During the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), the King of Qi appointed Sun Bin (see WiC2) as military counsellor in a conflict against Wei, who attacked Qi’s ally Zhao.
Originally Qi was going to march into Zhao to lift a siege, but Sun suggested a different strategy: “It is common knowledge that to disentangle a messy skein of silk, pulling at it won’t help. Similarly, to mediate two fighting parties, taking part in the conflict won’t work either. So instead, we should strike the enemy’s weak point to create conflicts and apprehension, then inevitably the siege will be lifted.”
“Wei is attacking Zhao and has sent its elite troops. However, after the lengthy war, they must be fatigued. On the other hand, its older and weaker arm remain behind at home,” Sun added. “So instead of rushing to Zhao we should attack Wei in its capital. Wei will have no choice but to give up Zhao and return home. This way, with one stone we kill two birds. Not only do we raise the siege of Zhao, but also conquer Wei.”
Indeed, as Sun had predicted, the Wei army hastily retreated after being told that its capital was under attack. On its way home, it encountered Qi’s forces in Guiling, where it was decisively defeated in battle.
The lesson? Look to attack enemies at their weaker points. The event gave rise to the idiom, “Attacking Wei to save Zhao” which is still widely used today.
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