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.”
The Book of Swindles, published in or around 1617, was nominally written to “protect the reader from such crimes.” One suspects, however, that it may have had the baser objectives of entertainment and titillation. After all, say the translators,
it offers a wealth of narrative detail and describes crimes to which the average reader is unlikely to fall victim, such as eunuch cannibalism.
If this bouncy translation is anything to go by, Zhang enjoyed himself immensely writing it and, all attempts to the place this new translation in an academic context notwithstanding, one suspects the translators did as well.
The translators’ valiant efforts to position this as a sober rather than fun exercise include a description of the social and economic situation of the late Ming period, noting especially that this was a time of increasing commercialization—many of the stories deal with the trials and tribulations of traveling merchants—as well as a particularly good overview of the monetary use of silver. But in the end, the attractions of the material prove irresistible and it is story titles like “Eating Human Fetuses to Fake Fasting” (alliteration added in translation, one imagines) and “Marrying a Street Cleaner and Provoking His Death” that end up being highlighted.
It is not clear that the book itself had any great influence. “Despite abundant interest in the subject matter, there were no reprintings of the book in China in the first three centuries after its initial appearance.” It seems to have done rather better in Japan.
The stories are filled with daily narrative detail about home life, travel, shops, inns, labor and leisure.
The better stories are actually the more quotidian ones that don’t involve peculiar eating habits. These feature dishonest tradesmen, men on the make, wily women and out and out knaves. The marks are in general people Zhang thinks should have known better: some are just naive, but others are greedy, lazy or licentious. He is rarely sympathetic. Just in case the reader didn’t get what had happened, Zhang includes some editorializing explanations at the end of each piece; he seems to extracted additional enjoyment from this finger-wagging.
The stories don’t really rise to literature; few are even, strictly-speaking, particularly good stories as we might think of short stories today. Which isn’t to say that some of the tales aren’t quite clever: the lead story is of a con man setting up a dupe to take the fall while he makes off with some bolts of silk from a shop.
Their considerable value is that they are filled with daily narrative detail about home life, travel, shops, inns, labor and leisure. The dialogue between characters is natural—although this admittedly could be an artifact of a translation into a very readable, colloquial English—and the characters themselves are human and, on the whole, recognizable and believable. One can discern in the stories, formulas and references to other works aside, considerable powers of observation and narrative skill.
While Zhang’s late Ming ethics tend to overlap pretty much with our own, some stories interest also for the differing views of morality and legal principles on display. In “A Conniving Broker Takes Paper and Ends Up Paying With His Daughter”, a man’s daughter ends up being being handed over in marriage in lieu of a debt. Her husband dies soon thereafter, and “even before Yunying’s period of customary mourning for her husband was over,” she’d been married off again. The son of the first husband successfully sues; not a great deal of thought is given to the young woman in all this. “A Destitute Broker Takes Some Wax to Pay Off Old Debts” is a somewhat complicated story involving offsetting invoices in which the judge seems to have—perhaps in the interests of justice—reached a judgment somewhat beyond the facts in evidence.
The Book of Swindles is perhaps better dipped into a couple of stories at a time than reading all in one go. One can well imagine individual stories providing useful color to Chinese history classes or providing good source material for secondary students to act out.
The back of the book sports laudatory blurbs from three of the leading lights of the Chinese book world: Ian Johnson (“hilarious and sobering”), Geremie Barmé (“a unique guide”) and Peter Hessler (“priceless”). In a book about swindles, such jacket copy might raise some red flags. Zhang himself warns about being talked into things.
This time it’s OK. You can trust me.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.