Methods and Meanings in the “36 Stratagems”

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This is draft, a work-in-progress

Methods and Meanings in the 36 Stratagems

The so-called “36 Stratagems” is an alleged military strategy document that shares a number of common strains and themes with the so-called “Art of War” by the fictional “Sun Tzu.” Both – and their companion Tao Te Ching – are from a nebulous “pre-China” time period. We have no certainty of authorship, and no confirmed evidence of use. In fact, the issues with these three documents go beyond authorship, age and application: their actual meaning is not at all agreed upon by authorities in military strategy, tactics, philosophy or history.

While these three documents are reportedly from widely varying epochs within “Chinese antiquity” – and while they are sometimes affirmed to have emerged during the Warring States period before the foundation of the first empire, I would argue that they all share a common origin and date of creation. My book The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War makes a well researched and well articulated proposition: that Ping-fa (commonly known as Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and the Tao Te Ching were products of learned academies established by the Qin kingdom to assist it in ending the Warring States period, and bringing about the Chinese empire. The evident harmony between these books and the 36 Stratagems suggests that document may also be part of the Qin suite of products that dealt with policy and practice of peace-making, nation building, and governance. There is another very possible scenario, that the Stratagems are no more than augmented extracts from the Qin products.

My analysis of Ping-fa that in time gave rise to The School of Sun Tzu was not a minor achievement. Only when the meaning of all Ping-fa admonitions were derived, and all those admonitions encapsulated into a coherent statement of principle and practice did the work approach conclusion. I say “approach” because Chinese writing is profound and robust in meaning. It can be understood and expressed only in context. Out of context it looks simplistic. In context it is as deep and wide as the Yangtse.

Ping-fa was made even more challenging because it was written with military language as an aid to learning and retention. Its new notions of performance excellence, teamwork, leadership and empowerment demanded a metaphorical language so that students of the new discipline could not only learn, but apply these new methods in fast moving and gravely serious circumstances. Ping-fa and the Tao Te Ching have been criticized as being obscure and ambiguous; however those accusations reflect no more than lack of understanding within the published commentaries. My research confirms that the Tao Te Ching and Ping-fa were developed in tandem. Importantly, one can travel back and forth between the two as an aid in achieving comprehension. As we do not have that luxury and ease with the 36 Stratagems, we see support for augmentation, or manipulation over time – a case, perhaps, of forcing the Stratagems to fit defined applications.

The 36 Stratagems appeared for the first time in recent history when they were purchased at a Shaanxi province shop in 1941. They are reportedly from the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) but confirmation of that fact will require the same sort of research that went into my discoveries about the Ping-fa and Tao Te Ching.

This paper has a humble purpose. It does not seek to define where the 36 Stratagems came from, who wrote them, how old they are or to what use they were put. It seeks only to challenge some of the conventional wisdom around them, and to offer some encouragement for further research. My research on Ping-fa essentially overturned convention wisdom about The Art of War, demonstrating that the book was actually an inspired methodology for ending war and building peace. As it is commonly assumed that the 36 Stratagems are also military tactics it might well be discovered that its meaning and application may relate to that domain only partly, if at all.

So – I offer for your thought and consideration an interpretation of the stratagems with a clear and unqualified disclaimer: my suggestions are based on my understanding of the culture, philosophies and practices of the pre-China time period, and the way in which authors of that period communicated. The written language is often metaphorical because, for among other reasons, writers wanted their readers to think about what they were reading. Communication then was not one way. Cognitive deliberation and social discourse were essential parts of the process. The best lecturers were not those who claimed to have all the answers.

What this means for anyone who has taken the time to read this far is that what you are about to see is – as far as I can manage it – a “translation” of the Stratagems into a sensible, and as far as I can realize it – and assuming that is possible – coherent statement of its principles, strategies and tactics. Readers should not feel compelled to in any way agree that I am offering the correct interpretation, rather, they should feel empowered to generate their own. My one suggestion is that once you establish a level of comfort with my offered admonition, you should go back and read the metaphorical Stratagem again and again. Test one against the other. Test it in the context of the whole. Test it in the context of common sense; for example, apply the admonition in a theoretical way with a set of circumstances to see whether it holds. Be fully prepared to revise your understanding of the Stratagem and my “translation” of it. When you have gone through the lot, see if you can place it all into a composite whole in your own mind. See if you can discover a gap. If you succeed in the first part and fail in the second, then chances are that you have achieved competence and understanding. My main revelation with Ping-fa was when I discovered that the organizational management and peace methodology it proclaims models perfectly. It is complete – nothing missing – nothing more than what is essential. If the Stratagems are valid and sound, they will demonstrate an equal facility.

(To Be Developed) – an articulation of the admonitions; analysis of meaning and coherence; and possible applications (historic and future).

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