The 36 Stratagems are a list of ancient military stratagems that have been used by many successful individuals throughout history. This article and video explains the stratagems, with historical examples of each one being used in the real world. This video will also provide you with some insight into how to use these strategies to aid your own success.
Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems
1. Deceive the heavens to cross the sea
During World War II, a plan was created by British intelligence codenamed Operation Mincemeat. The goal of this operation was simple: fool the Axis powers into thinking Allied forces were going through Greece instead of invading Sicily. This was because the defences around Italy's coastlines had already been heavily fortified due to previous invasion attempts.
British intelligence obtained the body of a tramp who had died, dressed him as a Royal Marines officer and placed personal items on him identifying him as a fictitious Captain, called William Martin. Correspondence which suggested that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily as merely the target of a feint, was placed on the body.
It worked brilliantly. Not only did the Germans believe the Allied forces were going through Greece, they also believed that the Allies would be attacking from there in a few weeks time.
This strategy of 'show and tell' is often used by people when they want to convince somebody that something exists. Show what you are doing, but do not reveal your true intentions. This can be done in a variety of ways: through words, gestures or symbols.
In an open office environment, walking through with papers or a folder - rather than empty handed - makes the chances of you being called over to do something else less likely. In a factory, walking through carrying equipment or wearing a fluorescent jacket can imply you are in the middle of a task. Both methods can subtly reduce the chance of you being stopped by somebody even if you have entirely different plans to what they think you are doing.
One of the most effective methods of planning is to not let your opponent know what you are thinking or plotting. To avoid attention from those who lack vision, keep plans hidden from their knowledge. One way to conceal one's true goal from others is by not alerting them to major parts of the plan or your movements.
2. Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào
Scipio defeated Hannibal in the Battle of Zama not by directly facing him in the field but by weakening Hannibal's position in Spain (which was his power base) and threatening Carthage, his home city.
It's not always about brute force. Sometimes, it's about attacking something you know the enemy will fight for. If your opponent is stronger than you, don't attack directly; focus on what they believe is really important and you'll have an easier time drawing them into a battle on your terms, exploiting their weaknesses. Remember, there is always a gap in their armour.
This is why organised crime groups try to get people to talk by threatening to hurt their loved ones. It's also why adverts for children's toys are marketed at the children, even though it's the adults that will usually be paying for them.
A strong enemy will be forced to retreat in order to support their weakness. A stubborn victim may talk to protect a loved one. A parent who has been pestered by their child will make a purchase to keep them happy.
When you can't take on an opponent head-on, go after what they love instead.
3. Kill with a borrowed knife
Use the strengths of others to your advantage when you are in a situation where you don't want to use up all of your own strength or where your opponent is stronger than you. This can involve getting a third party such as an ally to cause damage to your rival.
For 17 years, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal ravaged Italy in the Second Punic War (218 BC to 201 BC). His success came from (a) attempting to coax Italian allies to turn on Rome and (b) using the Roman’s strength against them with clever strategies and traps that outmaneuvered their soldiers who always confidently marched into battle.
Gangsters that are high up in organised crime groups often get their henchmen to do their dirty work. If the henchmen get hurt or captured, the bosses have avoided physical danger and can wipe their hands of the situation, as they have distanced themselves by not directly committing the crime and avoiding the front line.
In a business setting, it can be as simple as using somebody else’s reputation or connections in order for you to get your foot through those doors first, or as an entrepreneur, using someone with more knowledge of a subject than yourself when making decisions about what is best. You might also need another person who has access to different resources than you, such as more money, more power or more influence.
Remember when attacking, you can use the strength of another person to help fight.
4. Face the weary in a condition of ease
It can be a great advantage to be able to choose the time and place for a battle with the enemy. Your troops can prepare and conserve their energy, while your opponent is rushing to fight you. Staying one step ahead of the enemy is vital to achieve this and scouts, spies or informants can be of great help. Methods to outwit and exhaust your rival include:
- Get them to travel long distances over hard terrain
- Force them to fight on multiple fronts and split their forces
- Make them come to you to utilise the terrain.
This requires a tactic of patience and can often be applied in other fields such as business where it can be advantageous for companies to delay taking action until they know more about what competitors are doing or how customers will react.
5. Loot a burning house
The Central Plains War broke out across China in 1930. This Chinese civil war was taken advantage of by the Japanese, who invaded the following year. The Japanese were able to score several major victories because they had a unified country with an organized military force while China struggled internally with their civil conflict.
A country is often vulnerable to attack when it has its own problems. A great way to know how you can take advantage of these weaknesses is by gathering information on the enemy and their situation, such as through espionage or spying. If they are in a weakened state due to disease, famine, corruption or crime then your chances for victory will be much higher if you strike without mercy before the situation changes. Totally destroying the enemy will prevent future issues.
Criminals use this tactic to target victims online during uncertain times such as during a pandemic. Impersonation scams and investment frauds increase during these periods as criminals attempt to take advantage of an already bad situation by capitalising on people who are stressed, distracted, fearful and vulnerable.
6. Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west
Napoleon Bonaparte used deception during the Battle of Lodi in 1796. He was confronted with the River Po in Italy, which he had to cross, and a strong Austrian force on the other side, led by general Johann Beaulieu. As a diversion, a minimal crossing attempt was mounted by Napoleon to distract the Austrian forces. Meanwhile, the bulk of Napoleon’s force moved upriver and obtained an uncontested bridgehead. Once it had crossed the river, Napoleon's force manoeuvred behind the enemy and attacked its rear guard (manoeuvre sur les derrières - "maneuvering behind”).
The best way to win a war is by dividing and conquering. Use the enemy's attention on something else, so that they will be less equipped when you attack their weaker points. Surprise can be a powerful weapon if used correctly.
Chapter 2: Enemy Dealing Stratagems
7. Create something from nothing
In World War Two there were many elite divisions in both the Allied and Axis military forces that specialised in the art of decoys and deception. Effective tactics to give the impression of a larger force included:
- Building inflated dummy tanks
- Constructing wooden artillery
- Creating straw airplanes
Similar tactics were used to attempt to hide the size of one’s force. This included using handpicked artists and sculptors to design camouflage and build dummy airfields. The airfields had the aim of confusing the enemy into thinking they were real, legitimate targets in the hope that they would waste their bombs and ammunition as a result.
The technique of creating something from nothing involves developing an illusion that something exists when in reality, it does not, or vice versa. By appearing to have a stronger force than you actually have your opponent can become demoralised. This is especially valuable in a time of conflict, where the effects on morale can be disproportionate.
Modern day fraudsters use this technique by promising a large sum of money in exchange for a smaller advanced fee from their victim. Of course, the promised larger riches are simply an illusion that never existed.
8. Pretend to take one path while sneaking down another
The Han ruler and emperor, Liu Bang had retreated and was preparing for a confrontation with the Chu leader, Xiang Yu. Once he was fully prepared Liu Bang sent his men to openly repair the gallery roads. This was a walkway that he had destroyed years earlier to prevent an invasion. However, at the same time he secretly moved his troops towards Guanzhong through a small town. When Xiang Yu received the news of the repairs he dismissed the situation as he saw no threat because the repairs would take years to complete. This allowed Liu Bang to retake Guanzhong by surprise, and eventually led to his victory and the birth of the Han Dynasty.
If you can deceive the enemy with an obvious approach that will take a very long time, you will trick them into feeling safer than they really are, which opens an opportunity to ambush them with a different approach. As well as spreading misinformation to draw the enemy's attention, use physical decoys to further misdirect the enemy. Ensure that the decoys are easily seen by the enemy to draw their attention which will reduce the chance of your alternative plans being discovered.
9. Watch the fires burning across the river
A series of conflicts between the Byzantine Roman empire and the Sasanian Persian empire culminated in the most destructive of their wars, that took place between 602 and 628. It resulted in a status quo and both empires were significantly weakened both economically and financially from years of fighting.
During this time Arab-muslims had come together and soon after the war began early Islamic conquests which resulted in huge territorial losses for the Byzantine empire and the collapse of the Sasanian empire.
By delaying your entry on the field of conflict until all other sides have become exhausted by fighting amongst each other, you have the advantage of being fresh. At this point, go full speed ahead and take over. The most important battle is the last one.
10. Hide a knife behind a smile
The Roman senator Brutus, was a close personal friend and ally of Julius Caesar. Caesar trusted Brutus and had accepted him into his inner circle. After Caesar had been appointed dictator in perpetuity, other senators feared his growing power. Brutus loved the Roman Republic more than he loved Caesar. He not only joined the other senators in plotting against Caesar, but led the conspiracy to kill him, which they succeeded in doing in 44 BC.
Use charm to cultivate friendship and trust with the opposition. When you have gained their trust, you can take the machiavellian approach and secretly plot against them. By appearing to be friendly and trustworthy it makes it all the more effective when secretly moving against them and enacting their betrayal. Although Brutus’ epic betrayal was not due to ambition but due to a loyalty to the people of Rome, this stratagem is commonly used by individuals who are sneaky, ambitious and ruthless.
11. Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree
During the Second World War, a convoy of allied ships codenamed PQ 17 sailed from Iceland to the Soviet Union. The Germans had been using the Enigma code for all communication between their armed forces, but the allies had cracked the code. As a result they could read German communications for most of the war. The allies realised through the messages that there was a strong chance that the convoy would be discovered by German submarine and air patrols, however in order to stop the Germans from realising their messages were being read, the convoy was sent out on its standard route anyway.
The convoy was discovered during its journey and of the 35 ships that set sail, only 11 made it to the final destination. It was a sacrifice that meant the code-breaking was kept secret and allowed the allies to capture or destroy nearly all the German U-boat submarines later in the war.
Sometimes taking a small loss is necessary for a large gain. Consider sacrificing short-term goals so that the long-term strategy is more achievable. Often your deliberate losses will lull your opponent into a false sense of security, making it far easier to achieve ultimate victory. Keep your eye on this prize, especially if you’re in a situation where you can’t win them all and losses are inevitable.
12. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat
In the Battle of Salamanca, the Duke of Wellington (who was then only an Earl) was leading British forces against the French, led by Marshal Marmont. Weeks of non-stop maneuvering by Marmont to avoid attacking the British from the front had caused Wellington to be exhausted.
One day when Wellington was having lunch in a farm he saw through his telescope that the French were moving to the right flank and were over-extended. Immediately he threw away the chicken leg he was eating to take advantage of their vulnerability. “By God, that will do!”, he said. At once he began an attack on the French left flank which was completely unprepared and collapsed in only an hour. Marshal Marmont was severely injured as a result of a British shellburst.
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. When the plan does change, make sure you have the flexibility to adapt and take advantage of whatever opportunities come your way, no matter how small. Stay alert, keep focus and even be on the lookout to make your own opportunities. The ability to pivot based on your circumstances is key.
Chapter 3: Attacking Stratagems
13. Stomp the grass to scare the snake
In the Vietnam war, US special operations units used dummy paratroopers to deceive the Viet Cong. These dummies were made up of a plastic frame and a plaster molded head and boots, with cloth to resemble a real paratrooper’s uniform.
The dummies were parachuted into enemy territory during deception missions in the 1960's. The Viet Cong after seeing these bodies would attack them, and in doing so, reveal their positions. The dummies became a useful tool for ambushes and were even used to lure the enemy to a specific place.
By “stomping the grass” i.e. doing something different, perhaps even spectacular, strange or unusual, you can “startle the snake” and confuse or disrupt the enemy or at least provoke a response. Even if you do not have a specific aim with the stomping, it may still cause the enemy to give away vital information, such as their plans, position or future intentions.
14. Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul
In 1982 author Naura Hayden published her book called ‘Astro-Logical Love’. It did not do well at all and sold less than 5,000 copies in total. A little while later, with only minor changes to the book content itself, she re-published it with a completely new title - ‘How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time…’. The book became a number 1 bestseller and sold over 2.5 million copies.
The suit of armour, often worn in combat during the middle ages, was particularly effective against sword attacks. With the introduction of weapons such as firearms the armour was less effective and faded in popularity. In modern times, new developments such as kevlar have led to a resurgence of body armour, helmets and vests.
This stratagem encourages you to take something from the past and re-use it in some useful way. In business, previous plans may have been abandoned but are now more appropriate. Old-fashioned brands can now be seen as ‘retro’. Find what works and tailor it to your advantage.
15. Lure the tiger out of the mountains
In 1066, the French Norman army led by William the Conqueror took on the English Anglo-Saxons under King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The Saxons formed a shield wall at the top of a hill. The Normans first attacked with their archers, to little avail. They then used spearmen which also did not have any major effect and the wall stayed solid. Then the cavalry attempted to create openings in the shield wall, but also failed. After this, the Norman invaders began a general retreat and a rumour spread among the Anglo-Saxons that William had been killed and they started chasing the retreating Normans down the hill.
By breaking ranks the Anglo-Saxons had opened a gap and at this point William rode through his own retreating forces, shouting that he was still alive and led a counter-attack which led to the Saxons being scattered then overwhelmed and eventually, England being conquered.
Do not directly attack your opponent if they are in a position of strength. Entice them away from their favourable position to remove their advantage.
16. In order to capture, one must let loose
In the Battle of Mohi, the Mongols had surrounded and confined the Hungarians to their camp. The Hungarian troops were demoralised and started panicking, looking for a way out. The Mongols had purposefully left a gap for the Hungarians to attempt to flee, because they knew that fleeing men are easier to capture or kill than those who are given no option but to fight to the death with their backs against the wall. As a result, almost all the Hungarian men were slaughtered.
When cornered and desperate, an opponent will mount a final attack, a possible heroic last stand. In order to prevent this, let them believe that there is still a chance of freedom and an opportunity to escape. The desire to flee will eclipse the will to fight. When they realise that the option to escape was an illusion, morale will drop and they will often surrender without a fight.
17. Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem
During the Tang Dynasty in China there were two famous poets. Zhao Gu was a great, well-known poet and Chang Jian was far less known. Chang Jian found out that Zhao Gu was going to visit a temple near to where he was travelling. As he wished to learn from the great poet, he hatched a plan to go to the temple in advance and write a poem on the wall. He wrote the first two lines of the four-line poem, hoping Zhao Gu would see and finish the poem, which he did.
Use bait to garner a reaction or make somebody believe they have gained something, otherwise known as “tossing them a brick”. Obtain something valuable from them in return, aka “get a jade gem”. A small offering to get a big return.
18. Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief
In the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532, Francisco Pizarro led a small group of Spanish conquistadors who attempted to ambush Atahualpa, leader of the Inca Empire. Pizarro invited Atahualpa to Cajamarca. Atahualpa arrived and most of his Inca force set up camp outside the city walls. Pizarro largely ignored this army and after a signal to attack, targeted Atahualpa by seizing him and attacking those around him with gunfire and cavalry charges. Those who survived were shocked and fled the city. The army outside the city walls were confused. Upon hearing their commander had been captured, morale throughout the force plummeted and they panicked and fled in terror despite outnumbering the Spanish conquistadors.
Even if you are facing a strong opponent, consider taking aim at the leader. If the leader falls, the rest of the army or organisation will either disperse or defect. However, be cautious of people who are allied to their leader through loyalty rather than money or threats, as there is a stronger chance that they will continue to fight due to a sense of revenge. Beware the power of loyalty.
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