Remove the firewood from under the pot (釜底抽薪)
There are many ways to stop the water in a cauldron from boiling, such as adding cold water to the vessel. But ancient Chinese believed that the best or most effective way was to remove the burning firewood from under the cauldron.
They said it’s the fundamental solution, just like weeding out the grass by destroying the roots.
In a war, this stratagem means avoiding direct engagement with a strong enemy. Instead, you should try to drain or wipe out your enemy’s source of power. He will then become weak and less difficult to deal with.
Cao Cao (155-220 AD) was a military genius in Chinese history, and also a warlord and posthumously-named founding emperor of the Wei Kingdom. He successfully applied this stratagem in a decisive battle with another warlord Yuan Shao.
In 199 AD, Yuan led an army of more than 100,000 men to attack a stronghold defended by Cao with about 30,000 soldiers. The two armies were locked in a face-off along a river in the north for quite a long time.
Yuan’s bigger army naturally called for a greater supply of food and fodder. So, after a few weeks, Yuan transported more than 10,000 cartloads of grain and fodder from Hebei to the nearby Wucao.
When Cao learned about this move, he decided that the destruction of the enemy’s food supply was probably the best way to defeat Yuan. And he was overjoyed when his reconnaissance scouts found out that Wucao was not heavily guarded by Yuan troops.
One night, Cao personally led an elite team of 5,000 men to cross the river and launched a surprise attack against the garrisons guarding the food and fodder warehouses in Wucao.
Cao and his men annihilated the Yuan troops there and immediately set all warehouses on fire. After losing their food supply, Yuan and his army became panic-stricken and fell into a quandary. Just at that moment, the Cao troops started an all-out offensive. Yuan barely escaped the battlefield with fewer than 800 men.
Yuan was never able to recover from the huge loss in the battle. He was therefore unable to stand in the way of Cao becoming the first ruler of the Kingdom of Wei in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) in Chinese history a few years later.
Disturb the water and catch a fish (渾水摸魚)
The title of this stratagem means muddying the water so the fish will get confused and become easier to catch.
In a chaotic and confusing situation, this ploy could help to win over uncommitted forces involved in the conflict. The presumption here is that all forces, and particularly those small ones when confused, would look for direction and alliance, just like when it’s getting dark and people tend to go inside and find a bed to sleep in.
When an army panics, officers and soldiers will become disconcerted and divided. They look at each other’s faces in an attempt to sense the thought behind it; they wink to someone or whisper into the ear of the one next to them. They begin to believe in rumors and disobey or ignore orders.
This is an indication of confusion and fear. But this is also the optimal time to persuade them to become an ally and to further press your advantage. Here’s a story about how to take advantage of an imbroglio.
During the Eastern Han time (25-220 AD) before he became the emperor, Liu Xiu engaged in a series of battles with Wang Lang, the king of Handan. Wang was very powerful then and Liu could not fight him head-on.
One day, Liu and a few of his right-hand men arrived at the town of Jizhou. The place was in great confusion as local troops had started to mutiny and announce the switch of their allegiance to Wang Lang.
Liu and his men sneaked out of the town helter-skelter and fled to a courier station also under the control of the mutineers. But they were very hungry and couldn’t find food in any nearby places. So, Liu and his men decided to masquerade themselves as envoys of the king of Handan and ask the courier station for help.
The officer there offered them food which Liu and his men wolfed down in a few seconds. The officer became suspicious of them and decided to test them out.
He suddenly beat a big drum and shouted, “His Majesty the King of Handan descends.”
Liu and his men were startled and jumped to their feet. But Liu urged them to calm down. He thought if the king arrived their fate would be sealed but if not he could take advantage of the confusing situation to survive. So, he answered, “Oh, let’s all rise and meet our king.”
The officer failed to see any gaffe there. Of course, the king didn’t materialize and Liu and his men left the courier station safely.
Ruse of the golden cicada (金蟬脱殼)
Like some other insects and reptiles, the cicada sheds its skin when molting. But in Chinese, the phrase “to shed the golden cicada shell” means a tactic to escape danger or flee a pursuing enemy.
After molting, a cicada would leave behind its old skin and move into a new stage of life. Others might be fooled by the sight of the dead shell and mistake it for the real cicada resting on a tree twig.
So, leaving behind a facade of your existence in one place could create an opportunity for you to divert your enemy’s attention while you flee and regroup in another place.
Famous Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD) not only knew this stratagem very well but also pulled off the ruse successfully when he was already dead.
Zhuge led the troops of the Kingdom of Shu to invade central China six times but failed in each attempt. And during the last invasion, he fell ill and died on the road. Before dying, he advised his general, Jiang Wei, on how to fend off the Kingdom of Wei army’s offensive and safely withdraw the troops back to their home kingdom in southwest China.
By following Zhuge’s advice, General Jiang concealed news of the strategist’s death and ordered a craftsman to make a life-size wooden statue of his dead leader.
The next day, General Jiang ordered only part of his force to launch a noisy attack against the Wei troops, with loud shouting and drumming. Then, his guards wheeled out the statue of Zhuge to give the impression that he was still personally supervising the assault.
Meanwhile, General Jiang directed other troops to quietly withdraw with the coffin carrying the dead strategist’s body.
The Wei troops and their commander were puzzled by the sudden show of the enemy’s strength. But they all knew that Zhuge Liang was a very cunning and deceitful man. They wondered what on earth the strategist was pulling off against them this time.
Before they could figure out the “new ruse” of Zhuge, the Wei commander decided to back off and avoid any direct engagement. Seeing the Wei army retreat from the battlefield, General Jiang immediately ordered his troops to move quickly and safely back to their own state.
It was too late to chase the retreating Shu troops by the time the Wei commander learned that Zhuge had already passed away.
Shut the door to catch the thief (關門捉賊)
When a thief is in your house, you’d better bolt your doors first in order to prevent him from escaping and then catch him. This is of course applicable only when you are sure you can subdue him.
When the ancient Chinese adopted this stratagem, it had more implications.
First, it called for a swift siege of a relatively weak and small enemy army, then resolutely annihilating them. The belief behind this ploy is: if you let the enemy escape, he will always come back to you.
Second, once your enemy succeeds in escaping, you should be wary of giving chase because the Chinese still believe it’s often too dangerous to pursue a desperate fugitive.
Here is an example of how ancient Chinese skillfully implemented this stratagem more than 2,000 years ago.
In 260 BC, the armies of the State of Qin and the State of Zhao were fighting a decisive battle in Changping in today’s Shanxi Province in northwest China. The place was defended by Lian Po, a very famous and experienced general of Zhao.
After a stalemate that lasted more than two years, Qin successfully sowed discord between the ruler of Zhao and his general Lian Po. Finally, Lian was replaced by Zhao Kuo, a self-conceited armchair general.
Then, the Qin troops repeatedly attempted to lure the Zhao troops out of their fortified stronghold and fight them in the open field. To do this, the Qin troops faked a few defeats.
Eventually, the big-headed Zhao Kuo personally led 400,000 men to launch an all-out attack against the Qin troops who had long set up a big trap for their enemy. So, when Zhao and his men reached the barracks of Qin, their retreat and supplies were immediately cut off.
The Zhao troops became isolated into small groups and were tightly encircled by Qin soldiers. For the following 46 days, the Zhao troops could not receive any supplies or assistance. In addition, they could not break the iron-clad encirclement.
In one desperate attempt by the trapped forces to break out, the self-conceited General Zhao Kuo was killed and his troops all surrendered.
But Qin had adopted a “take no prisoners” policy and killed all surrendered enemy troops from the state of Zhao.
Befriend a distant state and strike a neighboring one (遠交近攻)
History has proven that neighboring countries can become enemies more often than those separated by distance, just like family members living together are more likely to get into quarrels with each other than with those who live far away.
So sometimes, geographical obstacles could prove to be an advantage for a country to ally itself with distant states in spite of cultural, social, or political differences. This policy could help it reduce the number of its enemies and concentrate on dealing with hostile neighbors.
During the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) in Chinese history, the State of Qin adopted this stratagem proposed by strategist Fan Sui and eventually conquered all other states and unified the country.
In the last years of the period, the State of Qin became disproportionately powerful thanks to the reforms of its legal system. Its ruler, therefore, harbored an ambition to conquer other states and unify the country.
First, the prime minister of Qin urged the king to attack Qi, another powerful state at that time. But Fan Sui immediately expressed his objection to this plan.
He explained that to attack Qi, the king had to send troops via its neighbors, namely the State of Han and the State of Wei. If Qin didn’t send enough men, they could hardly win the battle with Qi. Even if the Qin army did win the battle, it would be extremely difficult for them to have total control of the State of Qi due to the great distance and its large territory.
Instead, he suggested the king befriend the State of Qi and work out plans to conquer his two neighbors first.
“By conquering our neighbors, every inch of land Your Majesty takes from them can be immediately incorporated with our own territory,” said Fan.“When we consolidate our rule of those new lands, we may then plan further expansion of our state.”
So, to prevent the two neighbors from allying themselves with the powerful Qi, he asked the king to make peace with the distant state first.
The king was pleased with Fan’s proposal and later made him his prime minister. Within 10 years, Qin conquered one state after another and finally the State of Qi.
China was then unified for the first time in its long history and the king of Qin became the First Emperor of the whole country.
Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo (假途伐虢)
The title of this stratagem derives from a story describing how the State of Jin conquered its two neighboring states during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).
Compared to its two small neighbors, namely, the State of Yu and the State of Guo, Jin was a regional power and it had long been harboring an ambition to annex its two neighbors.
However, the two small neighbors were quite close and if Jin tried to attack either one of them, the other state would certainly join the resistance, thus making things difficult for Jin.
One day, Minister Xun Xi made a proposal to the Duke Xian of Jin on how to capture the two small states.
The minister told the Duke that in order to conquer one of the two, Jin must try to persuade the other not to join forces with its neighbor or put up a fight against Jin. Since the ruler of Yu was known for his insatiable greed, the minister asked the Duke to give his best horse and a piece of priceless jade to the Yu ruler as a gift to buy him over.
At first, the Duke was reluctant to part with his favorite horse and gem. But the minister said: “Your Majesty need not worry about that. The horse and jade will only be in the possession of the Yu ruler for a short time and will soon be returned to you.”
The Yu ruler was overjoyed when he received the divine horse and the invaluable jade. Jin then requested a passage through the State of Yu to attack its neighbor, the State of Guo. The Yu ruler was urged by his aides to reject the request, saying it could put Yu itself in danger once the smaller neighbor was conquered.
But the Yu ruler wouldn’t listen and said he would not offend a big power for the sake of a weak friend. So he allowed the Jin troops passage through his state en route to attacking the state of Guo.
Fighting alone, Guo was no match for Jin and was soon defeated. But on the way home, the Jin troops stopped over in Yu seeking to stay for a short while to “recuperate.” The Yu ruler still didn’t suspect anything.
But one day when he returned from hunting in the woods, he found his capital had been seized by the Jin troops. The Yu ruler fled his state and the Duke of Jin reclaimed his horse and jade.
What the story tells us is that in order to wipe out two weak enemies who are in alliance, you should figure out a way to defeat one of them first and then follow up with another plan to conquer the other.