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.
Think hard; use your imagination. Try to remember the time when the world was not an oyster, with its pearl geolocalized on Google Maps, rated on TripAdvisor, its best sights already pre-dissected on The Lonely Planet and travel blogs. There was an era during which the world had not shrunk yet to a global playground easily explored with a smartphone and a wifi connection in hand or indeed, before planes, videos and even ballpoint pens. It was the epoch of explorers and discoveries, of years spent away from a home that less and less could be called as such. And this is the time during which Alfred Raquez wrote his travel journal, In The Land Of Pagodas, A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.
Only several poems by the now forgotten 1930s Shanghai poet Shao Xunmei (1906-1968) have previously been rendered into English, making our translation of his two major volumes a first. We have long considered Shao well worth translating, owing as much to his colorful artistic persona as to his verse. The former mostly flowered during his studies at Cambridge in the mid-1920s, when he was exposed to Western poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine. However, it was mainly AC Swinburne who became Shao’s avatar in both art and life, as our translations below show. Cambridge also introduced Shao to the comfort of English shoes, which he wore with a traditional Chinese scholar’s silk gown—a true cultural hybrid!
World War II created its fair share of myths: on the American side, the “Flying Tigers”—a “small private air force that fought the Japanese over Burma and Western China”—became one of the first, providing as it did some of the few bright spots in the days after Pearl Harbor. From December 1941 to June 1942, the force which “rarely had more than forty airworthy planes” managed to take down almost 300 Japanese aircraft. A John Wayne movie came out as early as 1942.
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by journalist Ian Johnson, is an infectious, celebratory book about the state of religion in mainland China since the 1980s. Framed around the lives of various religious devotees in China—ranging from solitary seekers to associations to experts —Johnson explores different aspects of Chinese religion and spirituality, as well as the “import” religion of Christianity, as living practices in China today. He wants to understand what motivates religious believers in a time of greater material comforts, and what their beliefs mean to them.
In mid-19th century China, after suffering multiple humbling defeats by imperial powers, a movement to modernize China’s military developed. The idea was that the national essence or culture of China could be better defended with superior Western methods and technology than outdated Chinese methods—seen as the extension of a static political culture. That the methods and technology were Western did not matter—they were not tied to the imperial aims which produced them; they could be adapted by anyone, and were essentially culture-less.
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.”