The Thirty-Six Stratagems – A Book Review

As long as one is not defeated, there is still a chance

The Thirty-Six Strategems

Rating: 3 out of 5.

GENRE: Non-Fiction, Strategy

AUTHOR: Peter Taylor

PAGES: 138

YEAR OF PUBLISH: 1961

About the Book

The 36 stratagem is a Chinese guide to understand philosophy of strategy. It illustrates a series of tactics in administration, battles and many times in day-to-day challenges. The book 36 stratagem encourages winning, even though it may sound unorthodox or immoral. The history of 36 stratagems can be discovered around three centuries ago between the fall of Ming dynasty and the rise of Qing dynasty. The 36 stratagems came into public attention when in 1961 Chinese Communist party daily newspaper published its review due to its ever-growing popularity.

Thing that can be highlighted in the Chinese practice of strategy is the use of deception. Be it Art of war or 100 years marathon, deception is a usual practice followed across generations in Chinese culture and even in their household board games.

Summary Of 36 Stratagem

The word stratagem needs to be understood from Chinese context. Stratagem is not a fancy mutation of strategy but something that can be considered as planned, scheme, tactic, or communication to deceive enemy or to achieve an objective with minimal constraints. Stratagems can be considered as building blocks or elements of a master plan. These stratagems can be clubbed together or used exclusively favoring the situation.

The book identifies two kinds of situations. 

First is the winning or advantages and second is losing or disadvantages. The 36 stratagems can be clubbed into six main categories and each of these six categories has six stratagems. The winning situation has six stratagems namely advantages stratagems optimistic stratagems and attacking stratagems. Similarly, the losing or disadvantages situation has confusion stratagems, deception stratagems and desperate stratagems.

Winning/ Advantageous Stratagem

Advantageous Stratagem

  • Deceive Openly Under Camouflage
  • Attack Under to Save Your Target
  • Kill With a Borrowed Knife
  • Wait At East for Exhausted Enemy
  • Loot A House on Fire
  • Sound East and Attack West

Opportunistic Stratagem

  • Create Something Out of Nothing
  • Advance Through a Secret Path
  • Watch The Fire from Across
  • Hide A Dagger in Your Smile
  • Sacrifice Small for Big
  • Exploit Along the Way

Attack Stratagem

  • Hit The Grass to Startle the Snake
  • Inject Life into the Dead
  • Lower The Tiger Out of the Mountain
  • Let Go to Recapture Later
  • Give Out Small to Attract Big
  • Nab The Root of the Issue

Losing/Disadvantage Stratagem

Confusion Stratagem

  • Remove Key Support
  • Fish In Troubled Water
  • Remove Your Cover to Reveal Inside
  • Closed Door Attacks
  • Be Friend the fort to Attack the Near
  • Seek Help from Ally and Attack Ally

Deception Stratagem

  • Replace Strong with Week
  • Criticizes Indirectly
  • Play Dumb
  • Removing Ladder After Ascent
  • Decorate A Tree with Flowers
  • Take Charge and Lead

Desperate Stratagem

  • Beauty Trap
  • Put A Bold Font
  • Double Agent Ploy
  • Self-Injury
  • A Series of Interconnected Ploys
  • If All Else Fails, Escape Is the Best

Book Review Of 36 Stratagem

One of the philosophies that drew my attention was their clarity towards the win-win concept. For them, it means either you win, or the opponent will win. The instructions aren’t morally sound and may disturb readers’ beliefs. Talking about the book composition, the language is simple and guiding rather than commanding or authoritative.

The flow of the book is just like the above list. Every strategy is discussed as two or three liners followed by an instance from the Chinese history and ends with learning quoted as “Here is an idea for you”.

Considering my take on the book I think, 36 stratagems can be considered as advance knowledge of Art of War and the practice of persuasion. I didn’t feel like repetition of content; each of the 36 stratagems is mutually correlated still maintaining its individual essence.  I will recommend this book if the readers just want to absorb the contents and understand the philosophy of Chinese way of doing things. 

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