China I: China and the stratagems

(Published in GralsWelt 5/1997)

When people talk about “economic growth” today, one looks confusedly at East Asia.
The economy is expanding there, there have been growth rates in production for years that classic industrialized countries can only dream of, and there one expects the fast-growing markets of the future, in which Europe and America have to be present if they do not want to crash into post- industrial societies that admire the achievements of their ancestors in museums but can hardly produce and export themselves.


China is at the center of economic expectations for East Asia; despite the Japanese, despite the "little tigers" (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) and the "new tiger states" such as Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam. China is the awakening giant; The most populous country on earth has an abundance of people (currently more than 20 million are said to be on the go looking for work), has as yet untapped raw material stores and a bee-industrious population that wants to get rich.

The fact that Chinese merchants have been considered the most skilled in their field for centuries also suggests a lot.

Chinese culture has had an impact on neighboring countries for many centuries and has long been considered a model for all of East Asia. From the Chinese point of view, the cultures of Korea and Japan are only plagiarisms of the Chinese culture, while Taiwan, Tibet, Vietnam and Mongolia belong to the Chinese empire anyway for historical reasons.

Reason enough to deal with the Chinese mentality, which is very strange to us.

An interesting first introduction to the wisdom of East Asia is offered by Harro von Senger's “Stratagems”, which was recently published as an inexpensive paperback (see bibliography).


Stratagems, these are "lists of war" with which you can not only deceive and duped your opponents in times of war.

Do not disdain any cunning in war.
(Old Chinese saying)

The stratagems have been collected and passed on in China for thousands of years. They first appeared in writing in the world's oldest treatise on military theory, a treatise on the art of war by Sun Wu (or Sun Zi), a contemporary of Confucius (551 - 479 BC), which - in a new version from 1984 - ranked among the 20 most representative books of Chinese culture.

For a long time, the "36 stratagems" of today were more or less secret knowledge, but stratagems are used in many classic Chinese novels, and the relevant guiding principles are proverbial idioms that every Chinese from childhood is familiar with.

A typical example of such a stratagem can be found in the adjacent box.

A peach tree grows by an open well. A plum tree grows next to a peach tree. Insects come and gnaw at the roots of the peach tree. The plum tree (sacrifices itself, offers its roots to the insects and) withers instead of the peach tree. When trees sacrifice one another, are brothers allowed to forget one another?

But not in all examples does the plum tree voluntarily accept the sacrifice. Here is a historical example:
THE CHANGSHA FIRE: In the second half of the 1930s, when the Chinese were fighting the Japanese in their country, Zhang Zhizhong (1890-1969) resided in Changsha as governor of Hunan Province. A Taipeh stratagem book reports in the chapter on the stratagem "The plum tree withers instead of the peach tree" details about an incident from Zhang Zhizhong's Hunan time, which are not mentioned in official history books.
After the Japanese conquered the city of Wuhan (Hubei Province) in October 1938, the situation for Changsha, where Zhang Zhizhong resided, seemed to be getting precarious. Due to the misinterpretation of a situation report, Zhang Zhizhong believed that the Japanese troops had already captured Xinqianghe, just a few kilometers from Changsha. In a panic, he ordered that Changsha be set on fire and then holed up with the troops in Qingye. The capital of Hunan went up in flames on November 12, 1938. On November 14th the fire was extinguished; over 30,000 residents were killed.
But no Japanese showed up. Closer investigation revealed that the situation report in question referred to the Xinhe base, a few dozen kilometers from Changsha, and not Xinqianghe.
The senseless burning of Changsha caused a sensation. Zhang Zhizhong's head was challenged. The higher authorities ordered a strict investigation. But Zhang Zhizhong was not at a loss for a stratagem. He argued to garrison commander Feng Ti, police chief Wen Zhongfu, and security group commander Xu Kun:
“This incident concerns us all. We cannot reject responsibility. However, if we are all arrested together, then it will be all over. So it is better for you to take over the entire responsibility for the time being. In the meantime, I'll go to headquarters and sort things out. The situation can certainly still be saved. "
The three subordinates agreed. This enabled Zhang Zhizhong to evade his responsibility. He went to Chongqing, the then capital of China, where he allegedly not only did nothing to save the three subordinates, but on the contrary "threw down the stones that had fallen into the well". At his instigation, the three loyal followers were shot and those who knew about his failure were eliminated.
In this case, the three plum trees were duped by the peach tree and sacrificed. By the way, Zhang Zhizhong had a steep career in the People's Republic of China.

In a “Lexicon of Contemporary Chinese History” (Beijing 1985), the Changsha fire is described in a similar way, only that the responsibility for the execution of the three allegedly sole guilty parties is blamed on the Guomindang government. She wanted to divert popular anger away from the three scapegoats. The encyclopedia only states that Zhang Zhizhong was "also disciplined".

From: "Stratagems - Instructions for Thinking"; Chinese wisdom from three millennia, collected, translated and interpreted by Harro von Senger.

Reading the stratagems, especially the clear application examples, makes it clear that people think differently in Asia than in Europe. “Christian ethics” does not play a decisive role in large parts of Asia, and Western philosophy is as a rule better known to an educated Asian than to us Europeans the Chinese; but that does not mean that the Asian accepts European or American thinking and prefers it to Chinese wisdom.

This leads to an important conclusion that we Westerners should never forget when we come into contact with Asians: when the conversation turns to statecraft, for example, the name Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 - 1527) inevitably comes up with his "II Principe" that an educated Asian should be familiar with. It is less likely that a European has heard of Sun Wu, who wrote treatises on the art of war two thousand years before Machiavelli. (Cf. “Brief, terse, curious” page 92 “Politics without morals”).


It is similar with many of the basic ideas and foundations of western civilization.

So we must be aware that the terms that are so important for our political life such as "human rights", "civil liberties", "separation of powers" etc., as well as the American Declaration of Independence, the human rights declarations of the French Revolution, and the Charter of the United Nations are all products of the Enlightenment philosophy that never existed in all of Asia. Only "democracy" can be traced back to ancient Greek models - even if only as a form of government of a slave-owning state that perished because of its form of democracy.

For an Asian, on the other hand, the philosophers of the Enlightenment are at best a newer species of Western thinkers, by no means the wisest of the world's wise men.

In East Asia one would prefer to refer to Confucius, whose teachings (from an Asian point of view) have proven themselves in practice for two and a half millennia, and who shape Asian social structures to this day. The teachings of Lao-Tse (6th century BC?) And especially those of Buddha (approx. 560-480 BC) are still present and are taught and lived in East Asia.

So if an Asian who was trained at Western universities, practices modern technology and modern marketing in his home country and listens to classical European music with enthusiasm, that does not mean that he also admires Western civilization wholeheartedly and is ready, the so-called To take over “modern thinking” completely.

Because the roots of Asian ethics are deeply rooted in very old traditions. The Far Eastern peoples draw strength from it, and often their views and their insights into the world and life go very well with applied western technology.


Quite a few Chinese, looking back on their very old culture, which is still having an unbroken effect today, even feel superior to the West and develop the ambition to prove to the "long-nosed barbarians" the superiority of Asian culture in economic competition, to them with the fund to buy your own “stratagems” from the Schneid. -

Read the articles under "History": "China part II„, „China part III„, „1421 When China discovered the world ".

(1) Harro von Senger: "Stratagems - Instructions for Survival", dtv, Munich, 1996.
(2) Sun Tsu: "Truly wins if you don't fight", Hermann Bauer, Freiburg 1997.