The Swindler Turns Around Intent To Scheme
Idler’s Note: This novel builds up gradually, even in the original Chinese, since there is a lot of setup before the payoff is apparent. You could argue that it is building up the world with small details. It is definitely different from a lot of the action-oriented xianxia novels out there that are popular right now. Hopefully, my translating pace will keep the anticipation up… I will certainly do my best to keep the release rate steady.
Disclaimer: This translation is by a fan for fans. Any opinions or commentary presented here are translated as is written by the original author. Any remarks by the translator will be in footnotes or in an editorial aside. The original work is the property of the author and any other associated copyright holders in their respective territories. Please do not reproduce, redistribute, or resell this translation anywhere else without permission! If you are reading this anywhere else but on WordPress, then it is being reposted without permission from the translator! If you are the copyright holder and/or have licensed this work for English publication and wish for this translation to be removed, please contact me to do so. Thank you!
Mrs. Zhang-Wang and Wang Juan’s parents had no time to pay attention to Yingtao’s agitation. They were excited, too. Watching their children from their birth to learning how to talk and walk was a process that was the happiest matter for those who are parents.
Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan became like treasures that were surrounded and watched over as well as periodically called upon to say something nice. This commotion was nothing to Zhang Xiaobao as he was willing to enjoy this sort of coziness. But Wang Juan couldn’t take it. She just couldn’t understand why, as mature as Zhang Xiaobao was, he liked being infantile.1 It looked like the team sending her to get the money was a wrong decision. They should have found a mother with child in tow. She trusted they would have gotten even more money.
To avoid this kind of helplessness, Wang Juan had to resort to feigning sleepiness as she gave Zhang Xiaobao a secret signal with the thinking that they could still continue their interactions later. Zhang Xiaobao also played along with Wang Juan as they yawned in unison and they began to be unable to keep their eyes open.
Waiting until the adults found another place to discuss today’s happy business, Wang Juan who had been repositioned back onto the couch finally sighed as she patted Zhang Xiaobao beside her and said: “Can you not be so juvenile in the future? How old are you?”
“Without never having lost, you will never understand what it is to have. This kind of happiness, how many times can a person enjoy it in a lifetime? Not to mention I’ve never enjoyed it before. I’m not prepared to leave behind any regrets. You go be your grownup and I’ll be my child. Let’s see who first runs into trouble?” Zhang Xiaobao was still reminiscing about that kind of sensation with closed eyes as he conversely gave advice to Wang Juan.
“Keep pretending. This one day, ~ah… When can we have a clear space to better plan out our own matters? You even said to help pave the way for your dad [modern]. Based on how it looks here, don’t expect too much.” Wang Juan muttered, wanting to turn over but instead discovered that her body still couldn’t do this. The only posture was lying prone.
“One week. Give me another week’s time and I’ll be able to let us have an excuse to use our talents. For this week, you and I will keep talking and add a bit of content to our speech each day so people will believe that we’re child prodigies. That’s the deal.”
Zhang Xiaobao made the final decision.
The summer weather changed as it pleased. The previous few days were bright with sunlight but today was overcast in gloom as if the sky would fall down at any time. The wind swept across the ground in swirls and even the dirt that was whipped up looked dark. The majority of people were all either hiding indoors or under the canopy of outdoor tea vendors.
Only a minority of people were especially spirited upon seeing that it was about to rain as with an umbrella in tow, they deliberately walked to the site of a bridge or outside of the tea vendors’ awnings to wait for the arrival of the rain.
Through the past 7 days of pretending to be child prodigies which caused the adults to puff up with pride, Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan finally got a special privilege. That was that the both of them were able to each order around a maid servant or manservant—or footmen—to do some things such as letting the maids and footmen carry them to go outside to look at the scenery or to take them to the garden in back to look at the flowers and grass.
The both of them extremely cherished this limited freedom. Seeing that today would rain, they hid inside their room. Bidding people to open the window, they looked at the view outside. Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan both liked this type of weather, especially with the dark clouds up in the sky that gave people a feeling of pressure. The both of them were willing to face the pressure so they looked on with exuberant interest.
But this was hard on the maid Yingtao and the other manservant, Erniu,2 who feared that the two little ancestors3 would be blown at by the wind and also worried that they would be drizzled on by the rain in a bit. Thus, they were on tenterhooks4 as they waited to the side, not stopping in their persuasion.
“Mister Bao,5 why don’t we step back and then look? It’d still be able to see clearly what the rain is like. Add on another piece of clothing and then that would be even more comfortable.” Near Zhang Xiaobao, Erniu was relatively clever in his suggestion.
Zhang Xiaobao appeared to not have heard. After quite a while and the rain looked like it was about to fall did he suddenly say: “Erniu, what do you say if in a while the rainy wind blows in and gets me and Juan-Juan drenching wet, we both cry together, and we say that it was you who pushed us toward the windowsill when my mom comes? Do you think that my mom would trust your explanation or would trust the two of us?”
Zhang Xiaobao’s talk was only that—talk. But the words he said gave Erniu and Yingtao a frightening shock as their mouths gaped wide open, momentarily not knowing how to answer.
“Yeah, at that time, me and Xiaobao will say to my Mom [in-law] that the two of you didn’t wish to take care of us so you did something like that in preparation for transferring to a position someplace else. What consequence would that have?” Next to him, Wang Juan backed him up.
Right now, Erniu was already not considering why the two children could speak so many words that should not be coming out of children’s mouths. With a thump, he kneeled down on the ground with his face all scrunched up as he begged Zhang Xiaobao: “Little ancestor, I, Erniu’s entire family have dedicated all our hearts and effort to working at the Manor. I haven’t offended you [honorific]! You [honorific] can’t be like this! Even if I weren’t beaten to death, I would be driven away. My entire family would be finished. I beg of you [honorific]! I’ll kowtow6 to you. Please let me off.”
Yingtao also reacted and kneeled down, too. This gave Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan a frightful shock. They didn’t think that they would get such a result with just a single breezy sentence.
“Get up. Get up. Don’t kneel. Don’t kowtow, either. We were just asking casually to see if my Mom would trust you guys or trust us.” Zhang Xiaobao wanted to help the two people up but after reaching out with a hand, he discovered that he only just touched the two people’s chest and fearing he had no way to help them up, could only use persuasion.
“Little Mister, this even requires asking? What adult would even believe their own child of only 1 year of age was able to lie? The more I and Yingtao explain ourselves, the greater the trouble. Moreover, it’s even the both of you [honorific] saying this. Even if Mistress knew you were lying, she would wonder why you were doing this. With that, she’d definitely find me and Yingtao an eyesore, thinking we didn’t do a good job looking after you.” Erniu didn’t dare get up as he remained there and replied honestly.
“Oh~! So that’s how it is. That’s good, then. We wanted to discuss something with you two a bit. What do you think?” What Zhang Xiaobao wanted was this answer.
“Whatever you [honorific] say, Yingtao and I will definitely obey. There’s no need for discussion. Whatever you [honorific] say is, is.” Erniu only now realized that Little Mister and Little Miss Juan-Juan’s speech was not childish at all. To the side, Yingtao vigorously nodded as well.
It was easy now. Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan gave a few requests to Erniu and Yingtao. That was, one, no matter how out of the ordinary the things that the both of them did were, they could not tell anyone else and that included Mistress, Master, Old Madam, and Old Master.
Two, no matter what things the both of them did later on, they could not ask the reason why and couldn’t not do them, either. At the same time, they couldn’t let anyone else be aware of this. Otherwise, they could imagine the consequences.
Erniu and Yingtao dared not say even a word of refusal. Whatever Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan proposed was promised to. Offending the two children was certainly more severe than offending Mistress. Displeasing Mistress led to nothing more than a salary fine or a beating. Displeasing the children? Even if they didn’t die, they would lose a layer of skin. Besides, even if they made a mistake, the two children would then naturally carry the brunt of the burden. This was only what Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan had pledged them.
The rain finally fell with a pitter-patter on the open window. The wind blew the window till it creaked. Yet, Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan’s mood kept improving. Looking outside at that torrential downpour, they gazed at each other and smile. Everything was left unspoken in the silence.
It rained for an entire day and only gradually lessened when it was nighttime. After having milk, the two who had just woken up called over Erniu and Yingtao. They first told Yingtao to keep watch by the doorway outside and to give a warning if she discovered someone coming. Then, Zhang Xiaobao said to Erniu: “Erniu, who do you have in your family? Have you taken a wife yet?”
“I haven’t. I’m only 17. Don’t see how hearty I look, I’m really not that big so I’m not in a hurry to take a wife. I’ll see once my older brother weds. Oh, of my family, my parents are still present. Above me, I have an older brother. Below me, I have a 9 year old younger sister. My mom said to save another year of money and we can find a wife for my older brother and I’ll have an [older] sister-in-law.” Erniu respectfully replied.
“Oh, good. Your parents being still present is good. Having an older brother and younger sister is even better. That’s more like a family. I also want to have a younger sister or older brother but it’s too bad as I’m the eldest. Don’t know if my mom will give birth to more younger brothers and sisters later on. What does your [older] brother do?” Zhang Xiaobao continued asking.
Erniu didn’t think he would hear such words. Thinking of his own family, they really were not bad. So smiling happily, he replied: “In answer to Little Mister’s words, my [Older] Brother Daniu7 works the land during the busy farming season and does some odd jobs during the idle times. He can even earn some extra rice and salt. [Younger] Sister helps gather some firewood. My parents also work the land during the busy season and does some work for others when idle.”
“It doesn’t seem to be the farming season right now?” Zhang Xiaobao directed this at Wang Juan. Wang Juan thought for a bit and nodded.
“Not busy. It’s busy after 2 more months. We’re all idle.” Erniu answered upon hearing the question.
“It’s good that it’s not busy. We can find something to do. Especially for your [Older] Brother Daniu. What to do?” Zhang Xiaobao got lost in thought. Wang Juan knew that this international great scammer was starting to plot against people. She was prepared as well. If Zhang Xiaobao still wished to continue running cons, then no matter what, she would prevent it.
Seeing Zhang Xiaobao’s brow wrinkle, Wang Juan worried in private. With such a troubled face on such a huge swindler, the matter he was thinking of absolutely was not as simple as a minor hassle. There was no doubt about the scammer’s capabilities.
“I have it.” Zhang Xiaobao’s brow suddenly cleared as he yelled excitedly.
“Have what? You can’t swindle people.” Wang Juan trembled in fright. Her first thought was: was this criminal swindler getting ready to go scam a region’s highest official? Like a prefectural governor,8 a chief of the Three Departments and Six Ministries,9 etc. These were all a possibility. Back then, he sure cheated quite a few of the Level 1 provinces.10
Zhang Xiaobao gave Wang Juan a slightly discontent look as he said: “Do I need to swindle just to earn a bit of money? Could it be that in your heart, I’ve always been a swindler? I can turn around,11 too.”
“A swindler saying they’re turning around—who can guarantee that it’s not another trick?” Wang Juan did not show one bit of mercy to Zhang Xiaobao.
“Never mind. Let’s not speak of this. Look, Erniu is all muddled. Let’s talk about the main issue. This matter needs Erniu’s [Older] Brother Daniu to go do it. Erniu, listen well. Now, I’m assigning you a glorious yet grave mission. Do you have the confidence to complete it?” Zhang Xiaobao gave a look as he solemnly spoke to Erniu.
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The phrase Wang Juan uses to describe what Xiaobao is doing here is “zhuang nen” (裝嫩), which literally translates to “pretend tender.” It’s usually an expression applied to older women who act much younger than their actual ages because they’re pretending to still be tender young things. This is because a woman’s beauty is usually compared a flower whose time of blooming is so short and the character for tender, “nen” (嫩), is also often the adjective applied to young shoots or sprouts. Because of this, young girls and women tend to be described as tender in Chinese as a compliment. In this case though, Wang Juan is mocking Xiaobao as a man who is mentally in his thirties but is literally acting like a baby. ↩
“Erniu” (二牛) means “two ox/bull.” The rustic nature of his name suggests that it is a birth name given by his parents (and that he was not renamed when entering the service of the Zhang family as is the custom with such servant-master arrangements since the renaming is a symbolic cutting of ties with the previous identity of a free man), possibly because he was the second child and wished for him to be healthy and strong as an ox. Coincidentally, this kind of naming sensibility not only gives off a folksy feeling in Chinese, it is also a display of the superstition that comes into play wherein parents will give their kids names that are either terms for common objects or have derogatory meanings in order to confuse any devils or spirits that might kidnap them. ↩
The Chinese believe in ancestor worship so referring to someone as a “zu zong” (祖宗), which means “ancestor,” suggests that the person being so described is being likened to as being waited upon and treated as if they were. It usually comes up as a term of flattery when the speaker is either groveling or as hyperbole when joking. ↩
The idiom used here is “ti xin diao dan” (提心吊膽), which literally means “raised heart, hanging gallbladder.” It’s a metaphor for a state of extreme worry like being on pins and needles so I translated it as being on tenterhooks as it was the best English expression that I could think of with the closest equivalent imagery and meaning. ↩
Similar to Zhang Xiaobao’s nickname, “Baolang” (寶郎), Erniu is referring to him as “Bao Gongzi” (寶公子) which is combining the “Bao” (寶) element of his name with the title that I’ve translated as “Mister.” Note that it wouldn’t be the same in meaning as another title that would also be translated as “Mr. Bao,” “Bao Xiansheng” (包先生), where it is literally a man being referred to as Mister attached to a surname, “Bao” (包), which is a homophone for the “Bao” (寶) in Xiaobao’s name. ↩
“Kowtow” is an English loan word for the act of prostrating oneself on one’s knees and bowing down one’s head until the forehead touches the ground. It is derived from “kou tou” (磕頭) or “ke tou” (叩頭), which means to “knock head” or “touch head” to the floor respectively. The original spelling of kowtow is derived from the romanization of the Cantonese pronunciation, which is “kau tau,” reflecting the origin of how it was adopted into English. This act showed reverence and/or submission, being far more common of a sight in ancient China than in modern times. Nowadays, a deep bow has replaced it in usage. For comparison, a similar stance would be the Japanese “dogeza.” ↩
“Daniu” (大牛) means “big ox,” suggesting that he is the first son, which fits the same naming theme as Erniu’s as well as matches their respective birth order in their family. ↩
“Zhi Fu” (知府) is the head magistrate or governor of a prefecture, which is an administrative or geographic region that is the equivalent of a state or province. ↩
The Three Departments and Six Ministries or “Sansheng Liubu” (三省六部) is the name for the administrative structure of the Tang Chinese government with each department and ministry being responsible for a specific area of function for the government. There were other divisions and ranking systems that were historically used, too. ↩
Wang Juan is referring to the governors of the highest level of modern-day China’s administrative divisions, the provinces. Modern China divides its geography into varying levels and sublevels in an administrative structure that can get quite complex, especially because of the territories that are treated as special cases. The provinces are ranked in the 1st level and are in the top tier of the administrative pyramid. ↩
The act of turning around, “hui tou” (回頭), or more literally, turning one’s head around, references two sayings. One is the Chinese translation of the Biblical phrase, the return of the prodigal son, where “langzi hui tou” (浪子回頭) literally means “the (roaming) wastrel turns their head around.” Another is a Buddhist aphorism, “hui tou shi an” (回頭是岸), that advises that if you turn your head and look back, the shore is still there. The literal translation means “turning the head is the shore.” These two adages both speak of repentance and turning over a new leaf. Thus, the chapter title and how Xiaobao is using this phrase has a dual meaning of the literal action as well as a metaphor.