The Self-Injury Stratagem in “The 36 Stratagems” Part 1

Overview: Explain the Self-Injury Stratagem 苦肉計 in the Chinese Military text "The Thirty Six Stratagems." Site 3 historical examples that demonstrate the use of the Self-Injury Stratagem. Discuss 3 of the 6 business applications and show a dozen of cases studies, including Macy's, Amazon, Alibaba, and Johnson & Johnson.


  • How did Alibaba kick eBay out from China?
  • How did Groupon help and destroy small businesses?
  • How did Lenovo revive Dell and HP?
  • How did a former emperor win back his kingdom by eating shit — yes, poop?

They all share a common strategy.


I am Fanny Lawren.

In Ancient Wisdom for Everyone, I will share with you how exceptional leaders have used ancient Chinese strategies and philosophy to win in battlefields and reach business goals.

More importantly, I will show you how to apply such wisdom in your everyday life so YOU can be a better CEO of your life.

Episode Introduction

The first ancient wisdom I am going to talk about is The Self-Injury Stratagem (苦肉計 Kǔròujì). i.e. Inflict injury on oneself to win the target’s trust.

I will use historical examples, business case studies and some life scenarios to help you better understand this stratagem. Since we have a lot to cover, we are going to break it down into two episodes. Yay!

In this episode, I will tell you 3 very dramatic historical examples; and 3 ways of using the stratagem in business with more than a dozen business cases studies, including Macy’s, Amazon, Johnson & Johnson… house names you all know.

In the next episode, I will tell you other ways of using the stratagem in business. We will go over how Apple, Uber, Alibaba use it. I will also show you a couple applications in life scenarios.

I know, there is so much. But hey, don’t you like to listen to true stories? I promise you, it is going to be fun fun fun. Stay with me to learn one of the most common yet not quite understood thinking approach.

Original Quote

With thousand years of history and countless wars , you could imagine Chinese has many military texts, aka “books”. One of my favorites is The Thirty-six Stratagems (三十六計 Sānshíliù Jì). It illustrates a series of stratagems used in politics, at war, as well as in civil interaction, like our everyday life. The Self-Injury Stratagem is the #34 in the book.

A lot of people think The Thirty-six Stratagems is part of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (孫子兵法 Sūnzi Bīngfǎ). It is not.

The Art of War is more about situation analysis, overall planning, and high level strategies, that’s my point of view. The Thirty-six Stratagems is more about tactics and tricks, I think.

Here is the original quote in Mandarin:

人不自害,受害必真。假真真假,間以得行。童蒙之吉,順以巽也。(Rén bù zìhài, shòuhài bì zhēn. Jiǎ zhēn zhēn jiǎ, jiān yǐ dé xíng. Tóngméng zhī jí, shùn yǐ xùnyě.)

Now in Cantonese, 人不自害,受害必真。假真真假,間以得行。童蒙之吉,順以巽也。I sound better than the machine, right? Thank you. Thank you.

Now English translation: People don’t inflict injuries on themselves. Any injuries would be perceived as unintentional. When the false looks real, sowing discord can be implemented. Earn the trust. Success will follow.

If you don’t know what I have just said, don’t worry. You are normal. If you do, impressive! Either way, let me explain.

Historical Example #1: Assassination of Qìng Jì

Pretending to be injured has two advantages: First, the enemy would lower their guard as they no longer consider you as an immediate threat. Second, ingratiating yourself with the enemy by pretending the injury was caused by a mutual enemy conserves your strength while your enemies fight each other.

Got it? Here is an example.

In the Spring and Autumn period (春秋時代 Chūnqiū shídài) — that was a peak war time of the Chinese history (it lasted from 771 BC to 476 BC) — Hé Lú 闔閭 killed the emperor of Wú Kingdom 吳國 and declared himself emperor.

The deceased emperor’s son, Qìng Jì 慶忌, was gathering strong and able men, planning to overthrow Hé Lú. Prince Qìng Jì was intelligent and brave.

Hé Lú was worried. He hired Yào Lí 要離 to assassinate him. Yào Lí was physically tiny, but smart and fearless. He revealed to Hé Lú his drastic plan to assassinate Qìng Jì.

First, Yào Lí was arrested for publicly offending the emperor. To make the arrest more credible, his right arm was chopped off before being sent to prison. He was then secretly released, but the emperor announced that he had escaped from prison and burn his wife to death in public.

All of these are part of Yào Lí’s plan. Yes, including the execution of his wife. I don’t know if he asked his wife first. I wonder how she felt.

Anyway, after this, Yào Lí sought refuge at the prince’s camp and swore loudly to seek revenge. Upon seeing the stump of his amputated arm and hearing the story about his family, Qìng Jì trusted him and kept him as his assistant.

One day, Yào Lí was sailing on the same boat with Qìng Jì. When the boat was in the middle of the sea, Yào Lí took out a spear and thrust it into Qìng Jì. As the prince bled to death, his men captured Yào Lí. But then, Yào Lí killed himself with a sword.

Let me recap. Basically Yào Lí was willing to protect Hé Lú’s throne by sacrificing not just his life, but also his wife’s. You may think he was stupid, but it was considered an honor to him and his family back in those days. It’s like a marine dies for his country. He is an hero. Don’t you think?

Now, do you understand how self-injury was used in this case? You injure yourself to earn the trust of the enemy. But claim that it was your own team that injure you. You ask the enemy to let you join their forces to take revenge. Meanwhile, you seek the opportunity to destroy your actual enemy.

Historical Example #2: Eating Stool for the Kingdom

Talking about lowering the enemy’s guard, here is another historical example that is absurd in today’s standard.

But first, I need to tell you that in the very very very old days, Chinese believed by tasting patients’ poop, you could tell what illness they had. Nonsense! I know, I know. But again, I am talking about very very very old days. And even back then, only a small number of people were willing to practice it.

Okay. Back to the story. It was also in the Spring and Autumn period. Gōu Jiàn 勾踐, the emperor of Yuè Kingdom 越國 was captured and forced to work in the stable of Fū Chà 夫差, the emperor of Wú Kingdom 吳國.

One day, Fū Chà was sick. Gōu Jiàn offered to taste his shit to diagnose his illness. Crazy! I know, I know. But Gōu Jiàn saw it as a great opportunity to prove his loyalty to Fū Chà. I have to say he was right. Don’t you agree?

After that instance, Fū Chà freed Gōu Jiàn. Guess what Gōu Jiàn did next? He went back to Yuè Kingdom, which was technically a part of Wú Kingdom then. Twenty years later, Gōu Jiàn took back his kingdom from Fū Chà.

A Chinese idiom says 留得青山在 哪怕沒柴燒 (Liú dé qīngshān zài nǎpà méi chái shāo). Literal translation: as long as the mountain is here, there will be firewood. It means, while there is life, there is hope.

Most captured emperors would rather commit suicide than to be insulted. But Gōu Jiàn kept himself alive no matter what because he believed he could get back his kingdom. And he did.

It takes more than self-injury, but also persistence, confidence, leadership and some loyal followers. If you don’t have all of those, I don’t recommend you to eat the shit! But don’t kill yourself either.

Remember while there is life, there is hope. Just stay alive, keep thinking, strengthen your skills, believe in yourself, build a network and watch for any opportunities. You understand?

Historical Example #3: Murder Your Child for The Crown

Although 苦肉計 is commonly translated as the Self-Injury Stratagem, the injury doesn’t have to be on one’s own body. It could be other’s body.

Wǔ Zétiān 武則天 was the only female monarch in the Chinese history. Let me tell you her story.

During the Táng Dynasty 唐朝, Wǔ Zétiān was Emperor Táng TàiZōng’s 唐太宗 concubine (妃妾 fēi qiè). After he died, she married to his son the successor Emperor Táng Gāozōng 唐高宗. It’s weird. But again, it was the old days. Different moral standard. Don’t judge.

In the year of 654, Wǔ Zétiān gave birth to a daughter. After birth, Empress Wang (王皇后 Wáng huánghòu) visited her. Shortly thereafter, the baby was found dead. Empress Wang was accused of murdering the girl and was then deposed. Wǔ Zétiān was later crowned empress. Historians believe that Wǔ Zétiān’s ambitions were such that she killed her own daughter to oust Empress Wang. 

Wǔ Zétiān was very smart and manipulative. Eventually, she took over the throne after several short-living emperors. In 690, she established the Zhōu Dynasty 周朝, with herself as the imperial ruler.

Of course, a lot of things happened in between… long story. No doubt Wǔ Zétiān is a master of many Chinese stratagems.

Politics in the old days could be very scary. Nowadays, it is no less complicated. But at least, nobody gets killed. I suppose that’s a big improvement.

You may argue it should not be counted as the Self-Injury Stratagem, as Wǔ Zétiān might not have loved or even cared about her daughter at all. The baby was just a tool to her.

One thing you need to understand about the Self-Injury Stratagem: it doesn’t matter if you feel the pain. The key is others believing in your suffering. In Chinese, we distinguish the two — the actual harm (真害 zhēnhài) and the perceived harm (假害 jiǎhài).

The perceived harm should always be greater than the actual harm. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. You should go back and come up with a different plan.

Business Applications

In the business world, we can use the same stratagem without killing or hurting anyone physically. In business, the money is what matters. So the stratagem is translated into losing money to get more money, i.e. give before you receive (欲取先予 Yù qǔ xiān yǔ).

Based on my research study, there are six different types of “giving” under the Self-Injury stratagem in business. I will go over three of them here. Make sure you listen to the next episode for the other three.

Biz App #1: Give Here And Gain There

Guess what is the return rate for in-store shopping at department stores, such as Nordstrom and Macy’s? 5-10% depending on the category, but 30% in clothing. Most of them are fraud, i.e. returning stolen or used items. It looks like a bad business. So why do they still keep the clothing department so big?

It’s because the clothing brings in foot traffic. So, you lose in clothing but gain in cosmetics, jewelry, shoes. Does that mean it is a good strategy? That is open for discussion. Anyway, it is an example of the Self-Injury stratagem.

Similar concepts are the $1 item section, and having the losing-money milk and eggs at the furthest aisle in supermarkets. It makes people pass by other items. Hopefully stimulate some impulsive purchases.

You self-injure here so to get more there. Give HERE AND GAIN THERE.

Biz App #2: Give For Loyalty

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is the ultimate believer in using the self-injury stratagem to expand market shares. All Amazon businesses are at razor-thin margins, sometimes even at “nonprofit” status. Amazon was losing dollars on the bet that it could earn them back somewhere else or in the long term.

For example, Amazon Prime memberships provide free two-day shipping, free video, free audio streaming, and free Kindle book rental—all for 100+ dollars a year. It is estimated, however, that the fee doesn’t actually cover the cost of Prime’s services. Why does Amazon keep this money-losing service? It’s part of the grand “self-injury” scheme to win customers’ loyalty for a lifetime. Last time I checked, Amazon has 150 million Prime members worldwide. Of those, 124 million are in the U.S.

This self-injury to earn loyalty is also used in many restaurants: “Kids Eat Free every Tuesday,” or “Ladies Night every Wednesday,” or “$1 oysters every Thursday”. The restaurants may not make money from those kids, ladies, and oyster fans. But they make money from other guests, other food, and other times. AND, most of the customers would return, as seen on studies.

Remember a very basic business rule: The cost of acquiring a new customer is much higher than retaining existing customers. Don’t lose them while you have them.

Think about how many loyalty programs you are on. Starbucks? Any airlines? Department stores? How about clothing shops? Pharmacies? Supermarkets? Spas? Hair salons?

Not all loyalty programs are self-injury for businesses. They could be just advertising and promotions. Either way, do the math.

A calculated self-injury is a good way to GIVE FOR LOYALTY.

Biz App #3: Give To Earn Trust

You see all the medicine’s bottles have a glued box, a plastic seal over the bottle neck, and a foil seal over the mouth of the bottle. None of this existed until the Johnson and Johnson‘s classic “self- injury” case. You might have heard of it.

In 1982, someone replaced Tylenol Extra-Strength capsules with cyanide-laced capsules, resealed the packages and placed them back on the shelves of at least six pharmacies and grocery stores in the Chicago area. Seven people died after consuming the tainted capsules.

It was 1982. That means no internet. The manufacturer Johnson and Johnson didn’t know until a Chicago news reporter called their PR department. Nobody knew what actually happened. People assumed something must be wrong with the pills. You probably would too, right?

What Johnson & Johnson did after was unprecedented and later became the golden guide for crisis management. They alerted consumers not to take Tylenol for now. They stopped producing and advertising Tylenol. They ordered a national recall despite a small chance of discovering more cyanide-laced capsules. They established a toll-free hotline for consumers to call, another one for media to receive recorded messages with the latest statements on the crisis. They even set up a live satellite feed. They changed the product packaging to make it safer.

They did all these even though the company was not responsible for the tampering. It demonstrated the company’s commitment to public safety. Two news clipping services found more than 125,000 news stories on the crisis. By deftly handling the Tylenol crisis, Johnson & Johnson completely recovered the lost of market shares during the crisis and reestablished Tylenol as one of the most trusted over-the-counter consumer products.

This has became a must-study case for all business students. It offered a golden guide for crisis management. I would say the termination of business executives in the #MeToo movement is based on this guideline as well. Companies self-injure to turn themselves from being accused of wrong-doing into the victim.


Next Episode

Let me stop here for Part 1. I let you digest this much first. When you are ready, hop to Part 2.

There, I will tell you the other 3 business applications of the self-injury stratagem. Review how Apple, Uber and Alibaba used it to start the business.

I will also show you how it has been implemented in our everyday life… maybe without knowing it.


I am Fanny Lawren — the host and the producer.

I hope you like this show and found it helpful. Tell me what you think. Ask me questions.

Just go to I would love to hear from you. You can also find the transcripts there.

Please give the show a good review, share it, and subscribe to it.

This show is made possible by the BRIC Podcast Intensive Program 2021. Special thanks to instructor Jen Miller for the guidance.

BRIC – Building Brooklyn’s Creative Future. For more information, please go to


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2 thoughts on “The Self-Injury Stratagem in “The 36 Stratagems” Part 1”

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