Home Chinese Classics Sanshiliuji 三十六计 The Thirty-Six Stratagems

Sanshiliuji 三十六计 The Thirty-Six Stratagems


The Sanshiliuji 三十六计 “Thirty-six stratagems” is a military primer of obscure origin. The whole book is divided into six parts, each part including six stratagems. Each stratagem is designated with a four-character headline (those of the last part only three characters), giving it the character of a proverb. This fact contributed to the popularity of the Sanshiliu ji, inspite of its quasi non-canonical status. The stratagems are formulated in a very concise and oversimplified way and seem to be compiled on the base of daily used proverbs with universal validity, mixed with cryptic statements. A lot of examples are derived from statements in the divinatory classic Yijing 易经, others quote examples from history.

The thirty-six stratagems, used both in real warfare and by “corporate warriors”, attributed to Sun Tsu (of The Art of War fame), though he probably never came up with such a list (especially since the names of several strategies reference events from long after his death). That said, quite a lot of these are either included in The Art of War or immediately deducible from it.

Alternatively, and slightly more credibly, attributed to Zhuge Liang. Apparently he was such a great strategist that a book of strategies naturally had to have his name on it (he was also such a great strategist he got retconned to being a full-on sorcerer).

Strategy 36 most likely came first as the advice of a strategist: “Of the thirty-six (i.e. various) schemes, a tactical retreat would be the wisest course of action”. Later generations would then fill in the other thirty five using famous battles from Real Life or Historical Fiction. More than a few of these may be considered dirty fighting.

The stratagems are traditionally divided into six groups, for the situations in which they are best used. This page uses the translated names for the groupings taken from Lure the Tiger Out of the Mountains: The Thirty-Six Stratagems of Ancient China, a compilation of the following in full-length book form written by Gao Yuan (and sadly now out of print). The names of the stratagems themselves have varied translations.

These strategems are some of The Oldest Tricks In The Book.

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