The 36 Stratagems: Confused Situations

By Tyler DeWacht


Good job on making it this far! Around this time, your schedule may start to become rather hectic, if it hasn’t hit that point already. How do you handle chaotic circumstances? My goal here isn’t to tell you how to tackle this problem; I just want to offer you some strategies via the application of a collection of Chinese warfare tactics to a university setting. In this issue, I’d like to offer you some advice on this subject with the fourth set of the 36 Stratagems, the Stratagems For Confused Situations. In unpredictable situations, this is the set to consult. If you’re looking instead to intimidate your enemy, then consult the previous set, the Stratagems For Attack.


Without a source of fuel, a fire can only burn for so long before it begins to die out. When you Remove the Firewood from Under the Cauldron, you’re effectively killing that fire. This is what it means to use Stratagem 19. By turning off all technology while you’re working, you’re cutting off one of the most important weapons that procrastination possesses: the internet. You’ll be free to focus on your enemy assignment, since no time-wasting websites can tempt you. However, you’re also cutting off potentially useful resources that could help you defeat the enemy. If you have to cut off your own resources as well as that of the enemy, then make sure the trade-off is worth it before you try doing it.


One way to deal with chaos is to embrace the chaos–you can do this by using existing chaos, creating new chaos, and confusing your enemy so you can then gain the upper hand. That’s the strategy behind Stratagem 20, Fish in Troubled Waters. For example, if you’re trying to come up with a sensible writing topic but writer’s block keeps getting you down, then try writing about the most absurd thing you can come up with. If that absurdity can inspire you, then go for it!


In any performance, the performer has at least two sides to them: the side they want the audience to see, and the side that shows what the person is like when they aren’t in front of an audience. This is most prevalent in drama, but it’s also present in other forms of performance such as class presentations and sports events. A public persona is put up for the audience, hiding the performer’s true persona behind a shell. A cicada shell may look like a cicada to an external audience, but it’s not a cicada. This is Stratagem 21, Slough Off the Cicada’s Shell.


Stratagem 22, Shut the Door to Catch the Thief, centers on surrounding the enemy and cutting off their means of escape. By making it difficult for them to advance or retreat, you’ve essentially blockaded them, and you can either let them starve or eliminate them at your own pace. Students might not use this stratagem much, but professors do this all the time with tests. You normally can’t leave the testing area until you’re done, and moving forward requires working through the test problems. We can’t just avoid them either, since it also happens to be the only way to properly progress through university; it’s a necessary trap that we all have to walk into, one which culls the enemy that is our ignorance and over-confidence.


Next up is Stratagem 23: Befriend A Distant State While Attacking A Neighbor. The last thing any commander wants is to fight a war on multiple fronts–it’s more difficult to give troops orders, and they become vulnerable to attack from multiple sides. It’s more effective to befriend others than it is to fight everyone at once, and the same logic applies to assignments. Why do every assignment at once when you can space them out? A non-aggression pact (flimsy as it might be) temporarily prevents a war on multiple fronts. Don’t make an enemy out of the more distant assignments right away, place some priority on assignments with closer due dates. That way, you won’t constantly have to fight on multiple fronts. Of course, pay attention to those more distant assignments as well, peace doesn’t last forever. You don’t want to caught off-guard by something like a research essay.


To understand the meaning behind the name of Stratagem 24, Obtain Safe Passage to Conquer Guo, we must once again turn to historical context. During the Spring and Autumn Period of China’s history, the large state of Jin wanted to conquer the smaller states of Yu and Guo. However, it couldn’t do this while the two remained allies, their combined strength was too great. In order to conquer Guo, they first bribed Yu’s lord into helping them. Once Guo was conquered, Jin then turned on Yu and attacked them as well, thereby conquering both states. What parallels can be drawn here? Well, us students often have multiple assignments to deal with, and these assignments can occasionally overlap. If we borrow resources from one assignment, we can use those resources to deal with another assignment, then turning against the original assignment. Word of caution though, this is sometimes prohibited when these overlaps occur within the same class, so check the assignment restrictions before attempting this.


This has been the fourth set of the 36 Stratagems, the Stratagems for Confused Situations. Up next is the fifth set, the Stratagems for Gaining Ground. It’s exactly what it sounds like, strategies and tactics to help you keep moving forwards. I’m going to leave you with this message: life is unpredictable. Some plans can become useless at the drop of a hat, so keep calm and remain flexible in your planning.


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