The Book of Swindles

The Book of Swindles : Selections from a Late Ming Collection

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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.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 208 pages
  • 140 x 216 x 15.24mm | 317.51g
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Annotated
  • 0231178638
  • 9780231178631
  • 1,029,300

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
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Review quote

[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 * 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 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 * 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 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 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 * 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 *
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About Yingyu Zhang

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).
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Rating details

12 ratings
3.83 out of 5 stars
5 33% (4)
4 25% (3)
3 33% (4)
2 8% (1)
1 0% (0)
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