There once lived an old man in northern China who was a great fortune teller. One day, his horse ran away to the land of the savages. The villagers all gave the old man their condolences, but the old man said without a hint of sorrow:
“Who knows? This may bring good fortune.”
A few months later, the horse came back with the fastest horse of the savages. When the villagers praised the old man, he said without a shred of joy:
“Who knows? This may bring bad fortune.”
Then one day, the old man’s son who loved horse riding fell off the savage’s horse and broke his leg. When the villagers tried to cheer him up, the old man replied in a calm manner:
“Who knows? This may bring good fortune.”
A year later, when the savages attacked the village, all of the young men had to fight them and ultimately died during battle. But the old man’s son survived as he was lame.
Nothing in life is certain. Good and bad, luck and misfortune come in random order in life and cannot be predicted. Thus, it is wiser to enjoy every day as it is, throw away all of your preconceptions of the future and dream and hope for the best.
Can you describe a reed that sways and bends to and fro in the face of wind as strong? Most people associate the word “strong” with something like a tree that stands tall and grand, never bowing to the will of the wind. However, the reed teaches us the important lesson of the strength of flexibility. When a storm strikes, what is left behind are not strips of reed but smashed pieces of wood.
A rigid tree appears strong because it stands so tall and does not move, but in the face of strong winds the opposite happens. As a tree does not bend much, it must face the full force of the wind and ultimately the tree snaps when there is sufficient force. On the other hand, the reed flows and bends in the direction of the wind, deflecting the force away. Not only that, but a reed has both flexibility and elasticity, meaning no matter how much they are bent and beat down, they can stand back up. Ergo, flexibility is stronger than rigidity. Skyscrapers use this concept and they are designed to sway on a windy day. The philosophy is also adopted in martial arts, with deflecting a strike to the side being a far more effective defence than taking the force of the strike directly.
Flexibility has far greater implications than withstanding the wind or a strike. The most important example is personal relationships. A person who never bends and sticks to their opinions may deem themselves “tough”, but they are in fact just a stubborn idiot drowning in a pool of arrogance. Sure, if it is a very important debate then you should stand your ground and state your opinions, but in a normal conversation it is just foolish to angrily state that you are right and never back down. It is far wiser to be flexible like a reed and meet the other person halfway, bending slightly to see their opinions and reach a peaceful agreement. If you stand tall like a tree you will end up standing alone on the same spot forever, but if you can bend to the other person’s flow like a reed, you can have a healthy relationship with them and co-operate. If both sides bend a little for each other, then they can have a smooth conversation and be able to establish co-operation, understanding and solidarity. Flexibility makes both you and the other person happy and allow for co-existence – something that is inevitable in human societies.
The tree may tease and mock the reed for its apparent helplessness and docility against the wind, but after the storm has passed, only the reed still stands. Remember this: instead of ignoring another person’s views and repeating the same words over and over, listening carefully to the other person and being flexible and tolerant is a far wiser and braver act. A wise man is someone who possesses the wisdom and benevolence of being flexible like the reed.
Desperate Stratagems are last resort tactics that can be used when you are placed in a disadvantageous state or risk losing the war.
Stratagem 31: No weapon could beat seduction This is the strategy where you use a beautiful woman to tempt the enemy to extract information or undermine their will to fight. It is a deadly strategy that never fails.
Stratagem 32: Empty fort strategy Purposefully empty your fort to show the enemy that you are defenceless, causing them to think that it is a trap and retreat. It was effectively used by Zhuge Liang in The Three Kingdoms.
Stratagem 33: Countermine the enemy’s spy Use the enemy’s spy to spread false information or use them as a double agent that can extract the enemy’s intelligence. The “double spies” and “dead spies” from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War fit under this stratagem.
Stratagem 34: Sacrifice yourself to comfort the enemy Inflict injury on yourself to win the enemy’s trust. For victory, you may have to sacrifice even the dearest things such as your wife or most loyal servant.
Stratagem 35: Chain stratagems This is an elaborate strategy where you first restrict the enemy’s movement then make use of a series of tactics one by one to decimate the enemy. The most famous example is from The Three Kingdoms in the Battle of Red Cliffs. All of the ships of Wei were linked by chains and could not move freely, making them vulnerable to a fire and causing Cao Cao to lose the battle in an instant.
Stratagem 36: If all else fails, retreat It is often misquoted as “retreat is the best option”. The Thirty-Six Stratagems explain that retreating is not the most ideal option, but if there is no chance of winning and the cost will be too much, it is wiser to retreat then fight again after reinforcing your forces. Knowing to retreat when you are disadvantaged and the cost is too high is true wisdom.
By utilising these thirty-six stratagems wisely, you will be able to win no matter what situation strikes. Remember: life is a fierce battlefield and without effective strategies and tactics you cannot seize victory.
The following is an excerpt from the Analects by Confucius, titled The Secret of Politics:
Confucius’ disciple Zi-gong asked him: “What is politics?”
Confucius replied: “The key to politics is to make food plentiful(足食), keep enough soldiers(足兵) and earn the people’s trust(民信).”
Zi-gong thought about this, but decided it was too hard to do all three. He asked again: “If you had to give up one, which would you choose?”
Confucius replied: “I would give up the soldiers.”
Zi-gong asked again: “If you had to give up one more thing, which would you choose?”
Confucius thought for a minute and said: “I would give up food. If you believe, you can withstand hunger for a while and withstand the hardships of war, but if you lose trust you will immediately lose everything.”
The character 信 stands for trust, which is believing in another person. Of course there must be trust among the people, but Confucius teaches us that the trust between the people and their leaders is the most important. In fact, with trust and faith you can overcome anything. If you can respect and trust in your leaders, you can endure hunger and at times, even summon the strength to defeat your enemies with your bare hands.
An administration that has lost the hearts of the people will fail.
A wise man points at the moon, but the fool looks at the finger. (Chinese proverb)
The wise man explains that his finger is not important and what should be looked at is the moon, but the fool carefully listens to him and thinks that he is a very good speaker. (a modern adaptation of the proverb)
The wise man pleads the fool to look at the damn moon, but the fool is only afraid and does not look up. (a very modern adaptation of the proverb)
The wise man finally gives up talking about the moon and instead starts talking about his finger, which he thinks the fool will be more interested in. The fool then says to himself, that the wise man is someone who is able to explain his own stories to others in an easily understandable manner, and that he can talk about any subject – even a random thing such as a finger. (an even more modern adaptation of the proverb)
When the wise man dies, the fool asks himself: “So really, what was it the wise man tried to explain to us lifting his finger so high?” (the ultimate adaptation of the proverb)