A book that many would like you NOT to read

Different authors and editions

The Thirty-Six Stratagems

2022 January 13 | by Arduino Mancini Conflict and Games Theory - Negotiation - Resilience

Some preliminary information about the book

A book you are unlikely to be recommended because, like The Art of War, those who have read it tend to keep to themselves what they learned.

The book is an ancient masterpiece of Chinese thinking and probably dates back to the end of the Ming era (1368-1644); since then, it has had a controversial history.

In 1941, someone discovered in a bookstore in Binzhou, Shaanxi Province, an unknown text entitled “The Thirty-Six Stratagems.”

Prohibited by Mao Ze-dong and republished only after his death, the text became, from 1977, a real bestseller in the bookstores of Taiwan and Hong Kong, where it circulated as a business manual and as a book for teaching the art of life.

In the last century, many authors have revisited the text mainly with two aims:

  • to capture fundamental aspects of ancient Chinese culture to better understand its contemporary implications;
  • to reinterpret the thirty-six stratagems in a modern perspective to understand their applications in the management of business and conflict in all its forms.

We will see shortly the editions that at the moment are, in my opinion, most interesting among the available ones: now let’s briefly analyze some key aspects of the thirty-six stratagems, also to understand who may be interested to read them.

Basic information about the contents

In a culture where the dominance of the concept of harmony is reflected in the very name of ancient China, the thirty-six stratagems teach the Way of Deception as opposed to the Righteous Way of Confucius; they complement the ancient idea of a harmonious universe with a philosophy of conflict that does not break the world’s overall balance.

Whoever makes use of stratagems, in love, in war, in business, must be ” soft ” and ” mild ” at the same time; like water, he/she has to adapt himself to the circumstances, strike the enemy at the weakest points where there is no resistance, and only at the favourable moment finally use the enemy’s own strength to destroy him/her.

Through the Way of Deception, where every initiative must be kept hidden and secret, the Chinese art of winning also marks, in this book, the triumph of justice, as the triumph of yang force follows the culmination of yin force, as peace results from war and Spring is born from Winter.

Here are the thirty-six stratagems, presented considering the traditional classification.

  • Winning Stratagems
    • Deceive the heavens to cross the sea
    • Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào
    • Kill with a borrowed knife
    • Wait at leisure while the enemy labours
    • Loot a burning house
    • Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west
  • Enemy Dealing Stratagems
    • Create something from nothing
    • Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang
    • Watch the fires burning across the river
    • Hide a knife behind a smile
    • Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree
    • Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat
  • Offensive Stratagems
    • Stomp the grass to scare the snake
    • Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul
    • Lure the tiger off its mountain lair
    • In order to capture, one must let loose
    • Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem
    • Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief
  • Melee Stratagems
    • Remove the firewood from under the pot
    • Disturb the water and catch a fish
    • Slough off the cicada’s golden shell
    • Shut the door to catch the thief
    • Befriend a distant state and strike a neighbouring one
    • Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo
  • Combined Stratagems
    • Replace the beams with rotten timbers
    • Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree
    • Feign madness but keep your balance
    • Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof
    • Decorate the tree with false blossoms
    • Make the host and the guest exchange roles
  • Defeat Stratagems
    • The beauty trap (Honeypot)
    • The empty fort strategy
    • Let the enemy’s own spy sow discord in the enemy camp
    • Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy’s trust
    • Chain stratagems
    • If all else fails, retreat

Who might be interested in the 36 stratagems?

Generally speaking, anyone involved in situations where non-convergent objectives are confronted or, more generally, in situations of conflict: in companies, in politics, in business and in private life.

As I said, the 36 stratagems are well known to many people in leadership positions, who use them to turn conflict situations to their advantage; a wider dissemination of knowledge of stratagems can generate more balanced situations, limit occasions for conflict and promote the conditions for cooperative negotiations.

This is why I make extensive use of the 36 stratagems in coaching programmes for top managers and executives.

A final thought on the use of the 36 stratagems.

Women often tend to adopt behaviours that lead them to shy away from conflict situations, in the belief that these can be avoided and that any confrontation would somehow see them losing.

Well, even if the 36 stratagems were born in a time when women had a secondary role in political and social life, in my opinion, their knowledge can give a very important contribution to a society based on gender equality.

The thirty-six stratagems reviewed by myself

Over the last few years, I have worked extensively on reviewing the 36 stratagems and contextualizing them in the various situations we may encounter in our lives: in a company, in business, in private life.

I would like to point out that I am not an expert in oriental culture and that what attracts my attention is rather the use that today we can make of them in different contexts; so, I have defined a project that will lead me to present also in English a review of the 36 stratagems in a modern key, publishing them in my blog in Italian.

The review of each stratagem will take into account the following aspects:

  • the original statement of the stratagem;
  • its description;
  • one more example of its application, historical and/or contemporary;
  • tactical and/or strategies to avoid becoming a victim of it.

English language books editions

Three the most interesting, in my opinion:

  • Lure the Tiger Out of the Mountains: How to Apply the 36 Stratagems of Ancient China to the Modern World – Yuan Gao – Judy Piatkus
  • The Book of Stratagems – Harro Von Senger – Penguin Books
  • The Thirty-Six Stratagems: A Modern Interpretation Of A Strategy Classic – Peter Taylor – Infinite Ideas Limited

The books are presented in order of my preference, with one remark: the first one is more suitable for those interested in business management aspects, while I suggest the second one to people who want to have a broader and historical vision of the 36 stratagems.

In conclusion, the topic is a must for anyone who covers or intends to prepare for leadership positions, or who intends to improve their ability to manage conflict.

Off you go!

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