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Fling Open the Gates to the Empty City


Disciplines > Warfare > The 36 Stratagems > Fling Open the Gates to the Empty City

Stratagem | History | Discussion | See also

This stratagem number: 32

This group: Stratagems for Desperate Straits
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When you are vulnerable, make the enemy think twice about attacking you.

Do not show concern or fear. Appear willing and ready to fight, but do this in a way that will cause the enemy to pause and suspect a trap, ambush or some other complication that will disadvantage them.

Be casual, as if you do not care whether or not they will attack you. Ignore them. Do trivial other things. Appear relaxed and carefree.

Double-bluff them by deliberately showing weakness, as if to invite them to attack. This may confuse them and cause them to pause. You can then use this space to gain advantage.

You can use the principle at any time of deliberately appearing weaker than you are. If they do not fear a trap when you flee, it may lead to them attacking with an inadequate force or taking insufficient care.

In life and work, when you are open about your weaknesses, others will take this as a sign of strength and respect you more. They also may conclude that you have enough strengths in other areas to more than make up for your weaknesses, and so taking advantage their weaknesses would not be a good idea.


This is the thirty-second stratagem of thirty-six.

Group name

Stratagems for Desperate Straits

Alternative names

The Strategy of Open City Gates

The Empty Fort Strategy

Scheme with an Empty Castle

Or even:

When Weak, be Casual

Never Show Your True Strength 


in 228AD, Zhuge Liang of Shu was attacking Wei. The Wei commander Sima Yi created a distraction by attacking and capturing the small Shu town of Jieting. Alarmed, Zhuge Liang sent troops back to help, keeping only 2500 in his capital of Xicheng. Sima Yi left Jieting and pressed on to Xicheng with 150000 troops, determined to capture his rival. Seeing the vast columns of dust of the approaching troops, Zhuge Liang took down all the Shu banners, opened all four city gates and got disguised soldiers to hang around and sweep the floor as the Wei troops approached. He also sat on the ramparts of a high tower, playing his lute. Believing this was a trap, Sima Yi fled.

It is a common military strategy to deliberately flee in order to entice the opposing forces into following, and so lead them into an ambush.


We are programmed by nature to watch out for threats and be cautious when we are unsure if there may be danger. We also tend to protect ourselves by hiding or protecting our vulnerabilities.

An 'open book' strategy creates uncertainty by deliberately and overtly exposing a vulnerability, an act which people would never normally do. This unusual act can arouse suspicions and lead to caution when otherwise a more direct attack may take place.

When faced with apparent vulnerability, what do you do? You can attack and perhaps be trapped in an ambush. But if you delay, their reinforcements may arrive. This dilemma can lead attackers into the decision that retreat is the best option.

When you never really show your true strength, the enemy will be even more cautious. It only takes a few prompted misjudgements by them and they will be increasingly cautious, which you can again use to your advantage.

In business, you may let your competitors know that you are weak and not really a threat. This is a good strategy for smaller businesses who are nibbling at the edge of a larger business. Stay apparently small while building real strength, such as in intellectual property or unique market channels.

See also

Vulnerability and Values, Threat principle


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