The 36 Stratagems


The "36 Stratagems" (三十六计 sān shí liù jì) refers to thirty six strategies of war that were used in the countless battles of ancient China. The collected work which was first believed to have been conceptualised during the North-South Dynasty (420-589) wasn't put to paper until much later, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1644 and 1636-1912, respectivley). And though two individuals are often cited, independently of one another, as being the true authors of the book - Sun Zi (孙子 sūn zi) and Zhu Ge Liang (诸葛亮 zhū gé liàng) - historians believe that neither is accurate. Instead, it is believed that the final text is a collection from multiple authors over time and cannot be attributed to any one person. The current version was put into print after the original was discovered in the Shaanxi province, in 1941, but did not grow in popularity until after 1961, when it was mentioned in a Chinese national newspaper.


Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems (胜战计 shèng zhàn jì)

Strategies for use when in a dominant position. For example, a ruler taking action against a subordinate, or a strong kingdom taking action against a weaker kingdom. 

亢龙有悔 (kàng lóng yǒu huǐ) - The vain will be punished.

Meaning: When a person/entity is in an advantageous position they should never be so arragont as to let their guard down. That would only end in regret. 

1. Cross the sea in secret (瞒天过海 mán tiān guò hǎi)

  • Mask your real goals from others by not alerting them to your movements or any part of your plan.
  • Create a false sense of security by appearing weak to lower the enemy's defences. Attack when they lower their guard.
  • Openly act as if you are going to do one thing, then secretly do another.


2. Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào (围魏救赵 wéi wèi jiù zhào)

  • When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, attack something they hold dear.
  • Avoid a head-on battle with a strong enemy by realising they cannot be superior in all things, indentifying a gap in their armour and attack there instead.
  • When the enemy retreats or splits their resources to support their weakness, a battle with their depleted or low-moral forces will yield a higher chance of success.


3. Kill with a borrowed knife (借刀杀人 jiè dāo shā rén)

  • When showing or using your own strength is not favourable, use the strength of another to attack your enemy.
  • Convince others that your enemy is their enemy.
  • Trick your enemy's ally into attacking them, bribe an official to turn traitor, ultimately using the enemy's own strength against him.
  • Maintain a false image of innocence or weakness by using a third party to act out your will.


4. Wait at leisure while the enemy labours (以逸待劳 yǐ yì dài láo)

  • Force the enemy to waste their resources and energy by making them send troops long distances over difficult terrains whilst you conserve yours.
  • Have your enemy waste resources and energy by making them fight other battles (preferably with another of your enemies).
  • When your enemy is exhausted and confused, select a time and place that is advantageous to you and your troops to attack with your well-rested army.


5. Loot a burning house (趁火打劫 chèn huǒ dǎ jié)

  • Attack your enemy when they are beset by internal conflicts (whether those conflicts were caused by you or not).
  • Spread rumours throughout their ranks and kingdom, spread disease, disrupt their supplies causing famine and encourage waves of crime.
  • Constantly gather information about your enemy, make sure you are aware when they are in a weakened state. 
  • As they draw resources to focus on putting out the flames, attack without mercy.


6. Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west (声东击西 shēng dōng jī xī)

  • Use the element of surprise to gain advantage over your enemy in battle.
  • Visibly "point east when your goal is actually in the west"
  • Create an effective feint by creating a false expectation in your enemy's mind.
  • Have your enemy focus the majority of their strength on a worthless objective that you trick them into thinking is of high importance to you, then attack them elsewhere with your true strength.


Chapter 2: Confrontation Stratagems (敌战计 dí zhàn jì)

How to deal with a formidable opponent who is openly your enemy


1. Create something out of nothing (无中生有 wú zhōng shēng yǒu)

  • Create a convincing lie to influence your enemy’s decision-making process in your favour.
  • Make your enemy, or someone that will relay such information to your enemy, believe that you have something you do not. This also works vice-versa, by making them believe you don’t have something you actually do.


2. Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang (明修栈道,暗渡陈仓 míng xiū zhàn dào, àn dù chén cāng)


The gallery roads (棧道 zhàn dào) were manmade roads used through remote mountainous areas of China that were constructed with wooden planks erected on holes cut into the sides of cliffs. The first gallery roads were built during the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) by the Qin State (秦 qín) to invade the Shu (蜀 shǔ) and Ba States (巴 bā).

Chencang, refers to Chencang District (陈仓区 chén cāng qū) of Bao Ji City (宝鸡 bǎo jī) in Shaanxi Province (陕西 shān xī).

Meaning: “Pretend to take one path while sneaking down another”

  • This is an extension of the “Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west” strategy. Whereas that strategy dealt with the spreading of misinformation to deceive the enemy, this strategy relies on physical bait to draw their attention more effectively.
  • The bait must be easily seen by the enemy, and must be sufficient enough to be perceived as something that would also be an effective strategy to raise their suspicions.
  • As your enemy focuses their attention and defences on your decoy, sneak up on him from another direction, or via a shortcut, to attack an ill-prepared opponent.   


3. Watch the fires burning across the river (隔岸观火 gé àn guān huǒ)

  • Delay deploying your troops to the battlefield to save your strength.
  • Pit a third party against your enemy then wait until they have exhausted their resources to make your move.
  • Convince a third party to fight the more difficult battles, focusing your troops on easier victories.


4. Hide a knife behind a smile (笑里藏刀 xiào lǐ cáng dāo)

  • Charm and ingratiate yourself amongst the enemy.
  • Appear harmless. Sign treaties, send gifts, and show your respect until you gain the advantage you sought.
  • Build relationships with their officials and high-ranked officers, then secretly gain their loyalty through any means necessary so that when the time comes, they will betray your enemy.
  • And when you have gained their trust, move against him in secret.


5. Sacrifice a plum tree to preserve a peach tree (李代桃僵 lǐ dài táo jiāng)

  • Sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal.
  • Be willing to take a small loss in order for a greater gain.
  • Make deliberate sacrifices to lure your enemy into a false sense of victory.


6. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat (顺手牵羊 shùn shǒu qiān yáng)

  • While carrying out your plans, remain flexible enough to seize every opportunity that presents itself, no matter how small.
  • You must be ready to act if your enemy slips up, when the weather is in your favour, or when a third party unexpectedly presents you with an advantageous opportunity.
  • When luck deals you a strong hand, be ready to follow through.


Chapter 3: Attacking Stratagems (攻战计 gōng zhàn jì)

Strategies for use when on the offensive. 

飞龙在天 (fēi lóng zài tiān) – literally, “flying dragon in the sky,” a metaphor for “the Emperor is on his throne.”

Meaning: When something or someone (especially of authority) is in its rightful place.  


1. Stomp/Beat the grass to startle the snake (打草惊蛇 dǎ cǎo jīng shé)

  • Do something out of the blue, but extravagant enough ("hitting the grass") to provoke a response from your enemy ("startle the snake"), thereby giving away his plans or position.
  • Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected to disrupt his thinking and force his hand in confusion or fear.
  • If executed well, your enemy may make an error, over-react, or even deploy a key strategy in response, each of which will provide you with useful information as you collect yourself for battle.


2. Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul (借尸还魂 jiè shī huán hún)

  • Give new life to a technology, method, tradition or ideology that has been forgotten or discarded. Reinterpret them to fit your current purpose.
  • Bring retired professionals/skilled workmen back into action, reform old ties, revive old institutes and adapt them to modern use.
  • Learn from history, identify what worked before and bring it back to serve your needs.


3. Lure the tiger off the mountain (调虎离山 diào hǔ lí shān)

  • Never attack an enemy whose advantage is derived from its position.
  • If the enemy has the high ground, or holds a position that is relatively easy to defend or difficult to penetrate, rethink your strategy.
  • Find a way to lure the enemy away from his position through sieges, baiting, taunting or feinting, thus separating him from his source of strength.


4. Let the enemy off in order to catch him later (欲擒故纵 yù qín gù zòng)

  • Cornered animals are the most dangerous.
  • Cornering your enemy will often result in them mounting a final desperate attack. To prevent this, let the enemy believe he still has a chance for freedom so his will to fight will be dampened by his desire to escape. In the end, when troops are scattered and their morale is defeated, the chances of them surrendering without a fight will be greater.


5. Toss out a brick to attract jade (抛砖引玉 pāo zhuān yǐn yù)

  • Present something of little value to you as something of great worth. Offer it in return for something you truly place value in.
  • Bait your enemy with something attractive – a valuable piece of land – and obtain something valuable from him in return – a perfect opportunity for an ambush.


6. To catch bandits, first catch the ringleader (擒贼擒王 qín zéi qín wáng)

  • Capture or kill the enemy commander.
  • If an enemy’s army is tied to their commander by money, superstition, or fear, they will likely disperse once the commander is taken. There might even be a chance to have them come to your side.
  • If their allegiance to their commander is bound by loyalty and respect, capturing the commander and threatening them with his execution may bring them to their knees or could be used to entrap them.
  • Or, if through your actions you can prove their commander is weak and incompetent, their troops faith and morale will also be weakened.


Chapter 4: Chaos Stratagems (混战计 hùn zhàn jì)

Strategies to use when the battlefield and politics are in chaotic states, when friend and foe are indistinguishable.

见龙在野 – literally, “to see a dragon in the wilderness.”

Meaning: The situation is ripe for a person of high moral fibre to make himself known and bring about order.


1. Remove the firewood from under the pot (釜底抽薪 fǔ dǐ chōu xīn)

  • Instead of attacking an enemy’s army, focus your energy on disabling his ability to wage war.
  • Identify what makes your enemy strong and steal, destroy, disable by any means necessary - take the fuel out of his fire.
  • Any and all resources can be targeted, including psychological ones.


2. Disturb the water to catch a fish (浑水摸鱼 hún shuǐ mō yú)

  • Remain vigilant and create confusion when it’s advantageous for you to reach your goals.
  • Keep your enemy in a confused state allowing yourself to attack when the time is right.


3. Slough off the cicada's golden shell (金蝉脱壳 jīn chán tuō qiào)

  • Hide yourself in plain sight. Leave behind your distinctive traits, become inconspicuous, or masquerade as something or someone else.
  • Create the impression that you are not doing anything, mask your true intent.
  • This strategy can be used to escape from an enemy of superior strength.


4. Shut the door to catch the thief (关门捉贼 guān mén zhuō zéi)

  • When fighting a war or capturing an enemy, plan prudently in advance if you want to succeed.
  • Lure your enemy a long distance from their home then cut off their supply chain.
  • Take measures to ensure no reinforcements will come to their rescue.
  • Cut off their escape routes and make it clear that any advance on your forces would be to no avail.


5. Befriend a distant state and strike a neighbouring one (远交近攻 yuǎn jiāo jìn gōng)

  • It is unwise to invade nations that are far away. Not only will you leave yourself open to attack from neighbouring countries, you will also be at a natural disadvantage.
  • Instead, build relationships with countries that are far away, and concentrate your strength on invading neighbouring nations.
  • Remain attentive to what other alliances are being formed. Take steps to disband any other alliances that are made if they threaten your borders.
  • As your kingdom expands, you will one day be able to reach your once-distant allies at full strength, and can invade with a higher chance of success.


6. Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo (假途伐虢 jiǎ tú fá guó)


“State of Guo” refers to Western Guo (xī guó), which was a vassal state in China during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE).

  • When two other nations are at peace, coerce one to help you conquer the other or alternatively, stay out of your way as you do so.
  • Utilise an ally’s resources to attack a common enemy.
  • When two of your enemies are in conflict with one another, assist one to defeat the other.
  • This method is particularly effective if you have greater strength in comparison with the other parties.


Chapter 5: Proximate Stratagems (并战计 bìng zhàn jì)

Strategies to use when your friends become your enemy.


1. Replace the beams with rotten timbers (偷梁换柱 tōu liáng huàn zhù)

  • Seek to disrupt your enemy’s operations and replace them with systems that you control. Make efforts to ensure they are reliant on you, preferably without their knowledge.
  • Change the rules in which they are used to following – such as the rules of engagement – to undermined their standard training.
  • Weaken their relations by converting bribing and blackmailing their officials, commanders, and other people in authoritative positions.
  • Remove supporting pillars from beneath them by rendering their structures ineffective.


2. Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree (指桑骂槐 zhǐ sāng mà huái)

  • Make an example of someone weak in order to teach a more powerful person a lesson – especially if openly punishing the powerful person would be difficult or dangerous.
  • Without naming names, use analogies and innuendos to get your message across to someone without actually punishing them directly.
  • Use disproportionate punishments to get your message across and scare others into submission.


3. Play dumb but keep your balance (假痴不癫 jiǎ chī bù diān)

  • Act indifferent and confused during discourse. Appear drunk, foolish and weak to confuse and thus hide your true intentions and strength.
  • Let them underestimate you. Bide your time. And when they let their guard down, make your moves.


4. Remove the ladder after the enemy has ascended (上屋抽梯 shàng wū chōu tī)

  • Bait and deceive your enemy into treacherous terrains.
  • Cut off lines of communication and any means of escape.
  • Force your enemy to fight your troops at full strength while he is ill-prepared and having to fight against nature.
  • This method may also be used on your own troops, to some extent. Have them believe there are no means of escape, no chance of retreat, so that they fight with all their might to the very end.


5. Deck the tree with false blossoms (树上开花 shù shàng kāi huā)

  • By “tying silk blossoms to a dead tree,” you can create the illusion that the tree is still healthy. Similarly, with enough imagination, you can tactfully make something useless appear to be useful; something that is of no threat to be dangerous; and something of no value to be valuable. 
  • Inversely, you can make something powerful seem far less powerful than it actually is.


6. Make the host and the guest exchange roles (反客为主 fǎn kè wéi zhǔ)

  • Infiltrate the enemy with spies and double agents.
  • Pretend to be a guest then develop from the inside and usurp leadership.


Chapter 6: Desperate Stratagems (败战计 bài zhàn jì)

Stratagems to use when your troops have been defeated.

潜龙勿用: the dragon hiding in deep water

Meaning: It's not time for action; a person of talent and virtue not being made use of; biding one's time;


1. The beauty trap (Honeypot) (美人计 měi rén jì)

  • Send a beautiful woman that is loyal to you to the arms of your enemy’s leader. At best, she will ensnare him to the extent that he neglects his duties and his judgement becomes blurred as she whispers into his ear. At worst, she can gather invaluable information for you.
  • Send beautiful women into your army’s camp to mingle with key officers. Have them show affection to more than one man to create chaos and conflict among the ranks.
  • Have them make other women jealous and envious so as to further exasperate the situation and cause more bedlam.


2. The empty fort strategy (空城计 kōng chéng jì)

  • When you know beyond a doubt that your enemy is superior in numbers or strength and that you could not win a battle, show no fear or concern, appear willing and ready to fight to make them think twice about what they think they know about your state of affairs.
  • Ignore their threats and warmongering. Openly do trivial tasks to appear relaxed and carefree. Make them think an ambush is waiting for them should they decide to make a move.


3. Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp (反间计 fǎn jiàn jì)

  • Originally this meant to use your enemy’s spies to your advantage by converting them to your cause, or by feeding them false information.
  • Later it meant to destabilise your enemy's by covertly instigating friction between him and his allies, advisors, commanders, soldiers, family, friends, and population. Keep their focus away from battles you know you are unable to win.


4. Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust (苦肉计 kǔ ròu jì)

  • Harm yourself to gain your enemy’s trust or sympathy. Make them believe you are not an immediate threat.
  • Pretend that the injury was caused by a mutual enemy so as to strengthen your bond through a common cause.


5. Chain stratagems (连环计 lián huán jì)

  • Strategise in such a way that you have multiple strategies being applied simultaneously, and so that each leads to a chain of strategies that are all part of one overall scheme.
  • Keep the enemy second guessing every move they make, take away their strengths one by one.
  • Take steps to ensure there are no ‘weak links’ in your chain stratagem. However, if one fails or is countered, keep your options open. Remain flexible enough to immediately unleash another without hesitation.


6. Retreating is best (走为上计 zǒu wéi shàng jì)

  • When it’s clear victory is out of reach, retreat and regroup.
  • Always keep a path open for retreat. Remember, you do not need to win every single battle in order to win the war.
  • When you lose a battle, there are only three possible outcomes: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat.
  • This is the most famous of the 36 stratagems.


Chinese Idiom:

三十六计,走为上计 (sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng jì): "Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best"

The 36 Stratagems themsleves are divided into six chapters, each containing six individual stratagems. Generally speaking, the first three chapters describe tactics for use when the strategist is in a favourable position, whereas the last three chapters contain tactics that are more suitable for a strategist in a less favourable position.

Each strategy has an assigned proverb, followed by a short comment that explains how it is applicable to military tactics. These 36 proverbs are related to 36 battle scenarios from Chinese history, some of which are believed to be folklore, predominantly from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 ACE).