Book Review: The Thirty-Six Strategems

The Thirty-Six Strategems: A Modern Interpretation of A Strategy Classic, by Peter Taylor

As a fond and often critical reader of ancient Chinese strategic texts [1], I am often amused at the way in which Chinese and Japanese strategic texts have been mined for contemporary business thought. Fortunately, this book comes with a warning that readers would do well to heed–the strategies in this book are not to be tried when one is looking for a win-win situation. The adoption of the strategems in this book (most of which are based on deception and misdirection and might be seen by some as being unethical as a result) are a clear sign of hostility and mistrust. My own personal reasons for reading this book and others like it is to recognize when others are being dishonest with me, as I tend to be honest (even a bit too honest at times), and so gaining a bit of subtlety is something that can be of use given the general context of my life.

This particular book, almost coincidentally, contains 36 strategies, of which half are to be used in advantageous positions and half in disadvantageous positions. The last six strategies of the book are to be used in the most disadvantageous positions of all, what are termed to be desperate positions (which, if we are honest, most of us have faced at one point or another), and include the only straightforward of the 36 strategems, which is to retreat if all else fails. The general structure of the discussion of these strategems is fairly straightforward and consistent. First, they are introduced in translation, then they are described with examples from Chinese history and/or contemporary business practice (this is a book clearly aimed at business executives who want to defeat and humble their rivals, or to avoid being defeated or humbled themselves, or who like to see others be defeated and humbled, as the case may be), and then there are specific hints given as to ways to use these strategies effectively.

What a reader gets out of a book like this depends in large part on what sort of interests and assumptions a reader brings into it. Those readers who are interested in tactical matters, have at least some interest in Chinese military history or business tactics, and who are willing to learn about deception even if only for the purpose of recognizing it in others will find much of worth in the 150 or so pages that follow. Those who have no such interests will not find this book to be greatly of interest at all, and some readers may even be positively offended by the somewhat amoral tone of the editor of this work, which does not directly or indirectly praise Christian virtue in any way whatsoever. As an illustration of how business leaders (and generals, who business leaders often model themselves after) actually behave in this present evil world, this book is immensely useful, although it is a deeply cynical work.

I should also note, for the reader who is at least somewhat familiar with Chinese history already, that this particular work has variant spellings for many Chinese names that are somewhat familiar to readers under different forms. For example, the author uses Ci instead of Chi and Cin instead of Ch’in to describe those two famous nations of the late warring states period, one of whom is responsible for the name of China to begin with. It would appear that the author’s attempt to use modernized Chinese, which uses the pinyin transliteration scheme instead of the more familiar and older one that most texts directed to Western audiences use, is aimed at showing the author as familiar with the latest practices of Chinese thought. Readers should be alert to the fact that the book uses different spellings for names that would be familiar to those who are at least somewhat well-read in translations of Chinese texts. It should also be noted that the word strategems does not make this a strategic work, as this work is really a work on the tactical level focusing on different tricks that someone can use to put their enemy or rival in a disadvantageous position, whether by inflaming their lusts, feigning weakness or strength, or some other means. Those readers looking for in-depth strategic thought will be disappointed, but those looking for notable tactics to gain short-term advantage or long-term victory in a struggle will find much to reflect on, even if not all of it is pleasant.

[1] Here are a few examples:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: The Thirty-Six Strategems

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Mastering The Art Of War | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Red Teaming | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Non-Book Review: China’s Quest For Great Power | Edge Induced Cohesion

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