the roads and rivers of china saw a steady stream of travelers during the late ming dynasty (1368-1644), as merchants moved from place to place, creating a vibrant commercial network that bound together the country’s flourishing southern cities. on the road, however, people were vulnerable: cut off from familiar places and faces, it was easy to fall prey to the roving con men who had devised a plethora of get-rich-quick schemes that would relieve their victims of money and goods.
english-language readers can now learn about a wide range of the frauds perpetrated in 17th-century china by picking up the book of swindles: selections from a late ming collection (columbia university press, 2017), written by zhang yingyu (fl. 1612-17) and recently translated by aas members christopher rea and bruce rusk, both professors in the department of asian studies at the university of british columbia. zhang’s work, rea and rusk write in the book’s introduction, “presents a panoramic survey of deceptive practices in contemporary society by a critic keenly interested in the dangers faced by common people.” by recounting semi-fictional or composite versions of swindle stories he had heard, zhang armed his readers with the knowledge they would need to avoid being taken advantage of themselves—though a different type of reader may have regarded the book of swindles as a handy how-to manual for embarking on a criminal career.
for more on the book of swindles, listen to this discussion with rea and rusk at the china econ talk podcast, watch them introduce the book in a short video at chinafile, and read this q&a at the columbia university press blog.
rea and rusk have translated about half of the 80-some stories that the book of swindles contains. here, we are pleased to share with #asianow readers “flashy clothing incites larceny,” one of the cautionary tales zhang included in the book’s section on “showing off wealth.” following the story, zhang added his own short commentary, printed in italics below.
flashy clothing incites larceny
you tiansheng, from huizhou prefecture, was a man of splendid appearance and imposing elegance; he was also something of a clotheshorse. one day he set off to buy iron in jianning prefecture, taking along his servant xu ding and capital of more than five hundred ounces of silver. reaching chong’an county, he boarded a riverboat captained by a man named li ya, who was assisted by a deckhand named weng yah. this li ya had earlier bankrupted his family with his whoring and gambling, then turned to skippering a boat as a last resort.
when the boat reached jianyang county, tiansheng, in preparing to disembark to visit a relative in the vicinity, opened his trunk and took out a striking robe. li ya saw that the trunk was filled with exquisite outfits, and the sight of this gave him a notion. that evening, when tiansheng asked the captain to buy him some wine and a meal, li slipped some tuotuo blossoms into the wine. (tuotuo flowers are also known as datura; whoever consumes them becomes comatose and unable to speak.) that night tiansheng and his servant both succumbed to the drug and fell into a stupor. at midnight, li tried to bring his deckhand in on the plot, but weng yah told him, “wealth is allotted by fate, and it’s wrong to chase after what’s not yours. if word got out, there’d be no beating that rap. count me out.”
li’s rapaciousness would not be stopped by his deckhand’s objections, and he tossed both passengers overboard into the depths. tiansheng drowned, but his servant xu ding had luckily drunk less wine than his master, so the water revived him. an adept swimmer, he was able to make it to shore.
the next day, xu ding took a different boat to the jianning prefectural seat. there he submitted a complaint to prefect wang, who promptly dispatched a search party of six soldiers to accompany xu to linjiang junction to apprehend the suspect. (linjiang junction is a port where boats on their way to and from jianning assemble.) they arrived to find li ya with the loot in his possession. he’d just bought some wine and was bringing it on board his boat, his mind fixed on revelry. xu ding pointed li out to the soldiers, who locked him in shackles. they searched the boat for the stolen property and, finding it on board, brought the prisoner and the goods back to the prefectural seat.
as soon as prefect wang began his interrogation, li ya saw that the game was up. unable to deny the charges, he gave a complete confession in which he implicated his deckhand as an accomplice.
xu ding testified, “when i was drugged, i was in a stupor and unable to speak, but in my dreamlike state i heard the deckhand urge him to stop. the deckhand didn’t go along with the plot and fled before it was carried out. if you punish the man unjustly, it will dissuade others from doing the right thing in the future.”
prefect wang sentenced li ya to forty blows, followed by imprisonment and decapitation, as prescribed by the statutes. two guards accompanied xu ding back to you tiansheng’s home, along with tiansheng’s belongings and money. li ya’s death sentence was carried out the following winter.
later, weng yah gave up boating for agriculture, in which he prospered. li ya, in plotting against others, hastened his own death; by remonstrating against evil, weng yah was able to protect his family. true indeed is the saying: “goodness brings good rewards, and evil brings evil rewards!”
you tiansheng brought this disaster upon himself with his opulent attire, which made the thieving captain covetous. in general, when traveling alone by boat it is imperative to guard against the nefarious plots of boatmen. nap during the day so that you’ll be easily roused at night. when cooking meals and heating wine, be especially careful of people slipping you poison. keep your dress modest and avoid anything flashy. laozi said, “a good merchant hides things away and appears to have nothing,” and confucius said, “few go astray who comport themselves with restraint.” wise words indeed for cultivating virtue and keeping harm at bay.
excerpted from the book of swindles by yingyu zhang – translated by christopher rea and bruce rusk. copyright © 2017 christopher rea and bruce rusk. used by arrangement with the publisher. all rights reserved.