It should be noted that the number thirty-six was used by Wáng as a figure of speech in this context, and is meant to denote numerous stratagems instead of any specific number. Wáng's choice of this term was in reference to the I Ching, where six is the number of Yin that shared many characteristics with the dark schemes involved in military strategy. As thirty-six is the square of six, it therefore acted as a metaphor for numerous strategies. Since Wáng was not referring to any thirty-six specific stratagems however, the thirty-six proverbs and their connection to military strategies and tactics are likely to have been created after the fact, with the collection only borrowing its name from Wáng's saying.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems have variably been attributed to Sun Tzu from the Spring and Autumn Period of China, or Zhuge Liang of the Three Kingdoms period, but neither are regarded as the true author by historians. Instead, the prevailing view is that the Thirty-Six Stratagems may have originated in both written and oral history, with many different versions compiled by different authors throughout Chinese history. Some stratagems reference occurrences in the time of Sun Bin, approx. 150 years after Sun Wu's death.
The original hand-copied paperback that is the basis of the current version was believed to have been discovered in China's Shaanxi province, of an unknown date and author, and put into print by a local publisher in 1941. The Thirty-Six Stratagems only came to the public's attention after a review of it was published in the Chinese Communist Party's Guangming Daily newspaper on September 16, 1961. It was subsequently reprinted and distributed with growing popularity.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems are divided into a preface, six chapters containing six stratagems each, and an afterword that was incomplete with missing text. The first three chapters generally describe tactics for use in advantageous situations, whereas the last three chapters contain stratagems that are more suitable for disadvantageous situations. The original text of the Thirty-Six Stratagems has a laconic style that is common to Classical Chinese. Each proverb is accompanied by a short comment, no longer than a sentence or two, that explains how said proverb is applicable to military tactics. These 36 Chinese proverbs are related to 36 battle scenarios in Chinese history and folklore, predominantly of the Warring States period and the Three Kingdoms Period.
Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems
- (勝戰計 Shèng zhàn jì)
Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean
- (瞞天過海／瞒天过海, Mán tiān guò hǎi)
- Mask your real goals, by using the ruse of a fake goal, until the real goal is achieved. Tactically, this is known as an 'open feint': in front of everyone, you point west, when your goal is actually in the east.
- (圍魏救趙／围魏救赵, Wéi Wèi jiù Zhào)
- When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that he cannot be superior in all things. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead. The idea here is to avoid a head on battle with a strong enemy, and instead strike at his weakness elsewhere. This will force the strong enemy to retreat in order to support his weakness. Battling against the now tired and low-morale enemy will give a much higher chance of success.
Kill with a borrowed sword
- (借刀殺人／借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)
- Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one's own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy's own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a 3rd party to do the deed.
Wait at leisure while the enemy labors
- (以逸待勞／以逸待劳, Yǐ yì dài láo)
- 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. The idea is to have your troops well-prepared for battle, in the same time that the enemy is rushing to fight against you. This will give your troops a huge advantage in the upcoming battle, of which you will get to select the time and place.
Loot a burning house
- (趁火打劫, Chèn huǒ dǎ jié)
- 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. Keep gathering internal information about an enemy. If the enemy is currently in its weakest state ever, attack it without mercy and totally destroy it to prevent future troubles.
Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west
- (聲東擊西／声东击西, Shēng dōng jī xī)
- 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. The idea here is to get the enemy to focus his forces in a location, and then attack elsewhere which would be weakly defended.
Chapter 2: Enemy Dealing Stratagems
Create something from nothing
- (無中生有／无中生有, Wú zhōng shēng yǒu)
- A plain lie. Make somebody believe there was something when there is in fact nothing. One method of using this strategy is to create an illusion of something's existence, while it does not exist. Another method is to create an illusion that something does not exist, while it does.
Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang
- (明修棧道,暗渡陳倉／明修栈道,暗渡陈仓, Míng xiū zhàn dào, àn dù chén cāng)
- Deceive the enemy with an obvious approach that will take a very long time, while surprising him by taking a shortcut and sneak up to him. As the enemy concentrates on the decoy, he will miss you sneaking up to him. This tactic is an extension of the "Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west" tactic. But instead of simply spreading misinformation to draw the enemy's attention, physical baits are used to increase the enemy's certainty on the misinformation. These baits must be easily seen by the enemy, to ensure that they draw the enemy's attention. At the same time, the baits must act as if they are meant to do what they were falsely doing, to avoid drawing the enemy's suspicion.
Watch the fires burning across the river
- (隔岸觀火／隔岸观火, Gé àn guān huǒ)
- Delay entering the field of battle until all the other players have become exhausted fighting amongst themselves. Then go in at full strength and pick up the pieces.
Hide a knife behind a smile
- (笑裏藏刀／笑里藏刀, Xiào lǐ cáng dāo)
- Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, move against him in secret.
Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree
- (李代桃僵, Lǐ dài táo jiāng)
- 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.
Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat
- (順手牽羊／顺手牵羊, Shùn shǒu qiān yáng)
- 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.
Chapter 3: Attacking Stratagems
Stomp the grass to scare the snake
- (打草驚蛇／打草惊蛇, Dá cǎo jīng shé)
- Do something unaimed, but spectacular ("hitting the grass") to provoke a response of the enemy ("startle the snake"), thereby giving away his plans or position, or just taunt him. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy's suspicion and disrupt his thinking. More widely used as "[Do not] startle the snake by hitting the grass". An imprudent act will give your position or intentions away to the enemy.
Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul
- (借屍還魂／借尸还魂, Jiè shī huán hún)
- Take an institution, a technology, a method, or even an ideology 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 bring to life old ideas, customs, or traditions and reinterpret them to fit your purposes.
Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair
- (調虎離山／调虎离山, Diào hǔ lí shān)
- 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.
In order to capture, one must let loose
- (欲擒故縱／欲擒故纵, Yù qín gū zòng)
- 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.
Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem
- (拋磚引玉／抛砖引玉, Pāo zhuān yǐn yù)
- Bait someone by making him believe he gains something or just make him react to it ("toss out a brick") and obtain something valuable from him in return ("get a jade gem").
Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief
- (擒賊擒王／擒贼擒王, Qín zéi qín wáng)
- If the enemy's army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money, superstition 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.
Chapter 4: Chaos Stratagems
Remove the firewood from under the pot
- (釜底抽薪, Fǔ dǐ chōu xīn)
- Take out the leading argument or asset of someone; "steal someone's thunder". This is the very essence of indirect approach: instead of attacking enemy's fighting forces, the attacks are directed against his ability to wage war.
Disturb the water and catch a fish
- (渾水摸魚／浑水摸鱼 or 混水摸鱼, Hún shuǐ mō yú)
- Create confusion and use this confusion to further your own goals.
Slough off the cicada's golden shell
- (金蟬脱殼／金蝉脱壳, Jīn chán tuō qiào)
- Mask yourself. Either leave one's distinctive traits behind, thus becoming inconspicuous, or masquerade as something or someone else. This strategy is mainly used to escape from enemy of superior strength.
Shut the door to catch the thief
- (關門捉賊／关门捉贼, Guān mén zhuō zéi)
- To capture your enemy, or more generally in fighting wars, to deliver the final blow to your enemy, you must plan prudently if you want to succeed. Do not rush into action. Before you "move in for the kill", first cut off your enemy's escape routes, and cut off any routes through which outside help can reach them.
Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor
- (遠交近攻／远交近攻, Yuǎn jiāo jìn gōng)
- 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.
Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo
- (假道伐虢, Jiǎ dào fá Guó)
- 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.
Chapter 5: Proximate Stratagems
Replace the beams with rotten timbers
- (偷梁換柱／偷梁换柱, Tōu liáng huàn zhù)
- Disrupt the enemy's formations, interfere with their methods of operations, change the rules in which they are used to follow, 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.
Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree
- (指桑罵槐／指桑骂槐, Zhǐ sāng mà huái)
- 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.
Feign madness but keep your balance
- (假痴不癲／假痴不癫, Jiǎ chī bù diān)
- 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.
Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof
- (上屋抽梯, Shàng wū chōu tī)
- 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.
Deck the tree with false blossoms
- (樹上開花／树上开花, Shù shàng kāi huā)
- 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.
Make the host and the guest exchange roles
- (反客為主／反客为主, Fǎn kè wéi zhǔ)
- Usurp leadership in a situation where you are normally subordinate. Infiltrate your target. Initially, pretend to be a guest to be accepted, but develop from inside and become the owner later.
Chapter 6: Desperate Stratagems
The beauty trap (Honeypot)
- (美人計／美人计, Měi rén jì)
- 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. Second, other males at court will begin to display aggressive behaviour 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.
- (空城計／空城计, Kōng chéng jì)
- When the enemy is superior in numbers and your situation is such that you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all pretense of military preparedness, act calmly and taunt the enemy, so that the enemy will think you have a huge ambush hidden for them. It works best by acting calm and at ease when your enemy expects you to be tense. This ploy is only successful if in most cases you do have a powerful hidden force and only sparsely use the empty fort strategy.
Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp
- (反間計／反间计, Fǎn jiàn jì)
- 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.
Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust
- (苦肉計／苦肉计, Kǔ ròu jì)
- 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.
- (連環計／连环计, Lián huán jì)
- In important matters, one should use several stratagems applied simultaneously after another as in a chain of stratagems. Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme; however, in this manner if any one strategy fails, then the chain breaks and the whole scheme fails.
If all else fails, retreat
- (走為上／走为上, Zǒu wéi shàng) cf. 退避三舍
- 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. This is the most famous of the stratagems, immortalized in the form of a Chinese idiom: "Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best" (三十六计，走为上计).