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The 36 Strategies

Updated on August 20, 2014

36 Tactics

The Thirty-Six Strategies is a Chinese collection of 36 proverbs commented as militaristic tactics.

These 36 Chinese proverbs detailed 36 historical Chinese battle scenarios, predominantly taken from Chinese historical fables of the Warring States Period and the Three Kingdoms Period.

Also known as "36 Stratagems", or "36 Tactics". They are more oral folk traditions than written document, as there had been many Chinese writers who attempted to compile the "36 Strategies" from multiple variations available in oral Chinese history.

Image is in public domain. Photo by Zumrasha

A common Chinese saying is that, "There are only 36 Strategies under the sky", signifying that all modern and historical battle strategies are variations of the original "36".

Indeed, as recent translation of "36 Strategies" became available to Western military scholars, many similarities of classic western battle strategies to the "36 strategies" have been identified.

Recently uncovered in Mainland China, it became more and more popular inside and outside Chinese world. Often linked with Sun Tzu's Art of War, it differs from it by being a tactics book rather than a grand strategy text.

"36 Strategies" has been attributed to Sun Tzu but this is not correct and quite impossible. Sun Tzu lived during the Spring and Autumn Period of China, while most of the 36 proverbs were from times after the Spring and Autumn Period. It is believed by many to have been written by Zhuge Liang of the Three Kingdoms period.

Classification of the 36 Strategies

Generally, the Thirty-six Strategies are grouped under 6 categories. Each category contains 6 strategies. The six categories in turn can be used in two types of situations. The three categories, the "Advantageous Strategies", the "Opportunistic Strategies" and the "Offensive Strategies" are used in a winning situation. The other three categories, the "Confusion Strategies", the "Deception Strategies" and the "Desperate Strategies" are used in a disadvantageous situation. However, the application and usage of these strategies can be mingled in various combinations. They are not intended to be used singly, nor are they only applicable in either a winning or losing situation. The possible combination and application of these strategies are limited only by the imagination and creativity of the strategist.


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Winning Strategies

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 3 - Borrow one's hand to kill. (Kill with a borrowed knife.)

    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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 5 - Use the opportunity of fire to rob others. (Loot a burning house.)

    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.

  • Strategy 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 Strategies

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 8 - Secretly utilize the Chen Chang passage. (Repair the highway to take the crude path.) e.g., the Allied invasion of Normandy and the Pas de Calais deception.

    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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 11 - Plum tree sacrifices for the peach tree. (Sacrifice the silver to keep the gold.)

    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.

  • Strategy 12 - Stealing a goat along the way (Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat.)

    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 Strategies

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 14 - Borrow another's corpse to resurrect the soul. (Raise a corpse from the dead.)

    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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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 Strategies

  • Strategy 19 - Remove the firewood under the cooking pot. (Remove the stick from the axe.)

    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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 21 - Slough off the cicada's shell. (False appearances mislead the enemy.)

    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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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 Strategies

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 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.

  • Strategy 27 - Pretend to be a pig in order to eat the tiger. (Play dumb.)

    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.

  • Strategy 28 - Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof(Cross the river and destroy the bridge.)

    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.

  • Strategy 29 - Deck the tree with bogus 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.

  • Strategy 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 Strategies

  • Strategy 31 - The beauty trap. (The tender trap, use a woman to ensnare a man.)

    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 exacberating the situation.

  • Strategy 32 - Empty fort. (Mental trap, empty a fort to make enemy think it is filled with traps.)

    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.

  • Strategy 33 - Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp. (Use enemy's own spy to spread false information.)

    Undermine your enemy's ability to fight by secretly causing discord between him and his friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers, and population. While he is preoccupied settling internal disputes his ability to attack or defend, is compromised.

  • Strategy 34 - Inflict injury on one's self to win the enemy's trust. (Fall into a trap; become baited.)

    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.

  • Strategy 35 - Chain together the enemy's ships (Never rely on but a single strategy.)

    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.

The 36th Strategy

Out of all these, the most famous one is the 36th strategy: run away to fight another day. This is immortalized in the form of a chinese idiom:

"If All Else Fails Retreat"

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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