The Book of Swindles
Selections from a Late Ming Collection

By Zhang Yingyu

Translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk

Reviewed by Yinghui Wu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2018)

Zhang Yingyu, The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection Trs. Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. xxxvi, 226 pp. $25. ISBN 978-0-231-17863-1 (paperback); $75, ISBN 9780231178624 (hardcover)

The Book of Swindles, by Zhang Yingyu 張應俞 (fl. 1612-17), is a collection of fascinating tales that speak to a common concern over time and across cultures—namely, anxiety about deception. A product of the publishing boom in seventeenth-century China, with a preface dated 1617, the book is “said to be the first Chinese story collection focused explicitly on the topic of fraud” (xiii). Ostensibly a manual for self-protection against scams, it belongs to a rich body of publications that promise to help their readers navigate the increasingly complex and perilous world of late Ming China.[1] Yet, this book serves equally well as a manual for swindlers (xiv).The author, also speaking as the commentator on his stories, often marvels at the crooks’ ingenuity while lamenting the moral decline of his age and blaming the victims for their folly or naïveté. The forty-four stories, elegantly translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, offer a valuable source for specialists of late imperial China, as well as a good read for anyone looking for entertainment.

The translation represents just over half of the eighty-four stories in the original A New Book for Foiling Swindlers (杜騙新書), a text offering abundant details on late Ming society that has rarely been studied. The stories are organized into twenty-four categories according to the method of the swindle, the perpetrator, or the location of the crime. A quick look at the categories shows us the variety of themes, such as “The Bag Drop,” “Brokers,” “Fake Silver,” “Government Underlings,” and “Corruption in Education.” Some of the story titles, such as “Marrying a Street Cleaner and Provoking His Death” and “Eating Human Fetuses to Fake Fasting,” are clearly designed to titillate the reader. Swindlers and their victims in the book come from the four corners of the empire and every level of society, ranging from government officials and examination candidates to merchants to various marginal men and women from dubious backgrounds. Living in towns and villages, and traveling on roads, rivers, and canals, they mingle in a geographically indefinite and socially fluid space referred to as jianghu江湖 (the rivers and lakes), a space of alluring opportunities and lurking dangers where one has to constantly be alert to deception (xx). A typical swindle story features an encounter between the devious crook and the mark, who is either a “greenhorn” with limited knowledge of the world or an “old hand” with rich experience (6). The reader is held in suspense about how the swindler pulls off his trick and gets away with it, or how the “old hand” beats the swindler in an “ongoing battle of wits” (xv). As a whole, the collection gives a panoramic picture of the late Ming, a jianghu of expanding wealth but dwindling trust, where one had to take precautions against family members, acquaintances, and strangers in everyday life and especially during travel.

A book about fraud and pretense, The Book of Swindles is particularly useful for scholars to reflect on questions of authenticity and falsification in the late Ming. The stories show that, apart from being a subject of philosophical debate, falsification is prevalent in mundane life in the form of forged letters, sham seals, fake identities, and misrepresentations of social relations. Certain roles and appearances are particularly effective in misleading people: imposters promising to have special access to examiners swindle large sums of money out of examination candidates (151); a crook pretending to be the son of a powerful official fools both a local magistrate and a merchant (52); a man in flashy clothes easily arouses speculations about his wealth and status (56). Imposture, as a recurrent theme in The Book of Swindles, calls to mind similar scenarios in the short stories of Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574-1645) and Ling Mengchu 凌濛初 (1580-1644), and furthermore, the literati’s debunking of various sham performers on the late Ming cultural stage.[2] Reading these sources together gives us a better understanding of the ways in which both the elite and the common folk experienced the radical changes in social order, and the means by which they dealt with the loss of genuineness in the empire and in their immediate surroundings.

Since the stories take place in the vibrant commercial world of the late Ming, silver plays a critical role in them as a medium of exchange, as the bait with which crooks lure their marks, and as the final target of their schemes. Notably, several stories illustrate the trade among silver, status, and sex. Daughters and mothers are sold to pay off debts (38; 118), but clever women also use sex to extort money for their own benefit (130). A geomancer plots to make his wife conceive children with scions of elite families as a way of stealing their “seed” of high rank and wealth (121). The connection between sexual transgression and the flow of wealth in some of the stories reminds us of similar themes in Ming novels such as the Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅).[3] For literary scholars, such parallels are particularly illuminating.

Stories in the collection were drawn from a wide variety of sources; some clearly share similar plot elements with other fictional works. The anecdote of a magistrate exposing the fraud of a monk eating fetuses is reminiscent of the murderous monks in fiction, especially those in the early Qing story collection Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor (豆棚閒話) (179).[4] A version of the deeply cynical tale, “A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother,” turns up over a century later in the novel The Scholars (儒林外史) (xxx). Certain bizarre stories, such as a Buddhist master using a charmed fox heart to control minds, or a boy born of a woman and a monkey, are apparently based on local gossip or hearsay (xxx).

In the author’s commentaries we catch glimpses of certain assumptions that would have been familiar to the original audiences of the collection. For example, he advises that a traveling merchant should try his best to pick a fair and honest broker (45) and suggests that one should avoid lawsuits at all costs because the yamen is “a thicket of swindles” (107). He shows that it is wise to use one crook to track down another crook, because “it takes a thief to catch a thief and a gambler to catch a gambler” (119). He tends to be unsympathetic and practical, emphasizing the individual’s responsibility for taking care of his own safety and property. His remarks are valuable, not because they are necessarily faithful reflections of social reality, but because they shed light on the popular knowledge that circulated and shaped seventeenth-century readers’ understanding of their own era.

The volume is a welcome addition to recent translations of Chinese story collections from the Ming and Qing periods.[5] The stories, presented in highly readable English, will be a rich pedagogical resource for courses in Chinese history, society, and culture. The translators’ introduction is deeply insightful and stimulating; it not only informs students and general readers about the social context and the collection’s sources, themes, and influence, but also touches on a broad range of topics that scholars may further explore using this newly available translation. The Book of Swindles has just started to attract scholarly attention in the English-speaking world. I expect it to serve as a significant resource for future studies of late imperial Chinese literature, culture, history, law, and society.

Yinghui Wu
University of California, Los Angeles


[1] The era saw the proliferation of encyclopedias for daily use and guidebooks for traveling merchants. See, for example, Yuming He’s study, in Home and the World: Editing the “Glorious Ming” in Woodblock-Printed Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), and Chen Xuewen 陳學文, Ming Qing shiqi shangye shu ji shangren shu zhi yanjiu 明清时期商业书及商人书之研究 (Taibei: Hongye wenhua, 1997).

[2] For instance, educated men who did not hold office often usurped the title of “mountain man” (山人), styling themselves as lofty-minded recluses but actually living as freeloaders. This and other sham performers were targets of ridicule in elite writings. See Shen Defu 沈德符, Wanli yehuo bian 萬曆野獲編, vol. 23 (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1997), 585.

[3] For discussion of the association between financial capital and sexual capital in Jin Ping Mei, see Martin W. Huang, Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), 96-100.

[4] See Chapter 6, “The Exalted Monks Who Faked Transcendence,” in Aina the Layman, Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Story Collection, ed. Robert E. Hegel (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 86-100.

[5] Feng Menglong, Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, trs. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); Feng Menglong, Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, trs. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005); Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, trs. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009); Aina the Layman, Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Story Collection, ed. Robert E. Hegel (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017); Ling Mengchu, Slapping the Table in Amazement: A Ming Dynasty Story Collection, trs. Shuihui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018).