The Thirty-Six Stratagems

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A large component of the Way of Strategy is understanding the use of stratagems. A stratagem is different from a strategy. A strategy is an overall gameplan; whereas a stratagem is just a deception or dirty trick used to gain an advantage. Strategies are created by combining several stratagems. Although you may initially reject the thought of using deception to achieve your goals, these stratagems will be used against you at some point in your life, so ignore them at your peril.

The multitude of possible stratagems has been distilled, polished, and codified into The Thirty-Six Stratagems. The identity of their original author remains a point of contention among sinologists and historians, and the answer has probably been lost to history. The Thirty-Six Stratagems are typically attributed to either Sun-tzu or Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang (181-284 CE) was a famous general whose exploits were featured in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Sun-tzu was the author of The Art of War, and while it is unclear if he ever wrote The Thirty-Six Stratagems in ink, he definitely wrote them in spirit. All thirty-six stratagems were either discussed in The Art of War, or are immediately derivable from its teachings.

Why 36?

The Chinese equivalent to the English proverb “he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day” is “of thirty-six stratagems, retreating is best.” (“Thirty-six” is a Chinese colloquialism for “a large number of things,” much like how an English speaker would say “a million.”) So, in a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, the original author made sure that their list contained exactly thirty-six items, and that retreating was one of them.

Editor's Note

The original author of The Thirty-Six Stratagems reduced each teaching down to a single phrase or proverb, as a mnemonic. Mnemonics were critical to propagate ideas in ancient and medieval societies. When basic literacy was a luxury reserved for privileged classes, rote memorization was the only learning option for most people. However, these mnemonics only make sense within the cultural framework in which they were originally created. This, like all concepts, is best explained by an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. In the episode “Darmok,” the Enterprise and her crew meet aliens with an entirely metaphor-based language. Although the crew of the Enterprise was equipped with a universal translator, it could only produce word salads. (“The river Temarc, in winter! Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!”) Although it could translate the individual words, the universal translator could not grasp the overall meaning of the phrases. A Western reader, who is largely unfamiliar with the Chinese language, culture, history, and literary tradition, would be unable to understand that “besiege Wei to rescue Zhao” means “to find the Achilles’ heel.” Likewise, the average Chinese person, who was raised in a culture free of idiomatic references to The Iliad, wouldn't understand what an Achilles’ heel is.

I have attempted to communicate the essence of each stratagem, to make them easy for a Western reader to immediately understand, along with a brief explanation of how they are used. Whereas The Art of War is intended to be an in-depth study of the nature of conflict itself, The Thirty-Six Stratagems are intended to be more of a “cheat sheet,” organized into a decision tree of “if-then” statements to provide a quick effective responses to six common situations.

Stratagems for Retaining Superiority

Keep a Hidden Agenda

Use a fake goal to mask your real goal until it is achieved. (e.g., Point to the west in front of everyone, when your goal is actually in the east.)

Find the Achilles’ Heel

Avoid direct confrontations. Instead, focus on attacking the enemy’s weak spots.

Nothing is invincible; a weakness always exists somewhere.

Utilize the Strength of Others

Have a third party attack your enemies for you. This can be done by:

  1. Tricking an ally into attacking.
  2. Bribing an enemy official to turn traitor.
  3. Turning the enemy's own strength against them.

Choose Your Battles

Always choose the time and place for a battle; only fight on your own terms.

Encourage your enemy to expend their energy in futile pursuits and fool’s errands, while you conserve your strength.

Kick Them When They’re Down

When a country or group is beset by rampant internal conflicts (e.g., disease, famine, corruption, crime, etc.), they are unable to deal with external threats.

Likewise, individuals are susceptible to attack when their personal life is in turmoil (e.g., fired from work, foreclosed mortgage, divorce, etc.).

Create Diversions

The element of surprise will provide an overwhelming advantage. You must create an expectation in the enemy's mind, forcing them to focus their attention and manpower onto one location, and then attack a weakly-defended point elsewhere.

Even in direct confrontations, surprise can still be employed by attacking where it is least expected.

Stratagems for Confronting an Equally-Powerful Enemy

Propaganda

Tell lies to confuse and frighten the enemy. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Create an illusion of something's existence, when it really does not exist.
  2. Create an illusion that something does not exist, when it really exists.

The Pincer Maneuver (Two-Pronged Attack)

Deceive the enemy with an obvious, slow-moving approach, while another attacking force takes a shortcut to sneaks up and surprise them. The goal is to make the enemy concentrate on the decoy, so that they ignore the true attack. (e.g., You kick the opponent's groin, to force them to drop their hands to cover themselves, so you can punch them in the face.)

This stratagem is a variation of Creating Diversions that uses highly-visible, physical baits or threats in addition to misinformation. Please note that these baits or threats must also be legitimate attempts, or else they will draw suspicion.

Let Your Enemies Fight Each Other

Delay entering a battle until everyone involved has become exhausted from fighting amongst themselves. Then, attack at full strength and pick up the pieces.

Hide Knives with Smiles (Infiltrate and Sabotage)

Charm and ingratiate yourself into your enemy’s group. Once you've gained their trust, secretly makes moves against them.

Sacrifice Pawns to Protect Queens (The Scapegoat Stratagem)

Realize there are circumstances where you must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to reach a long-term goal.

This is the “scapegoat stratagem,” where someone must suffer dire consequences so that the rest of the group does not.

Exploit Targets of Opportunity

Your plans should be flexible enough to allow you to take advantage of any small opportunities that my present themselves, to capitalize on whatever slight profit they might offer.

Stratagems for Persuading the Enemy to Surrender

Shock and Awe

Perform unusual, strange, unexpected. aimless, but spectacular actions to provoke the enemy to respond, thereby giving away their plans or positions, or just to taunt them and disrupt their thinking.

However, beware that these actions will also reveal your position and intentions to the enemy.

Reinvent the Past

The classics are classics for a reason, so re-appropriate a forgotten or discarded institution, technology, method, or ideology.

Everything new was inspired by something old, so mine the past for ideas, customs, symbols, images, traditions, etc. and revive, re-purpose, and reinterpret them to fit your needs -- especially if it can provide you with a mythos or other form of legitimacy. (e.g., Plans will sound more credible when they're based on principles from ancient Chinese military texts.)

Siege Warfare is Counterproductive

Never directly attack a well-positioned or fortified opponent. Instead, lure them away from their position and separate them from their sources of strength.

Do Not Corner the Enemy

Cornered prey will mount a final, desperate attack. Prevent this by letting the enemy believe he still has a chance for freedom, and dampen their will to fight with the desire to escape. When their chance for freedom later disappears, the enemy's morale will be crushed, making them apt to surrender.

Sacrifice Worms to Catch Fish

By offering someone something of relative or apparent value, you can bait or goad the enemy into yielding something of even greater worth.

Decapitation

If the enemy's followers are motivated by money, superstitions, or threats, then target their leaders. Without leaders, there's no one to give orders, and their group will either disband or become your new ally.

However, do not target leaders if the enemy’s followers are motivated by loyalty. This turns their leaders into martyrs, and their group will continue fighting to seek vengeance.

Stratagems for Dealing with Chaotic Environments

Eliminate the Source of the Enemy’s Strength (Indirect Attacks)

Instead of attacking the enemy's fighting forces, attack the enemy’s ability to wage war by targeting their main arguments, important assets or personnel, or critical supply lines.

Find what it is that makes the enemy strong, and prevent them from drawing upon this resource. You must steal, disable, or destroy this power source by any means at your disposal. Even if this sabotage fails, the attempt will devastate enemy morale.

Take Advantage of Confusion

Intentionally create confusion, and use the resulting distraction to further your own goals.

Hide Behind Illusions

Mask yourself to escape from a superior enemy, either by abandoning distinctive traits to become inconspicuous, or by masquerading as something or someone else.

Entrap and Destroy

With prudent planning, cut off your enemy's supply lines and all but one escape route, prior to attacking.

Befriend Distant Enemies to Attack Nearby Enemies

Bordering nations tend to become enemies, while nations separated by distance and obstacles become allies. When you are the strongest in your field, your greatest threat is from the second-strongest in your field; and not the strongest from some other field. Beware of your neighbors, even if they appear to be friends, as they will have the easiest time taking advantage of you when you are away. Even if your neighbors are weak, they could form an alliance and quickly gain strength.

Become allies with your enemy’s neighbors to force them into fighting on multiple fronts, so their forces cannot work together. Going to war in distant lands requires passing over or through nearby countries, and they must be non-hostile in order for you to do this.

Always be up to date about what alliances are happening, as these shift the balance of power. Disrupt threatening alliances, forge beneficial alliances, and beware of your allies changing sides.

Alliances are Temporary

Borrow an ally’s resources to attack a mutual enemy. Then, once the mutual enemy is defeated, those same resources can be turned on the ally who lent them.

Stratagems for Improving Your Position

Defeat from Within

Destroy or damage the sustaining structures which the enemy depends on, and replace them with systems which you control. Make the enemy dependent upon you, then cut them off.

Discredit the enemy’s friends and advisers, so they don't know who to trust.

Find and exploit situations where the enemy’s strengths become their weaknesses.

Disrupt enemy plans and actions. Act in unexpected ways -- break the normal rules of engagement -- so the enemy will be confused, and become paralyzed into inaction, or panicked into disarray.

Indirect Persuasion (The "Mean Girls" Maneuver)

Analogies and innuendos can be used to discipline, control, or warn people who cannot be directly confronted due to their status or position. By not directly naming names, the accused cannot retaliate without revealing themselves.

Conversely, severe punishments will intimidate other group members into compliance.

Play Dumb

Pretend to be a fool, a drunk, a madman, etc. to mask your intentions and motivations.

Enemies will drop their guard around you once they've written you off as being harmless.

Burn Bridges

Use baits and deceptions to lure your enemy into dangerous situations, then cut off their escape routes and lines of communication.

Use Decoys

You don’t actually need to be powerful; you just need to appear powerful. Tricks and disguises can achieve this by:

  • Making something worthless appear valuable.
  • Making the nonthreatening appear dangerous.
  • Making the useless appear useful.

Create Dependency

The easiest way to control someone is to have them depend upon you.

Take control of negotiations, to usurp leadership in situations where you are normally subordinate.

Infiltrate your target, and take control of their supply chain.

Desperation Stratagems

Subversion by Seduction (The Honeypot Trap)

Send your enemy beautiful women to instigate problems within their base. This works because:

  • The (presumed male) leader becomes so enamored with the beautiful women that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane.
  • Other males will begin to display aggressive behaviors that will inflame any minor differences and foibles. This hinders cooperation and destroys morale.
  • Other females will become jealous and envious, and develop their own plots, schemes, and ploys, further exacerbating the situation.

The Empty Fort Stratagem (The Corbomite Maneuver)

When you are about to be overrun by a numerically superior enemy, trick them into thinking that they are about to walk into a huge ambush.

Drop all pretenses of preparedness, and taunt the enemy. Most importantly, act calm and at ease, especially when your enemy expects you to be tense.

Please note that this stratagem only works when it is used sparingly, and if you have powerful hidden forces most of the time.

Counter-Espionage (Drama Bombs)

Secretly feed spies false information that will create strife between the enemy and their family, friends, allies, advisers, commanders, soldiers, population, etc. While the enemy is preoccupied with settling these fabricated internal disputes, they are distracted from attacking or defending.

This stratagem requires knowing who the enemy’s spies are. This can be done by:

  • Ordering your spies to steal enemy personnel lists.
  • Bribing or blackmailing enemy officials for information.
  • Performing careful detective work after an information leak.
  • Secretly monitoring all information flows.
  • Planting your own agents in places and situations where they will be recruited by the enemy spy network, thus gaining access to that network.
  • Catching enemy spies, and turning them into double agents.

Play Possum or Inflict Self-Harm to Gain Sympathy

Pretending to be injured has two possible applications:

  1. The enemy will stop considering you to be an immediate threat, and is lulled into lowering their guard.
  2. Pretending that a mutual enemy caused the injury will win the trust of your other enemies, augmenting other stratagems.

Combine Stratagems (Defense-in-Depth)

Do not rely on any one stratagem. Instead, keep your options open by using a combination of stratagems simultaneously. This way, the entire scheme wont unravel if any one stratagem fails.

Additionally, multi-layered schemes are harder to for the enemy discern and defeat.

Retreat

Once it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat, then immediately retreat, regroup, and rethink your plans. When your side is losing, your options are:

  1. Surrender; a complete, total defeat.
  2. Compromise; a partial defeat.
  3. Escape; avoiding defeat.

While retreat is unpalatable, avoiding defeat implies a chance of victory.