The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection
by Zhang Yingyu (fl. 17th century)
translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk
Columbia University Press, September 2017
This is an age of deception. Con men ply the roadways. Bogus alchemists pretend to turn one piece of silver into three. Devious nuns entice young women into adultery. Sorcerers use charmed talismans for mind control and murder. A pair of dubious monks extorts money from a powerful official and then spends it on whoring. A rich student tries to bribe the chief examiner, only to hand his money to an imposter. A eunuch kidnaps boys and consumes their “essence” in an attempt to regrow his penis. These are just a few of the entertaining and surprising tales to be found in this seventeenth-century work, said to be the earliest Chinese collection of swindle stories.
The Book of Swindles, compiled by an obscure writer from southern China, presents a fascinating tableau of criminal ingenuity. The flourishing economy of the late Ming period created overnight fortunes for merchants—and gave rise to a host of smooth operators, charlatans, forgers, and imposters seeking to siphon off some of the new wealth. The Book of Swindles, which was ostensibly written as a manual for self-protection in this shifting and unstable world, also offers an expert guide to the art of deception. 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, which contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd stories in Zhang’s original collection, provides a wealth of detail on social life during the late Ming and offers words of warning for a world in peril.
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, The New York Times
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. Barmé, 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, The New Yorker
This event is co-sponsored by the UBC Department of Asian Studies and the Centre for Chinese Research.