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 ~

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The 36 Strategies: #32, Scheme With An Empty Castle

Next to Sun Tzu's Art of War, the 37 Strategies is the most widely known and read book on Chinese strategy. Where the Art of War is an overview of the whole subject of the study of strategy, the 36 Strategies attempts to impart the knack of strategic thinking through a set of 36 maxims.

The study of strategy is important to us if only to recognize when someone else is trying to benefit at your expense by employing various strategies.

32. Scheme with an empty castle

You appear weaker than you really are, so that opponents may defeat themselves by one of three reactions to your supposed weakness: They may become conceited and complacent, leading to their downfall; they may become arrogant and aggressive, leading to their destruction; or they may assume you are setting up an ambush, leading them to flee of their own accord.

In the first instance, you are intentionally allowing yourself to be underestimated. Being underestimated, your opponent will likely make mistakes when trying to manipulate you. Those mistakes are the gaps you can use to counter attack with strategies of your own.

The second instance is a little more complex. There is a story from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which is a direct application of this strategy. It concerns Zhuge Liang, one of the greatest generals in Chinese history.

s is the description of the incident from Wikipedia:

In the legend from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge Liang led six expeditions to the north from Hanzhong through Qishan in hopes of capturing Chang'an. In the 1st expedition, his efforts were undermined by the loss of Jieting, a passageway into Hanzhong. This was due to the defiance of Ma Su, who refused to listen to the Prime Minister's orders to barricade the pathway. With the loss of Jieting, Zhuge Liang's current location, Xicheng (西城), is in great danger. Having sent out all the troops and left with a handful of civil officials, Zhuge Liang decides to use a ploy to ward off the advancing Wei army.

Zhuge Liang ordered all the gates to be opened and had civilians sweeping the roads while he sat high up on the gates calmly playing his zither with two children beside him. When the Wei commander and strategist Sima Yi approached the fort with the Wei army, he was puzzled by the scenery and ordered his troops to retreat.

Zhuge Liang later told the bewildered civil officials that the strategy only worked because Sima Yi is a man of suspicion, the latter having personally witnessed the success of Zhuge Liang's highly effective ambushing and misdirection tactics many times before. Furthermore, Zhuge Liang had a reputation as a keen but extremely careful military tactician who rarely took risks. Zhuge's well-known caution coupled with Sima Yi's own suspicious nature led Sima Yi to the conclusion that entry into the apparently empty city would have drawn his troops into an ambush. It is unlikely the same strategy would have worked on someone else, and indeed Sima Yi's son Sima Zhao saw through the ruse immediately and counselled his father against retreat.

Because of the lack of historical evidence and lack of logic, historians generally consider this encounter a creation of Luo Guanzhong and common folklore.

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