Japan’s ancient hero, Prince Yamato, was once sent by his father the Emperor Keiko to subdue a notorious bandit. A superb swordsman, the bandit killed anyone who tried to stop him. Yamato knew better than to confront such a swordsman openly, instead he pretended to be ignorant of his reputation and befriended him.

Then one day the bandit went for a swim and while he was gone Yamato replaced the bandit’s sword with a wooden sword that he wedged tightly into the scabbard. When the bandit returned and finished dressing Yamato revealed his true mission and asked him to surrender peacefully. The bandit laughed at the young prince’s challenge but when he went for his sword he couldn’t draw it from its scabbard. While the bandit struggled to un-sheath his blade, Yamato slew him with a single stroke.

The moral of this story is really not a moral but a strategy, actually four strategies.
The first is don’t try to beat an opponent at what he’s best at. The second is known as Hide Your Dagger Behind a Smile and is self-explanatory. The third is to undermine the source of your opponent’s strength, and the fourth is never leave your sword unattended. Yamato has been admired in Japanese history not for his skill as a swordsman, but for his cunning use of tactics. For the Chinese and Japanese warriors of the past, strength and skill that was not balanced with patience and cunning was considered hollow and ultimately useless.

For the modern martial artist the sparring arena is his own personal battlefield. His mind is the general and his arms and feet are his troops. A general who signals his left battalion to initiate a diversionary skirmish is the same as a fighter faking a left jab. And as in ancient times it is the study of military strategy that can provide a winning edge over your opponents in the both sparring ring or back alley.

The following four strategies are from The Thirty-Six Strategies. First published during the Ming dynasty its origin dates back to early antiquity although the author or originator are unknown. Little known in the west, the Thirty Six Strategies are popular in the East and have long been a part of China’s common folklore.

Beat The Grass To Startle The Snake

When you cannot detect the opponent’s plans you launch a direct, but brief, attack and observe your opponent’s reaction. His behavior will reveal his strategy. A seasoned warrior knows this strategy well and will not reveal his true intentions. But the inexperienced, nervous of making a mistake, will over-react to feints and will thus reveal their intentions.

This strategy is a variation of a feint but is used to test the opponent’s defenses. The basic idea is to quickly close the distance as though attacking and then stop just outside critical range and watch your opponent’s reaction. In empty hand combat there are only three defensive strategies one can use; to intercept, to jam and block, and to evade and counter. The intercept method is favored by the tall fighter with a long reach who can rain jabs down on his opponent before he’s close enough to hit him. The jam and block method is favored by the stocky fighter who is built like a tank and can block incoming attacks like swatting away flies. The evade and counter is favored by the agile fighter who doesn’t look strong and will back away from an attack, but in the next instant slides in and scores two points before his opponent even realizes what happened. Each has his strengths, each has his weaknesses. Once you know which strategy your opponent favors you simply employ its counter. Against the interceptor use Steal The Firewood From Under the Pot ; to take away the advantage of his reach, his source of strength. Against the blocker use Clamor In The East, Attack In The West; by blocking feints he will be left open to the true attack. Against the quick and agile use Trouble The Waters To Catch The Fish; since a confused fighter is slower to react no matter how fast he is.

Steal The Firewood From Under the Pot

When faced with an enemy too powerful to engage directly you must first weaken him by undermining his foundation and attacking his source of power.

Japan’s famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi calls this strategy injuring the corners, and advises that “When you cannot risk coming in close to your opponent because of his strength or reach, then attack what is within your reach.” The idea is to injure the attacker’s hand, arm, or leg and wear the opponent down through multiple injuries. For example, if the opponent kicks, use your foot to jam down on the knee or shins of the incoming leg; if the opponent punches; use a forearm block with the intention of not just blocking, but also injuring the attacker’s arm or elbow; if he reaches out to grab you, grab his fingers and break them.

In the sparring ring using this method means injuring your opponent but not too much. Instead of using your forearms to block, move in a little closer and use your elbows. Anyone that has had his kick or punch land on his opponent’s elbow can tell you the pain is intense. In a match you can often tell when an attacker has unexpectedly made contact with an elbow since he’ll stop using that limb immediately. After a couple of seriously painful blocks your opponent will become wary of using his long range techniques. It is then up to you to take advantage of his hesitation, close the distance, and score.

Clamor in the East, Attack in the West

Create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint. If you plan to attack on the right flank, maneuver your left. Where the enemy expects you to attack he will reinforce. When he does so half his army or more is thus neutralized defending nothing. Then with your full strength you attack his remaining forces.

The feint is a form of distraction whereby the opponent is fooled into believing you are attacking in a certain manner and when he reacts, you change your attack to strike somewhere unexpected. For example, if you move towards your opponent with your hand raised overhead as though wielding a club most defenders will automatically raise their arms to block the anticipated attack. This would leave them open to a low attack such as a front snap kick to the solar plexus. The permutations are endless but follow a simple principle, if you wish to attack high, then feint low, if you wish to hit left, then feint right. In the sparring ring unless you are using the strategy Create Something From Nothing 1 your first move should never be intended to score. An opening move is usually easily perceived by your opponent and thus has little chance of scoring. It is while your opponent is reacting to the first move that his perception is distracted enough that a second move following quickly behind the first will not be seen coming. The key to using this one-two combination is timing. For example, an effective combination is the lead hand back-fist/side-kick combination where you slide in faking a lead hand back-fist to draw your opponent’s guard up and then follow with a lead leg side- kick. The timing has to be a `one-two’ rhythm, if you take the time to withdraw the back-fist and then slide into the kick there is too long a pause and the opponent will see the kick coming. Ideally the kick should land the instant the opponent raises his guard.

Trouble the Water to Catch the Fish

Before engaging your enemy’s forces you create confusion to weaken his perception and judgment. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected, this will arouse the enemy’s suspicion and disrupt his thinking. A distracted enemy is thus more vulnerable.

Distraction can by applied in different ways to upset the opponent’s concentration. On a street level this can be done by throwing objects at the attacker, kicking sand or dirt into his face, spitting, knocking over garbage cans or furniture, or a sudden and powerful yell. But for the sparring ring more subtle distractions are needed. Magicians attract attention to one hand by a suspicious movement while the other hand secretly `palms’ the coin. In fighting, one attracts the opponent’s attention by some suspicious movement away from where the true attack will come from. Almost anything out of the ordinary will act as distraction; the key is in being strange, different, unexpected, out of place. For example I once saw a fighter suddenly drop his hands and pretend to run out of the ring. Then, using a quick cross-step, he circled in on his opponent’s flank and scored with a hook kick to the side of the head. This caught both the opponent and the audience by surprise since no one expected him to attack from that angle. In empty hand sparring almost all fighters will attack in a direct line to his opponent. The classic military strategy of out-flanking your enemy is difficult to accomplish in one-on-one sparring. It was this fighter’s sudden dropping of his hands and the comic attempt to run out of the ring that distracted his opponent enough so that he could out-flank him before he had time to react.


While the above examples illustrate some general principles of strategy there are no set rules that will guarantee victory. The use of strategy is as much art as science and it is through practice and experience that one learns this art. But knowing a couple tactics is enough to make a difference since even a single strategy can be adapted to apply to many scenarios. This is what Sun Tzu meant when he wrote “Through the combination of direct and indirect attacks countless strategies are conceived.”

1 See article Fight Smart!Ancient Chinese Strategies Can Bring Victory In The Sparring Ring.

Stefan Verstappen is a writer and martial arts practitioner who has lived and traveled throughout the Far East. He is a frequent contributor for Black Belt, and Inside Kung Fu Magazine and author of , The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China, Blind Zen, Little Warriors and Chinese Business Etiquette.
Author’s website: www.chinastrategies.com
You can e-mail Stefan with questions and comments to sverstappen@yahoo.com

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