The Thirty-Six Stratagems – Facing The Dark Side

The Thirty-Six Stratagems was a Chinese essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, and civil interaction. 
Theses Stratagems are often called strategies; a stratagem is not the same thing as a strategy. 
Some 300 years ago an unknown scholar compiled theses stratagems on deception. He ordered them in categories according to ones current position. These strategems can be combined in various ways as they are not intended to be used alone, nor are they only applicable in just a winning or a losing situation.
I hope you recognise the stratagems that you maybe using and stratagems that others maybe using against you. People who use many such stratagems are not working on a win-win scenario – but a winner takes all situation regardless of how much sugar-coated words they use. One of the most important things we need to realise is that no one really, deep down cares for your feelings or how you really are.
People live their lives for themselves. Understand this simple fact. I am not saying we should always live like this as living like this is not what we humans are meant to be like – we should be better than this, but this is how people are generally and we need to find ways of being better human beings by understanding our own darkness.

Winning Stratagems


  • 1 – Deceive the sky to cross the ocean.
    • Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard you must act in the open hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.
  • 2 – Surround Wei to rescue Zhao.
    • When the enemy is too strong to attack directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that in all things he cannot be superior. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead.
    • In other words, you may try to attack the relatives or dear ones of the enemy to weaken him psychologically.
  • 3 – Borrow one’s hand to kill.
    • Attack using the strength of another (because of lack of strength or do not want to use own strength). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him.
  •  4 – Make your enemy tire himself out while conserving energy.
    • It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.
  • 5 – Use the opportunity of fire to rob others. 
    • When a country is beset by internal conflicts, when disease and famine ravage the population, when corruption and crime are rampant, then it will be unable to deal with an outside threat. This is the time to attack.
  • 6 – Feign an attack in the east and attack in the west.
    • In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint.


Enemy Dealing Stratagems


  •  7 – Create something from nothing.
    • You use the same feint twice. Having reacted to the first and often the second feint as well, the enemy will be hesitant to react to a third feint. Therefore the third feint is the actual attack catching your enemy with his guard down.
  • 8 – Secretly utilize the Chen Chang passage. 
    • Attack the enemy with two convergent forces. The first is the direct attack, one that is obvious and for which the enemy prepares his defense. The second is the indirect, the attack sinister, that the enemy does not expect and which causes him to divide his forces at the last minute leading to confusion and disaster.
  • 9 – Watch the fires burning across the river.
    • Delay entering the field of battle until all the other players have become exhausted fighting amongst themselves. Then go in full strength and pick up the pieces.
  • 10 – Knife sheathed in a smile.
    • Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, you move against him in secret.
  • 11 – Plum tree sacrifices for the peach tree.
    • There are circumstances in which you must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal. This is the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not.
  • 12 – Stealing a goat along the way.
    • While carrying out your plans be flexible enough to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, however small, and avail yourself of any profit, however slight.


Attacking Stratagems


  • 13 – Startle the snake by hitting the grass around it.
    • When you cannot detect the opponent’s plans launch a direct, but brief, attack and observe your opponent reactions. His behavior will reveal his strategy.
  • 14 – Borrow another’s corpse to resurrect the soul. 
    • Take an institution, a technology, or a method that has been forgotten or discarded and appropriate it for your own purpose. Revive something from the past by giving it a new purpose or to reinterpret and bring to life old ideas, customs, and traditions.
  • 15 – Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair.
    • Never directly attack an opponent whose advantage is derived from its position. Instead lure him away from his position thus separating him from his source of strength.
  • 16 – In order to capture, one must let loose.
    • Cornered prey will often mount a final desperate attack. To prevent this you let the enemy believe he still has a chance for freedom. His will to fight is thus dampened by his desire to escape. When in the end the freedom is proven a falsehood the enemy’s morale will be defeated and he will surrender without a fight.
  • 17 – Tossing out a brick to get a jade
    • Prepare a trap then lure your enemy into the trap by using bait. In war the bait is the illusion of an opportunity for gain. In life the bait is the illusion of wealth, power, and sex.
  • 18 – Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief.
    • If the enemy’s army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money or threats then, take aim at the leader. If the commander falls the rest of the army will disperse or come over to your side. If, however, they are allied to the leader through loyalty then beware, the army can continue to fight on after his death out of vengeance.


Chaos Stratagems


  • 19 – Remove the firewood under the cooking pot.
    • When faced with an enemy too powerful to engage directly you must first weaken him by undermining his foundation and attacking his source of power.
  • 20 – Fish in disturbed waters.
    • Before engaging your enemy’s forces create confusion to weaken his perception and judgment. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy’s suspicion and disrupt his thinking. A distracted enemy is thus more vulnerable.
  • 21 – Slough off the cicada’s shell. 
    • When you are in danger of being defeated, and your only chance is to escape and regroup, then create an illusion. While the enemy’s attention is focused on this artifice, secretly remove your men leaving behind only the facade of your presence.
  • 22 – Shut the door to catch the thief.
    • If you have the chance to completely capture the enemy then you should do so thereby bringing the battle or war to a quick and lasting conclusion. To allow your enemy to escape plants the seeds for future conflict. But if they succeed in escaping, be wary of giving chase.
  • 23 – Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.
    • It is known that nations that border each other become enemies while nations separated by distance and obstacles make better allies. When you are the strongest in one field, your greatest threat is from the second strongest in your field, not the strongest from another field.
  •  24 – Obtain safe passage to conquer the Kingdom of Guo.
    • Borrow the resources of an ally to attack a common enemy. Once the enemy is defeated, use those resources to turn on the ally that lent you them in the first place.


Proximate Stratagems


  • 25 – Replace the beams with rotten timbers.
    • Disrupt the enemy’s formations, interfere with their methods of operations, change the rules in which they are used to following, go contrary to their standard training. In this way you remove the supporting pillar, the common link that makes a group of men an effective fighting force.
  • 26 – Point at the mulberry and curse the locust.
    • To discipline, control, or warn others whose status or position excludes them from direct confrontation; use analogy and innuendo. Without directly naming names, those accused cannot retaliate without revealing their complicity.
  • 27 – Pretend to be a pig in order to eat the tiger. 
    • Hide behind the mask of a fool, a drunk, or a madman to create confusion about your intentions and motivations. Lure your opponent into underestimating your ability until, overconfident, he drops his guard. Then you may attack.
  • 28 – Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof.
    • With baits and deceptions lure your enemy into treacherous terrain. Then cut off his lines of communication and avenue of escape. To save himself he must fight both your own forces and the elements of nature.
  • 29 – Deck the tree with false blossoms.
    • Tying silk blossoms on a dead tree gives the illusion that the tree is healthy. Through the use of artifice and disguise make something of no value appear valuable; of no threat appear dangerous; of no use appear useful.
  • 30 – Make the host and the guest exchange places.
    • Defeat the enemy from within by infiltrating the enemy’s camp under the guise of cooperation, surrender, or peace treaties. In this way you can discover his weakness and then, when the enemy’s guard is relaxed, strike directly at the source of his strength.


Defeat Stratagems


  • 31 – The beauty trap. 
    • Send your enemy beautiful women to cause discord within his camp. This strategy can work on three levels. First, the ruler becomes so enamored with the beauty that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane. Second, other males at court will begin to display aggressive behavior that inflames minor differences hindering co-operation and destroying morale. Third, other females at court, motivated by jealousy and envy, begin to plot intrigues further exacerbating the situation.
  • 32 – Empty fort.
    • When the enemy is superior in numbers and your situation is such that you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all pretence of military preparedness and act casually. Unless the enemy has an accurate description of your situation this unusual behavior will arouse suspicions. With luck he will be dissuaded from attacking.
  • 33 – Let the enemy’s spy sow discord in the enemy camp. 
    • Undermine your enemy’s ability to fight by allowing enemy’s spy to remain within your ranks,while you feed false information causing enemy discord with his friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers, and population. Preoccupied settling internal disputes, your enemy’s ability to attack or defend is compromised and your control of him is increased.
  • 34 – Inflict injury on one’s self to win the enemy’s trust. 
    • Pretending to be injured has two possible applications. In the first, the enemy is lulled into relaxing his guard since he no longer considers you to be an immediate threat. The second is a way of ingratiating yourself to your enemy by pretending the injury was caused by a mutual enemy.
  • 35 – Chain together the enemy’s ships. 
    • In important matters one should use several strategies applied simultaneously. Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme; in this manner if any one strategy fails you would still have several others to fall back on.
  • 36 – Run away to fight another day.
    • If it becomes obvious that your current course of action will lead to defeat then retreat and regroup. When your side is losing there are only three choices remaining: surrender, compromise, or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance.


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Mohammed Abbasi

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