Introduction to 三十六计

The Chinese people have been around for thousands of years and throughout their recorded history, they would fall back on the experience of their ancestors to find ways out of a difficult or dangerous situation. When they have lofty plans, they look to history for a clever strategy to defeat a stronger opponent.

三十六计 – most often translated as the “36 Strategems”, is actually a compilation of 36 classical tricks and ploys. They have been identified mostly from military tactics and political maneuvers. It should be noted that 36 is just a convenient number. There is a considerable amount of overlap between the various tricks.

For the longest time, 三十六计 has been read and studied purely for entertainment. But with the rise of China and a growing interest in Chinese culture, translators and editors got to work on 三十六计, resulting in a myriad of titles which expand on the original ideas. As with Sunzi Art of War, publishers have marketed these books on the same theme; as educational manuals for managers and businessmen, equating war situations with various scenarios in the business environment.

Of course, one has to admit that there are some similarities between war and business, but readers also need to realize that 三十六计 was never meant to be a business manual. But for marketing purposes, even the modern Chinese versions of 三十六计 have distorted the original meanings to suit the target audience.

Suffice to say that a lot of the advice given in books which claim to be 三十六计 come from the authors’ own beliefs and philosophies and have very little to do with the original meaning of 三十六计.

To be fair, 三十六计does have modern applications, but make no mistake, these are tricks and ploys. Applying them would require at least some suppression of one’s conscience, leading to acts which may prove cruel, unethical or even unlawful.

Regardless of whether you find these books useful to the management of your business, 三十六计 in its true and original form are best described as dirty tricks. They may or may not be applicable to businesses, but their application almost always causes someone to suffer.

My version of 三十六计 36 Dirty Tricks From Ancient China adheres to the original meaning of this compilation. I can’t guarantee that you’ll gain anything you can apply to your business, but it is quite likely to entertain you and may even help you improve your EQ in spotting and managing some of the assholes in Chinese society.

Chan Joon Yee

Singapore 2019