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Hide a Knife in a Smile


Disciplines > Warfare > The 36 Stratagems > Hide a Knife in a Smile

Stratagem | History | Discussion | See also

This stratagem number: 10

This group: Stratagems for Confrontation
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Act as if you are harmless or a friend in order to get close. Then suddenly attack them.

Give gifts and send formal delegations of friendship. Sign treaties. Host sumptuous parties. Show every sign of respect and concern for them until they trust you completely (or at least enough for you to achieve your goals).

Make friends with their key officials who have important information. Make these more loyal to you (or otherwise bribe or blackmail them) so they will betray their employers. 

Plot your moves in deepest secret and unleash them at speed so there is no chance for reprisals, counter-attack or other ways of defending.


This is the tenth stratagem of thirty-six.

Group name

Stratagems for Confrontation

Alternative names

Conceal a Knife Behind a Smile

Or even:

Use Kindness to Hide Cruelty


Li Yufu was a scheming Tang minister who had a way with people. He seemed kind and friendly, but woe betide anyone who crossed him. He cultivated good terms with the Emperor who ignored complaints about him for a long time, but eventually banished him to a frontier post. Many years later, a poet wrote of Li Yufu, where 'a dagger hides behind the smiles'.


A critical principle of this stratagem is delay. Armies are often eager for battle, but waiting for the best moment can not only increase the chance of success, but also being able to do so with minimum loss.

In politics as in work and society, knowing who your friends are and who you can trust is critical, and we invest much time and effort in both gaining trust and assessing the trustworthiness of those who would be our friends. Corporate takeovers are often full of encouraging words, yet it is common for a few to benefit well and many to suffer.

One of the traps of assessing others is that we often think we are better at it than we actually are. To function in society we need to have a generally trusting attitude and if others act as if they are friends then we will accept this in good faith. Even in the suspicious corridors of political power, it is necessary and often expedient to trust others.

The effects of betrayal can be rather severe, so pretending to be friends is a dangerous ploy as betrayed people may seek irrational and disproportionate revenge (as Li Yufu eventually discovered).

Despite the darker side, the general strategy of kindness in difficult circumstances can be a very positive thing. If a business is failing, for example, if people who are being sacked are treated with humanity, then reputations and dignity can be preserved.

See also

Trust, Relationships, Alliances in war


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