The name of the collection comes from the Book of Qi, in its seventh biographical volume, Biography of Wáng Jìngzé (王敬则传). Wáng was a general who had served Southern Qi since the first Emperor Gao of the dynasty. When Emperor Ming came to power and executed many members of the court and royal family for fear that they would threaten his reign, Wáng believed that he would be targeted next and rebelled. As Wáng received news that Xiāo Bǎojuàn (萧宝卷), son and crown prince of Emperor Ming, had escaped in haste after learning of the rebellion, he commented that "of the thirty-six stratagems of Lord Tán, retreat was his best, you father and son should run for sure"(檀公三十六策,走为上计,汝父子唯应走耳). Lord Tán here refers to general Tán Dàojì (檀道济) of the Liu Song Dynasty, who was forced to retreat after his failed attack on Northern Wei, and Wáng mentioned his name in contempt as an example of cowardice.

It should be noted that the number thirty-six was used by Wáng as a figure of speech in this context, and is meant to denote numerous stratagems instead of any specific number. Wáng's choice of this term was in reference to the I Ching (易经 yì jīnɡ), where six is the number of Yin that shared many characteristics with the dark schemes involved in military strategy (军事战略 jūnshì zhànlüè). As thirty-six is the square of six, it therefore acted as a metaphor for numerous strategies. Since Wáng was not referring to any thirty-six specific stratagems however, the thirty-six proverbs and their connection to military strategies and tactics are likely to have been created after the fact, with the collection only borrowing its name from Wáng's saying.

The Thirty-Six Stratagems have variably been attributed to Sun Tzu (孙子 sūn zǐ) from the Spring and Autumn Period of China, or Zhūɡě Liànɡ (诸葛亮) of the Three Kingdoms period, but neither are regarded as the true author by historians. Instead, the prevailing view is that the Thirty-Six Stratagems may have originated in both written and oral history, with many different versions compiled by different authors throughout Chinese history. Some stratagems reference occurrences in the time of Sun Bin (孙膑Sūn Bìn), approx. 150 years after Sun Wu's death. The original hand-copied paperback that is the basis of the current version was believed to have been discovered in China's Shaanxi province, of an unknown date and author, and put into print by a local publisher in 1941. The Thirty-Six Stratagems only came to the public's attention after a review of it was published in the Chinese Communist Party's Guangming Daily (光明日报 ɡuānɡmínɡ rìbào) newspaper on September 16, 1961. It was subsequently reprinted and distributed with growing popularity.