Winning Stratagems – Thirty-Six Stratagems

Deceiving the Heavens to Cross the Sea (瞞天過海)

This scheme about deceit and disguise is usually listed as number one of the well-known “Thirty-Six Stratagems.

”Here, the “heavens” meant originally the “emperor,” since a ruler of an empire was always referred to as “the Son of Heaven” in Chinese history.

Li Shimin (599-649 AD) was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and was known as a great military commander. Once he led more than 300,000 men to conquer a land on the other side of a sea. But when they arrived at the shoreline, the emperor got cold feet from looking at the billowing sea waves.

However, Li’s aides didn’t want him to abandon the conquest, and Xue Rengui, one of the most famous generals of that time, decided to use a scheme to deceive the emperor and lead him to cross the sea without his knowing it.

So, Xue and others went to see the emperor and told him that a local rich man had volunteered to provide loads of food and fodder for the imperial troops. The rich man had invited the emperor to attend a ceremony near the sea to accept his present the next day.

The emperor was very happy and decided to see the rich man himself. When Li and his troops came to the coast the next day, they saw thousands of houses covered with bright and colorful curtains.

The rich man escorted the emperor into a large, carpeted house and began to entertain him with a sumptuous banquet.

The emperor enjoyed the delicious food and fine wine until suddenly the house began to rock and dishes and bowls all fell off the table. By lifting the curtains and looking outside, the emperor found that he was actually aboard a large boat with thousands of other boats and they were already on the high seas.

Then Xue and other officials told the emperor the truth. To help dispel the emperor’s reluctance to cross the sea, they had disguised boats as houses and now they were only a short moment away from the opposite coast and it was too late to return.

So, how would the emperor, himself a great military commander, be deceived by such a trick? The reason is quite simple. The emperor might not be familiar with the sea, but he knew too well the common houses. He might be wary about getting on into the sea, but he walked into a house with a little suspicion.

Therefore, the best way to disguise one’s true objective is to hide it under something too common to invite any doubt.

Besieging Wei to Rescue Zhao (圍魏救趙)

People who dare to confront their enemies head-on may be brave but not necessarily clever. Quite the opposite, according to Sun Bin, a great ancient Chinese strategist.

In 354 BC, the State of Wei sent more than 80,000 soldiers to attack the State of Zhao and lay siege to its capital Handan.

So, the ruler of Zhao sent an envoy to the State of Qi to ask for help.

The Duke of Qi decided to lend a hand and summoned 80,000 men with General Tian Ji as the commander and Sun Bin as the military advisor.

After getting everything ready, Tian ordered the troops to march directly to Handan and fight a decisive battle with the Wei army there.

Sun, the military advisor, immediately came forward and said firmly: “General Tian, we are definitely not going to Handan.”Tian was surprised and asked: “Why not?”Sun then explained: “General Tian, to untangle a knot of twisted silk threads, you can’t hit it with a fist. And to break up a fight between two men, you don’t jump into the fight yourself.

“So, to bail Zhao out of the current predicament, it’s unwise to engage in a head-on battle with the Wei troops.“Instead, we should march toward Wei’s capital Daliang, where the defense must be weak as most of Wei’s crack troops are besieging Zhao.“And by doing so, the Wei troops will be forced to abandon their siege of Handan to defend their own country.“That’s exactly what we want to see.”

Tian was then very happy to follow Sun’s advice and ordered his troops to move toward Daliang. When the Wei troops besieging Handan learned that the Qi army was on its way to attack their capital, they immediately withdrew from Zhao and rushed back to defend Daliang.

On the way, the Wei troops were ambushed by the Qi troops and suffered a complete defeat. As a result, Zhao was saved.

So, what strategist Sun Bin has taught us in this story is to avoid a head-on battle with a strong enemy. Always try to find a weak link in a chain and attack the vulnerable part of your enemy first, since no one can be superior in all aspects. And this is true not just in war, but in many other fields of business and life.

Killing with a Borrowed Knife (借刀殺人)

Killing with a borrowed knife sounds like a ploy to cover one’s tracks in order to mislead the hunters looking for the real perpetrator. However, the true meaning of this stratagem is to attack your enemy by using the forces or strength of a third party, or to entice your ally into attacking your enemy instead of doing it yourself.

Here is an example that is frequently cited to illustrate this scheme.

In the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), the Duke of the State of Qi decided to attack the State of Lu, which was obviously not a match for the Qi forces. Lu was the home state of Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. So, Confucius sent one of his favorite disciples Zi Gong to help the ruler of Lu.

Zi Gong understood very well that Lu was too weak to defend itself in face of the invasion of Qi troops. So he went to the State of Wu, one of the big powers at that time, and used his facile tongue to persuade the Wu duke to attack the State of Qi. His argument was that once the Qi troops conquered the State of Lu, Qi would become stronger, thus a new threat to the security of the State of Wu.

The Duke of Wu had long harbored an ambition to become a superpower, so he agreed to join forces with Lu and launch a military offensive against Qi. While the joint forces were preparing to move into the State of Qi, Zi Gong sneaked into another big power the State of Jin to warn the duke there that the Wu army might turn to attack his state once it won the war with the State of Qi. He urged the Jin duke to get ready for a battle with the Wu troops.

Zi Gong’s logic here was that after winning the war with Qi, the Wu duke would very likely try to wring more concessions from the State of Lu. The only way to avoid that was to hand Wu a military setback.

Everything turned out as Zi Gong expected. The Wu troops won a big victory in battling the Qi army but suffered a fiasco at the hands of the Jin troops.

During the process, Zi Gong borrowed the “knife” of the State of Wu to help the State of Lu fend off an imminent invasion from Qi troops and used the “knife” of the State of Jin to weaken the status of Wu as a big power overshadowing the State of Lu. Finally, the State of Lu survived a big crisis and suffered little losses, all thanks to the “borrowed knives.”

Waiting at Ease for a Worn-out Enemy (以逸待勞)

Direct attack is not necessarily the only means to corner your enemy into a difficult situation. For instance, if you can choose the time and field for a battle, you can arrive there earlier and get well prepared and rested while your enemy exhausts himself in finding the place and tries in vain to look for advantageous positions that have already been taken by you. As a result, you will definitely have an upper hand in the coming battle.

There are many stories that can help illustrate this strategy and the following example is one of them.

Toward the end of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), the State of Qin sent a young general Li Xin to attack the State of Chu. At first, Li won a series of battles and seized several towns of Chu. But later, his army was routed by the Chu troops in an ambush and the young general barely escaped. A few years later, the Qin ruler summoned Wang Jian, a retired general, to lead an army of 600,000 men to again attack the State of Chu.

Wang stationed his troops along the border with the State of Chu and concentrated on building defensive trenches and stockades. Meanwhile, he ordered the troops to eat well, sleep well and keep training every day. The State of Chu also moved its army to the border and put them on high alert to guard against any possible attacks from the Qin troops.

The standoff along the border went on for more than 12 months. During this time, the Qin troops were well prepared, rested and trained, but the Chu troops became exhausted from keeping on guard day and night. And gradually they let up their vigilance. They were led to believe that the Qin put their troops along the border just for the purpose of defense. Finally, the Chu army began to withdraw from the border. Just then, the Qin general ordered an all-out attack against the demoralized Chu army. The latter hardly put up any resistance and soon began to flee pell-mell.

Very quickly, the Qin troops swept across the State of Chu and in the year 223 BC, the triumphant troops smashed into Chu’s capital and captured its king Fu Chu.

To keep your enemy in the dark or make him feel frustrated and disheartened could prove to be a very effective way to weaken and demoralize him. At the same time, you just wait at ease, get well prepared for the battle and keep up your high spirit. When the time for the battle comes, it will be easy to predict who is at the advantage and who will be the winner.

Loot a Burning House (趁火打劫)

Literally, this stratagem means to take advantage of the chaos when someone’s house is on fire and steal the valuables. When it is applied in war and other circumstances, it takes on a much broader meaning.

According to this scheme, you should try to annex territory when your enemy’s country is suffering from internal turmoil. You should take its people when it is being invaded by other forces. Finally, when the enemy’s country is beset with both internal and external crises, you should mercilessly attack and destroy it.

One exemplary story is about Gou Jian (520-465 BC), the king of the State of Yue.

Gou’s country was conquered by the State of Wu in 494 BC and he was captured and forced to work as a slave in the enemy state for as long as three years. When he was allowed to return home, Gou started to lead an austere life and concentrate on rebuilding his country. After seven years of unremitting endeavor, the State of Yue became strong again but Gou never stopped seeking an opportunity to revenge his humiliation.

Gou bribed many venal officials in the State of Wu with gold, jade, other precious jewels and beautiful young women. He wanted to gain inside information about Wu and sow discord among its senior officials. As a result, some of the royal officials in the Wu court dropped out of favor or were driven to commit suicide. All those years, the king of Wu wasted a huge amount of the country’s resources on personal pleasures.

Rubbing salt into the wound, the State of Wu was hit by a severe drought, leaving behind almost nothing but parched lands. Even at such a detrimental moment, the king of Wu still led all his elite troops to the north to attend a ceremonial gathering.

Taking advantage of his enemy’s natural disaster, widespread corruption, internal conflicts and weak defense, the king of Yue launched an all-out offensive against the State of Wu. Eventually, Wu was soon overrun and its king was captured by Yue troops. Facing imminent and humiliating execution, the Wu king finally committed suicide.

Simply put, to beat your enemy, you should always try to make the best use of his troubles and attack him when he is in an imbroglio.

Distracting Your Enemy with a Feint (聲東擊西)

This scheme is still widely applied, even in a common prank. Stand behind a person close to his or her right shoulder without the person knowing it, and then pat the person on his or her left shoulder. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, the person will turn left to find out who’s behind. A wrong move.

Such a wrong judgment could put you in a disadvantageous position in some cases and may prove fatal in a fight or war.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), the emperor sent Ban Chao, a famous military commander and diplomat, to the remote, western region to fight the Huns.

With only 25,000 soldiers at his command, Ban decided to first attack a small kingdom called Suoche because it had formed an alliance with the Huns. The king of Suoche sent for help from Qiuci, a kingdom to the north. The king of Qiuci immediately led a troop of 50,000 men to fight the Ban army.

Ban realized he could not win a battle with the joined forces of the two kingdoms if he fought them head-on. So, he sent out people to spread rumors that his army had decided to retreat. He ordered part of the army to run away to the east and he himself led the remaining troops to retreat pell-mell to the west.

The Qiuci king was overjoyed when he heard the news and led his troops to chase Ban overnight.

Ban and his troops didn’t go far. When the night fell, they left the main road and hid themselves in nearby woods. After the Qiuci king and his men rushed past them to the west, Ban immediately ordered his troops to march back to the Kingdom of Suoche. Meanwhile, his troops who had earlier left for the east also came back and launched a surprise attack against Suoche. Before dawn, the small kingdom’s defenses collapsed and the king surrendered.

After a whole night’s ghost chase, the Qiuci king failed to find a single soul of Ban’s troops. When he and his army were in a quandary, a messenger brought him the news that the Kingdom of Suoche was taken by Ban. The Qiuci king then decided that there was nothing he could do to rescue his neighbor anymore, and he withdrew his troops to his own kingdom.

So, in order to win a battle, always try to create an expectation in your enemy’s mind in the wrong direction and then attack him where he least expects it.

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