Project Business and Chinese Stratagems, Pt. 1


Stratagems for a Position of Strength


Project Business Management


By Oliver F. Lehmann, MSc, PMP

Munich, Germany

“Something comparable to the Stratagems of the
Chinese does not exist anywhere else in the world.”
Harro von Senger


The 36 Chinese stratagems (sānshíliù jì, 三十六計) are an ancient collection of war tricks to manipulate people and outmaneuver enemies. Knowing them in project business management can lead to new solutions to challenges and problems, but can also protect the project manager, the project management team, and complex project supply networks from getting outsmarted, particularly by customers, contractors, other business partners, or competitors.

This article discusses the stratagems numbered 1 to 6. More stratagems will be discussed in coming articles.

Ancient Stratagems, and Why They Matter Today

This is the first article of a series that is written for professionals in Project Management and even more in Project Business Management, which occurs when a project is performed by two or more organizations under contract. The 36 ancient Chinese Stratagems are a collection of ruses, tricks, or maneuvers that are put into action to achieve a goal that would be otherwise hard to attain. There are several reasons why managers in Project Management and Project Business should be aware of them:

  1. The application of stratagems may help master difficult situations.
  2. They are also a warning—someone familiar with the stratagems may try to gain a possibly unfair advantage.
  3. When doing business with partners from Eastern Asia, including China, Vietnam, Korea, and some more, it may well be that these people know and implement the stratagems. One should know them to negotiate and act at eye level.

This article gives a brief introduction to the first six stratagems. Future articles will describe the other stratagems and what project managers may make of them.

The 36 Chinese Stratagems

The Chinese military has used cunning and deception for over 2,000 years, and many were written down with explanations, in what situations they had proven useful. Out of these descriptions, a collection of stratagems condensed over centuries, that describes stratagems in the form of 36 short proverbs became. Mao Zedong reportedly used these stratagems in the Chinese civil war during the years between 1945 and 1949, in which he defeated the professionally trained and armed Kuomintang army with troops that consisted to a great portion of peasants, finally turning China into a Communist Republic.

It is reported that the stratagems were considered a secret by Mao until Swiss sinologist Harro von Senger made them known outside of China beginning in the late 1980s[1]. In China, the stratagems have been taught at schools over decades and are a topic of scientific discussion as much as of comic strips[2]. Outside China, they are helpful in understanding Chinese actions and behaviors, but also those of neighboring cultures, including Korea and Vietnam.

Outside their military use, they are also a great source to develop effective action plans for challenges in projects, when the traditional direct and confrontational approach may not work, or when the weak position of the project manager disallows for that, and other solutions may be needed to achieve the mission of the project. One should, in such cases, also consider that not all applications of stratagems are ethically acceptable.

Another reason to know them is avoidance of being deceived and manipulated.


To read entire article, click here

Editor’s note: This series of articles is by Oliver Lehmann, author of the book “Project Business Management” (ISBN 9781138197503), published by Auerbach / Taylor & Francis in 2018. See author profile below.

How to cite this article: Lehmann, O. F. (2023). Project Business and Chinese Stratagems, Pt. 1: Stratagems for a Position of Strength; Project Business Management series, PM World Journal, Vol. XII, Issue VI, June. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/pmwj130-Jun2023-Lehmann-PBM-36-Chinese-Stratagems-1.pdf

About the Author

Oliver F. Lehmann

Munich, Germany


Oliver F. Lehmann, MSc, ACE, PMP, is a project management educator, author, consultant, and speaker. In addition, he is the owner of the website Project Business Foundation, a non-profit initiative for professionals and organizations involved in cross-corporate project business.

He studied Linguistics, Literature, and History at the University of Stuttgart and Project Management at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he holds a Master of Science Degree (with Merit). Oliver has trained thousands of project managers in Europe, the USA, and Asia in methodological project management, focusing on certification preparation. In addition, he is a visiting lecturer at the Technical University of Munich.

He has been a member and volunteer at PMI, the Project Management Institute, since 1998 and served as the President of the PMI Southern Germany Chapter from 2013 to 2018. Between 2004 and 2006, he contributed to PMI’s PM Network magazine, for which he provided a monthly editorial on page 1 called “Launch,” analyzing troubled projects around the world.

Oliver believes in three driving forces for personal improvement in project management: formal learning, experience, and observations. He resides in Munich, Bavaria, Germany, and can be contacted at oliver@oliverlehmann.com.

Oliver Lehmann is the author of the books:

His previous articles and papers for PM World Journal can be found here:

[1] (v. Senger, 1991)
[2] (Liu, 2020)