Combined Stratagems – Thirty-Six Stratagems

Replace the beams with rotten timbers (偷梁換柱)

If you replace the beams and pillars of a house with rotten timber, it’s bound to collapse someday. If you can manipulate the battle plan of your rivals to negate or remove their strongest force, they will crumple by themselves, providing an opportunity for you to take control.

The fall of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) is perhaps one of the best-known examples of the application of this strategy.

After Qin Shi Huang unified China for the first time in its history and became the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, he was confident his reign would last a long time. Therefore, he believed there was no urgency to name an heir.

However, there were two political blocs in the imperial court alternately supporting his elder son, Fu Su, and his young son, Hu Hai, as potential heirs. Fu Su, backed by the Meng Tian bloc, was a kind-hearted and upright man who enjoyed a good reputation. The young son, supported by the Zhao Gao bloc, was a spoiled brat who indulged in sensual pleasures.

In his heart, the emperor favored the elder son and intended to nominate him as his heir prince. He, therefore, sent him to the northern border to gain practical experience in the army.

However, in 210 BC the emperor suddenly fell ill and, fearing that he might not recover, asked his prime minister to draft a secret decree to call back his elder son and name him as heir.

At that time, Zhao Gao, the supporter of the young son, was in charge of officiating and dispatching imperial decrees.

So, he deliberately slowed the process and held on to the secret decree until the emperor passed away a few days later.

Then Zhao went immediately to see the prime minister, telling him that he hadn’t sent out the decree and that he wanted to make a deal.

“Now, just you and I can decide which son will be the next emperor,” Zhao said.

“If the elder son comes back, he will very likely name his longtime supporter Meng Tian as prime minister. But if you work with me and we put the young son on the throne, I can promise that you will remain in office.”

The prime minister agreed to Zhao’s plot and they faked a decree ordering the death of the elder son and announcing the young son as the next emperor.

However, under the rule of the fatuous Hu Hai, the Qin Dynasty crumbled for a few years.

Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree (指桑罵槐)

The title of this stratagem implies warning someone by allusion or without directly naming names. It is actually a scheme to fight, conquer or warn your enemies, big or small, without head-on confrontation.

After you wipe out a weak enemy, other small ones will be alarmed and begin to switch allegiance to you. By openly criticizing one enemy while alluding to another more powerful one, the latter could hardly respond without revealing complicity.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Guan Zhong, the prime minister of the State of Qi, successfully disciplined two states without a battle thanks to this stratagem.

In order to expand his influence, the Duke of Qi one day invited a few states to a meeting to discuss his proposed alliance with two states, Song and Lu.

The Song duke came to the meeting, but the ruler of Lu failed to appear. Therefore, the Qi duke asked all those present to punish the State of Lu. However, the Song duke didn’t want to join the act and excused himself before the meeting was over.

The Qi duke became angry with both Song and Lu and ordered his troops to attack Song first. But his prime minister objected, pointing out that the State of Song was far away, but the State of Lu was close. So, he suggested dealing with Lu first.

“Your Majesty, we really don’t need to launch a war to force them into an alliance with us,” the prime minister said. “The only thing we need to do is to subdue Sui, a small vassal of the state of Lu.”

The duke was convinced and sent a small army to attack Sui, which soon surrendered. The Duke of Lu immediately sent an envoy to the Duke of Qi offering to form an alliance.

When the Song duke learned that Qi and Lu had become allies, he also wanted to join. So, by subduing a small vassal, the State of Qi forced two other states into a strategic alliance.

Today, the title of this stratagem is also used as a popular idiom to mean a ploy of cursing or criticizing one person but actually aiming to censure another.

Feign madness but keep your balance (假痴不癲)

Feigning idiocy while keeping tabs on everything happening around you, or feigning inaction while secretly getting yourself ready for action is what this stratagem is all about.

The purpose, of course, is to confuse the enemy about your intentions and motivation, luring them into underestimating you and dropping their guard. Meanwhile, you spare no effort to get ready for a decisive offensive and quietly wait for the right moment.

Sima Yi, one of the best-known strategists in Chinese history, adroitly applied this stratagem in a successful coup detat more than 1,700 years ago.

During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), after the young prince of the Kingdom of Wei was enthroned in 239 AD, the imperial court was actually controlled by two top officials, namely, Sima Yi and Cao Shuang.

In the power struggle between the two, Cao first managed to deprive Sima of his military power. Sima then immediately asked for extended sick leave from the imperial court and returned to his hometown with his two sons. After considerable time, Cao decided to send an envoy to Sima’s home to find out what he’d been doing.

Upon hearing of this, Sima went to bed and pretended to be seriously ill. So, when Cao’s henchman came, he saw a disheveled, senile old man lying in bed, sniveling and babbling all kinds of insane words.

He tried to talk to Sima, but the old man could hardly understand him. So, he returned to the imperial court and told Cao that Sima was ready to die.

Cao was so relieved that he began to fully indulge himself in sensual pleasures and gradually forgot that he still had a potential enemy.

Meanwhile, Sima and his sons sent people to monitor Cao day and night as part of their planning for a comeback.

It was not until 10 years later that Sima and his sons had an opportunity to storm back into the imperial court and seize military power. They did so while Cao was accompanying the young king hunting outside the capital.

A word of advice is that one should never overact as senile or lunatic or behave like an idiot or madman when following this stratagem. Otherwise, your enemy will become suspicious and your strategy might fail.

Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof (上屋抽梯)

There were rarely any stairs leading to the attic in old Chinese houses, so people had to use a ladder to get to the loft. By removing the ladder after luring someone to climb upstairs, you actually had them trapped.

To apply this stratagem in a battle, you deliberately entice the enemy to penetrate your lines and then corner him in a death trap by cutting off his escape routes.

Ironically, Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD), one of the most famous strategists in Chinese history, was once trapped by someone using this scheme.

Liu Qi was the son of a high-ranking official but he suffered from the constant persecution of his stepmother. So, someone asked Zhuge Liang to help him out.

Liu invited Zhuge to his house and begged the renowned strategist to give him some advice on stopping his stepmother’s abuse.

After learning of Liu’s situation, Zhuge was reluctant to say anything because he thought it was inappropriate for him to interfere in a domestic matter. So, he flat-out rejected Liu’s request.

Liu then took Zhuge into a private room and entertained him with exquisite wines.

He detailed all the bad things his stepmother had done to him and confessed his concern that the woman might eventually have him killed. Zhuge, however, remained indifferent.

Seeing that his efforts were having no effect on Zhuge, Liu then invited him to peruse an ancient book he had stored in the attic of the house.

Zhuge, a learned man, was very interested in all kinds of books and literature, so he followed Liu into the attic. When they got to the top, Zhuge found nothing but four bare walls. Then he saw the ladder is removed.

Liu then fell to his knees in front of Zhuge and again implored him to help.“Now the ladder has been removed, we are both trapped here,” Liu said.“Whatever you say here will remain in the attic and only between you and me. But, I will appreciate your help today for the rest of my life.”Liu even drew out a sword and threatened to kill himself if Zhuge again refused to help. Seeing no other alternative, Zhuge told Liu a story from many years earlier about two brothers and their stepmother.

Zhuge said that the stepmother had long planned to get rid of the two stepsons. One of the two sons ran away, but the other, a pious son to his father, stayed. One day, the stepmother framed the remaining son for trying to poison his father and the latter believed her. To show his devotion to his father, the son committed suicide.“The son who stayed eventually got killed, but the one who ran away survived,” Zhuge concluded his story.

The next day, Liu asked his father to send him to live in a remote town and successfully escaped the grip of his stepmother.

Decorate the tree with false blossoms (樹上開花)

A tree may look less attractive without flowers on its branches. But you can give it a dazzling display by attaching bright and colorful artificial blossoms.

An application of this stratagem in a battle is not to put on some eye-catching show but to deceive the enemy, making them believe you are stronger and more powerful than you actually are.

During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), Zhang Fei was known as an audacious general who had more brawn than a brain.

But it was Zhang who adroitly employed this “artificial blossoms” stratagem to deter an overwhelming enemy in one of the most famous battles in Chinese history.

In the early years, Zhang was serving Liu Bei, the ruler of the Kingdom of Shu, who was not quite a rival to Cao Cao, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wei in the north.

In one battle, Liu was defeated by Cao, and his wife and son went missing in action. So, while retreating from the battlefield, Liu and his troops moved very slowly because they were mixing with a large number of refugees. Meanwhile, the pursuing enemy was closing in very quickly.

So, Liu ordered Zhang to try to stop the Cao troops in order to give him and his followers more time to retreat to a safer place.

Zhang had a force of only about two dozen cavalry, but he had to fend off the attack by a charging enemy about one thousand times the size of his squad.

Zhang understood very well that no matter how brave and powerful he was, his men could never beat the odds. So he asked his men to tie tree branches to the tails of their horses and gallop the animals back and forth in the woods close to a river. Meanwhile, he mounted his favorite black horse and waited in the middle of the only bridge on the river.

When Cao and his troops arrived at the river, they saw only Zhang himself alone guarding the bridge. However, they also saw billows of dust rising from the nearby woods on the other side of the river.

Cao and his troops all knew how fierce and dangerous Zhang was, but they couldn’t figure out why the ruler of Shu sent only Zhang to bring up the rear.

At the same time, Cao became suspicious of the activity in the woods. He feared his rival had set up a trap for his troops and had sent out Zhang as bait.

So he ordered his troops to stop advancing and, after a short standoff with Zhang, decided to back off. He planned to cross the river only after finding out what was really going on in the woods.

Zhang had successfully stopped the enemy advance but, according to the story, he later burnt the bridge before retreating from the river. This tipped off Cao that he had been deceived by Zhang’s “artificial blossoms” trick.

Burning down the bridge suggested that Zhang was a fierce fighter, not a strategist.

Make the host and the guest exchange roles (反客為主)

As a slave, you have no control over what you do in your master’s house. As a guest, you have little control over things. No matter how long you stay as a guest, you simply don’t have much say in the house, but you can learn a lot while there. Only by taking over as host can you control the house.

In a battle, it’s not always the case that you can overwhelm an enemy and immediately take control of the battlefield.

When you are not strong enough or when you don’t know the enemy very well, you need to first set foot in the enemy’s territory as a “guest.”Only then can you size up the situation. When ready, you can strongly take the role of “host” and bring the situation under control.

One story about this stratagem dates back to the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD).

General Yuan Shao and Jizhou Magistrate Han Fu were old friends. Jizhou was a rich place with an abundant supply of food and fodder. Yuan always dreamed of taking over Jizhou and turning it into one of his military bases.

One of Yuan’s aides suggested a plot to force Magistrate Han to invite Yuan’s troops to help defend Jizhou. Then they could gradually take control.

Yuan surreptitiously encouraged the general of another force to prepare for an attack on Jizhou and then sent some lobbyists to talk his old friend into letting Yuan’s troops help defend the territory.

The lobbyists repeatedly told Han that in the face of an imminent attack by enemy forces, the best solution was to seek help from his friend Yuan Shao.

“You know very well, Yuan is an ambitious general,” they told the magistrate. “If you don’t join with him, your enemy may do so. By that time, it could turn out to be a double whammy on you.”

Han was not a strategist and was scared by the situation. So, he decided to let Yuan send his troops into Jizhou to help with the defense, despite strong objections from his subordinates.

After entering Jizhou, Yuan gradually organized his men to take over all important positions and eventually deprived Han of all his power as a magistrate.

Han started to regret his decision but it was too late. Seeing no hope of taking back power, the magistrate finally fled Jizhou, abandoning his home and officials. As a result, Yuan took over Jizhou and named himself a magistrate.

This scheme is designed to defeat the enemy from within by first infiltrating his territory under the guise of cooperation or in the name of the alliance. Then the invader can take control by switching his role from “guest” to “host.”

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