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The Book of Swindles


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The Book of Swindles, a seventeenth-century story collection, offers a panoramic guide to the art of deception. Ostensibly a manual for self-protection, it presents a tableau of criminal ingenuity in late-Ming China, featuring an array of smooth operators, crooks, and charlatans, from unscrupulous merchants and corrupt officials to covetous monks and venal eunuchs. Each story comes with commentary by the author, Zhang Yingyu, who expounds a moral lesson while also speaking as a connoisseur of the swindle. This volume contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd tales in Zhang's landmark work.

Table of Contents

Translators' Introduction
Type 1: Misdirection and Theft
Stealing Silk with a Decoy Horse
Handing Over Silver Before Running Off with It
A Clever Trick on a Pig Seller
Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose
Type 2: The Bag Drop
Dropping a Bag by the Roadside to Set Up a Switcheroo
Type 3: Money Changing
A Daoist in a Boat Exchanges Some Gold
Type 4: Misrepresentation
Forged Letters from the Education Intendant Report Auspicious Dreams
Using Broom Handles to Play a Joke on Sedan Bearers
Type 5: False Relations
Inciting a Friend to Commit Adultery and Swindling Away His Land
Type 6: Brokers
A Conniving Broker Takes Paper and Ends Up Paying with His Daughter
A Destitute Broker Takes Some Wax to Pay Off Old Debts
Type 7: Enticement to Gambling
A Stern Warning to a Gambler Provokes Others to Entice Him to Relapse
Type 8: Showing Off Wealth
Impersonating the Son of an Official to Steal a Merchant's Silver
Flashy Clothing Incites Larceny
Type 9: Scheming for Wealth
Stealing a Business Partner's Riches Only to Lose One's Own
Haughtiness Leads to a Lawsuit That Harms Wealth and Health
Type 10: Robbery
Robbing a Pawnshop by Pretending to Leave Goods There
Type 11: Violence
Sticking a Plaster in the Eyes to Steal a Silver Ingot
Type 12: On Boats
Bringing Mirrors Aboard a Boat Invites a Nefarious Plot
Porters Run Off with Cargo from a Boat
Type 13: Poetry
Swindling the Salt Commissioner While Disguised as Daoists
Chen Quan Scams His Way Into the Arms of a Famous Courtesan
Type 14: Fake Silver
Planting a Fake Ingot to Swindle a Farmer
Type 15: Government Underlings
Swindled on the Way Out of a Court Hearing
An Officer Reprimands a Captured Criminal in Order to Halve His Flogging
Type 16: Marriage
Marrying a Street Cleaner and Provoking His Death
Taking a Concubine from Another Province Leads to a Disastrous Lawsuit
Type 17: Illicit Passion
A Geomancer Uses His Wife to Steal a Good Seed
Type 18: Women
Coaxing a Sister-in-Law Into Adultery to Scam Oil and Meat
Three Women Ride Off on Three Horses
A Buddhist Nun Scatters Prayer Beads to Lure a Woman Into Adultery
Type 19: Kidnapping
A Eunuch Cooks Boys to Make a Tonic of Male Essence
Type 20: Corruption in Education
Pretending to Present Silver to an Education Commissioner
Affixing Seals in a Functionary's Chambers
Silver with Sham Seals Is Switched for Bricks
Robbed by a Gang While Sealing Silver in an Unoccupied Room
A Fake Freeloader Takes Over a Con
Money Stashed with an Innkeeper Is Burgled
Type 21: Monks and Priests
A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother
Eating Human Fetuses to Fake Fasting
Type 22: Alchemy
Trusting in Alchemy Harms an Entire Family
A Foiled Alchemy Scam Leads to a Poisoning
Type 23: Sorcery
Using Dream Sorcery to Rob a Family
Type 24: Pandering
A Father Searching for His Wastrel Son Himself Falls Into Whoring
Appendix 1: Preface to A New Book for Foiling Swindlers: Strange Tales from the Rivers and Lakes (1617), by Xiong Zhenji
Appendix 2: Story Finding List

About the Author

Zhang Yingyu (fl. 1612-1617) lived during the Wanli period (1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty. Christopher Rea is associate professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (2015), and the editor of several books, including Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011). Bruce Rusk is associate professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Critics and Commentators: The Book of Poems as Classic and Literature (2012).


Overall, the collection deserves the highest praise one can give a publication of popular stories: it's a lot of fun. The scams are wide-ranging in type, the plot devices ingenious, and the translation is carried off with great sensitivity both to the original text and to the audience reading it today. -- Rob Moore * Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel *
The Book of Swindles is at once an entertaining and readable introduction to late Ming society, a good resource for further research, and a timely reminder of some of the less savoury connections between the past and our own time. -- Ewan Macdonald * Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies *
In The Book of Swindles, Rea and Rusk give us hilarious and sobering proof that swindling isn't just a contemporary concern but has been around for centuries. We are treated to stories of porters cheating officials who cheat porters, of conniving Taoists and gullible officials, of lusty widows who provoke their husbands' death, and of debauched gentry who prey on poor locals. Yet many of these tales sound eerily familiar to today's world, and especially today's China. We are confronted with a widespread, ambient feeling of social mistrust in which people across the land feel that they are constantly being cheated. Besides giving insight into deep societal concerns, The Book of Swindles is a great read. -- Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
It has been said that the study of China is the study of humanity. In these elegantly translated stories of folly and foibles, we are offered a unique guide to early modern China, as well as insights into the human condition itself. -- Geremie R. Barme, editor of An Educated Man is Not a Pot: On the University
What's the oldest scam in the book? Nobody knows, but at least we have the oldest book about scams in China. It's calledThe Book of Swindles, and finally, after four hundred years, Rea and Rusk have presented us with a vivid and entertaining new translation of this classic. Even the chapter titles-'Eating Human Fetuses to Fake Fasting'; 'Swindling the Salt Commissioner While Disguised as Daoists'-are as priceless as anything else produced during the Ming dynasty. -- Peter Hessler, author of Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West
[These] individual stories [provide] useful color to Chinese history classes [and provide] good source material for secondary students to act out. -- Peter Gordon * Asian Review of Books *
The Book of Swindles deserves a wide reading: its simple stories reveal with stunning accuracy what makes late imperial China so different from today and yet so familiar as well. It may not be the greatest literary work of its time, but it is a social document that is both entertaining and informative. This slim volume will be of tremendous value for teachers and readers for decades to come. -- Robert E. Hegel, Washington University, St. Louis * Ming Studies *
This makes the translation a pleasure to read-perhaps even more pleasurable than reading the often workman-like
classical prose of the original. The translation also includes an array of helpful reference materials...could easily be incorporated into a range of undergraduate history and literature classes. -- Ariel Fox * Journal of Asian Studies *
The forty-four stories, elegantly translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, offer a valuable source for specialists of late imperial China, as well as a good read for anyone looking for entertainment. . . . The Book of Swindles has just started to attract scholarly attention in the English-speaking world. I expect it to serve as a significant resource for future studies of late imperial Chinese literature, culture, history, law, and society. -- Yinghui Wu * Modern Chinese Literature and Culture *
Social historians will find the rich panoply of ordinary life. From whatever academic angle one may read Book of Swindles, the reader will find much of interest-and fun! -- James Grayson, Professor Emeritus, Sheffield University, UK * Folklore *

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