36 Stratagems


The Original 36 Stratagems

Contemporary Maxims



1) Cross the Sea by Deceiving the Sky.

Act in the open, but hide your true intentions.


Mán tiān guò hǎi

Mask your real goals, by using the ruse of a fake goal, 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.

The Allies used this strategy in the World War II against Hitler. Before we took Normandy, we first sent several drops of mannequins into the area. The Germans got tired of us playing games – let down their guard – and when the real paratroopers came, they were unprepared.

Strategy 1: Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea

2) Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao.

Attack their Achilles heel.


Wéi Wèi jiù Zhao

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.

Strategy 2: Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao

3) Kill with a Borrowed Knife.

Attack using the strength of another person.


Jiè dāo shā rén

Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favorable). 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 third party to do the deed.

Oliver North did the dirty work for the CIA. Hit men are “borrowed” muscle for the mob. Ads borrow beauty to sell.

4) Relax and Wait for the Adversary to Tire Himself Out. Await leisurely the exhausted enemy.

Exercise patience and wear them down


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.

5) Loot a Burning House.

Hit them when they are down.


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.

China lost the first Opium War (1840 – 1842) and after losing, China was tired and the country’s spirits were low. The USA and Britain seized the opportunity to consummate very one-sided agreements. The agreements are known today in China as the “unequal treaties”. Ambulance chasing is another example of this.

6) Make a Feint to the East While Attacking in the West.

Fake to the right; attack to the left.


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.

Football makes extensive use of this tactic. Credit card companies emphasize no annual fees but stick the maximum interest monthly they can to you.

This tactic is best used when the other side is in disarray or confused and not sure what your target really is.

7) Create Something Out of Nothing.

Turn something that is not substantial into reality.


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.

In World War II, Rommel deceived his opposition by creating the illusion of mass movement by building fake tanks and putting them on Volkswagens while having a few heavy vehicles tow heavy objects, thus raising lots of dust.

Stratagem Seven: Create something out of nothing – 36 Stratagems of War Episode 2

8) Secretly Utilize the Chen Cang Passage. Pretend to Advance Down One Path While Taking Another Hidden Path.

Pretend to care about an issue and later give it up to get what you really want.


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 they are meant to do what they were falsely doing, to avoid drawing the enemy’s suspicion.

In the present day, “sneak through the passage of Chencang” also has the meaning of having an affair or doing something that is illegal.

Xerox sold it first copiers for almost 3 million dollars. It did this to encourage people to rent them instead of buying and thus to foster a dependency on them. Gas stations trick us into buying gas for one price while displaying in small print the extra 9/10 of a cent they always charge. Gas here – $1.24 and 9/10 is what they should be saying. The old dating trick – Gee, before we go to the movie, I forgot my coat. Let me stop by my apartment and get it real quick. Hey, since we’re there, would you like to see my collection of (whatever).

9) Watch the Fire Burning from Across the River.

Allow them to fight your other enemy while you rest and observe. Later, defeat the exhausted survivor.


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.

At the 1988 Winter Olympics the two main contenders (Katrina Witt, East Germany – Debi Thomas, U.S.) had enormous pressure put upon them because the whole world was watching them. A lessor skater (Elizabeth Manley, Canada) took the silver medal.

10) Conceal a Dagger in a Smile.

Befriend them to get their guard down, then attack their weakest point.


Xiào lǐ cáng dāo

Charm and ingratiate yourself with your enemy. When you have gained his trust, move against him in secret.

Prior to invading Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet Union would send monetary aid to them as well as military advisors that trained their army. In this way they gained control over the Afghanistan army and prepared the way to invade them.

Shu Han authored a book on Stratagems in Taipei in 1986. He says, “Masquerading as a swine to kill the tiger is a tactic used against a stronger opponent. You hide your sword from him, pretend to be as stupid as a pig and compliant in all things, keep a friendly smile on your face, and work like a slave. Ultimately, your enemy will be completely deceived. Then when a favorable opportunity presents itself, quick as lightning the slave turns into an executioner.

11) Sacrifice a Plum Tree to Save a Peach Tree. Let the Plum Tree Wither in Place of the Peach Tree.

Trade up! Take a small loss for a large gain.


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.

In the German attack on Coventry, the British knew in advance that the attack was coming because they had broken the Germans codes. They did nothing to stop the attack and thousands of citizens died. They let this happen so that they could keep the upper hand and the Germans wouldn’t know they had cracked their code.  The Brits used their own citizens as the scapegoat.

12) Take Away a Goat in Passing.

Take advantage of every small opportunity.


Shùn shǒu qiān yang

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.

13) Beat the Grass to Startle the Snake.

Stir things up before beginning to negotiate for your true interests.


Dá cǎo jīng shé

Do something without aim, 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.

Before the British and French commenced their landing operations at Port

Said in 1956 they parachuted wood and rubber dummies down. The Egyptians thought they were real and began shooting at them. They dispatched their army to dispose of the paratroopers in the field. The French and British observed all of this. And understanding the “real power” of the Egyptians proceeded with their landing and wiped them out.

Stratagem Thirteen: Beat the Grass to Startle the Snake – 36 Stratagems of War Episode 3

14) Raise a Corpse from the Dead. Borrow a Corpse to Return the Soul.  

Revive a dead proposal by presenting it again or in a new way.


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.

The Yugo car was introduced as having the reliability of a VW.

15) Lure the Tiger out of the Mountain.

Seek a neutral location. Negotiate after leading them away from a position of strength.


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.

The Chinese when negotiating with Americans, ask them to come to China to demonstrate equipment the Chinese are interested in buying. When the Americans get there the Chinese ignore them for a while, confusing the Americans. Then they feed them food that the Americans aren’t used to and delay the negotiations. The Americans are forced to spend more time and money to woo the Chinese and soon the Chinese have them in such a vulnerable position the American’s will agree to most anything just get out of there.

16) Let the Adversary off in order to Snare Him. To Capture the Enemy, First Let It Go.

Do not arouse their spirit to fight back.


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.

Coke introduced “New Coke” that was sweeter than Classic Coke. The public was upset. So Coke let the public “catch them” and brought back the Classic Coke thus capturing their customers even harder than before.

17) Toss out a Brick to attract a piece of Jade. Toss out a Brick to Attract Jade.

Trade something of minor value for something of major value.


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”).

McDonald’s uses a free dinosaur in their kid’s meals. The kids want the dinosaur more than the meal, but the parents end up purchasing the meal for the kids as well as a meal for themselves.

18) To Catch Bandits, Nab Their Ringleader First. To Catch the Bandits, First Catch Their Ringleader.

Convince the leader and the rest will follow.


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.

China is not organized along the lines of institutional rule, as we are in the U.S. The institution of the President of the U.S. limits the rule of the President to an extent with its checks and balances. In China, most social and political systems are based on a strong and powerful leader. Removing this leader, removes his policy.

19) Remove the Fire from under the Cauldron.

Eliminate the source of their strength.


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. Literally, take the fuel out of the fire.

Corporate raiders are examples of this. They try and buy up enough stocks (stealing the firewood) until they have enough to take over the control of the company.

Stratagem Nineteen: Steal the firewood from under the cauldron – 36 Stratagems of War Episode 4

20) Muddle the water to catch the fish. Gathering Fish from Troubled Waters.

Do something surprising or unexpected to unnerve them, and then take advantage of that situation.

渾水摸魚/浑水摸鱼 or 混水摸鱼

Hún shuǐ mō yú

Entrepreneurs profited immediately after the huge earthquake that centered in San Francisco in 1989 by selling T-shirts that said, “I survived the quake of 1989”.

21) The Cicada Sheds Its Shells. The Golden Cicada Sheds Its Shell. The Cicada Sloughs Its Shell.


Jīn chán tuō qiào

Mask yourself. Either leave one’s distinctive traits behind, thus becoming inconspicuous, or masquerade as something or someone else. This strategy is mainly used to escape from enemy of superior strength.

In the 80’s, Family Fitness Centers came under attack from the government for a number of issues. To get out from under the problem, they sold off entire sections of the company. The sold them to people that used to work for FFC so they used the same sales tactics and eventually ran into the same trouble. But for a time, they were able to continue with their sales tactics by making it look like the owners were no longer there.

22) Fasten the Door to Catch a Thief. – Lock the Door and Catch the Thief

Completely destroy them by leaving no way for escape.


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.

23) Befriend a Distant State While Attacking a Neighboring State. Befriend Distant States While Attacking Nearby Ones.

Build strategic alliances with others that will give you the upper hand.


Yuǎn jiāo jìn gong

Invading nations that border your own territory has a higher chance of success. The battle fields are close to your own country, thus it is easier for your troops to get supply and to defend the conquered land. Make allies with nations far away from you, as it is unwise to invade them.

Israel depends on the U.S. for its power in the region, as well as other distant friends such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, while fighting in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

24) Borrow a Safe Passage to Conquer the Kingdom of Guo. Attack Hu by a Borrowed Path.

Temporarily join forces with a friend against a common enemy.


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.

In the Vietnam War, the U.S. used Thailand and the Philippines to get our men and supplies to Vietnam.

25) Steal the Dragon and Replace with the Phoenix. Steal the Beams and Pillars and Replace Them with Rotten Timber. Steal the Beams and Change the Pillars.

Sabotage, incapacitate, or destroy them by removing their key support.


Tōu liáng huàn zhù

Disrupt the enemy’s formations, interfere with their methods of operations, change the rules in which they are used to following, 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.

Christianity kept some of the practices and holidays of other religions that it scooped up so as not to alienate them as they converted.

26) Point at the Mulberry Tree but Curse the Locust Tree.

Convey your intentions and opinions indirectly.


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.

The US used nuclear weapons during WW II not just to defeat Japan but scare the Soviet Union.

27) Feign madness, but keep your balance. Pretend to be a Pig in Order to eat the Tiger. Play Dumb. Feign Ignorance and Hide One’s Intentions.

Play Dumb, then surprise them. Let them underestimate you.


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.

Japan kept a low profile after WW II and was humble toward the U.S. Japan built a tremendous industrial base that would one day give it the economic power of a Super Power.

28) Remove the Ladder after your ascent. Lure the enemy onto the roof, then take away the ladder. Cross the River and Destroy the Bridge.

Lead them into a trap, then cut off their escape.


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.

Cortez burned his own ships when he got to Mexico. Since they couldn’t leave, they either had to win or die. They won.

29) Decorate the Tree with Fake Blossoms. Flowers Bloom in the Tree.

Reframe deceitfully. Expand the pie with objects of little value.


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.

Sanyo created shills looking to buy what was then an unpopular radio. When dealers saw that people wanted the radios, they stocked up. Sanyo went on to big success.

30) Turn Yourself into a Host from Being a Guest. Host and Guest Switch Roles.

Turn your defensive and passive position into an offensive and active one.


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.

US is often invited to take a side in a civil war but then supplants the government that made the invitation. The Vietnam War provides an example of this switch.

31) Use a Beauty to Ensnare a Man.

The honey trap. Beauty Trap. Provide alluring distractions.


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 enamored with the beauty that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane. Second, the group of men will begin to have issues if the desired women courts another man, thus creating conflict and aggressive behavior. Third, other females at court, motivated by jealousy and envy, begin to plot intrigues further exacerbating the situation.

32) Open the Gate of an Undefended City. The Empty City Stratagem.

Deliberately displaying your weakness can conceal your vulnerability.


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 pretense of military preparedness, act calmly and taunt the enemy, so that the enemy will think you have a huge ambush hidden for them. It works best by acting calm and at ease when your enemy expects you to be tense. This ploy is only successful if in most cases you do have a powerful hidden force and only sparsely use the empty fort strategy.

On Candid Camera years ago, the host set up a stand and told people that he for some reason didn’t like $20 bills. He offered to exchange them for a $5 bill to passersby. Every one without exception turned him down, thinking they were counterfeit.

Strategy 32 of 36: Empty Fort Strategy – Zhuge Liang

33) Use Adversary’s Spies to Sow Discord in Your Adversary’s Camp. Turn the Enemy’s Agents against Him.

Provide inaccurate information to mislead them, especially through informal channels.


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.

After IBM came out with its personal computer, it contracted with some Taiwan manufactures. Almost immediately, Taiwan became the world leader in PC production.

34) Inflict Pain on oneself in order to Infiltrate Adversary’s Camp and Win the Confidence of the Enemy. Self-Torture.

Appear to take some hits. Feign weakness while arming yourself.


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 with your enemy by pretending the injury was caused by a mutual enemy.

People standing on freeway entrances with signs asking for help.

35) Lead Your Adversary to Chain Together Their Warships. Stratagem on Stratagems.

Devise a set of interlocking stratagems to defeat them.


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.

36) Retreat is the Best Option. If All Else Fails, Run Away.

Purse your BATNA.


Zǒu wéi shàng ce

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. This is the most famous of the stratagems, immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: “Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best” (三十六計,走为上計).

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