Today, while searching for a collection of the poems of the Chinese master poet Li Bai (aka Li Po) I stumbled across a marvelous website called Wengu Zhixin, which is a site collecting translations of Chinese classic philosophy and thought into English and French. They have the usual documents like The Analects of Confucius, The Yi Ching, and Lao Tzu’s The Way and Its Power (the core book of Daoism), but they also have a great collection of Tang Dynasty Poems (with actual good quality translations), the Art of War, and the (largely unknown in the West) Thirty-Six Strategies. All of these have the original Chinese provided as well, with clickable Hanzi characters that show translations of their individual meanings.
However, for me, the gem of it is the Thirty-Six Strategies (of war and conflict) each have a story to go along with them to illustrate their point, pulled from Chinese and Japanese history. I have another book with the Strategies that has stories as well, but these are actually different stories from the ones in the book translation I have, since whoever translates these tends to pull their own favourite examples from history and fiction. For example, here is the entry for Strategy One:
Fool the Emperor to Cross the Sea
Moving about in the darkness and shadows, occupying isolated places, or hiding behind screens will only attract suspicious attention. To lower an enemy’s guard you must act in the open hiding your true intentions under the guise of common every day activities.
Japanese Folk Tale
There once lived a Samurai who was plagued by a large and clever rat who had the run of the house. This annoyed the Samurai to no end so he went to the village to buy a cat. A street vendor sold him a cat that he said would catch the rat and indeed the cat looked trim and fit. But the rat was even quicker than the cat and after a week with no success the Samurai returned the cat. This time the vendor pulled out a large and grizzled cat and guaranteed that no rat could escape this master mouser. The rat knew enough to stay clear of this tough alley cat, but when the cat slept, the rat ran about. Half the day the rat would hide, but the other half he again had the run of the place. The Samurai brought the cat back to the vendor who shook his head in despair saying he had given the Samurai his best cat and there was nothing more he could do. Returning home with his money, the Samurai happened upon a monk and sought his advice. After hearing the Samurai’s story the monk offered him the services of the cat that lived in the temple. The cat was old and fat and he scarcely seemed to notice when he was carried away by the doubtful Samurai. For two weeks the cat did little more than sleep all day and night. The Samurai wanted to give the cat back to the temple but the monk insisted he keep him a while longer assuring him the rat’s days were close to an end. The rat became accustomed to the presence of the lazy old cat and was soon up to his old tricks even, on occasion, brazenly dancing around the old cat as he slept. Then one day, as the rat went about his business without any concern, he passed close by the cat – who swiftly struck out his paw and pinned the rat to the floor. The rat died instantly.
And the amusing entry for Strategy Six::
Clamor in the East, Attack in the West
In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint.
Song Dynasty China
Once there was an official who was transferred to the capital. The front part of the inn where he stayed was a teahouse, and across the street was a shop that sold expensive dyed silks. Whenever he had nothing to do, he would sit at a table watching the people and activity on the street. One day he noticed with surprise that several suspicious looking characters were walking back and forth observing the silk shop with great interest. One of them came up to his table and whispered: “We’re in the robbery business and we’re here to steal those fine silks. Since you noticed us I came to ask you not to mention it.”
“That has nothing to do with me,” the official replied. “Why should I say anything about it?”
The fellow thanked him and left him. The official thought to himself: ‘the silk shop has its wares openly displayed on a busy street. In broad daylight, with a thousand eyes watching, if they have the skill to steal those silks, then they must be smart thieves indeed.’ So he watched carefully to see how they would manage it. But what he saw was only the same people walking back and forth in front of the silk shop. Sometimes they gathered on the left, sometimes on the right. The official sat watching until after sunset when everyone had gone and the shop had closed. “Those fools.” said the official to himself. “They were putting one over on me.” When he returned to his room to order some food, he discovered that all his belongings were gone.
Go and read them. Whenever I need to get a character out of a tricky situation, the 36 Strategies is my go-to book for answers!
P.S. I’ve had it pointed out that this translation and examples are excerpts from a published text about the 36 Strategies, which you can find here. The full text uses 118 stories to illustrate the points, and has other material, so if you enjoy these you might consider picking it up!