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Christopher Rea - "What can the Ming dynasty Book of Swindles tell us about the world we live in?"

Friday, February 8, 2019 - 10:30am

844 Williams Hall (EALC Conference Room)

Why do tales about swindlers flourish at certain times and places? In China, the swindle story has experienced bursts of popularity during the late Ming, the early Republican era, the early Mao era, and during the last twenty years. And comparable works exist around the world. What, for example, do Zhang Yingyu’s Book of Swindles (Ming China, 1617), Richard King’s The New Cheats of London Exposed (Georgian England, 1792), and P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World (Reconstruction-era United States, 1867) have in common—and how do they differ? Swindle stories, clearly, serve a double purpose: they teach techniques for navigating perilous social environments, and they entertain. But theirs authors tend to frame these narratives within a questionable claim: that ours is an age of unprecedented peril. Focusing on the example of China, this talk will highlight one thread running through literary history: connoisseurship of the swindler’s ingenuity.

Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (2015), which the Association for Asian Studies awarded the 2017 Joseph Levenson Book Prize (post-1900 China). He is editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans (2015), Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts (2011), The Business of Culture (2015) (with Nicolai Volland), and Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Chinese Celebrities (2018). With Bruce Rusk, he recently cotranslated The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection (2017). His next book is China’s Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai (Cornell East Asia Series, 2019).