The 36 Stratagems of War
1. Stratagems for the Stronger Force
Editor's Note: The 36 stratagems were divided into six categories,
depending on situation. This division was always fluid and flexible, for the
Chinese view of war is that the situation continually changes
times, the divisions are, perhaps, even less applicable. Rather than viewing
the first six stratagems as being most applicable for a stronger force to use,
perhaps it will be better to apply a descriptor to them. These stratagems
advocate ways to mis-direct the energy of others and to seize the advantage of
01. Deceive the sky to cross the sea
Conceal your preparations by being completely open and public.
The police of a town were looking for a cat burglar that continually struck
in a certain wealthy neighborhood. Finally, after failing to catch him after
weeks of trying, they set up a watch on either end of every street. The
officers were ordered to note the arrival and departure of every person, so
that all could be questioned. And yet, the burglaries continued for several
days, until one observant policeman realized that a postman was making
rounds on a postal holiday. The "postman" was finally nabbed. Yet he had
succeeded for so long because he had made himself an acceptable part of the
scenery while in the act of committing burglaries.
Another form of
deceiving the sky to cross the sea is to make open preparations for war
without ever actually going to war---until the enemy no longer takes you
02. Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To draw off the energy of an attack against an ally, let the
enemy fully commit himself against his prey, and then---instead of rushing
to the rescue---attack the enemy's dearest possessions.
small kingdom of Zhao was attacked by the mighty Wei forces, the kingdom of
Zhao fortified itself and became a city under seige. It managed to get a few
messengers out to ask for help from its allies. But the Wei forces had come
prepared to lay a long seige, and so they dug in around Zhao and fortified
themselves against both front and rear attacks.
The Wei military
force encamped against Zhao was huge, so Zhao's allies decided not to
confront the Wei army in the field. Instead, the allies marched boldly to
the Wei capital, which had been left with a very light guardian force while
the main body of troops was beseiging Zhao. Panicked recall messages were
sent to the Wei troops, and these were allowed to get through.
Wei attack force quickly broke camp and tried a forced march back to their
capital to defend it. As soon as they embarked on their hasty retreat, the
Zhao gates opened, and the small Zhao army pursued and harried their former
attackers. Meanwhile, the allies of Zhao laid ambushes against the returning
Wei forces and raided them on the open roads. And then the allies who had
attacked the Wei capital met the Wei forces head on, while the Zhao army
attacked from the rear.
Thus the Wei army was decimated and harried
back to its capital, rendering it unable to carry out another massive
03. Kill with a borrowed knife
Convince others to fight your battles for you. The most
masterful strategists of the past have used deception to convince enemy
kings that their best generals were about to betray them. So the rulers
would order all their own best generals beheaded for treason. Thus the enemy
did to himself what would have taken months or years to accomplish on the
Another way to use this strategy is to cause discord
between your enemy and another party. Your enemy exhausts himself and spends
up his resources, so that he's decimated by somebody else's weaponry while
you conserve your resources. The enlightened fighter lets somebody else do
the fighting for him and can either watch the battle to its conclusion or
else enter at the end and win.
04. Wait at ease for the enemy
Sun Tzu wrote these three maxims:
It's always an
advantage to be one step ahead of your opponent, and it's a benefit for you
get to the site of battle ahead of him. But if speed is not your gift, you
can also simply force or entice him to come to you, where ever you are. An
opponent who must destroy you to get his reward will come after you where
ever you go, so cover hard ground that is unfamiliar to him. Lead him
through awkward and expensive situations. Keep evading him and force him to
spend himself up to reach you.
- If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united,
separate them. (from Section One, "Laying Plans," Art of War.)
- If the enemy is taking his ease, he can harass him; if well supplied
with food, he can starve him out; if quietly encamped, he can force him to
move. (from Section Six, "Weak Points and Strong," Art of War.)
- To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at
ease while the enemy is toiling and struggling, to be well-fed while the
enemy is famished:--this is the art of husbanding one's strength. (from
Section Seven, "Manuevering," Art of War.)
The commentators on Sun Tzu recommend
that if you have a small force and your enemy a strong force, encamp your
men in rocky, divided terrain so that you force the pursuer to break up his
army. Thus, you create confusion in his troops, and he loses the advantage
of being able to fight you with a single, massive charge.
05. Loot a burning house
Sun Tzu wrote, "While heading the profit of my counsel, avail
yourself also of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary
rules. According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's
plans." (from Section One, "Laying Plans," Art of War).
your opponent suffers an adversity not related to your battle, you can use
the diversion of his attention, energy, and resources to further weaken him.
Later stratagems advise that you actually create any diversion possible to
divide your opponent's focus, apart from the standard military diversions of
the battle field: force him to camp in a swamp so that his troops get sick;
alert his ruler about the debt of his army; warn local officials about his
shady dealings. When his attention is divided and his spirits low, you can
force him to compromise and make peace. Use the misery and distress of your
opponent to bring him to terms.
06. Make a feint to the east while attacking in the west
The pre-requisite for this stratagem is that your opponent must
have no real insight on what you are about to do. If you have been
predictable in the past, then be wary of trying to fool an enemy who has
already succeeded in out thinking you and correctly guessing your
But if you know that your opponent is information hungry and
has a healthy fear of what you might do, the situation is ripe for creating
a diversion. The best example of this tactic is the low-interest loan
tactics so widely available today. Credit card companies or loan companies
promise low interest on "transfer checks" that enable you to pay off other
credit accounts. But they make their money when you start charging new
purchases on their card. These new purchases are often made at a much higher
rate of interest than is available via the "transfer checks", or else new
purchases come with "finance charges" that are incredibly high. So by making
consumers believe that they are fighting off debt by one method, many credit
card companies keep the rate of debt high by other
2. Stratagems for Two Equal Forces
Editor's Note: These stratagems focus on immediate options that you
have on hand. Using what you already have or what exists in your environment,
create illusions, make new weapons, or form new and innovative plans. These
stratagems require that you look at your own situation with fresh eyes and
that you understand how your opponent looks at your environment and arsenal,
so that you can create convincing illusions or put old items to new
07. Create something out of nothing
Get what you need by trickery or illusion. A British agent
planted in Vichy France had to procure his own funds. So he took on the
persona of a carefree playboy and befriended a wealthy young German officer
who had an easy assignment driving a German commander around and maintaining
his staff car. The British agent stole the car one night when the young man
was drunk, and sold it to a sympathetic French car mechanic. They stripped
it of its military decoration that night.
The next day, in a panic,
the young German officer came to his British friend and begged him for help.
Somebody had stolen the staff car, and he would be punished for being drunk
on duty. He could buy a replacement, but the French people wouldn't do
business with Germans, and he had to get the car replaced before it was
missed. The British agent told the young officer that it would probably be
possible to get a car of the same make and model from the black market, but
it would be expensive, and he would have to act as go-between. The officer
said he could get any amount of money required, and so the British agent
asked for twice the amount of the value of the car. The young officer got
the amount for him, and the Brit went back to the French man and paid him
exactly the same amount for which he'd sold it.
He drove it back to
the young German officer, who was grateful for the favor and never knew that
he had bought back his own car. The British agent, having received twice the
cash value of a luxury car, was well financed to begin his espionage
08. Use a well-known path to advance by a hidden path
Use the commonly expected strategy to hide the real strategy.
Military tactics, applied to certain terrains, suggest certain obvious
attacks. Before Hitler invaded France, the French knew he was building up
his military, but they supposed that no army could penetrate their famous
"Maginot Line." They made their preparations for Hitler elsewhere. He used
their military theory to further this illusion. But Hitler used a lightning
fast attack force never yet seen, called panzer units. They burst
through the antiquated defenses of the Maginot line.
D-Day invasion was expected, but the Germans assumed it would occur at or
near Calais, which was a place more hospitable to a large force trying to
land quickly. The rough seas and long, exposed stretch of Omaha Beach,
fronting onto miles of confusing "lanes" that could mislead invading
soldiers, was considered unlikely because it offered so little advantage. So
it was lightly guarded. The main invasion force came in
09. Watch the fire burning across the river
Use delay if it enhances in-fighting within the enemy alliances.
Westerners tend to under-value delay in their conflicts. Especially if you
have an egotistical opponent or somebody who tries to advance by abusing
others, then time is on your side. The wise fighter waits to let a foolishly
aggressive or egotistical opponent alienate those around him and creates
problems within his own administration. If things work out, the in-fighting
that a manipulative, cruel, or controlling leader creates will eat up his
energy and resources and increase the wise opponent's advantage over
10. Conceal a dagger in a smile
Never express anger, and never express sarcasm. They show
weakness, and they show a hastiness in revealing motives. Concealing a
dagger with a smile may be taken as advice to be treacherous, but it also
has an honorable side. You can be powerful and dangerous---and
polite. The kindly person who suddenly and decisively reveals the dagger
sheathed in his belt is going to be taken more seriously than the fool who
brandishes a dagger on any provocation. Threats, sarcasm, and open hostility
serve no good purpose, no matter what your goal. Disassociate yourself from
your ego and strike hard because you know it is time to strike, not because
your anger is gratified in striking. Do this once in front of others, and
your smile will be respected thereafter, because everybody will know there
is a dagger behind it.
11. Cut down the plum tree to save the peach tree
When you cannot avoid losses, sacrifice the lesser for the
benefit of the greater. The saying comes from the problem of blight
infesting fruit tree groves. Farmers would decimate the blight by removing
the plum trees, thus allowing the peach trees to get all the benefits of the
nutrients in the soil.
Generals have been called upon to sacrifice
one band of men to save another. In everyday life, recognizing that one
cannot have his cake and eat it too forces us to choose our priorities. The
person who knows that he must engage in struggle sets up a hierarchy of
goals so that he knows ahead of time what he can sacrifice and what he
12. Steal any passing goat
Make use of everything you get from the other side. Sun Tzu
advises us to "forage on the enemy,"(Section Two, "Waging War,"
Art of War) and we can do this by eating his scraps but also by
hoarding the information that he might carelessly provide. Look at how an
opponent treats others. Note where he makes trouble for himself or where he
has blinded himself. Take inventory of what irritates him and what frightens
him. What the opponent views as inconsequential and the things he lets slip
can provide you with valuable material for managing your side of the
3. STRATAGEMS FOR DIRECT ATTACK
Editor's Note: These are the stratagems of "mind games". Two of them
focus on intimidation; two of them focus on tempting the enemy's greed, and
two of them focus on the enemy's premises, assumptions, or morality. The
section is well named as "direct attack," for it shows that battle takes place
in the mind, and direct attacks succeed if you know how your opponent
13. Beat the grass to startle the snake
Frighten or startle the enemy to see how he will react. You
should note that making threats will probably undo you, especially against
an opponent who is stronger or more ruthless than you. Instead, the
enlightened fighter has to make the enemy feel threatened without stooping
to make threats. A calm, straightforward demeanor in discussions helps a
person's word to be more believable. Instead of speaking threats, the wise
fighter arranges circumstances or performs actions that create the
A woman who is being stalked, instead of threatening to call
the police, simply calls the police, thus startling the stalker by her
decisive action and letting the authority of the law frighten him. She
watches his reaction and learns how committed he is to continue this
Due to mismanagement of their own records, a credit card
company sends a collection agency against a man who has actually paid his
bills. After faxing copies of the checks that prove he's up to date, the man
is still being harassed. Instead of threatening to get a lawyer, he asks a
lawyer to write a letter to both companies, letting them know their legal
danger. At this mark of serious consequences to their own negligence in
record keeping, the credit company reveal their level of commitment to
harassing him (not very committed, as it turned out).
actions that don't commit you to a single course of behavior can still
startle an opponent into revealing his mindset and goals.
14. Raise a corpse from the dead
Putting a "puppet" ruler on the throne is a means of raising a
corpse from the dead. The ineffectual figurehead provides the credibility or
the justification for the military coup. The Japanese Shoguns used this
principle for centuries to justify their efforts to "protect the emperor"
and thus rule Japan.
Calling upon a slogan that doesn't really mean
anything is another means of raising a corpse from the dead. Citing "family
values" or "love of democracy" is a means of gaining credibility and
justification for power plays.
15. Lure the tiger out of the mountain
Bring the opponent out from a situation that favors him to a
situation that favors you. Sun Tzu writes, "Hold out baits to entice the
enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be
prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent
is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may
grow arrogant." (from Section One "Laying Plans,"
Art of War.)
Farmers of ancient China who had the problem of a
tiger raiding their sheep weren't eager to hunt him down in his own
territory. So they would tether a lamb out in a field, and when the tiger
appeared in that wide open place, they would rise up from the grasses and
16. Let the enemy off in order to snare him
This stratagem has two possible applications. The admonition can
be taken quite literally in that---in a situation in which you defeat your
enemy---you can sometimes more effectively snare the opponent by releasing
him or forgiving him. (After all, if you execute an enemy general, then his
lieutenant becomes general in his stead, so you still have an enemy to
fight. But if you spare the general and win him over, you gain an ally.) Sun
Tzu repeatedly urges that those who are defeated be treated humanely,
because if you win their loyalties, then you increase your own fighting
force with very little expenditure. The Chinese generals who wrote extensive
commentaries on Sun Tzu have observed that feeding and clothing prisoners
means you are really feeding and clothing recruits. The opportunity to be
magnanimous shows the opponent that you are not the devil he assumed you to
be. And after being defeated, a proud fighter may be much more approachable
and agreeable when treated with dignity and respect.
accomplished this, after a fashion, by bringing German POWs back to the USA
for interment during WWII. One German prisoner wrote that they all knew they
would understand their real conditions only when they arrived at the prison
barracks. They were frightened and dispirited, and the incredibly long
journey across a vast ocean had made them all feel cut off and isolated.
There then followed several days of travel by bus, so that all of the young
men felt that they were powerless to escape or return.
But when he
entered the barracks and saw a row of neat bunks, each with a mattress, and
clean sheets, and a small kit bag stocked with shaving cream, a razor, soap,
a toothbrush, and toothpaste, he was overcome with both gratitude and
humility. He realized that his captors were not cruel. Prisoners were not
beaten nor humiliated, and they were required to attend classes on law,
ethics, and the Constitution of the United States. Eventually, they were
allowed to work off site, under guard, for ranchers in the area. By the end
of the war, with the exception of three hold outs, all of the men in his
section of the camp were willing to see Constitutional government with equal
rights for all instituted in Germany.
On the other hand, relying on
the loyalty of a former enemy can be dangerous to the point of disastrous.
The second application of this stratagem is more pragmatic and quite
efficient: Make the enemy believe that a means of escape is open to him,
and---rather than fight whole heartedly---he will turn his energies to get
away, and thus you can direct him into a trap or harry his troops as they
try to flee.
Sun Tzu warns that trapped soldiers---your own or the
other general's---will fight at their best if they think there is no hope.
They will resolve to take as many of the enemy with them as possible, so the
great general writes, "When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do
not press a desperate foe too hard" (from Section Seven, "Mauevering,"
Art of War). It's better to get the other person to run for cover or
run for escape. Provided you arrange the situation so that you know which
way he will run, you can still effectively destroy his army. And this way,
you suffer fewer losses.
17. Hold out a brick to attract a gem
In the great Drugstore Wars of the 1980's, entrepreneurs built
up inventory and services. But the competition was equal across the board.
One chain of stores broke the deadlock by offering blood pressure machines
in their stores. Customers could wander in, sit at the machine with their
arm in the automated cuff, and have their blood pressure taken for free. No
hassle, no pressure to buy anything, no charge for the service. Each machine
was placed back in the pharmacy section so the customers walked the length
of the store to get to the machine.
Equipping each store with an
automated blood pressure machine required an investment, but it turned
casual customers into consistent customers. Thousands and thousands of
people suffer from high blood pressure, and the handy, free reading prompted
them to use this certain drug store chain whenever they needed any of the
items stocked there. They could pick up what they needed and check their
blood pressure. Thus, the outlay of a few thousand dollars per store, with
maintenance of a few hundred dollars every year, returned thousands of
dollars more in revenue and profit.
So, by tossing out a bait that
cost relatively little, the drug store chain hauled in a lot of profit in
return. It surely worked, because these days, no matter what drugstore
you're in, chances are good that you'll find a blood pressure machine along
a back wall.
18. To catch rebels, bring down their leader first
Douglas MacArthur, a general not known for military brilliance,
proved himself the man for the job in the occupation of post WWII Japan.
MacArthur respected the Asian point of view and had studied it more than his
other West Point peers. Though he had been something of a plodder on the
battle fields of the Pacific, he distinguished himself in humanely and
efficiently running an occupation that began with both conquerors and
conquered highly antagonistic towards each other and
Certainly, the Japanese had been portrayed as devils to
American service men, and vice versa. For this problem, MacArthur ordered
restraint and food. As GIs passed out food to a starving people, the
Japanese lost their initial distrust of the American military; and the young
American soldiers, seeing children who had gone hungry and giving them food,
made them appreciate the humanity of their former enemies. And what
prejudice could stand at the sight of children hungrily eating and
remembering their manners long enough to say "Thank you" and bow with
respect. The US occupation of Japan is remarkable for how thoroughly the
transformation of attitude took place on both sides as enmity gave way to
profound friendships and new understanding.
But there were
nationalistic hold outs, and the threat of violence was never far away
during the early days of the occupation. Japan's military tradition had been
one of "Death or Victory," and there were leftover right-wing elements in
Japan that were ready to riot.
MacArthur could not police an entire
nation to that extent. If the old fervent patriotism took hold of the people
again, catastrophe could ensue. So he arranged to have a public audience
with Japan's emperor, a man reputed to be descended from the gods, and a man
who had never been photographed for public view. When MacArthur met
Hirohito, the American general wore his daily army uniform. He didn't even
have a tie on. Hirohito dressed in fine Western clothes. MacArthur spoke
politely but briefly with the emperor and then had their picture taken
together. Japanese advisors urged against having the photograph published,
but MacArthur over rode them. He ordered the picture published on the front
page of the newspapers, and it appeared the very next day.
Japanese people, who had never even been allowed to look directly at their
divine ruler, saw a photograph of the laconic MacArthur, towering over the
short and wilted looking Hirohito. This was their mighty emperor, a mere man
dwarfed by the American General and unable to forbid the
Adroitly, MacArthur had provided perfect, unarguable
proof that the emperor was merely a man, and not all that impressive of a
man, even when he presented himself at his finest. The Japanese common man
lost that reverential edge, and the hardcore nationalists found that the
outcry to protect a divine emperor had lost a lot of its majestic
4. STRATAGEMS TO CONFUSE THE ENEMY
Editor's Note: If you want to confuse the other guy, then you must
operate with proper and thorough method. These six stratagems
all rise up from the commander's complete knowledge of what he has on hand,
what the enemy has, and what the enemy will require in order to advance. Thus
if you cannot outgun the enemy, you may be able to starve him. If you cannot
starve him, you may be able to exhaust his other supplies. If you cannot
exhaust his supplies you may be able to send him down the wrong path, etc.,
etc. No matter how strong the enemy's supplies, by attending to a systematic
and thorough knowledge of the enemy, the commander may see where the enemy has
damaged himself. In this section, two of the stratagems advocate waiting for
the enemy's flaws to catch up to him.
19. Take away the fire from under the cauldron
If your enemy lives on rice, then steal the wood for the
cauldrons, and the enemy will starve. If you cannot defeat your enemy by
military tactics, you may be able to defeat him with non-military tactics.
Or, put another way, any tactic that works is a military tactic. If his
weapons are more powerful, his army more powerful, and his skills superior
to yours, look for the non-military ways to defeat him.
Next Generation fans highly prize the two-part story in which the
Enterprise and the Federation had to fight the Borg. Ultimately, the Borg
could absorb all Federation knowledge and warcraft, so the Borg were always
superior to the Federation. Yet the crew of the Enterprise, when they
realized they could not outgun their deadly enemy, broadcast a low-security
level command to the Borg to signal a brief, system-wide maintenance
interval. The entire Borg force temporarily shut down, overpowered by
non-military means, and the brief minutes of helplessness allowed enough
time for the Enterprise to defeat them.
Anythng you do to interfere
with the day to day operation or well being of the enemy may be enough to
win the war for you.
20. Fish in troubled waters
Sometimes waters become troubled by storms you haven't created.
Whether or not you throw your opponent's resources into confusion, be sure
to take advantage of disarray in the other camp.
New leaders emerge
(and old leaders lose credibility) during times of upheaval and uncontrolled
change. Rudy Guilliani was declining in power and prestige as mayor of New
York when the attack on the World Trade Center took place on 9/11. He
instantly became the man on the scene: compassionate, organized, generous,
courageous, and articulate. While George Bush was being whisked around the
country to be protected, and Dick Cheney was no where to be found, Rudolph
Guilliani showed himself to be an able and popular leader whose decision and
command of the situation prompted others to compare him to Winston Churchill
during the bombing of Britain.
You can make gains during troubled
times if you have command of your composure and your communication skills.
By swiftly taking advantage of troubled situations to provide guidance and
solutions, you can gain prestige and influence.
21. The cicada sheds its skin
The cicada sheds its skin intact, so that the shell looks like a
real cicada. Similarly, outnumbered generals or those who were targets for
assassination created false impersonations of themselves to escape danger.
This stratgey again plays on the expectations of your opponent. If
he expects you to be in a certain place or supposes you will try a certain
tactic, you can create the illusion that you are where he expects you to be.
Meanwhile, you can put your energies into your real plans.
Washington used this plan effectively when he pulled his men back under the
eyes of the British army. As night fell, Washington ordered all the fires
lit and he ordered the pipers to play folk songs and favorite melodies, as
was usually done in camp at night. Then in small groups his men slipped away
into the dark forest, leaving behind a few coats propped up with muskets to
pose as guards and sentries.
22. Bolt the door to catch the thief
Miyamoto Musashi made an oblique reference to this idea when he
"In the world, people tend to think of a robber
a house as a fortified enemy
[and thus are afraid to approach the
However, if we think of "becoming the
we feel that the whole world is against us
and that there
is no escape. He who is shut
inside is a pheasant. He who enters to
is a hawk. You must appreciate this.
----"The Fire Book",
Book of Five Rings
Sometimes a person gets
himself into a trap, and all that is necessary is that you shut the door.
Bring his fears home to him, and he will collapse. Catching a person in a
web of lies that he has been broadcasting is a means of shutting the door,
for his own lies are ready to trap him. The enlightened general only needs
to pick the proper time and have the proper words (and evidence) ready.
"Bolting the Door" often requires patience in that the enlightened fighter
has to let a person's harmful behavior build up so that very little action
is required to trap him. This strategy is not a power move or something that
requires great exertion. Rather, bolting the door to catch the thief is a
natural strategy in which the enlightened fighter follows out a person's
harmful activities and acts in harmony with the situation so that
accumulated misdeeds come home to him.
The most effective way to
"Bolt the door" is to understand what an overly aggressive, harmful person
fears and dreads. The enlightened fighter also must practice iron composure
so that he doesn't get dragged into the trap with the opponent. In any
situtation where a general "bolts the door," it must be clear who is the
thief and who is the good guy.
23. Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbour
This stratagem has two applications: the first is the more
obvious. Avoid a two-front war by making peace with everybody else before
you go to war against an opponent. Additionally, if you have two battles to
fight, it's wiser first to fight the one that is near at hand. But to do
this, you must try to gain at least a temporary peace with the less emergent
battle. One writer observes that a parent with a teen age son who eats junk
food and drives too fast will first allow the junk food in order to focus on
the battle of building responsibility in the boy's driving
The second, less apparent application of this stratagem is
that your route of advance must be organized. Sometimes, winning one battle
makes the next battle easier to win. The order of operation can make
your battles easier. In two-on-one fighting in taekwon do, the lone defender
keeps moving so that the less aggressive of two attackers stays between the
defender and the more aggressive attacker. This tactic wears out the
aggressor in the middle and exposes him to deliberate kicks and punches from
the defender and accidental kicks and punches from his ally. Thus, by
economical manuevering, the defender can whittle away one opponent. When the
"man in the middle" gives up or goes down, the defender can then concentrate
on a single opponent. But if the defender focuses on the stronger, more
aggressive opponent first, then the defender gets tied up in earnest
fighting, and the weaker attacker can do him serious harm.
and ability will often determine the best order of operation in a
battle, but---as Sun Tzu wrote---it's usually wisest to husband your energy
and resources while making your opponents spend up their energy and
24. Borrow a route to conquer Guo
This stratagem advises using an ally's strategic location as a
launch point for your own troops. One benefit is that a "middleman" gets the
heat, and your own homeland can be saved from becoming a battlefield.
Another benefit is that your forces can be stationed longterm on friendly
turf so that problems of supply line management are limited in severity. And
a third benefit is that if your battle is successful, you now have your
troops stationed in somebody else's kingdom.
Again, though a
superficial glance shows that this stratagem opens the way for treachery and
takeover, it can be used to allow for mutual benefit. Without attempting
outright conquest, the US has stationed troops in other countries as part of
NATO agreements and has thus persuaded weaker allies to send their best and
brightest to US schools, to trade ideas with us, and to become more open to
the products that we market. The strategy has also given our own young men
and women the opportunity to see other cultures and get a better picture of
the vastness of the world in which we live. While US policy overseas has not
been perfect, by borrowing a route to defend Europe and America from Russian
Communism, the US also helped defuse radical fascism and present lawful
democracy to the world as a successful form of government.
your strength is the principle on which this stratagem rests. As Sun Tzu has
noted, the ideal situation is one in which you conserve your own energy
while forcing the opponent to use up his energy. Thus, gaining benefit from
others outside the fray is another means of preserving your resources.
Hiring lawyers, spokespeople, agents, and personal representatives are all
ways in which people today borrow a route in order to conquer. They hire
others to take on the responsibilities and pressures of a given conflict.
Any time you persuade or hire somebody to act as your middleman or
representative, you have borrowed a route to conquer Guo, buffering yourself
as you pursue your campaign.
5. STRATAGEMS TO GAIN GROUND
Editor's Note: Trickery and deception are the key words for this
section. Three of the stratagems are about deceiving the enemy about his own
forces and position, and three of the stratagems are about deceiving the enemy
about your own forces and position.
25. Replace the beams and pillars with rotten timber
Replace the enemy's strength with weakness. Sun Tzu wrote, "You
may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy's weak
points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more
rapid than those of the enemy" (from Section Six, "Weak Points and Strong,"
Art of War).
One way of making for the enemy's weak points is
to give the enemy weaknesses that he does not recognize. Infiltration of
your own picked personnel to take key roles in the enemy's forces is one way
of following this stratagem. But it's less costly and less risky to cause
the opponent to switch out his own best people. As mentioned previously, the
Nazis used false broadcast information and forged correspondence to make the
paranoid Russian administration believe that Russia's best generals were
traitors. Thus the Russian high command arrested and executed its best
people and filled their slots with inexperienced commanders. In this way,
the Russians replaced their own beams and pillars with rotten
Another application is to confuse the opponent about how to
prepare for you. "That general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not
know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not
know what to attack" (Ibid). In taekwon do, if the opponent
has great kicks, the fighter must jam him up and force him to use his fists.
Thus the primary weapons are the "rotten timbers" of the less adept punches
instead of the beams and pillars of the strong legs. I once watched a fight
where a young man famous for his incredible kicks faced a man who had
prepared for him accordingly. None of us onlookers were prepared for the
fine demonstration of boxing that our famous leg man gave us. He never
kicked once, and he pummeled his opponent and was never touched either by
kick or punch. I had been training with him every week for the previous
three months, and he had never let on that he was taking boxing lessons on
the side. Thus, he forced his opponent to hurriedly train in fighting a leg
man, and then on the night of the fight, he switched to fists. His
opponent's hand skills had lost their edge, and he lost decisively.
From Sun Tzu:
O divine art of subtlety and secrecy!
Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible;
hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands.
(from Section Six,
"Weak Points and Strong," Art of War).
26. Point at the mulberry only to curse the locust
To the person who can carry it off, clearly telling an opponent
his strategic mistakes and promising to exploit them and defeat the opponent
is one way to win. Clear and forceful guarantees that the choice to go to
war with you will be costly and painful for the other side can work, but
mere threatening and storming will not work.
Some leaders take this
stratagem a step further and "make an example" of a front man from the other
side. Most of us have probably read accounts of soft drink companies who
drag a lunch counter operator to court for trademark violation because the
small businessman had signs for Coca Cola or a similar drink in the store
window but did not actually serve Coca Cola (or the advertised drink). We're
amazed at the trouble they take to haul such a minor moneymaker to court,
but the effect is to subdue other, would-be trademark violators. This is an
example of the use of pointing at the mulbery to curse the locust
Of course, the strategy can backfire, as was illustrated
when McDonald's started writing letters and notifications to small food
services in Europe. They told one lunch counter with the McDonald's name to
lose the name, even though it was the name of the person who owned the
business. The golden arches company suffered a setback when the head of the
McDonald clan in Scotland opened a sham restaurant with his name on it. He
notified McDonald's that he would be gracious enough not to sue them for
using his name without permission (and his claim to having had the name
first was certainly easily verifiable by generations of the McDonald clan).
Further, he let it be known to McD's and all others that his family insignia
was two golden balls. As far as I know, the American McDonald's did not
reply, nor did they sue him.
27. Feigning foolishness
King David, Odysseus, Claudius, and an early writer of the I
Ching were all men who survived danger by pretending to be insane or
mentally deficient. It's not fun to be thought of as stupid, but it is safer
than to be reckoned intelligent and therefore dangerous.
about other people's opinions is one that has to be fought in your own mind.
Once you're clear that there will always be other people who dislike you or
have a low opinion of you, you can free yourself up to answer only to God
and your own integrity. And then you will not be ruled by what other people
think of you.
Fighters often cultivate the opponent's opinion of
them. As I wrote above, a well known "leg man" in the martial arts
cultivated the opinion of others that--because he was so good at kicks---he
was poor at using his punches in a fight. When his big fight came, he
defeated his opponent strictly by boxing with him at close range.
small, lightweight woman kickboxer was attacked by a serial rapist. She
slammed a shin kick across his liver and midsection, paralyzing him for a
moment with pain and loss of breath. She ran up to her apartment, locked
herself in, and phoned the police. He was over six feet tall, and she was
five foot one. Her decisive, aggressive kick exploited his opinion that she
was a "mere girl" (and a small one at that). (She was also the first of his
prey who got a good look at him, and she gave the police his description.
Eventually, he was caught and imprisoned.)
28. Remove the ladder after the ascent
Create an opening into a precarious place and draw the opponent
into a trap. One application of this stratagem advocated by the Chinese
commentators on Sun Tzu was to lure the enemy army into attacking what
appears to be your own weakened front line. Once they commit to an attack,
half your forces rush their flank or rear, thus enabling you to harass them
from two sides.
Luring an antagonistic person into saying too much in
front of others, or tricking a boaster into making a claim in front of
witnesses that he cannot back up, or getting a commitment from an adversary
to do things your way are all methods of removing the ladder after the enemy
has ascended your walls. An impatient, overly sensitive, choleric person is
prone to say too much, and so the best way to handle such a person is by
patience and quietness at the start and then firmness and immoveable
resolution at the end.
29. Putting fake blossoms on the tree
All warfare is based on deception. If
the above quotation is true, then it is also true that when you are weak,
you must appear strong to the opponent.
Hence, when able to
attack, we must seem unable;
when using our forces, we must seem
when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far
when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Tzu, from Section One, "Laying Plans," Art of War.
As I wrote in Letters to a Great
Lady I had the opportunity to explain the concepts of warfare to a very
refined, wealthy woman whose husband had publically humiliated her after
having admitted to an affair to her. After she made the decision to divorce
him, he harassed her and stalked her and continued to do things in public to
embarass her. When I first wrote to her, she was afraid even to sit across a
table from him and speak to him face to face. She had a lot of inner resolve
though, and up to that point had met his ridicule with stony and dignified
silence. I used Miyamoto Musashi's excellent treatise, The Book of
Five Rings in conjunction with Sun Tzu to teach her how to relax in
front of her husband and thus unnerve him by her sudden
After a few months of weekly communication with me on these
ideas, she had to meet him again in a legal setting. And though inwardly she
dreaded it, she had practiced the art of accepting his bad behavior without
acquiescing to it or trying to force him to change it. She realized that he
would never be sorry for the pain he had caused her, nor had he ever
genuinely loved her. But she stopped fighting these things and simply
accepted them. Thus, in his presence, when he accused her of this or that or
tried to ridicule her, she would simply say things like, "Well, I accept
that you have this opinion of me, and it's okay because it demonstrates that
I need to divorce you." No matter how outrageous his remarks, she softly
turned everything he said to support her actions and decisions until he lost
his temper and started yelling at her, frustrated because he could no longer
control her emotions.
She still found him to be dreadful, and she
never felt at ease when she had to face him. But by hanging the blossoms of
the truths she had learned thus far on the branches of her demeanor, speech,
and carriage, she thwarted him and made him feel that he was losing control
of her. And this, of course, was what he dreaded most.
A beautiful golden goat of the fabled species was contentedly
wandering through the semi-wild glens near her home pastures, when a great
fierce tiger jumped out onto the path before her.
Now this goat was
golden-fleeced and had huge blue eyes and very winning ways, but to the
tiger, she smelled like food, and that was all he cared about. So he
opened his mouth wide and yelled (since tigers have to boast about every
single thing they do), "I'm the great and ferocious Tiger, and you are my
next meal!" And then he called her a lot of names that I won't type.
(Tigers also berate their prey. Insults are like appetizers to
The beautiful goat said, "Oh please, fierce tiger! Don't eat
me! Spare me! Spare yourself!" she said on sudden inspiration.
checked him. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Speak up or I'll bite off your
"I am a goat very treasured by the gods," she told him,
making things up as she went along. "Don't you see how lovely I am? The
gods have set their mark on me."
"Lovely Shmovely!" he shouted at
her. "There's only food that's fit to eat and food that's not fit to eat,
and you're food that's fit to eat!"
"But if you harm me, the gods
will punish you dreadfully," she said. And she shed many tears from her
beautful blue eyes. She was really crying from fear for herself, for she
didn't think she could convince him not to eat her. But he supposed she
was crying out of genuine concern for him and what the gods might do to
him. (Tigers are self-absorbed, loud, brash, vain, and always driven by
appetite. Do you know anybody like that?)
"How do I know this isn't
a trick?" he asked. "Speak up, or I'll eat your ears right off your
Once again, the little goat thought quickly, with a
remarkable insight that showed she had more enlightenment than she gave
herself credit for. "Oh mighty Tiger, if you want to see how the gods have
set their mark on me, just follow me up the path and see what happens,"
"If I let you go up the path, you'll run away!" he
"No, you can follow closely, just a pace or two behind,"
she told him.
"All right, show me what happens when you walk up the
path!" he growled.
So she trotted ahead of him by only two paces,
and she was sweating and trembling the whole way. This, of course, made
her smell more like food to him than ever, and he kept his eye fixed right
on her to make sure she didn't run away.
But then he realized that,
as beautiful goat was walking up the path, all of the other animals---the
squirrels, rabbits, birds, even the foxes! Took one look at her and raced
out of her way, diving for cover. Every single creature scattered and hid
as she approached. The forest became very silent and still. And he
realized that everything with eyes was staring at her from under cover. He
began to be frightened, and he felt that he'd made a dreadful
At last he stopped her and said, in a much more respectful
voice, "You're right. The gods must have their mark on you." And he raced
away before the gods could strike him down for all the nasty things he'd
said to her at first.
So beautiful goat was left in peace, and she
ambled back to her safe pastures. Now, of course, the animals had fled at
sight of Tiger right behind goat, and the more curious had dared to stare
at the awful sight of Tiger only one or two paces behind his prey. But it
didn't occur to gentle goat to brag about her cleverness. She just wanted
to get to her fragrant and soft clover and visit her flowers, for goat
loves beauty and peace.
But a rat watched the whole thing, and
*he* told everybody.
30. Host and guest reversed
This stratagem applies to taking over without violence. Some
commentators apply it to swallowing up an ally, rather than an enemy. Either
way, it relies on role reversal with the other side. You make the other
person dependent on you and give that person reasons to stay dependent. In a
negative sense, it was used by the British to snare Chinese trade in the
1800's. The British actively hooked the Chinese people on opium, thus giving
them a need to trade with Britain, making them dependent on
In business, becoming an authority on your boss's job (or
the job of any higher person) so that you cause that person to come to you
for advice is a means of role reversal. The adroit ladder climber starts by
offering free advice and giving guidance, and ultimately the role sticks.
The person who has climbed the ladder either takes on the coveted role
officially or is otherwise promoted in order to keep his or her expertise
6. STRATAGEMS BEFORE THE LAST STAND
Editor's Note: The final set of stratagems are the riskiest of the
entire group, and they require finesse and skill. These are reserved for the
high stakes gamble and can be used successfuly only by experienced
31. Beauty trap
The "Beauty Trap" is the oldest stratagem in the book: use
prostitutes to distract the military commander, drug him, or get information
from him. The French Resistance in WWII, called the FFI, used this ploy with
great success. They employed prostitutes loyal to France who were willing to
sleep with Nazi commanders, do anything they wanted, and thus gain
information during pillow talk. The prostitutes passed this information on
to their FFI comrades.
It may be startling to realize that such an
immoral trade would be so successful. But there's a reason to note that this
strategy comes towards the end of the list. It is a "last stand" measure,
something to use when all else fails. Even in France, it was used by a
people whose army had already been defeated, and even while employing this
strategy, the French had to be saved by their allies. All the prostitutes in
the world could not reassemble the French army and throw the Nazis out of
Taking the stratagem negatively, we can see that Sun Tzu had a
reason to insist that the commander must be a man of integrity and moral
uprightness. The commander who does not commit adultery will be immune to
this stratagem. Many Chinese generals made it a point of honor to eat
exactly what their men ate while in the field. They did not enjoy luxuries
until they were home again, and the war was over. This standard of behavior
not only wins over the hearts of the foot soldiers, it also ensures that the
commander will not be trapped by luxury.
Sex, drugs, gambling, cash,
riches, even sympathy and flattery, are "beauty traps" that will break the
will of a leader. Moral integrity and a realistic moral inventory of one's
own weaknesses help to keep a person on-track in any struggle.
32. Empty city ploy
From Sun Tzu: If all is lost,
and your resources are exhausted or depleted, try the unexpected. In a few
such situations in the past, commanders threw open the gates of their
fortress, inviting the enemy to come and attack. Legend has it that one such
outnumbered leader of a cavalry stockade, when surrounded by Indians, had
the men open the gates and sweep the entryway to the stockade. Allegedly,
the Indians were so puzzled by this behavior that they decided not to
If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent
the enemy from engaging us even though
the lines of our encampment
be merely traced
out on the ground. All we need do is to throw
something odd and unaccountable in his way.
-- from Section Six,
"Weak Points and Strong," Art of War.
Perhaps a better way to read the stratagem is to say that if
attack seems inevitible and unwinnable, cause the enemy to believe that you
have retreated or deserted the battle field. We know the story of George
Washington secretly pulling his men into the dark forest at night and
retreating through the woods. When the British attacked the next morning,
they found an empty camp.
Well, what if---after the Brits had
scrounged through everything and were standing around figuring out how to
track Washington---the minutemen had suddenly rushed back through the trees,
In a sense, this was the ploy of the Greeks in the
final attack on Troy. The Greeks convinced the Trojan army that they had
withdrawn, leaving only the great Trojan horse as a parting offering. Thus,
the Greeks created an "empty city" appearance that was so convincing that
the men of Troy opened their gates and pulled the great horse within their
city walls. They believed that they had nothing left to fear.
aspect of the deception is to give every sign of the front line being
"empty," so that after the enemy assures himself that he has won, you
attack. Perhaps this tactic should be used only in situation in which the
enemy has demonstrated an upper hand all along and believes himself to be
the sure victor.
33. Use the enemy's spies to sow discord in the enemy's camp
In the final chapter of The Art of War, Sun Tzu
advocates the use of spies, and he openly advocates bribing the enemy's
spies in order to win them over. Once won over, these spies will deceive
their former comrades with false information and act against them in the
enemy camp. Disputes and discord will arise as the divided spies advise
their masters of the situation.
This tactic can be enormously
successful, but it is stowed away in the last section of the stratagems
because creating double agents and sowing believable rabbit trails in the
mind of the opponent require time and a great deal of
Remember that people tend to believe what they fear and
dread the most, and they will actualyl say what they fear the most,
but you have to be observant to catch the message. A person's own mouth will
act as the spy that reveals his heart and mind. In explaining the wisdom of
Musashi and Sun Tzu to the woman I mentioned previously, I noticed that her
antagonistic and emotionally abusive husband continually made public
comments that he and she were too old to divorce, that she was too old to
leave him. I consulted his words as his spies, and I told her they revealed
that he was afraid of being old, that he was actually revealing that
he feared that the consequences of his actions---coming this late in his
life---marked a sad end that he could not remedy. From this we concluded
that he was perpetually haunted by a fear of being impotent (in every sense
of the word) and unable to control his own life. As events continued to
unfold, she came to agree with me. She told me I was wise, but actually this
foolish man had betrayed himself!
There's no end of tale bearing
among groups of people. But even when you have no access to "spies" as such,
remember to listen to what your opponent says. His or her words will reveal
the thinking and the heart's deception behind them. And when you know your
opponent's thoughts, then you can disrupt and discredit his
34. Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust
A strategy that has worked when a leader absolutely had to find
out what his foes were thinking was to create an open disruption between
himself and a trusted assistant. A king would openly accuse a general of
treason. Or a general would openly accuse a lieutenant of insubordination or
incompetence. The innocent accused, who was in on the deception, would be
whipped, or branded, or beaten, and then banished or tossed into prison. A
slightly different tactic would be for the trusted assistant to be
deliberately overlooked for a promotion or reward that everybody had assumed
he would get.
After several weeks of suffering, the "injured" person
would likely be approached by anybody fomenting takeover plans or an
assassination attempt. Or he might even seek out the enemies of his leader
and offer to help them bring down the person who had treated him so
unjustly. The ploy was believable because the suffering of the "injured"
person was so convincing. The enemy, already nursing a grievance, would
quickly trust a person who had seemingly suffered a similar
The planted person could soon gather abundant information to
return to his own superiors and hasten the end of those who were plotting an
overthrow or coup.
35. Interlocking stratagems
From Sun Tzu: If your own forces are exhausted and
depleted, then the time is not right to launch a decisive battle. Rather,
use all the rules and strategies to whittle down the opponent. Sun Tzu
advises that if you have only a small force, you must retreat to rocky and
broken terrain to prevent the opponent from making a concerted charge
against you. Divide the enemy forces so that you can take them on a little
at a time. Fine places easy to defend and force him to make charges that
cannot succeed. Create illusions that he strikes at with no success. Annoy
him, irritate him, and harass him.
Walk in the path defined by rule,
accommodate yourself to the enemy
until you can fight a decisive
-- from Section Eleven, "The Nine Situations,"
Art of War.
By means of patiently forcing the
enemy to come after you and spend up his resources and energy, you open up
opportunities for yourself and create more equal
36. He Who Runs Away Today Lives to Fight Another Day
If you cannot win, then losing is no solution, and dying will
not solve any military justice. Therefore, flee. Return when the time is
Westerners who have grown up on Hollywood's version of courage
may be surprised ot see that the Chinese generals include running away as an
acceptable option. But there are a lot of dead brave men who accomplished
nothing because they chose to die in a hopeless battle. And there are many
generals who wanted to win so much that they retreated when they could not
win. Then they figured out new strategies and came fresh to the attack and
End Notes: The stratagems do not have a single author, and their wisdom
pre-dates Sun Tzu. Indeed, some stratagists find links between the 36
stratagems and the ancient I-Ching. The 36 stratagems are laid out in
Chinese as brief, pithy proverbs. The English translation fails to catch the
flavor of this ancient and wise language, but it conveys the meaning. More
than just advice on how to win, the stratagems can also be viewed as proverbs
of wisdom: observations of the way life runs whether we are at war or not at
A more complete and detailed discussion of the 36 stratagems has
been published, but I believe it is now out of print. You can check Bibliofind for copies of Lure the
Tiger out of the Mountains: The 36 Stratagems of Ancient China by Gao
Yuan, Simon & Schuster, 1991.