The first thing you need to recognize when you are reading an English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is that you are dealing with what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”. Scholars are not certain about when the book was written (estimates range between 770 BCE and 221 BCE), whether it was written by one or several authors, and what motivated the author(s) to write the book.

The Original Meaning of the Yijing: Commentary on the Scripture of Change, Zhu Xi. Joseph A Adler (trans, ed) (Columbia University Press, November 2019)
The Original Meaning of the Yijing: Commentary on the Scripture of Change, Zhu Xi, Joseph A Adler (trans, ed) (Columbia University Press, November 2019)

The Yijing (I Ching), or Scripture of Change, is traditionally considered the first and most profound of the Chinese classics. Originally a divination manual based on trigrams and hexagrams, by the beginning of the first millennium it had acquired written explanations and a series of appendices attributed to Confucius, which transformed it into a work of wisdom literature as well as divination. Over the centuries, hundreds of commentaries were written, but for the past thousand years, one of the most influential has been that of Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who synthesized the major interpretive approaches to the text and integrated it into his system of moral self-cultivation.

What do you do when you’re given a magic sword and a “dragon horse”? You sally out into the wicked world, of course, rescue maidens in distress, overthrow evil kings and chop off a great deal of heads while shouting over and over again variations of “Stretch out your neck and receive my sword!” However, as you fight manfully to restore your Crown Prince to his throne, which has been usurped by a wicked, scheming Prime Minister, you demonstrate at the same time the supreme Confucian virtues of filial piety and loyalty as well as respecting your teachers and learning how to become a good judge of people.

Late Ming China didn’t have the “Nigerian advance-fee scam”, but if Zhang Yingyu’s contemporary The Book of Swindles is any indication, it had just about every other con ever tried. This collection of short cautionary tales is, according to translators Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, “said to be the first Chinese story collection focused explicitly on the topic of fraud.”