Book Excerpt: 36 Stratagems
An Excerpt from the beginning of my book on the 36 Stratagems for the martial artist.... The whole book is found HERE
By: Neil Ripski
& Rielle Franceour
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Winning Stratagems
Chapter Two: Enemy Dealing Stratagems
Chapter Three: Attacking Stratagems
Chapter Four: Chaos Stratagems
Chapter Five: Proximate Stratagems
Chapter Six: Desperate Stratagems
Many times martial arts practitioners do not bother to read classic texts, have never heard of them or do not have the background to decipher and understand what is written or how it applies to their art and themselves directly. The 36 Stratagems is a writing that is not often discussed by martial arts players or teachers with their students and it, like other great books such as The Art of War, The Book of Five Rings and the Tao Te Ching contain great help for a martial artist and their growth, even if at times it is obtuse. The purpose of my writing is to bring them forward as applicable martial methods for training and combat, just as relevant today as they were then. Psychological change creates Physiological response and as such even considering how these methods work or are designed can change not only the way you act in combat but also how you choose to train. The original stratagems were followed by a short explanation which I have included, followed by my interpretation for martial training and combat.
My student Rielle Francoeur is currently in her last year of High School (2016) graduating this summer. The local high school has a student mentorship program where students can take classes with a mentor in one of their interests. Hers happened to be Chinese Martial Arts & Culture and so the two of us have gone through the 36 Stratagems together. Her perspective on the stratagems for use in non violent high school situations is an interesting addition to this book and I think shows the adaptability of each of them to various circumstances. Her commentary “36 Stratagems for Surviving High School” can be found below my Martial Interpretations of each stratagem.
The 36 Stratagems are credited to General Wang Jingze (王敬則傳) of the Southern Qi Dynasty by most historical research, although it has also been attributed to Zhuge Liang and Sun Zi from different sources. The book is divided into six chapters of six stratagems each. They are often confused or translated with the word strategies which is not the same, as a strategy is a long term plan. Stratagem is referring more to a trick or ruse to be used in combat in this case. Although these were written from the perspective of generals and armies, just as Sun Zi's Art of War is, it is very applicable to single combat and modern training.
The six chapters each contain six stratagems each. The first three chapters with stratagems for use in advantageous situations and the last three for situations that are disadvantageous, progressively getting more and more difficult and desperate. The old saying “Of the 36 Stratagems, the last is best.” comes from this, the last stratagem being “If all else fails, retreat.” If you cannot win then at least do not allow yourself to lose.
The 36 Stratagems
Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems (勝戰計)
Deceive the Heavens to cross the Ocean
- (瞞天過海／瞒天过海, Mán tiān guò hǎi)
- Mask your real goals, by using the ruse of a fake goal, until the real goal is achieved. Tactically, this is known as an 'open feint': in front of everyone, you point west, when your goal is actually in the east.
In single combat fighters tend to rely on their skill alone and their intent is easily read. Grapplers are working to take down the opponent and obviously try to do so, striking arts strike in the same way and so on. By taking a more oblique approach an opponent is less likely to defend themselves well. For example reaching for a weapon in your pocket to distract the enemy from your attack with your feet or attempting to remain at distance while they work to close only to allow them to close range at your own decision. An open feint is obvious not as a ruse but as an act for the opponent to see and interpret. Use of changes of direction or weapons in combat can be used in this way. The most common use of the open feint happens in all martial arts studies, kicking low to punch high and so on. These are simple uses of deceive the heavens to cross the ocean.
A more advanced method would be to lie in wait while trying to deescalate the conflict, giving the robber your money, weeping for your life and when the enemy drops his guards, finishing him. In Sun Zi's Art of War we find an example of lulling the enemy into false security so he attacks into ambush that could be likened to this.
“On the first night light a campfire for each three men in the force, the second night light half that number and by the third when we halve that number again the enemy will think our men are deserting and attack at dawn.” - Paraphrased from The Art of War
There are no rules or standard conventions in real combat, as such the idea of creating an ambush can be taken to any extreme as the situation dictates. It would look much different in a controlled sport environment but still can be used by a well trained player.
In a situation where you're fighting or arguing, start fighting about how you are fighting, do something that will throw their concentration off. For example in a tournament fight, if you lose a shoe the referee will stop the fight, distracting the opponent. In high school if your getting in trouble for skipping class ask the teacher about what happened in class and start talking about the teachers interests in the project. so you are no longer getting detention, you're talking about Shakespeare or whatever the project is about.
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
- (圍魏救趙／围魏救赵, Wéi Wèi jiù Zhào)
- When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that he cannot be superior in all things. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead. The idea here is to avoid a head on battle with a strong enemy, and instead strike at his weakness elsewhere. This will force the strong enemy to retreat in order to support his weakness. Battling against the now tired and low-morale enemy will give a much higher chance of success.
The first method here is to attack targets the enemy holds dear, the number one targets of Chinese Martial Arts: Eyes, Throat and Groin. However, this is not the only the way to interpret Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao. Attacking the opponents body to distract does work well and when used in a more unorthodox way brings more success. Attack the opponents weapons, driving your fists, feet, shins and so on into their fists to disarm and distract them.
Attacking the mind and emotions is another way to perform this method “One hand lies, the other tells the truth.” as the maxim goes. Use the voice, through words or sounds of power (Kiai or spirit yell in the Japanese traditions or sound of thunder in the Chinese ones) to distract and change the enemies mind and timing. Use of the voice is a very powerful tool, it should not be under examined.
Take something that they hold dear, something that they want to fight for. In high school, attacking something they're conscious about. Teenagers are very self-conscious. In high school, they're not talking about how they're jealous, or they want a particular guy, they're focused on making their opponent or their enemy feel bad about themselves. Attacking the way they look or dress. Attacking their insecurities.
Kill with a borrowed sword
- (借刀殺人／借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)
- Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one's own strength is not favorable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy's own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a 3rd party to do the deed.
One way of using this in personal combat is to make use of things other than your own body to help defeat the enemy. Terrain can always be used to your advantage in one way or another. Backing the enemy off of a curb so they trip or break their ankle, being sure to keep the sun or street light over your shoulder to impede the enemies vision, keeping barriers between you and the attacker, finding local weapons to use and so on. In the case of there being other people near your combat be sure to call for aid, play the victim, shout someones name as though you have an ally coming. Distract the enemy and take advantage of them.
Additionally the martial art principle of using the enemies own momentum or strength against them also applies directly to this stratagem. Most harmonizing throws like those seen in Aikido or the Wind Gua (Carrying) in Baguazhang do not interrupt the opponents force and momentum but rather harmonize, redirect and add your force to it to accomplish a technique with little to no effort on your part. However to quote my Master Xu Guoming (George Xu) here : “If four ounces will deflect 1000lbs, adding 1000lbs will definitely work.” Add, Follow, Destroy.
Get a third party involved, getting two birds with one stone. In a high school setting, if you don't understand the question and you don't want to do the work, talk to your classmate who almost understands it. Then mess them up and put the idea in their head that they are doing it wrong to the point where you even have the teacher confused so they basically answer the question for you, because they're so frustrated they need to figure this out.
Wait at leisure while the enemy labors
- (以逸待勞／以逸待劳, Yǐ yì dài láo)
- It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose. The idea is to have your troops well-prepared for battle, in the same time that the enemy is rushing to fight against you. This will give your troops a huge advantage in the upcoming battle, of which you will get to select the time and place.
In the event of one on one combat, only in a sporting situations do martial artists regularly have a site for the fight to take place. In this event one should study the terrain and how one can use it to their advantage. Being sure to back the opponent into the time keepers table for instance confuses them and flusters their mind. In the case of a cage like seen in MMA competitions, using it to your advantage or even the position of the referee can be something to consider, running the opponent into the referee causes both them and the official distress while you remain relaxed.
In a more realistic approach to this stratagem it is difficult to know where or when an attack may take place so terrain cannot be known ahead of time and only used at the onset of violence. However to encourage the enemy to expend their energy can be done by mentally creating a space around you that you must manipulate. This is a fighting principle from the Ma style I practice and I will share it here so it makes some sense.
Claiming a space and using that space to your advantage is the key here. Imagine a circle around you and in the centre a smaller circle or dot. The outer circle, no matter what range you place it at, is where you keep the opponent. If you always remain in the centre of the circle and do your best not to retreat and stay firm on your ground the opponent will be forced to circle you looking for a way in while you stand at ease and expending little energy. Every single movement made in combat expends energy and as long as the enemy is moving more than you are, you await at ease for an exhausted enemy. The Ma style calls this “Drinking Tea while rain falls” (喝茶而雨落)
“Mentally changing the space the around you” - Shifu Neil
For a battle of 1000 on 1000 if one of your soldiers poisons two guards drinking water, the whole army might think that the water is poisoned so they will get dehydrated.
In high school use the people around you to affect your opponent. If you change the vibe around them they can fall with out their allies noticing. You want to get them to the point where they're so stressed out and alone that they will be focused on mending their broken relationships and forget who the real enemy is, and who they should actually be focused on.
Loot a burning house
- (趁火打劫, Chèn huǒ dǎ jié)
- When a country is beset by internal conflicts, when disease and famine ravage the population, when corruption and crime are rampant, then it will be unable to deal with an outside threat. This is the time to attack. Keep gathering internal information about an enemy. If the enemy is currently in its weakest state ever, attack it without mercy and totally destroy it to prevent future troubles.
In single combat you must cause the enemy to become more and more weak each moment, mentally and physically. Gathering of internal information here refers to your ability to observe the enemy, which should also be taking place before violence ever occurs, “Through the clothing read the pulse”. Except in the case of complete ambush you should be aware of your surroundings and learn to read peoples intentions and bodies as well. Learn about posture, limps, signs of previous injuries and handedness. These things become automatic over time with training and gathering information in this way will only benefit you. Any weaknesses you see must be the first target during violence. A limping man is kicked in the knees, a man obviously wearing an expensive watch has not only shown you his handedness (almost every person wear a watch on their off hand) but can be attacked mentally by breaking it given the chance.
(Attack with haste, do not squander opportunities to disable the opponent. Windows for immobilization are often short-term. The flames of the burning house serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision when seeking out targets.)
This can also be used in competition fighting, my own Shifu would take me out to watch people in public and at competitions to teach me to read injuries and so on. Some tips for you to train with:
- Watches are worn on the persons off hand
- Wallets are generally carried in the persons handed pocket (right handed people, right pocket)
- Feet turn out most on injured legs, knees or hips usually.
- Large curves in the lower back generally mean weak back or abs
- Warm up methods betray handedness and generally favorite techniques (sport)
- Chest out postures point to tightness or stagnation in Tai Yang (neck and back)
I recommend you find more of these signs to study than this short list, obviously in a competition setting you can go even further, easier. Uniforms, warm ups, coaches near by can betray many things about your opponent, the combat begins long before you enter the ring.
Everyone has a weakness and if you can't see it, create one. So we all know that teacher who is running around and late to every class and never gets marking done on time. You can obviously see there weaknesses. In a verbal argument if they have inner turmoil it is harder to deal with outside stress. Tell them that you have handed in your assignments, they must have just lost them and the teacher might give you marks for those assignments.