REVIEW Ancient tactics for modern battles The 36 Secret Strategies of the Martial Arts by Hiroshi
Moriya with translation and foreword by William Scott Wilson
Reviewed by Michael Jen-Siu
When groups of protesters tire out Chinese officials with relentless payment
demands after state-sponsored heists of their property, savvy authorities often
settle disputes without a stroke of a baton or even a sentence in a labor or
re-education camp. They research each protest leader looking for exploitable
weaknesses. Some agitators shut up if they get paid. Others go away if faced
with a minor threat against a relative. Eventually the local government weakens
the whole movement by indulging the weaknesses of enough potential threats.
Payoffs, threats and other bloodless sneak attacks happen
throughout ambitious, but largely lawless,
China today. Government agencies use these methods to take people's land for
rapid, lucrative redevelopment and then squelch dissent. University students
quietly flatter or bribe weak-willed teachers to get good grades after months
of cutting classes. No-name job seekers send gullible prospective employers
anonymous notes to smear more illustrious fellow applicants.
core strategies for foiling opponents came from China centuries before any of
today's practitioners of the tactics were born, author-professor Hiroshi Moriya
would argue in his book The 36 Strategies of Martial Arts. In the early
1980s, Moriya, an accomplished scholar of Chinese culture and philosophy,
analyzed and explained these strategies in a book published in Japanese. Now,
renowned translator William Scott Wilson has translated the original Chinese
maxims and Moriya's interpretive research into English.
The ancient Chinese generally didn't want a bloody fight, especially if there
were high odds of losing, Moriya argues. Today's officials, wary of the 1989
Tiananmen massacre, know they would lose an international public relations
battle if they used violence against protesting citizens. So they, and other
modern Chinese in schools, offices and even big messy families, use some of
these old battle strategies to get one over on perceived adversaries while
The strategies, taken from the I Ching, which was theoretically written almost
5,000 years ago, rely on deception and other psych-outs, eliminating the need
for much real firepower, Moriya effectively explains. His 255-page guide to
shafting your enemy concisely describes each strategy and gives examples of how
Chinese dynastic leaders would wield it in battle. Several chapters describe
how Mao Zedong's armies applied the theories, and how those ruses were adopted
by the former Soviet Union and Germany in World War II and elsewhere.
Among the more memorable strategies:
Make an enemy think you're doing
one thing while you sneakily do another;
divide a strong army geographically and then
reduce it by attacking the weak points;
exploit dissent within enemy ranks and keep
faking attacks until an enemy thinks you're not
really up for a real fight - then finally wage war
when least expected. A garrison commander during
the Tang Dynasty, for example, twice lowered 1,000
soldier-like straw mannequins down a fortress wall
in front of rebel forces, who rolled their
collective eyes. When he sent in real soldiers
later, the enemy imagined mannequins again and
quickly lost the battle.
explains how ancient Chinese would delude an enemy
into suspecting internal dissent among powerful
leaders, leading to the elimination of the people
most likely to win a battle. In that spirit,
Stalin executed a top general, Marshal
Tohachevski, after Hitler secretly fabricated
documents that accused him of treason.
"Recent times have produced good examples
of this strategy, even though you might think that
such a transparent, wedge-driving ploy would no
longer be effective," Moriya writes. He adds that
this strategy "has an equally comfortable home in
the relations between individuals as well".
Other lessons, we learn, can be used to
beat bigger rivals in business, say by introducing
niche products that mega-companies haven't
produced. "I would request strongly that it be
read as a book whose practices can enliven our
present world," Moriya writes.
But 90% of
the examples come from Chinese history, dropping
barrages of obscure names and places that could be
cited in generic terms without detracting from
otherwise concise and fluidly narrated stories
about how the strategies were used. The emphasis
on historical detail will frustrate a non-scholar
of Asian history who reads to get hints about
battle plans against an industry competitor or
Some strategies have also
been compromised by law-driven modern societies.
If the modern incarnation of Japanese swordsman
Yamamoto Kansuke punched a hole in a business
competitor's boat as he did in the book's
foreword, he'd simply be charged with vandalism. A
special prosecutor would be assigned to sniff out
fraud in a developed country if someone today
followed Hitler's example of preparing fake
documents to convince Stalin that his general was
a traitor. Moriya needs to bring the strategies up
The book is available now in
Japan and will be out in Europe and Australia plus
elsewhere in Asia this May.
The 36 Secret Strategies of the Martial Arts: The Classic Chinese Guide for Success in War, Business
and Life by Hiroshi Moriya with translation and
foreword by William Scott Wilson. Kodansha
International Ltd, Japan (April 3, 2008) .
ISBN-10: 4770030649. Price US$19, 256 pages.
Michael Jen-Siu is a freelance writer in Greater China.