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Loot a Burning House


Disciplines > Warfare > The 36 Stratagems > Loot a Burning House

Stratagem | History | Discussion | See also

This stratagem number: 5

This group: Stratagems When Commanding Superiority
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Cause the enemy problems which they are forced to attend to. Then attack them when they are distracted.

Sow dissent within their ranks. Make their allies suspicious of them. Feed them false information. Disrupt their supply train.

In battle, use the weather and terrain to your advantage, attacking when they are cold, wet, below you, stuck, etc. Attack with the sun behind you so they are dazzled by your approach.

Multiple distractions are especially effective as they cause the enemy to run from pillar to post, taking up even more of their time and resource.

Also take advantage of other distractions that you have not directly caused. You can even pursue retreating troops who are weakened and dispirited.

You can also seek to steadily weaken the enemy, for example by seeding disease or by providing luxuries that distract from military action.


This is the fourth stratagem of thirty-six.

Group name

Stratagems When Commanding Superiority

Alternative names

Plunge Into A Fire To Pull Off A Robbery

Use The Opportunity Of Fire To Rob Others

Or even:

The Vulture Strategy

Divided We Fall

Kick Them When They Are Down

Profit from the Failure of Others


When Qin and Wei attacked Han, Han asked Qi for help. Qi agreed but did not actually give help as other allies Chu and Chao stepped in. This left Yan, another state which was in internal turmoil, without support. Qi then attacked and conquered Yan, whose allies were now busy elsewhere.

After a humiliating defeat in 493 BC by Fu Chai of Wu, Gou Jian of Yue supplied endless luxuries to Fu Chai to encourage his dissolute ways. He also provided sterilized rice seed to ensure a famine. When Fu Chai went on a journey, Gou Jian easily conquered the weakened and unhappy state. Fu Chai returned, begging clemency, but was only offered execution or suicide. He chose the latter.

More recently, 'ambulance chasers' get people who are sick (and their relatives) to buy things while they are distracted by illnesses. Other professions such as lawyers, pawnbrokers and loan sharks also profit from those in distress.

Corporate takeovers and acquisitions may use this principle, buying companies when they are weak. Asset-strippers will then sell off property and other assets for a quick profit.

In the late 20th century, quality Japanese goods flooded the American market. Rich Japanese firms then bought many ailing American companies. In the 21st century, China provided cheap goods in a way that was instrumental in industry collapse, economic failure, and consequent reduction in government spending (including on the military).


We have limited conscious attention, which we will place where it seems most important. Sometimes this is done through careful thought and choice. At other times, events conspire to grab our attention. When we pay attention to one thing, we necessarily take it away from other, possibly more important things.

This stratagem suggests either taking advantage of distracted attention or deliberately creating distraction to shift their attention away from you.

Another way this stratagem works is through overload, where multiple distractions cause confusion and stress, which then lead to tiredness and consequent error.

A danger of the burning house Stratagem is that you may be trapped inside, suffering the same problems as your enemy. For example if you attack when they are mired in mud, you can likewise be hampered.

There is a common trap in business where people equate urgency with importance, and so priority by things that appear to urgent, for example when the boss asks for something, when things are causing visible problems, and when others are making more noise about work that needs doing. The problem with this is that the quieter things get put off, which causes big problems later and end up taking more effort. In this way, people end up in non-stop fire-fighting.

A better way is to classify tasks by both urgency and importance and then ensure the important tasks get done before they escalate.

You can also profit by looking for companies (or people) in distress and make them offers that give them some respite and from which you profit handsomely.

See also

Distraction principle


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