Thirty-Six Stratagems

Unless otherwise specified, Chinese texts in this article are written in "Traditional Chinese/Simplified Chinese, pinyin" format. In cases where traditional and simplified Chinese characters are identical, the Chinese term is written once.
Thirty-Six Stratagems
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 三十六計
Simplified Chinese 三十六计
Korean name
Hangul 삼십육계

The Thirty-Six Stratagems was a Chinese essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, and civil interaction.


The Thirty-Six Stratagems

The name of the collection comes from the Book of Qi, in its seventh biographical volume, Biography of Wáng Jìngzé (王敬則傳/王敬则传).[1] Wáng was a general who had served Southern Qi since the first Emperor Gao of the dynasty. When Emperor Ming came to power and executed many members of the court and royal family for fear that they would threaten his reign, Wáng believed that he would be targeted next and rebelled. As Wáng received news that Xiao Baojuan, son and crown prince of Emperor Ming, had escaped in haste after learning of the rebellion, he commented that "of the thirty-six stratagems of Lord Tán, retreat was his best, you father and son should run for sure."[2] Lord Tán here refers to general Tan Daoji of the Liu Song Dynasty, who was forced to retreat after his failed attack on Northern Wei, and Wáng mentioned his name in contempt as an example of cowardice.[3]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[4]

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.[4]

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.


The Thirty-Six Stratagems consists of 6 chapters, each chapter consists of 6 stratagems.

Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems

How to win as a general.

Cross the sea without the emperor's knowledge

Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào

Kill with a borrowed sword

Wait at leisure while the enemy labors

Loot a burning house

Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west

Chapter 2: Enemy Dealing Stratagems

How to deal with an opponent who is openly your enemy.

Create something from nothing

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

Chapter 3: Attacking 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

Chapter 4: Chaos 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

Chapter 5: Proximate 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

Deck the tree with false blossoms

Make the host and the guest exchange roles

Chapter 6: Desperate 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


  1. "Original Text of the Biography of Wáng Jìngzé, Book of Qi (Traditional Chinese)". Retrieved 2006-11-27.
  2. "檀公三十六策,走是上計,汝父子唯應急走耳/檀公三十六策,走是上计,汝父子唯应急走耳"
  3. 1 2 "Introduction to the Thirty-Six Strategies (Traditional Chinese)". Retrieved 2006-11-27.
  4. 1 2 3 "Exploring the Thirty-Six Strategies (Simplified Chinese)". Chinese Strategic Science Network. 2006-07-11. External link in |publisher= (help)
  5. Zhang, Yongcheng (1988). 計策學-新36計/商政實例解說本 (Strategy - New 36 Strategem/Business & Politics Explainer Edition). Taiwan: Yuan-Liou Publishing Co., Ltd. p. 219. Retrieved 6 September 2016.


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