Introduction

The Thirty-Six Strategies is a unique collection of ancient Chinese proverbs that describe some of the most cunning and subtle strategies ever devised. Whereas other Chinese military texts such as Sun Zi's 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. Over 118 anecdotes are included to both explain and offer examples of each strategy's application. By learning from the old masters of the art of deception, one is better able to spot the modern pretenders, for, though the players come and go, the game remains the same.

History of the Thirty Six 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.

Notes on the Text

The original text of The Secret Art of War, is rather short, (138 Chinese characters). It merely names each strategy followed by a brief explanation. The book was divided into six categories of six strategies each. The six categories are said to correspond to six situations. They are; Stratagems when in a superior position; Stratagems for confrontation; Stratagems for attack; Stratagems for confused situations; Stratagems for gaining ground; and Stratagems for desperate situations. This division is based on the hexagrams of the I-Ching (A hexagram being a grouping of six broken or unbroken lines). In addition, the explanation of each strategy is likewise said to be based on the interpretation of each hexagram as found in the I-Ching. Initially all this seemed to imply an almost scientific approach, but on closer examination I found the structure flawed. My guess is that elements of I-Ching numerology were added at some time merely to create an aura of mystery and antiquity, (a not uncommon practise among publishers during the Ming and Ching dynasties). Since the six subtitles did little to improve understanding, I did not use them in compiling the present text, but kept to the original sequence of strategies.

I used anecdotes primarily from both China's and Japan's 'Warring States' eras, since, though separated by more than a thousand years, those eras most closely reflected the tone of the strategies. My apologies to serious scholars for I rewrote the explanations and historical anecdotes so that they would be clearer to western readers. Any mistakes and errors are my own. I also added opening quotes from other Oriental works on strategy, and a summary. The resultant manuscript is not a direct translation, nor a list of historical facts, but rather a retelling of Chinese folklore, or more specifically military lore. Research notes are included in the endnotes for those interested in consulting the sources.

 

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All text, photos, and illustrations by S.H.Verstappen.
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