Sometime around the early 17th century, a Chinese writer named Zhang Yingyu published a book called The Book of Swindles, also known by a longer name: A New Book For Foiling Swindlers, Based on Worldly Experience: Strange Tales from the Rivers and Lakes. The text, thought to be the first Chinese collection of stories dedicated to fraud, included 84 short accounts of hoaxes, broken down into 24 types, from “Misdirection and Theft,” to “Fake Silver,” to “Government Underlings,” to my favorite, “Women.”
Zhang wrote the book after a boom of international commerce concentrated extreme wealth in the hands of a few merchants in the late Ming dynasty, boosting crime along the bodies of water where goods traveled. Per the title, he chose the stranger, more unusual stories, but each was an emblem of sorts, representing the strains of subterfuge at play in Zhang’s world. Hoaxes are as old as humanity, but the specific scams people devise say something about their particular moment. In the English translation, published by Columbia University Press in 2017, you can scan Zhang’s table of contents and find entries, both universal and distinctly timestamped: A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother, or A Eunuch Cooks Boys to Make a Tonic of Male Essence, or A Father Searching for His Wastrel Son Himself Falls into Whoring
The compendium f.unctioned both as an encyclopedia of crime and a kind of crook’s handbook. In describing the hoaxes, Zhang couldn’t hide his grudging respect for the swindlers, whose ingenuity helped them survive an unequal economy. As our decade comes to an end, we find ourselves in a similar situation: extreme wealth disparity, a pervasive sense that any solid-seeming fact might give way to grift, and a moral confusion about just who, exactly, the bad guys are, the hoaxers or the hoaxed. In that spirit, here’s a highly scientific and absolutely definitive list of the swindles––in some order of influence, depravity, and being funny or stupid––that shaped our time like Zhang’s shaped his.