Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, May 21, 2007

The 36 Strategies: #22 Shut the Door to Catch a Thief

One of the Chinese Classics on Strategy is The Thirty Six Strategies. It is second only to the famous Art of War by Sun Tzu. Where Sun Tzu is an overview of the entire topic of Strategy, the 36 Strategies attempts to teach strategic thinking by way of 36 examples.

What follows first, is an excerpt from the page on the Thirty Six Strategies, followed by #22. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full page from

The name of the collection comes from the Book of Qi, in its seventh biographical volume, Biography of Wáng Jìngzé (王敬則傳) [1]. Wáng was a general who had served Southern Qi since the first Emperor Gao of the dynasty. When Emperor Ming came to power and executed many members of the court and royal family for fear that they would threaten his reign, Wáng believed that he would be targeted next and rebelled. When Wáng received news that the Marquess of Donghun, son of Emperor Ming, had escaped in haste after learning of the rebellion, he commented that "檀公三十六策,走是上計,汝父子唯應急走耳", which can be translated literally as "of the thirty-six strategies of Lord Tán, retreat was his best, you father and son should run for sure". Lord Tán here refers to general Tan Daoji of the Liu Song Dynasty, who was forced to retreat after his failed attack on Northern Wei, and Wáng mentioned his name in contempt as an example of cowardice [2].

It should be noted that the number thirty-six was used by Wáng as a figure of speech in this context, and is meant to denote numerous strategies instead of any specific number. Wáng's choice of this term was in reference to the I Ching, where six is the number of Yin that shared many characteristics with the dark schemes involved in military strategy. As thirty-six is the square of six, it therefore acted as a metaphor for numerous strategies [2]. Since Wáng was not referring to any thirty-six specific strategies however, the thirty-six proverbs and their connection to military strategies and tactics are likely to have been created after the fact, with the collection only borrowing its name from Wáng's saying [3].

The Thirty-Six Strategies have variably been attributed to Sun Tzu from the Spring and Autumn Period of China, or Zhuge Liang of the Three Kingdoms period, but neither are regarded as the true author by historians. Instead, the prevailaing view is that the Thirty-Six Strategies may have originated in both written and oral history, with many different versions compiled by different authors throughout Chinese history [3].

22. Shut the door to catch the thief (Traditional Chinese: 關門捉賊; Simplified Chinese: 关门捉贼; pinyin: Guān mén zhōu zéi)

  • If you have the chance to completely capture the enemy then you should do so thereby bringing the battle or war to a quick and lasting conclusion. To allow your enemy to escape plants the seeds for future conflict. But if they succeed in escaping, be wary of giving chase.
It should be remembered that the first 18 strategies have to do with offense, and the second 18, with defense; broadly speaking.

If you don't catch the thief before he escapes, and give chase, you must be careful not to leave your home unguarded, lest the thief's companion plunders your undefended home.

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