Dirty Rotten Scoundrels6 min read

Rob Moore reviews The Book of Swindles by Zhang Yingyu


“These moral degenerates are extremely crafty, so the gentleman needs to make his defenses airtight.”

So goes the commentary appended to ‘Stealing Silk with a Decoy Horse,’ the first tale in Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk’s abridged translation of The Book of Swindles, a Ming dynasty collection originally penned by Zhang Yingyu. Like with any good heist story, ‘Stealing Silk’ allows the “gentleman” reader to straddle both sides of the line, disapproving of the obviously unethical actions of the swindler while at the same time waiting with bated breath to see just how the swindle came off. Zhang’s solemn pronouncement is made with a nudge and a wink, since the success of the collection upon its publication in 1617 demonstrates that the author knew too well that the only thing better than alerting the reader to nefarious criminals is to let them in on the crime.

That Rusk and Rea’s translation does just that is no small feat given that these swindles were narrated some 400 years ago. In their introduction, the translators note that The Book of Swindles was a jing, or classic, in the field of procedural fiction. That’s another way of saying that Zhang Yingyu was his generation’s version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or, perhaps more accurately (given the much longer history of farce as a genre) P.G. Wodehouse: an author whose skill is less in creating something brand-new than in brilliantly manipulating something already-established.

Zhang draws heavily on stock characters and scenarios from Chinese vernacular fiction – the unscrupulous monk, the sexually unsatisfied wife, and the arrogant and foolish rich man – that would have been instantly recognizable by the reading audience of the day. The reader needs only read, “Fei was a student at the National University in Nanjing,” from ‘A Daoist in a Boat Exchanges Some Gold,’ to know where the story is headed. Some things never change, and in this case at least, so do we. (University students rarely figure as wily people of the world in any era, and the Ming Dynasty was apparently no exception.)

As with any good translation, this easy access is partly due to the near-universality of the subject matter, and can also be chalked up to how the translators present it. In terse, economical prose, Rusk and Rea capture the sitting-around-a-fire-on-a-cold-night-ness of Ming-Qing vernacular storytelling. While purists might turn their noses up at phrases like “switcheroo,” “divvy up,” and “skedaddle,” in fact they strike just the right note, as the original Chinese is redolent with such giddy trade-speak. Other choices in the translation might not stick out to a non-Chinese reader, but are still carefully-crafted to impart a sense of the vernacular, such as the translators’ decision throughout to use colloquial contractions such as “I’d’ve” in order to stress the street-level conversational tone Zhang often employs.

Another nice touch – one that is the hardest to effectively execute – is the translation of the formal names of many the various swindles deployed. In the aforementioned ‘Stealing Silk with a Decoy Horse,’ for example, a provincial prefect adjudicating between two swindled men comments ruefully that they’ve been taken in by the ruse known as “obtaining passage through the state of Yu to attack the state of Guo.” The translators include a note at the end to explain the reference, but decline to explain it in depth, saying simply that it means “to borrow an associate’s resources to attack one’s true target,” and that it derives “from events that took place in 658 B.C.E.” Which events precisely are not germane to the issue, of course. What matters, at least to the popular reading audience, is that it is an established ruse: evidence of a formal, possibly even ancient, underground of professionals with their own arcane knowledge and language. Film audiences today might recall the same kind of comedic arcana used in the Ocean’s film series or, for those more exposed to the world of Chinese fiction, the wuxia martial art sagas of Jin Yong.

Rusk and Rea present the collection as precisely what it was meant to be: a popular collection of swindles and tales of those who perpetrate them. Any appeals to the academic crowd are contained in the end notes. The introduction, meanwhile, makes a direct appeal to the current state of political unrest and mistrust of institutions of social authority with lines such as, “The halls of power are choked with hypocrites, and the markets teem with frauds.” The canny reader will likely smile at the formulation in retrospect, since the rest of the introduction reads almost like a fan blog. We wait for the “but” that must inevitably follow any serious pronouncement in an otherwise comic or farcical text.

“The only thing better than alerting the reader to nefarious criminals is to let them in on the crime”

In this respect, it’s curious that the translators did not include, in their otherwise well-written introduction, any disclaimer for narrative elements that will doubtless strike modern audiences as repugnant. While Rusk and Rea include explanations of why officialdom, civil service examinations, and silver figure as major themes, they do not address abuse, rape, or cannibalism. This is unfortunate because the order of the stories presented saves many of those more cringe-worthy themes for the second half of the book, after the reader has come to expect a series of lighter romps through the world of crime. In ‘A Buddhist Nun Scatters Prayer Beads to Lure a Woman into Adultery,’ for example, a man and woman are bizarrely brought together through the nauseating device of the male protagonist raping the woman in her sleep – twice.

It is difficult, having read of otherwise shrewd swindlers employing poetry, disguises, and canny storytelling, to suddenly happen upon a rape scene that is presented as though it were no more unlikely a scenario than the others. Pronouncements of “that was then” might be able to contextualize at least the narrative convention, but without it, it’s a jarring and unsettling story that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the collection – a situation that might have been remedied with some preparation in the introduction.

Overall, the collection deserves the highest praise one can give a publication of popular stories: it’s a lot of fun. The scams are wide-ranging in type, the plot devices ingenious, and the translation is carried off with great sensitivity both to the original text and to the audience reading it today. ∎


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