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Volume 6  •  Issue 2 •  November 2019


  • Zhang Yingyu. The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming CollectionTranslated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. Reviewed by Katherine Carlitz

The Book of Swindles

This is an age of deception. Con men ply the roadways. Bogus alchemists pretend to turn one piece of silver into three. Devious nuns entice young women into adultery. Sorcerers use charmed talismans for mind control and murder. A pair of dubious monks extorts money from a powerful official and then spends it on whoring. A rich student tries to bribe the chief examiner, only to hand his money to an imposter. A eunuch kidnaps boys and consumes their “essence” in an attempt to regrow his penis. These are just a few of the entertaining and surprising tales to be found in this seventeenth-century work, said to be the earliest Chinese collection of swindle stories.

The Book of Swindles, compiled by an obscure writer from southern China, presents a fascinating tableau of criminal ingenuity. The flourishing economy of the late Ming period created overnight fortunes for merchants—and gave rise to a host of smooth operators, charlatans, forgers, and imposters seeking to siphon off some of the new wealth. The Book of Swindles, which was ostensibly written as a manual for self-protection in this shifting and unstable world, also offers an expert guide to the art of deception. Each story comes with commentary by the author, Zhang Yingyu, who expounds a moral lesson while also speaking as a connoisseur of the swindle. This volume, which contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd stories in Zhang’s original collection, provides a wealth of detail on social life during the late Ming and offers words of warning for a world in peril.


  • Rebecca Doran.Transgressive Typologies: Construction of Gender and Power in Early Tang China. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. Reviewed by Maram Epstein

The exceptionally powerful Chinese women leaders of the late seventh and early eighth centuries – including Wu Zhao, the Taiping and Anle Princesses, Empress Wei, and Shangguan Wan’er – though quite famous in the Chinese tradition, remain elusive and often misunderstood or essentialized throughout history. Transgressive Typologies utilizes a new, multidisciplinary approach to understand how these figures’ historical identities are constructed in the mainstream secular literary-historical tradition and to analyze the points of view that inform these constructions. 

Utilizing close readings and rereadings of primary texts written in medieval China through later imperial times, the study elucidates narrative typologies and motifs associated with these women to explore how their power is rhetorically framed, gendered, and ultimately deemed transgressive. Rebecca Doran offers a new understanding of major female figures of the Tang era within their literary-historical contexts, and delves into critical questions about the relationship between Chinese historiography, reception-history, and the process of image-making and cultural construction.


  • Joseph S. C. Lam, Shuen-fu Lin, Christian de Pee, and Martin Powers, eds. Senses of the City: Perceptions of Hangzhou and Southern Song China 1127-1279. Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2017. Reviewed by Michael Fuller

While previous scholars have focused on the structural properties of Song dynasty (960–1279) cities, contributors in this volume unite in an effort to restore the connection between the historical texts concerning Southern Song cities, mainly Lin’an, or Hangzhou, and the actual physical urban space described in those works. Their richly detailed essays reveal a world distinct from, yet at the same time related to, the rich urban and material cultures of Hangzhou. The sights, sounds, and even smells of the greatest city on earth in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are at once palpable in the nine essays assembled here, all of which are penned by prominent scholars in the field. This book is highly recommended for all readers interested in the cities of ancient China. (James Hargett)

Never meant to be an imperial capital, Hangzhou always exceeded the category of a court city. Its chaotic energy seduced literati and painters who might have wanted to tame its excesses to turn away from the old models of imperial stasis and enter into the flux of change. The authors of this volume revisit important literary, artistic, and historical sources of the Song dynasty to capture this extraordinary transformation and offer new ways to appreciate the excitement and anxiety of living in this urban world. (Timothy Brook)


  • Xiaorong Li.The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China: The “Fragrant and Bedazzling” Movement (1600-1930). New York: Cambria University Press, 2019. Reviewed by Paola Zamperini

The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China: The “Fragrant and Bedazzling” Movement (1600-1930)

“Fragrant and bedazzling” (xiangyan) is a Chinese phrase synonymous with sensual and bewitching feminine beauty and, in literature, eroticism. Drawing on extensive archival research, this book argues that sensual lyricism is more political than its sensuous surfaces—and China’s lyrical tradition is sexier and more “modern”—than existing histories have led us to believe.