“Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose”, a 17th-century cautionary tale from China


This story is drawn from The Book of Swindles, a collection whose oldest known edition dates to 1617. The author, Zhang Yingyu, collected stories about swindles large and small that are mainly set in the highly commercialized and mobile world of late-Ming China.

Hardened criminals prey on traveling merchants to separate them from their silver, sometimes using violence but more often with guile and a subtle understanding of human psychology. And the same techniques are used by figures from every walk of life: corrupt officials and clerks seeking bribes, greedy monks looking for donations that they keep for themselves, and seducers who trick their conquests into bed. In this realm, even the law-abiding have to understand the tricks of the swindler’s trade in order to avoid their traps or even to turn their ruses against them.

The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection, Zhang Yingyu, Christopher Rea (trans), Bruce Rusk (trans) (Columbia University Press, September 2017)
The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection, Zhang Yingyu, Christopher Rea (trans), Bruce Rusk (trans) (Columbia University Press, September 2017)

“Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose” recounts an elegant and effective ploy in which a quick-witted swindler capitalizes on the victim’s wish for peace and quiet in his workplace. The crook recognizes a way to use this selfish desire to his own advantage by creating a double distraction: the shopkeeper’s shouts from the back of the store ostensibly authorize the thief to do away with the avian annoyance, but in fact distract the merchant from his primary task of keeping track of his wares. The crook also plays on his status as stranger in an urban setting in which anonymous customers are the default and trust is established on the fly.

Zhang Yingyu’s comment at the end of the story puts all the blame on the victim, with whom he expects his readers to identify more than with the perpetrator of the con. He offers no hope that swindles like these will ever disappear, only that people with the right mindset may, by reading the book, become able to resist them.


Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose

Once there was a large shop that did a bustling business in all sorts of fabric but was staffed solely by its owner. In a pen across the street a neighbor was raising a goose whose constant honking annoyed the proprietor so much that he was heard to say, “How I wish someone would steal that miserable creature and give me some peace and quiet.”

A crook happened to overhear him, and came into the store on a slow business day. He raised his hands to salute the proprietor and then let them rest on a bolt of green cloth on a shelf.

“I won’t lie to you,” he said in a low voice. “I’m a petty thief, and I’d like to make a meal of that goose across the street. It won’t be easy to snatch it from such a busy street, but I’ve got a plan, and I just need your help to pull it off.”

“How can I help?” the proprietor asked.

“I’ll be out here and I’ll ask, ‘Can I take it?’ You stay inside and shout, ‘Okay!’ I’ll ask again, ‘Really?’ And you answer again, ‘Yes. I’ve made up my mind: you can take it.’ Then I’ll be able to take it away without raising suspicions from anyone on the street. Go along with this and you’ll be safe from thieves forever—you’ll never have to lock your door again. But you’ve got to hide in the back and not peek out—the trick won’t work if you’re watching. You’ll know I’m done when the goose stops honking. That’s when you can come out.”

The proprietor agreed, so they began their dialogue. “May I take it?” the thief called out.

“Yes, go ahead,” came the shout from within. Another hollered question: “Really—I can take it?” “I’ve made up my mind: you can take it.”

The shopkeepers on either side heard the entire exchange, so when the thief left with a bolt of green cloth, they thought he was just borrowing it. Meanwhile, the proprietor hiding in his shop, still hearing the goose honk from time to time, didn’t dare come out. The thief had long since made himself scarce. The goose went on honking and the proprietor kept on waiting, worried all the while that no one was minding the shop. Eventually he came out and discovered that the goose was still there but a bolt of green cloth had disappeared from the shelf.

He canvassed the neighboring shops: “Did someone come into my shop just now and take a bolt of cloth?”

The shopkeepers answered, “Yes, it was that fellow who was asking about buying something. You kept telling him he could take it. He’s long gone.”

The proprietor, chagrined and embarrassed, said, “It looks like I’ve been well and truly scammed. I’ll never live this down.”

When the neighbors got wind of this, they laughed at his foolishness and hailed the crook’s ingenuity.


The gentleman is benevolent to the people and caring toward other creatures. That benevolence should first of all be extended to those in one’s vicinity, and even a goose is a creature deserving of care. Can this shop-keeper be called “caring toward creatures” when he was so annoyed by the honking of a neighbor’s goose that he wanted to see it stolen and killed? Where was his benevolent mind when he tried to profit from the disappearance of the goose and helped the crook steal it? This behavior enabled the eavesdropping crook to carry out his theft. The shopkeeper even abetted the theft. What a rat! Wanting to do away with someone else’s goose, he ended up losing his own cloth. He brought this calamity upon himself and had no one else to blame. If you treat neighbors with benevolence and treat other creatures with due consideration, such a thing will never happen to you.


Excerpted from The Book of Swindles by Yingyu Zhang. Translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. Copyright (c) 2017 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

The preamble was written by Bruce Rusk, associate professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. He and Christopher Rea are co-translators of The Book of Swindles by Yingyu Zhang (Columbia University Press, 2017).