The Empty Fort Strategy is the 32nd of the Chinese Thirty-Six Stratagems. You are a military general and have led many successful military campaigns, in one case you sent the bulk of the army on an expedition and kept back only a 2500 soldiers for the defense of your fort. Now, another enemy decides to invade you and your spies inform you that he is coming there with 200,000 soldiers. Your army is out of reach and all you have is 2500 soldiers. Your fort has got a lot of supplies and you don’t want your enemy to have them. How will you handle the situation?
We all might have our strategies, let us see what this great Chinese general Zhuge Liang did when he faced that situation.
Here is a little background of what happened then.
Zhuge Liang garrisoned at Yangping (around present-day Hanzhong, Shaanxi) and ordered Wei Yan to lead the troops east. He left behind only 10,000 (Some say he had only 2500 men against 150,000 of Sima Yi) to defend Yangping. Sima Yi led 200,000 troops to attack Zhuge Liang and he took a shortcut, bypassing Wei Yan’s army and arriving at a place 60 li away from Zhuge Liang’s location. Upon inspection, Sima Yi realised that Zhuge Liang’s city was weakly defended. Zhuge Liang knew that Sima Yi was near, so he thought of recalling Wei Yan’s army back to counter Sima Yi, but it was too late already and his men were worried and terrified.
Zhuge Liang remained calm and instructed his men to hide all flags and banners and silence the war drums. He then ordered all the gates to be opened and told his men to sweep and dust the ground. Sima Yi was under the impression that Zhuge Liang was cautious and prudent, and he was baffled by the sight before him and suspected that there was an ambush. He then withdrew his troops. The following day, Zhuge Liang clapped his hands, laughed, and told an aide that Sima Yi thought that there was an ambush and had retreated. Later, his scouts returned and reported that Sima Yi had indeed retreated. Sima Yi was very upset when he heard about it later.
Here is the video version of it.
A calculated risk by the general to save his men isn’t it? One might argue that the general in the opposition was too cautious and did not take his chances, but then, one should congratulate Zhuge Liang for creating that illusion and taking a risk. He saved his men, his fort and his supplies from the impending disaster. He had a reputation of being a master strategist and he used his reputation to create an illusion of ambush. It was very well calculated move and Liang was aware of all consequences in case the plan backfired. He took a chance and the opponent fell for it, finally, Liang came out of it unscathed. This became a de facto strategy for many other generals later on.
In our day to day life, we too are pushed into situations that demand out of box answers. These situations ask us to come up with smart and out of box thinking. We ought to take well thought of and calculated risks that help us and our teams. Remember, these risks need to be well calculated and one ought to think of all the consequences before going ahead with them. Read the situations, use your knowledge, leverage on your strengths and then take chances and well-calculated risks, the rewards and learning from these exercises are indeed awesome.