The Book of Swindles (Piàn jīng 騙經), also known by its longer title, A New Book for Foiling Swindlers, Based on Worldly Experience (Jiānghú lìlǎn dùpiàn xīnshū 江湖歷覽杜騙新書), is said to be the first Chinese story collection about fraud. The collection contains eighty-four short stories about swindling, fraud, and deception. Written and compiled by Zhang Yingyu, it was published in Fujian province in or around 1617, and most of its stories are set during the latter part of the Ming dynasty. Stories are classified into twenty-four types of swindle according to method, location or perpetrator, including such categories as misdirection and theft, the bag drop, money changing, misrepresentation, false relations, brokers, enticement to gambling, poetry, fake silver, government underlings, and marriage. As a whole, the collection presents a panoramic survey of deceptive practices in contemporary Ming society by a critic keenly interested in the dangers faced by common people, especially traveling merchants. Many stories feature a merchant encountering a swindler while traveling to sell goods in another province or while returning home from a business trip with earnings in hand. Ostensibly written as a manual for self-protection against swindlers, it also offers an expert guide to the art of deception.
One of the collection's distinctive features is that each story comes with commentary by the author, who expounds a moral lesson against swindle while also speaking as a connoisseur of the swindle. Zhang Yingyu, who represents himself as a Confucian gentleman, at times castigates the swindler's depredations and at other times praises his or her ingenuity. Zhang also alternates between sympathizing with the victim or chiding him or her for having not avoided what was clearly a bad situation.
A selected English translation, The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection, translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, was published by Columbia University Press in 2017. This volume, which contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd stories in Zhang's original collection, also discusses relevant contexts for the stories, including social life during the late Ming, the Chinese civil service examinations, the Ming dynasty government bureaucracy, and silver currency.
Background and themes
The purpose of the book, according to its original title, is to teach the reader how to protect themselves from swindles. The woodblocks from which the first edition was printed, in or soon after 1617, label it A New Book for Foiling Swindlers, Based on Worldly Experience (Jianghu lilan dupian xinshu), and present it as a guide to how to navigate social and commercial environments away from home. Yet the Book serves equally well as a manual for perpetrating swindles, impersonation, and other types of deception. Modern editions have been entitled both The Book Against Swindles (Fangpian jing) and The Book of Swindles (Pian jing). The book was also written for entertainment, as it offers a wealth of narrative detail and describes crimes to which the average reader is unlikely to fall victim, such as eunuch cannibalism.
During the late Ming, China underwent a flourishing of domestic and international commerce that created overnight fortunes. The Book of Swindles captures a sense of the paranoia that resulted from the new risks and social change brought by this flow of money. Most of the stories concern stratagems for siphoning off some of the wealth circulating through the roads, canals, and market alleyways of the prosperous southern regions of the empire.
Many of the encounters in the Book of Swindles involve a particular and highly charged social scenario: travel among strangers. Zhang focuses mainly on interactions among ordinary folk, including those at the lowest levels of the social order (peasants, street cleaners, itinerant peddlers), and how they navigate a hostile environment of untrustworthy strangers. The setting of the book, as mentioned in its longer title, is the imaginary realm of the jianghu (Rivers and Lakes), where kin are scarce and strangers might turn out to be predators. The jianghu is a place of refuge for political exiles, outlaws, martial artists, socially marginal figures, and people hiding from the law. It is also a realm of commerce plied by merchants, petty entrepreneurs, civil service examinations candidates, officials heading to and from their posts, monks, medicine men, soothsayers, entertainers, mendicants, and swindlers. The overarching maxim of the jianghu is that people are often not what they seem, which is integral to the swindle story.
Types of swindle
The Book of Swindles is divided into twenty-four types of swindle: Type 1: Misdirection and Theft; Type 2: The Bag Drop; Type 3: Money Changing; Type 4: Misrepresentation; Type 5: False Relations; Type 6: Brokers; Type 7: Enticement to Gambling; Type 8: Showing Off Wealth; Type 9: Scheming for Wealth; Type 10: Robbery; Type 11: Violence; Type 12: On Boats; Type 13: Poetry; Type 14: Fake Silver; Type 15: Government Underlings; Type 16: Marriage; Type 17: Illicit Passion; Type 18: Women; Type 19: Kidnapping; Type 20: Corruption in Education; Type 21: Monks and Priests; Type 22: Alchemy; Type 23: Sorcery; Type 24: Pandering
Zhang Yingyu (张应俞), style name Kui Zhong (夔衷), is an obscure figure. The Book of Swindles is the only known work to appear under his name, and no record of him survives in any biographical source. Zhang lived during the Wanli period (1563–1620) of the Ming dynasty. A note on the title page of one Ming dynasty copy claims that he was from Zhejiang province, while a 1617 preface says that he was from Fujian.
Relationship with other literary works and genres
The Book of Swindles incorporates elements from a variety of other Chinese genres, especially court case fiction, in which a capable magistrate solves a crime. Stories involving sorcerers, Buddhist monks, and Daoist priests, who engage in alchemy or dream spirit possession, include motifs from supernatural tales. Other stories, featuring suspense, surprise and revelation, resemble jokes in structure. A minority include apocryphal anecdotes about historical figures. Zhang draws on stock scenarios and character types from vernacular fiction and drama, such as the charlatan Daoist, the duplicitous broker, and the foolish scion of a rich family. Dropped bags, ingenious thievery, and imposture also appear in fiction by contemporaries such as Feng Menglong (1574–1645), Ling Mengchu (1580–1644), and Li Yu (1610–80). Venal monks and eunuchs, lying procuresses and go-betweens appear in a wide array of vernacular literature, including contemporary novels such as The Water Margin (Shui hu zhuan, first extant imprint 1589) and Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin ping mei, first extant imprint 1610). Collections of swindle stories can also be found in contemporary China.
The Book of Swindles also appeared around the same time as the seventeenth-century heyday of the Spanish picaresque novel, which often features rogues, [ricksters, delusive figures, and swindlers roaming the lands in search of opportunity or fortune. Contemporaneous Spanish works include El Buscon (The Swindler) and Don Quixote. The theme, structure, and spirit of Zhang Yingyu's work also resemble that of swindle story collections from Europe and America, such as Richard King's The New Cheats of London Exposed (ca. 1790) and James Perry Johnston's How to Hustle (1905). Elaborate scams detailed in the "Corruption in Education" section of The Book of Swindles also anticipate "big cons" of early twentieth-century con men such as "The Big Store," as described by sociolinguist David Maurer in The Big Con.
- Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, "Translators' Introduction," in Zhang Yingyu, The Book of Swindles (Columbia, 2017), p. xiii.
- Sinica Podcast, "On Cons, Swindles, Scams": https://supchina.com/2018/04/12/sinica-podcast-on-cons-swindles-scams/
- Rea, Christopher; Rusk, Bruce (2017). YINGYU, ZHANG (ed.). The Book of Swindles. Selections from a Late Ming Collection. Columbia University Press. pp. XIII–XXXVIII. doi:10.7312/zhan16862.4. ISBN 9780231178624. JSTOR 10.7312/zhan16862.4.
- "The Book of Swindles – Selections from a Late Ming Collection | Columbia University Press". Columbia University Press. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
- Rea and Rusk, "Translators' Introduction", Zhang, The Book of Swindles.
- Rea, Christopher; Rusk, Bruce (2017). YINGYU, ZHANG (ed.). The Book of Swindles. Selections from a Late Ming Collection. Columbia University Press. pp. V–IX. doi:10.7312/zhan16862.2. ISBN 9780231178624. JSTOR 10.7312/zhan16862.2.
- "张应俞". Baidu. 4 January 2016. Retrieved 14 March 2018.
- Robert Hegel, "Review of The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection", Ming Studies issue 77 (2018): 80–83.
- Rob Moore, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels", LARB China Channel: https://chinachannel.org/2018/01/01/dirty-rotten-scoundrels/
- Fang pian jing: https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E9%98%B2%E9%AA%97%E7%BB%8F
- Book excerpt: "Flashy Clothing Incites Larceny", Association for Asian Studies Asia Now# blog
- Book excerpt: "Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose", Asian Review of Books
- Interview: "Trickster Tales and True Crime", Columbia University Press blog
- ChinaFile video interview with Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk
- "Cons from the Late Ming Dynasty", China Econ Talk podcast