Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us


There's a nifty book in China called the 三十六計. The "36 stratagems". Nobody knows when the book was written, though it must be old, the first mention of it goes back to the 5th century AD, when it was attributed to Tan Daoji 譚道濟, a general for the Liu Song Dynasty. The consensus is that he did indeed write it.

The 36 stratagems are organized as six different scenarios, with six stratagems each. Each stratagem is phrased as a catchy four letter idiom, the staple of Chinese vocabulary, and most of them have since become common idioms known even by small children. The book also quotes extensively the Yijing 易經, the Book of Changes, the famous book on divination. For no good reason really, but it does sound cool.

The six scenarios vary on the balance of power they apply to. Generally speaking half the stratagems apply to when you have an advantage in the war, when you are stronger than your enemy, while the other half are for when you are in a weaker position.

The last scenario is outright called 敗戦計 "tactics for when you're losing the war", and describe crafty attempts to gain an advantage or reverse the course of the fight. You may not be able to fight your enemy head on in the open, but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do. There's plenty of tactics that a committed force can use even when fighting a vastly stronger enemy.

For no reason in particular, certainly nothing to do with current events, I am going to make a series of posts translating the last 6 stratagems in the book, those to be used when you're losing the war. Interestingly the 6 last stratagems are the only ones not phrased as with 4-letter idioms. They are instead titled with two letters each, with the last one being three. I guess the author wanted to make the point that when you're losing the war you have no time for florid language and witty metaphors: just get to the fucking point.

And that he did. I'll translate the very last stratagem, also the most famous during the ages, being quoted in many pieces of literature since the book was written 1600 years ago.

On the translation: First line is the name of the stratagem. Second line is the original text, purportedly going back to the 5th century. Then comes the "按語", an elaboration written much later, probably in the mid Ming (15-16th century). I like my translations as literal as possible.


To run is best.

全師避敵 左次無咎 未失常也

Avoid the enemy with all your troops. There is no fault in retreat, no loss of normality in it.



If the enemy is achieving total victory, and we are unable to fight, one must surrender, make peace, or run. Surrender means complete defeat. Peace means half defeat. Running means no defeat. To be undefeated can be turned into victory.

Like the Song dynasty general Bi Zaiyu, who fighting the Jurchens, realized the Jurchen army was growing stronger every day and he couldn't compete. One evening he dismantled his camp, leaving his army banner in place, then got a sheep and hanged it from a rope, so that its front legs would be on top of an army drum. The sheep, distressed at hanging in the air, would hit the drums with its legs and make them sound [TN: as if the troops were still around]. The Jurchens didn't realize what was happening, waited in place for days until they finally noticed the retreat. They wanted to pursue the Song army but it had run too far by then. We can say he did well by running.

That's it for now, more stratagems to come later this week.


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  • "The book also quotes extensively the Yijing 已經, the Book of Changes"

    Caught a typo. 易经

    • Yeah well not a lot of readers if the book had mentioned the Yongli emperor.

  • Interesting. I've always assumed the popular saying meant "of the 36 stratagems, to run is the best one". Who would have thought that it's literally the full statement of one of the stratagems? Who would have thought?

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