Trickeries in Beijing, the Imperial Capital

Trickeries in Beijing, the Imperial Capital

As described by Ji Xiaolan[1], in one of his stories intended to reflect life in China during the 18th century.

No place can match the imperial capital in deception and imposture I once bought sixteen ink slabs[2] reputedly made by Luo Xiaohua renowned manufacturer in the Ming dynasty. Placed in a faded lacquer box, they appeared like things from the remote past. When tested them on my return, they turned out to be clay bars painted black, On another occasion I bought some candles which could not be lit, for they were made of clay with a coat of mutton tallow. One evening a man was selling roast ducks under the lamplight, and my cousin bought one. He returned to find the duck already eaten; the skeleton had been refilled with clay and pasted with a piece of paper colored like a roast duck and smeared with oil. Only the feet and head of the duck were not faked. Then there was our family servant Zhao Ping who bought a pair of leather boots for two thousand coins, a good bargain in his opinion. He changed into the boots on going out one rainy day but came back barefooted. Each boot, it turned out, was covered by oiled paper, crumpled to create the leather-like creases. and the sole was made of a cluster of cotton wrapped un in cloth.

The above are merely petty frauds. There was once an official- in-waiting who took a fancy to a pretty young woman living across the street. From a neighbor he found out that she lived with her mother while her husband was an assistant to an official in another city. A few months later the gate of her house was suddenly covered with white paper[3], and the family was heard weeping and wailing, for news of her husband’s death had just arrived. A memorial tablet[4] was erected in the hall, a ceremony was conducted by some monks to pray for blessing on the dead[5], and quite a few people came to offer condolences. Gradually the family, reputedly driven to the verge of starvation, began to sell clothes, then sent for matchmakers to find the young widow a second husband. This seemed to answer a dream wish of the official-in-waiting, who flung himself at the chance. He moved into her house after their wedding, but several months later her first husband suddenly returned. Apparently the news of his death had been a rumor. Flying into fury, he insisted on taking the official-in-waiting to court. After repeated entreaties by his wife and mother-in-law, he finally relented and allowed the culprit to go after leaving all his possessions behind. Half a year later the official-in-waiting happened to see the young woman questioned by a ward-inspecting censor. The so-called husband who had driven him out was actually her lover, who had schemed with her to cheat him of his money. The imposture was not exposed until the return of her real husband.

 In the Western District there was a house to let consisting of forty to fifty rooms. At over twenty taels of silver per month a man rented the place for over half a year. As he always paid the monthly rent in advance, the landlord did not bother to pay any attention to what he was doing. One day the tenant suddenly left without saying good-bye. Hastening to the house, the landlord found it reduced to ruins, with only two street-facing rooms still standing. This house had both front and rear gates. Running a timber shop at the rear gate, the tenant had dismantled the entire house and sold the wood at the shop. The landlord, who lived on the front road, had failed to detect anything. It was really a stunning feat to pull down dozens of rooms and sell all that timber without anyone’s knowledge. In all the instances quoted above, the victim was either anxious to get things on the cheap or to suit his own convenience, and therefore should not pin the blame entirely on others. Mr. Qian Wenmin commented, «One has to be extremely careful when dealing with people in the capital, and should consider himself lucky if he has not been tricked. Anything that looks like a good bargain must be a trap. With so many greedy tricksters in the world, how can any advantage befall people like us?» I find his words very reasonable.   

Image: Unidentified artist | One hundred portraits of Peking opera characters | China | Qing dynasty (1644–1911) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[1] Ji Xiaolan. Fantastic Tales. Edited and translated by Sun Haichen. New World Press. Beijing. 1998.

[2]  Stone inkwells in which a little water is poured and an ink stick is ground to produce the ink with which to write or paint.

[3] Sign of mourning.

[4] Where it is supposed to go, after the funerals, to the soul of the deceased.

[5] Logically part of the funeral.

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