Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

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.