛砖引玉 or "Pao Zhuan Yin Yu")

18. "Disband the bandits by arresting their leader"
(擒贼擒王 or "Qin Zei Qin Wang") 

Confusion Strategies (混战计)
The "Confusion Strategies" aim to confuse a pursuing enemy to throw him off his guard. In this way, valuable time can be gained in making one's escape. These strategies include:

19. "Pulling out the firewood from beneath the cauldron"
(斧底抽薪 or "Fu Di Chou Xin")

20. "Catching a fish in troubled waters"
(混水摸鱼 or "Hun Shui Mo Yu")

21. "Making an unnoticed escape like a golden cicada shedding its skin"
(金蝉脱壳 or "Jin Chan Tuo Ke")

22. "Shutting the doors to catch the thief"
(关门捉贼 or "Guan Men Zhuo Zei")

23. "Befriend the far and attack the near"
(远交近攻 or "Yuan Jiao Jin Gong")

24. "Borrow a passage to attack Guo"
(假途伐虢 or "Jia Tu Fa Guo") 

Deception Strategies (并战计)
Deception is commonly used in war to create advantages for oneself, and to handicap the enemy. Such strategies are designed to mislead the enemy. They include the following:

25. "Replace superior beams and pillars with inferior ones"
(偷梁换柱 or "Tou Liang Huan Zhu")

26. "Pointing at the mulberry but scolding the locust tree"
(指桑骂槐 or "Zhi Sang Ma Huai")

27. "Pretending to be insane but remaining smart"
(假痴不颠 or "Jia Chi Bu Dian")

28. "Remove the ladder after the enemy ascends to the roof"
(上屋抽梯 or "Shang Wu Chou Ti")

29. "Deck the tree with flowers"
(树上开花 or "Shu Shang Kai Hua")

30. "The guest takes over as host"
(反客为主 or "Fan Ke Wei Zhu") 

Desperate Strategies (败战计)
In a desperate situation, one may have to resort to unconventional and unorthodox methods and means. As such, some of these strategies can be quite dramatic and "tragic". However, when used appropriately, such strategies can be very effective. These include:

31. "Beauty Scheme"
(美人计 or "Mei Ren Ji")

32. "Empty City Scheme"
(空城计 or "Kong Cheng Ji")

33. "Double Agent Ploy"
(反间计 or "Fan Jian Ji")

34. "Self-injury scheme"
(苦肉计 or "Ku Rou Ji")

35. "A series of interconnected ploys"
(连环计 or "Lian Huan Ji")

36. "Escape - the best scheme"
(走为上 or "Zou Wei Shang") 

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We will elaborate more on the general basics on how to connect the 36 Strategies to the Art of War essay in a future post.

Someone once emphasized to us the following, "The amateur strategists of the masses have used some aspects of the 36 Strategies in some extreme competitive situations, while the elite professionals are utilizing the 100 Qi Strategies. ... Who do you think, will win in a strategic confrontation? " 


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