‘Capture cities and seize territory” — Phrase of the Week4 min read

18 November 2023 3 min read


‘Capture cities and seize territory” — Phrase of the Week4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Fierce battles in China’s Double 11 shopping festival

Our Phrase of the Week is: Capture cities and seize territory (攻城略地 gōngchéng lüèdì).

The context

“Double 11” (双十一 shuāng shíyī) is China’s largest online shopping festival.

Also known as Singles’ Day, the two-week shopping showdown concludes on 11 November every year, hence the name “Double 11”.

It was started in 2009 by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group as a one-day shopping festival offering large discounts to customers. Alibaba’s two main e-commerce platforms, Tmall and Taobao, are the largest players in Double 11, delivering nearly half of all sales transacted. JD.com, another major e-commerce platform based in Beijing, is the third largest player in terms of sales.

Two relative new-comers have made an impact in recent years: ByteDance-owned Dǒuyīn 抖音, a video streaming platform, and Pīnduōduō 拼多多, an online retailer which dominates China’s second- and third-tier markets.

PDD and Douyin compete heavily on price with Alibaba and JD.com all year-round. They leverage live-stream e-commerce (电商直播 diànshāng zhíbō), through which influencers promote and sell products live to their fans who can engage with them in real time.

Both Alibaba and JD priced aggressively in the run-up to this year’s Singles’ Day in response to increased competition, with discounts of 40%-50% much more common than in previous years.

Alibaba put pressure on merchants to price aggressively, saying it would offer 80 million products at their deepest discount of the year; meanwhile JD offered a 10 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) subsidy campaign starting from March, and a 30-day best-price guarantee on more than 800 million products, promising to compensate customers for the price difference if they found a cheaper product within a month.

Both platforms said they achieved sales growth during this year’s Singles’ Day shopping festival, with JD achieving “record breaking” sales. 

Despite the positive tone, this is the second year in a row that both e-commerce giants did not publish exact sales numbers.

This is partly down to consumer caution in the tepid covid recovery. But attacks from Douyin and PDD has also hit hard, with full impact not yet clear, one commentator notes:  

Behind this year’s Double 11, there are much deeper changes taking place: Before the new paradigm is formed, new-comers will take advantage of the changes to capture cities and seize territory for big gains, while incumbents will look to keep their position of strength, and at the same time launch counterattacks.


Jīnnián shuāng shíyī, bèihòu gèngshēn de kàndiǎn zàiyú “géjú móubiàn”: xīngéjú wèidìng zhī xià, hòurùjúzhě jiè biànhuà zhījì gōngchéng lüèdì, túmóu yìjī zhìshèng; xiānrùzhě zé yìyù zài shǒuzhù bìlěi de tóngshí, fāqǐ fǎngōng.

And with that, we have our Phrase of the Week!

What it means

“Capture cities and seize territory” (攻城略地 gōngchéng lüèdì) is a four-character idiom. 

Its meaning can be deciphered through an understanding of the four characters: “attack” (攻 gōng), “city” (城 chéng), “invade” (略 lüè), “land” (地 dì).

As with many Chinese idioms, it is one which has its roots deep in Chinese history. 

“Capture cities and seize territory” was first used in the Huainanzi (淮南子 huáinánzǐ), an ancient text and collection of essays recording scholarly debates held at the court of Liú Ān 刘安, Prince of Huainan, sometime before 139 BC. 

The debates sought to define what it took to achieve perfect social and political order. According to the text, such perfection could be achieved under a “perfect” ruler. The essays were written as a handbook for an enlightened and benevolent leader to refer to.

Our phrase is found in the chapter, On Military Strategies (兵略训 bīnglüèxùn): 

(The troop) is successful at conquering every city and seizing any land. 


Gōngchéng lüèdì, mòbù xiángxià.

Aggressive tactics and victory at all costs describing scenes on battlefields millenia ago are still very much alive in China’s e-commerce sector today. 

The bloody war on price, led by Douyin and PDD, has taken considerable territory from their competitors.

Although bruised, Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall still lead the market, for now. These two companies alone held 44% of market share in 2022 (down from 66% in 2019). JD.com has held its ground at around 20% of market share, while Pinduoduo increased from 10% to 18% in the same period.

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