The Thirty Six Strategies

A Unique Collection of Ancient Chinese Proverbs

The Thirty Six Strategies are a unique collection of ancient Chinese proverbs that describe some of the most cunning and subtle strategies ever devised by man.


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The Thirty Six Strategies are a unique collection of ancient Chinese proverbs that describe some of the most cunning and subtle strategies ever devised by man.

Whereas other Chinese military texts such as Sun Tzu The Art of War focus on military organization, leadership, and battlefield tactics, the Thirty Six Strategies are more suitably applied in the fields of politics, diplomacy, and espionage.

These proverbs describe not only battlefield strategies, but tactics used in psychological warfare to undermine both the enemy's will to fight - and his sanity.

Tactics such as the 'double cross', the 'frame job', and the 'bait and switch', can be traced back through thousands of years of Chinese history to such proverbs as 'Hide the Dagger Behind a Smile', 'Kill With a Borrowed Sword', and 'Toss out a Brick to Attract Jade' respectively.

Though other Chinese military works of strategy have at least paid lip service to the Confucian notion of honour, the Thirty-Six Strategies make no pretence of being anything but ruthless.

For the western reader the Thirty Six Strategies offers timeless insights into the workings of human nature under conditions of extreme stress.

Many of the proverbs are based on events that occurred during China's Warring States Era (403-221 BC).

This was a time so infamous, that a later Emperor banned history books of that era on the grounds that they contained accounts of such a devious nature, they would morally corrupt all who read them.

Many of those accounts are presented here along with the exploits of some of the orient's greatest generals, kings, emperors, and shoguns.

The 36 Strategies

Six Winning Strategies

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.

Six Confrontation Strategies

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.

Six Attack Strategies

13. Startle the snake by hitting the grass around it.

When preparing for battle, do not alert your enemy to your intentions or give away your strategy prematurely.

Six Chaos Strategies

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.

Six Advance Strategies

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.

Six Desperate Situations Strategies

31. The honey trap.

Send your enemy beautiful women to cause discord within his camp. This strategy can work on three levels. First, the ruler becomes so enamoured with the beauty that he neglects his duties and allows his vigilance to wane.

History of the 36 Strategies

The origins of the Thirty Six Strategies are unknown.

No author or compiler has ever been mentioned, and no date as to when it may have been written has been ascertained.

The first historical mention of the Thirty-Six Strategies dates back to the Southern Chi dynasty (AD 489-537) where it is mentioned in the Nan Chi Shi (History of the Southern Chi Dynasty).

It briefly records, "Of the 36 stratagems of Master Tan, "running away is the best." Master Tan may be the famous general Tan Daoji (d. AD 436) but there is no evidence to either prove or disprove his authorship.

While this is the first recorded mention of Thirty Six Strategies, some of the proverbs themselves are based on events that occurred up to seven hundred years earlier. For example, the strategy 'Openly Repair the Walkway, Secretly March to Chencang' is based on a tactic allegedly used by the founder of the Han dynasty, Gaozu, to escape from Szechwan in 223 BC.

The strategy `Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao' is named after an incident that took place even earlier in 352 BC and is attributed to the famous strategist Sun Bin.

All modern versions of the Thirty Six Strategies are derived from a tattered book discovered at a roadside vendor's stall in Szechwan in 1941. It turned out to be a reprint of an earlier book dating back to the late Ming or early Ching dynasty entitled, The Secret Art of War, The Thirty-Six Strategies.

There was no mention of who the authors or compilers were or when it was originally published. A reprint was first published for the general public in Beijing in 1979.

Since then several Chinese and English language versions have been published in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Without any other information, current speculations about the origins of the Thirty-Six Strategies suggest that there was no single author.

More likely they were simply a collection of idiomatic expressions taken from popular Chinese folklore, history, and myths.

They may have first been recorded by general Tan and handed down verbally or in manuscript form for centuries.

It is believed that sometime in the early Ching dynasty some enterprising editor collected them together and published them in the form that comes down to us today.

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