Offensive Stratagems – Thirty-Six Stratagems

Beating the grass to scare the snake (打草驚蛇)

It’s a quite common practice that one will use a stick to beat the bush ahead when you are walking through a snake-infested wilderness. It’s an effective way to startle away snakes or fend off surprise attacks from those reptiles hidden in the bush.

The same is true when you are going to fight your enemy.

When your enemy is hidden and his plans are unknown, you should create some stir to trigger a response from him. This will help you detect his strategy and find out his strong and weak points. That’s a necessary reconnaissance trick to prevent you from blindly plunging into a battlefield.

However, people may also use this phrase to advise others “not to startle the snake by beating the grass.” This means avoiding giving away your position or intentions before you launch an attack against your enemy.

It was a pity that this advice fell on the deaf ears of Lord Mu of the State of Qin in 627 BC when he decided to launch an attack on the State of Zheng by making use of a mole he had planted there.

His advisor Jian Shu advised strongly against this expedition because the State of Zheng was a long distance away and the enemy would be alerted by the news of the movement of Qin troops way ahead of their arrival.

He told Lord Mu that the enemy would have enough time to get well-prepared to ward off the offensive. He predicted that not only the offensive would fail, but the Qin troops could also be ambushed by troops from another state on their way back.

The lord refused to follow Jian Shu’s advice and pressed ahead with his expedition plan. The result turned out to be almost exactly what the advisor had predicted. After learning about Qin’s attack, the State of Zheng ferreted out the mole and beefed up its defense.

After a long and harrowing journey, the Qin troops reached the border of the State of Zheng but could not find a way to breach the defense there.

Therefore, after some time, they decided to withdraw. But on their way home, they were ambushed by troops of the State of Jin and suffered a huge loss.

So, whether to startle the snake or not by beating the grass is the question here. But most people today seem to prefer the prudent act of not startling the reptile.

Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul (借屍還魂)

The title of this stratagem means literally that the soul of one dead person is reincarnated in the corpse of another. In military terms, this means to use whatever is discarded by others as useless to achieve your goal.

This scheme is actually derived from a legend in Chinese history.

More than 2,000 years ago, there was a young and handsome scholar named Li Xuan. He was very learned and highly intelligent. So, Tai Shang Lao Jun (a revered title of Lao Zi or Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism) took him as a disciple and taught the young man the art of immortality.

One day, Lao Zi invited the young Li to tour the world of gods in heaven. But as an ordinary man, he couldn’t fly into heaven in his earthly body. So, he decided to leave his body behind and let his soul travel with his master.

Before his departure, Li told one of his students to look after his corpse for seven days. “I will still need it to return to this world,” Li said. “If I fail to come back within seven days, then I probably have become a deity myself.”

The student guarded his teacher’s empty body carefully for six days and nights. Then, he got an urgent message saying his mother was seriously sick and dying. This threw him into a dilemma: to stay and guard his teacher’s body here or rush back home to see his mother for the last time.

Under the persuasion of others, the student finally abandoned his teacher’s corpse and hurried home.

On the seventh day, Li returned from his tour in the heavens and couldn’t find his own body anymore. But it was urgent that he find a body or his soul would miss the deadline for reincarnation. Just then, his soul saw the corpse of a beggar on the roadside and immediately appropriated the dead body for his resurrection.

Since the dead beggar was limp before, so the scholar turned his bamboo stick into an iron crutch to help him walk. Later, he became known as “Iron Crutch Li” and his real name was gradually forgotten.

Today the term “borrowing a corpse to resurrect a soul” may also be used to mean reviving something from the past by giving it a new purpose or a present-day “shell.”

It could be an idea, custom, policy, belief, or tradition, which existed in the past.

Luring the Tiger out of the Mountain (調虎離山)

Chinese always believe that tigers are more powerful when they are in the mountains. So, there are a few Chinese sayings linking tigers with mountains. The title of this stratagem, namely, “Luring the tiger out of the mountain,” is one of them.

The stratagem advises you not to directly attack an enemy entrenched in his stronghold. Instead, you should lure him to leave his territory, thus depriving him of the geographical advantage and separating him from a source of strength.

As a result, your enemy will become easier to subdue, just like lifting Antaeus off the ground.

In 199 AD, Sun Ce, a 24-year-old warlord in southern China, successfully seized a well-defended town in the north by adroitly applying this stratagem.

Sun Ce was the elder son of Sun Jian, ruler of the State of Wu (222-280 AD)in eastern China. After succeeding his father, Sun Ce consolidated his rule and became quite powerful. Then, he decided to seize Lujiang, a strategic town in the prosperous region to the north of his territory.

However, he understood it would prove to be a hard nut to crack as the town was guarded by a powerful army led by warlord Liu Xun and was well protected by two major rivers.

After consulting with his advisors, Sun Ce decided that the only way to defeat Liu Xun and capture the town was to lure him to leave the seemingly impregnable stronghold.

After learning that Liu was a very greedy man, Sun Ce wrote a letter to him. In the letter, he effusively extolled the warlord and he also sent Liu an extremely expensive present.

By the end of the letter, Sun begged Liu to help him to expel the troops from Upper Liao further north. He accused the Upper Liao troops of looting his territory.

“We are too weak to fend them off,” Sun said in the letter. “So, we will greatly appreciate it if Your Majesty can help us and drive the Upper Liao troops away.”

Warlord Liu was flattered by Sun’s letter and present. He also liked the proposal to attack the Upper Liao because he had long harbored an ambition to take over its rich lands.

So, Liu personally led his troops to attack the capital of the Upper Liao.

When Sun learned that the warlord had left Lujiang, he launched a surprise offensive and easily captured the strategic town.

Liu’s expedition didn’t go smoothly and when he got the news that his town had been taken by Sun, it was too late for him to save the situation. So he sought refuge in another state.

In order to capture, one must let loose (欲擒故縱)

Experienced fishers all know when to “give more line” in order to prevent a hooked fish, particularly a big one, from breaking the line. You move the rod from side to side to gradually make the fish calm down and get tired, then you haul it in with little effort.

This stratagem of “purposely letting up your pursuit before capturing your enemy” follows the same basic rule.

Once your enemy is cornered, he will often put up a desperate fight. So, instead of pressing hard, you let up the intensity a little to give him the delusion that he still has a chance to escape. As a result, his will to fight is compromised by his desire to flee. When your enemy gets tired and relaxes his vigilance, you can capture him with much less difficulty.

Naturally, Zhuge Liang, one of the most famous strategists in Chinese history, knew very well how to apply this ploy.

During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), Zhuge, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Shu, was ordered to suppress a tribal uprising led by Meng Huo in the south. Zhuge understood very well that to fight their strong rival, the Kingdom of Wei in the north, his troops must first eliminate any danger in the backyard.

But those tribesmen rarely accepted defeat. To ensure a lasting peace there, Zhuge decided to win them over.

So, when his troops captured the rebel chief Meng Huo, Zhuge asked his prisoner whether he would admit defeat. Meng categorically denied it, saying he was far from being convinced of his rival’s superiority. Zhuge then offered him some food and horses before setting him free.

In the following battles, Meng was captured a few more times, and every time he was released. When he was captured for the seventh time, Zhuge again treated him to a sumptuous dinner. But this time, the rebel leader conceded his defeat and vowed his tribe would never fight the Kingdom of Shu in the future.

As a result, the recalcitrant South remained calm and peaceful for many years.

Tossing out a brick to lure a jade gem (拋磚引玉)

This phrase is now widely used as an idiom. It usually means that one makes some trite remarks first in order to tease others into spelling out their more valuable and insightful opinions or ideas. Many speakers tend to use it to show their modesty.

One story behind this saying is about a fan of Zhao Gu, a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The fan wrote down a few lines of verse on the wall in an attempt to draw the attention of the poet and spur him into completing the poem. His trick actually worked.

However, when this phrase is used as a scheme, it means to sacrifice something cheap as bait to lure your enemy into reacting to it and then you try to get something much more valuable from him in return.

Here is one of many stories often used to illustrate this scheme.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), the king of Chu sent out an army to attack a small state named Jiao. The two sides stood off around the capital of Jiao and the Chu troops found it quite difficult to take the city as it was fortified by high and solid defense walls.

One of the aides talked to the king of Chu, suggesting sending out small squads of unarmed soldiers disguised as local farmers collecting firewood to lure the enemy to come out and attack them.

“Jiao is a small country, but the ruler and his people are light-headed and imprudent. So, they are susceptible to illusions,” said the aide.

The next day, the king of Chu sent out 30 soldiers to collect firewood on a nearby mountain. They all wore tattered farmer’s clothes and carried no arms.

When the ruler of the besieged state saw them from the city wall, he ordered his troops to chase and capture them. As a result, all 30 Chu soldiers were seized and brought back into the capital town.

The day after, the Chu king sent out more soldiers in farmer’s clothes to collect firewood. The ruler also sent out more troops to capture them on the mountain.

This time, the Jiao troops were ambushed in the valley and lost most of their men. At the same time, the Chu soldiers took some captives as hostages to force the Jiao ruler to surrender and sign an unequal treaty.

The Chu king used a few soldiers as a “brick” and tossed them out as bait. In return, he harvested the “jade” of winning the battle and forcing the unwary and overconfident ruler of the small kingdom to surrender.

Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief (擒賊擒王)

The title of this stratagem is borrowed from a line by Du Fu, a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The line reads: “To shoot the man on horseback, shoot his horse first; To seize the bandits, capture their leader first.”

There’s another saying to the same effect: to kill a snake, hit the seventh inch, meaning to break the most fragile vertebra of the reptile.

All these mean that if you want to beat the enemy, hit them in their most fatal part.

If their leader is captured, the enemy forces will lose direction and be thrown into chaos. This is an effective way to defeat your enemies.

Zhang Xun (708-757 AD), a military commander of the Tang Dynasty, knew very well how to apply this stratagem.

In 756 AD, Zhang’s town was under siege by an army led by the rebel leader Yin Ziqi. The rebel army was very strong and they repeatedly launched offensives against the defending troops.

Zhang decided that to defeat the rebel army, he had to kill their leader Yin Ziqi first. But neither he nor his troops had ever seen the rebel leader. To find out his identity, Zhang set up an ensnaring trap.

He ordered his troops to gradually replace their real arrows with substitutes made of corn straw. The enemy thought the defending troops had run out of ammunition.

They rushed to report this to their leader, who was riding a horse at the rear.

Zhang and his troops immediately targeted Yin when the rebel leader came forward to the town gate to find out what was really happening, and then the defending archers replaced corn staw with real arrows to shoot him.

One arrow pierced the leader’s left eye and he fled the battlefield helter-skelter. Seeing this, his troops dispersed immediately and ran away in great confusion.

The siege was lifted and the strong rebel army was repelled thanks to one arrow that pierced the eye of the rebel leader.

However, some strategists warn that this scheme is most effective when it is used against a troop that has no great loyalty to its leader. Otherwise, after their leader is killed or captured, his troops may fight on with a vengeance. It’s true that no stratagem is applicable in all situations.

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