Creating Something out of Nothing (無中生有)
The stratagem of “creating something out of nothing” does not simply mean tricks such as the sleight-of-hand performed by magicians. Rather, it is a scheme of creating an illusion of something’s existence, or an illusion of non-existence.
This stratagem had been applied repeatedly in history.
During the An Lushan Rebellion in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the imperial general Zhang Xun and his troops were stationed in Yongqiu, a town under siege by rebel forces led by General Linghu Chao.
Outnumbered 20 to one, General Zhang could not figure out a way to win the battle. Meanwhile, under the rebel forces’ repeated attacks, Zhang’s troops soon ran out of arrows, one of the most effective weapons at that time to defend a besieged town. However, there were not enough raw materials or enough time to make new arrows. In order to replenish his ammunition, General Zhang decided to copy the scheme of famous Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang of “borrowing arrows.”
He ordered his troops to make about 1,000 life-sized straw mannequins dressed in black uniforms. When it fell dark, they lowered those dummies down outside the city wall. The rebel forces thought the imperial troops were attempting to launch a night surprise attack and fired thousands of arrows to prevent them from closing in.
After the straw dummies were riddled with arrows, the Zhang troops pulled them back and harvested the free supplies. When the rebel forces realized that they were tricked, it was too late.
The next night, the troops again lowered down those dummies, but the rebel forces believed it was the same trick of “borrowing arrows.” So, they ignored them and laughed at it.
Seeing that the enemy forces lost in an illusion, Zhang lowered down 500 of his elite troops outside the city wall and launched a blitz attack against the rebels’ camps. When the rebel forces saw that those straw dummies turned into real soldiers, it was already too late to put up any effective defense. The rebel forces were crushed and their general Linghu fled the battlefield.
So, the purpose of this stratagem is to make your enemy believe there’s something when there is nothing or there’s nothing when there is something. When your enemy is thrown into a state of double confusion, you rout him out with all your might.
A Ruse to Divert Your Enemies (暗渡陳倉)
The complete version of the stratagem is called “overtly repairing the plank road and secretly marching to Chencang.”
The story behind this stratagem dates back to the late years of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) when Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty (202BC-220 AD), was fighting Xiang Yu, a prominent general and popular hero, for control of the country.
In 207 BC, before he retreated to the western region, Liu Bang ordered his troops to burn the 50-kilometer-long plank road built along steep mountainsides to the central region to prevent invasion from the troops of Zhang Han, a military leader under Xiang Yu.
The next year, when some generals of the former Qin Dynasty began to rebel against Xiang, Liu Bang ordered his general Han Xin to prepare to attack Guanzhong, which was under the control of Zhang Han in the central region.
First, Han sent some soldiers to repair the burnt plank road leading all the way to the central region.
When Zhang Han learned that, he laughed and said, “With such a small team of soldiers, god knows how long it will take for them to rebuild the plank road.” So, he believed that any possible offense from Han Xin was anything but imminent.
However, while his soldiers labored on the site of the destroyed plank road, Han secretly marched his main forces along a deserted old path to reach Chencang, the only gateway to Guanzhong and immediately launched a surprise attack against Zhang’s troops.
Zhang was overwhelmed and could not put up a defense. His army was lost in the battle.
This was the beginning of a series of battles between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, which ended in 202 BC with Liu winning the victory and unifying the country.
This stratagem is a variation of the scheme of “making a feint to the east, but hitting out in the west.” Instead of simply spreading false information, this stratagem employs real actions such as “repairing the plank road” as bait. It’s usually easier to convince your enemy with an actual move, as most people trust the saying “seeing is believing.”
However, the baiting act is meant to be seen by your enemy and to divert his attention from a stealthy move used to try to sneak up on him.
The key here is that the baiting act must look so real that it won’t draw any suspicion from your enemy. So, when you attack him from a direction he hardly expects, it’s often too late for him to put up any defense.
Sit on Your Hands and Watch Others Fight (隔岸觀火)
This stratagem is similar to the scheme of “sitting on the hill and watching the tigers fight.” Both mean to stay in safety and watching others fight. When the parties involved in the fight are all hurt and exhausted, you just get up and reap the spoils.
According to the famous Sun Zi’s Art on the War, even when you are overwhelmingly stronger than your enemy and you are confident that you can win the battle, you should never enter the battlefield hastily. Otherwise what you might gain in the end could be no more than a pyrrhic victory.
Particularly, when your enemies are fighting among themselves, you should sit on your hands and wait for them to play out. If you engage yourself too early, you might get hurt as well. So, you don’t begin your strike until the fighting parties flat out. The ultimate purpose is to win the battle without a fight.
Cao Cao, the military genius who laid the foundation for the Kingdom of Wei during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), was perhaps one of few who understood the essence of this stratagem.
During the late years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), Cao was fighting the two sons of Yuan Shao, a powerful warlord. When their father died two years after a humiliating defeat at the hands of Cao, the two sons began an internal power struggle and then, hunted by Cao, fled to Liaodong to look for shelter under warlord Gongsun Kang there.
Instead of continuing his pursuit, Cao ordered his troops to return to their home base. Many of his aides felt puzzled. Cao explained that since the two brothers didn’t trust each other and the Liaodong warlord didn’t trust the two brothers, so let them play it out first.
“We just sit here and watch. I bet Gongsun Kang will bring us the heads of the two brothers,” said Cao.
Gongsun Kang first pondered the idea of forming a united frontline with the Yuan brothers to fight the Cao troops if the latter came to attack him. However, after Cao retreated, he thought providing shelter for the two brothers might not be a good idea since the Yuan family had long been harboring the ambition of taking his territory.
In order to avert any possible troubles in the future, Gongsun Kang eventually killed the two Yuan brothers and had their heads delivered to Cao as a token of reconciliation.
Hiding a Dagger Behind a Smile (笑裏藏刀)
Smiles are usually friendly, charming, and disarming as well. So, it could also be deadly if someone follows this scheme and hides a lethal weapon behind a charming smile.
To defeat your enemy with a fatal strike, you need to get very close to him and smiles could help you get there. Charming and ingratiating smiles can relax your enemy’s vigilance even if not win his full trust.
When your enemy is foiled enough by your smile to let you get close to him, you produce the hidden weapon and slay him in a surprise attack.
Gongsun Yang, a famous statesman during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), knew very well how to apply this stratagem.
In order to expand its territory, the State of Qin named Gongsun Yang the general to lead an attack against the State of Wei. When the general and his troops arrived at Wucheng, a strategic town in Wei, he found the enemy had beefed up its defense and there was little chance to seize the town without massive offensives and even heavy losses.
With his strong troop, the Qin general could take the enemy town by storm, but he didn’t want to see a pyrrhic victory. So, how could he seize the town with little effort and minimum sacrifice?
Then he discovered that the Wei general guarding the town was an old acquaintance, so he decided to send him a very friendly letter, in which Gongsun Yang said how he cherished their friendship and expressed his “sincere” wish to make peace with Wei. At the same time, he ordered his vanguard troops to retreat as a gesture of his “sincerity.”
The Wei general was very pleased to read the letter and when he learned that the Qin troops were withdrawing, he decided to accept Gongsun’s invitation to a meeting.
When he arrived with 300 soldiers at the meeting place outside town, he saw Gongsun Yang was already there, unarmed. He began to truly trust Gongsun and did not suspect that he was entering a trap. Barely had he sat down at the dinner table, he was seized by Qin soldiers lurking behind the walls. Gongsun Yang then took the town effortlessly.
So, next time when your opponent approaches you with a charming smile, you know what to think of and get yourself ready for the possible dagger behind it.
Sacrificing the Less Valuable (李代桃僵)
It happens when you are thrown into a situation in which you need to sacrifice part of your interest in order to protect the whole interest or to give up some immediate gain in order to reach your ultimate goal.
The title of this stratagem derives from the line of an ancient poem. It says, in effect, that in the face of an invasion of deadly worms, a plum tree sacrifices itself to save a peach tree that grows next to it.
Originally, this line was used as a metaphor for selfless friendship among brothers. Now, however, it is used to mean sacrificing someone or something in order to save another, usually more important or valuable.
This stratagem is widely applied in wars or any kind of competition.
General Li Mu, who served as the king of the State of Zhao in the late years of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), seemed to be a master in applying this scapegoat strategy.
Due to frequent invasions from northern tribes, the king of Zhao assigned General Li to the town of Yanmen to defend the northern borders of the state.
After he arrived in the town, the general offered his troops good meals every day, but ordered them to stay in the walled town and never allowed them to engage the enemy.
Meanwhile, he spent most of his time training his troops, and a few years later, he began to send small squads of soldiers beyond the walls to protect local herdsmen and their stock scattered outside the town.
The northern tribes saw this move and sent out mounted troops to fight the general’s men.
The latter fled back to the town, leaving behind some soldiers and animals.
After several such skirmishes, General Li lost some soldiers and animals and the tribesmen became bolder.
Finally, they decided to attack the town and seize it from the general. When the general believed that his enemies were fooled and became self-conceited, he set up a trap and wiped out most of the invaders.
By sacrificing a small number of soldiers and some domestic animals, General Li won the big battle and ensured the security of the state’s northern border for many years.
Pilfering a Goat in Passing (順手牽羊)
Bringing home a goat from the battlefield could hardly be deemed a victory or anything significant. But when the opportunity presents itself, no matter how small, why should you let it slip by?
Chinese people began to apply this stratagem as early as more than 2,300 years ago.
In 354 BC, the king of the State of Wei decided to attack the State of Zhao in the north. He called on General Pang Juan to lead an elite army to carry out the offensive. With little effort, General Pang and his army quickly moved into the State of Zhao and put its capital Handan under a tight siege.
In face of the overwhelming enemy force, the ruler of Zhao turned to its powerful neighbor, the State of Chu, for help. However, the king of Chu could not make up his mind about whether to lend a hand to Zhao. So, he summoned his advisors to discuss the issue.
But his advisors were also in two minds. Some said that they should sit on their hands and wait until both the fighting states suffered serious losses. Then they could reap the benefits of the conflict without spending any effort. Others didn’t agree. They proposed to send their troops in the name of saving the State of Zhao and avail themselves of any benefits in the process.
The Chu king finally followed the advice of the latter and sent an army into the State of Zhao and immediately passed the message to the Zhao king.
But this move didn’t help much.
After a seven-month siege laid by General Pang and his army, the Zhao capital was on the verge of collapse.
Just then, an army from the State of Qi moved toward the capital of the State of Wei. After learning this, General Pang hastily withdrew his troops and rushed them back to defend their own capital.
On the way, General Pang’s troops were ambushed by the Qi army and suffered a humiliating defeat.
After the Wei troops left the State of Zhao, the Chu troops remained there and occupied some territory of the state afterward without even engaging in a single battle.
This stratagem encourages one to take advantage of any minor lapse on your enemy’s side, no matter how slight that might be, to reap benefits, which could be as small as bringing home a goat from the battlefield.