The beauty trap (美人計)
Few men can be immune to the sometimes lethal attraction of beautiful women. Sociologists tend to attribute this phenomenon to human nature and moralists often link it to the weakness of men.
Strategists, however, love to resort to the weapon of sex to defeat their enemies.
In the face of a formidable enemy led by an intelligent and resourceful commander, the best policy is to conquer the leader instead of fighting his troops. And no one is more likely to achieve this goal than beautiful women.
These strongmen can be susceptible prey to female beauty and become soft and inept, while their troops’ fighting power wanes.
There are thousands of such cases in China and around the world to illustrate this stratagem. But the most popular one in China is about two kings and two absolute beauties who lived more than 2,500 years ago.
Toward the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Gou Jian, the king of the State of Yue, was captured during a war by troops of the State of Wu. While captive, the king swallowed his pride and worked very hard as a horseman for the Wu king. As a result, three years later, he was allowed to go home.
After his return, the Yue king refused to live in his palace. Instead, he slept on a pile of firewood and tasted a bitter pig gallbladder every day to remind himself of humiliation and revenge.
Because Wu was too powerful at that time, Gou realized that he could not rely on rebuilding his country and army alone.
One of his officials told the Yue king: “A bird can fly high, but it cannot resist the attraction of fine food and will die for it; a fish can swim in deep water, but it will meet its death by jumping up to a delicious bait.
“To defeat Wu, you must try to satisfy his mortal desires in order to soften his will and push him into a fatal situation.”
So, Gou picked the two most beautiful women from his state and presented them to the king of Wu. Also, he kept sending him a continuous stream of luxurious gifts.
The Wu king took this as a sign that his former captive had accepted his fate and given up any attempt to rebel. So, he relaxed his vigilance and began to spend day and night with the two beauties, wining, dining, and fooling away the time. His aides tried various means to persuade him to give up his decadent lifestyle but failed.
Seven years later, when the opportunity came, The Yue king and his troops launched a merciless offensive against the State of Wu and conquered it within days. The king of Wu eventually committed suicide.
The empty fort strategy (空城計)
When the enemy is overwhelming in numbers and there is little chance to withstand a siege, the best option is to make yourself utterly defenseless by removing all your forces. This unusual move might confuse your enemy into believing you have set up a trap and, with luck, they may back off.
Zhuge Liang, a famous Chinese strategist who was prime minister of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), is perhaps best known for applying this “ploy of an empty fortress.”
After losing the strategic town of Jieting to the rival Kingdom of Wei in a previous battle, Zhuge withdrew to Xicheng, a city of only about 5,000 people.
In order to build up his defense, he sent half of his men to find food and fodder.
But the Wei troops were in hot pursuit. Learning that the enemy army of more than 150,000 men was about to attack, soldiers and civilians in Xicheng started to panic, believing they had little chance to fend off the enemy.
Zhuge, however, told them to calm down. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll think of a way to trick the enemy into retreat.”
Zhuge ordered his soldiers to remove all fighting flags from the city walls and go into hiding. Then he asked a dozen old men to open the four city gates and calmly sweep the roads outside. Zhuge himself climbed one of the gate towers with two attendants, set up a table with a lute, and started burning incense.
When the enemy’s advance troops arrived, they were surprised to see the city gates open, some old men casually sweeping the roads and the famous strategist playing the lute calmly atop the city wall with two attendants standing by his side.
They rushed to tell their commander Sima Yi, another famous strategist in Chinese history, about this unusual scene.
Sima went to look for himself. He saw Zhuge was all smiles as he played his lute above an open gate leading to empty streets in the city. After summing up the situation, Sima ordered his troops to retreat.
One of his sons asked: “Dad, why did you decide to retreat from an empty city? Zhuge must be putting on a show to confuse us.”
“No,” Sima answered. “Zhuge is a cautious man, not a risk taker. So, I believe he has set up a trap to lure us to attack.”
After the retreat of Sima and his troops, Zhuge left Xicheng, taking his followers to safety.
Sowing distrust in the enemy camp (反間計)
One way to weaken your enemy’s fighting power is to sow distrust within its forces. This will often lead to discord and infighting and, as a result, individuals or groups within the enemy camp will become demoralized and unable to work together.
There are many ways to do this. For instance, you may plant moles to spread rumors in your enemy’s ranks. But the stratagem here means to make use of your enemy’s spies to work for you.
The Battle of Red Cliff, which happened during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), remains today one of the textbook cases of using this stratagem.
Zhou Yu, a young general of the Kingdom of Wu, joined forces with the Kingdom of Shu to fight the invading troops from the Kingdom of Wei in the north along the Yangtze River.
Wei’s troops far outnumbered the combined forces of Wu and Shu, but the latter knew better about how to fight on the water.
So, Cao Cao, the ruler of Wei, hired two surrendered generals from Wu to help train his troops for a major battle on the Yangtze River, the longest river in China.
Zhou, of course, was a bit worried about Cao’s move and decided to find a way to remove the two traitors from Cao’s camp.
An opportunity came when Cao sent one of his officials to meet Zhou in the guise of a reunion of old friends, but actually on a mission to spy on Zhou’s troops.
Zhou entertained the official with a banquet but told his old friend that they should not talk about state affairs and the ongoing battle on the river.
“You’re serving Cao and he is now fighting with us,” Zhou said. “I don’t want to see our reunion spoiled by a discussion on the war, so let’s only talk about our friendship tonight.”
The two drank a lot of wine and at the end of the banquet, Zhou seemed drunk. So, his old friend helped him walk back to his room and put him on the bed. However, before leaving the room, the old friend sneaked a look at documents scattered on the desk and, to his great surprise, found a letter from the two turncoat generals.
In the letter, the two generals told Zhou they were working inside Cao’s camp to help Zhou’s troops to win the battle.
The guest tiptoed out of the room with the letter and fled.
Upon reading the letter, Cao got hot under the collar and ordered a summary execution of the two generals. But shortly afterward, he found out that the letter was a forgery.
After losing his water battle instructors, Cao and his troops eventually suffered a disastrous defeat in the famous Battle of the Red Cliff.
Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy’s trust (苦肉計)
People naturally do not want to harm themselves physically. It’s cruel and also painful. Therefore, when someone tries to ingratiate themselves with an enemy after being badly harmed by their own people, their hatred will be convincing, and their desire to switch camps and seek opportunities for revenge is totally understandable.
Because of this, people sometimes injure themselves to win the trust of an enemy so that they can destroy them later. These injuries can go as far as chopping off a whole arm or worse.
He Lu, the king of the State of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), came to power after he murdered his predecessor King Liao. But, the murdered king had a son called Qing Ji, who was a very brave warrior.
The former prince was then in exile, but he had publicly pledged that he would avenge the death of his father and take back the State of Wu. This worried the new king very much. He had long planned to kill the prince, but he failed to find a hitman who could do the job.
One day, an official recommended a man called Yao Li to the king, saying he was the right candidate to carry out the assassination.
At first, the king did not believe this short, ugly man could be a match for the young warrior. But after talking to him, he was convinced and the two cooked up a cruel scheme. The following day Yao seriously insulted the king in front of many people. The king was so angry, he ordered his men to chop off Yao’s right arm and throw him into prison.
A few days later, the mutilated man “accidentally” escaped from the prison and fled to a neighboring state to look for refuge with the former prince.
Although the prince was recruiting men to build up his own army, he was suspicious of Yao’s story. So, he sent out someone to the State of Wu to check it out.
When the scout came back, he not only confirmed Yao’s story but also brought back the news that Yao’s wife had been beheaded by the king after his escape.
The prince was finally convinced and trusted Yao with the task of training his soldiers and building warships.
When he thought he was ready and after being constantly encouraged by Yao, the prince launched an attack against the king of Wu.
But midway through the journey, when the prince and Yao were on the same ship, Yao took an opportunity to stab the prince to death and then immediately slits his own throat.
After using the self-injury tactic to successfully remove the former prince, the king of Wu secured his power and dominated the southern region for many years.
Today, this self-injury trick is still widely applied, and sometimes, it even works in job-hopping or love affairs.
Chain stratagems (連環計)
In face of a powerful enemy, one is always advised to not enter into a head-on battle with him. Instead, you should employ some shrewd ploy to defeat the enemy and avoid heavy losses on your own side. However, sometimes one ploy is not enough, so you should then adopt this stratagem — the so-called “multi-ploy scheme .”
This stratagem uses several plans applied simultaneously, or in a sequence, within the framework of a master scheme designed to ultimately rout the enemy.
By applying this stratagem, you can not only multiply the effectiveness of your ploys but also have other plan options to fall back on when one of them fails.
During the famous Battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), this stratagem was successfully employed by Zhou Yu, a young general of the Kingdom of Wu to defeat invading troops from the northern Kingdom of Wei.
Zhou first joined forces with the Kingdom of Shu to fight the invading forces along the Yangtze River, the longest river in China. But the northern troops, though unfamiliar with water warfare, still outnumbered the joint forces of the two southern kingdoms, so Zhou decided to employ a series of schemes to weaken and then destroy his enemy.
He first applied the stratagem of “sowing distrust in enemy camp” to lure Cao Cao, the ruler of Wei, into executing two defectors from the south who served as instructors training northern troops on how to fight on water.
Then Zhou “recommended” one of his advisors to Cao through one of Cao’s aides. The advisor complained to the aide about being neglected by Zhou and expressed his willingness to serve a “wise” ruler. The aide believed him.
After he was introduced to the Wei ruler, the advisor told Cao that the best way to help his troops overcome seasickness while fighting along the big river was to use wooden boards to join many small boats into large platforms. He promised that this would largely reduce the rocking of boats on rough waters and make the northern troops feel like walking on solid ground.
The next ploy used by Zhou was the “self-injury” scheme. After being brutally beaten for some dissident ideas, one of Zhou’s generals decided to defect to Cao and even picked a date for his escape.
When the day came, the general steered a quick boat loaded with inflammable toward the enemy’s boat platforms. When it was close, he suddenly rammed his boat into the enemy fleet and immediately set off a big fire.
Since Cao’s boats were all joined by wooden boards and could not be easily separated, the fire swept across all platforms.
At the same time, the young general of Wu sent out hundreds of boats to attack the invaders, eventually winning the Battle of Red Cliff with his “multi-ploy scheme.”
If all else fails, retreat (走為上策)
In face of an overwhelmingly powerful enemy and seeing no chance of winning the battle, the retreat is usually the best choice. Many people believe that to surrender represents a complete defeat; to compromise means a half defeat; but to retreat is no defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you still retain a chance for victory in the future. This is the so-called “retreat-in-order-to-advance” principle.
This stratagem is always listed as the last of the famous “36 Stratagems,” because this scheme is deemed as the last, but usually, the best, option when everything else fails.
However, “retreat” sometimes is also a deceptive ploy. The purpose is to dodge the brunt of an invading force and create a fake sign of “defeat.”When it’s the right time, the retreating army could turn back and pounce upon a misled and lightheaded enemy.
One good example of implementing this stratagem happened in the early Spring and Autumn Periods (770-476 BC), when the powerful State of Chu sent out a strong army to attack the State of Jin. Led by General Zi Yu, the Chu troops comprised three contingents, namely, the Left Army, the Right Army, and the Central Army. Both the Left and Right armies were made up of soldiers recruited from four small states by Chu through coercion. Only the Central Army was a well-trained force from the State of Chu itself.
When the ruler of Jin learned about the invasion, he decided to withdraw his troops to a geographically advantageous location along the state’s mountainous border. At the same time, he sent people out to ask for help from other states.
The Chu general first ordered the Right Army to launch an attack against the Jin troops. Again, the Jin troops quickly retreated deeper into a valley. With the Right Army in hot pursuit, they met a large phalanx of battle chariots all covered with tiger skins.
The horses of the Right Army were startled as they thought they were seeing real tigers and it was soon defeated.
The Jin troops took the uniforms of the surrendered soldiers and disguised themselves as members of the Right Army. They rushed to see the Chu general and told him that the Right Army had already won a big battle against the Jin troops and urged the general to come forward and finish off the enemy.
The general was delighted. He ordered the Left Army to advance into the valley and he himself led the Central Army to follow behind.
The Jin troops played the same “retreat” trick as before to trap the Left Army which they ruthlessly wiped out and set up another trap for the general.
When the Central Army reached the battlefield, the general suddenly found out that both armies had been eliminated and now he himself was ambushed by the Jin troops.
The general eventually escaped the battlefield and returned to the State of Chu but almost all his troops were killed.
The weak State of Jin, therefore, won a big victory over the powerful State of Chu thanks to the ruler’s adroit implementation of the “retreat” scheme, which has been widely deemed as the last of the “Thirty-Six Stratagems.”