Swindler Appearing Before One’s Eyes
Idler’s Note: Happy 4th of July, America! I wish Independence Day was a worldwide event where everyone just celebrated together (or were just happy drunks together) but that would probably require a situation like in the eponymous movie where the entirety of humanity was knocked down for the count and then needed to pick themselves up to kick some alien ass together. It did have an awesome pre-ass-kicking speech though. I do wish American presidents in general were actually as awesome as they are made out to be by Hollywood though… And Japanese video games… Where is my mecha-piloting president?!?
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!
Song Jing-gong1 was originally an orphan. That year, a plague had descended and all the people in the village had died, leaving just his 10 year old self behind. He had begged for food while on the road and suffering the cold looks of other people—he had accepted all of this, too. After all, other people looked down on these types of beggars. The only thing that he couldn’t accept was that there were actually people who would beat and curse him, insulting his parents, and hitting him till he was wounded all over.2
There were several times when he had felt like he would nearly die but the Heavens3 seemed to not to wish for him to go like this so he kept on pulling through at the last moment. Until now, he could still remember it. Back then, there was the owner4 of a manor who was idle with nothing to do that insisted on releasing the dogs to bite him. Such a large manor actually didn’t even have a mouthful of rice to give. He hadn’t even entered the courtyard so why release the dogs to bite him?
From then on, he vowed that he would definitely take revenge. First, he went to a few academies that had been established by wealthy families to eavesdrop outside. Later, he discovered that it didn’t even matter that he didn’t even study that knowledge—it didn’t compare to some of the miscellaneous studies. That year that he was 15 years old, he had finally gotten some money by working for other people and had met a sick old man who was near death.
After some effort, he had temporarily saved him, only to discover that old man knew quite a few things. At that point, there was finally someone who could teach him. When he was 20 years old, the old man died. From then on, he made up his mind to use what he had learned to retaliate against those wealthy people. Ten years passed and he had swindled quite a few people as well as helped quite a few people, too.
This time, he had set his goal on the Ge Manor. He had originally thought he could go over and trick someone but the result was that they didn’t even heed him at all. Just as he was sulking, he had heard people mention that there were two more manors after crossing the bridge. At once, he got motivated again as he leisurely strode in the direction of the Wang Manor and Zhang Manor.
“Yingtao, even if you can’t think it through for the moment, don’t panic. This plan of mine is too long so you can just take it bit by bit. Go, take me out again to look at the other places.” While Zhang Xiaobao was striving to groom Yingtao, he saw that puzzled expression on Yingtao’s face and realized that he was really being too hasty. So afraid that Yingtao would suffer a blow and thus lose confidence, he kept on patiently explaining again.
“Unh, Little Mister is formidable, I must learn well. Little Mister, in reality, I’ve never felt that you [honorific] were some monster. It was all that…”
“Yingtao, Older Sister Shiliu over there wants you to carry over Mister Xiaobao. She said that there are matters to discuss.” Just as Yingtao wanted to speak two more sentences with Zhang Xiaobao, a little kid breathlessly ran over as he loudly yelled at Yingtao.
Yingtao recognized this child. He was the child of a family from the manor and was called Xiaoshitou.5 Seeing that Xiaoshitou’s anxious bearing, she nodded and smiled as she said: “All right, I’ll go over there now. Xiaoshitou is a good child.”
Hearing such praise, Xiaoshitou shyly rubbed his head with his hands before turning around to run away.
“Little Mister, Shiliu is having us go over there. You [honorific] think we should go or not?” Yingtao didn’t know what Shiliu was calling her for, even carrying Little Mister, so she asked for a consultation.
Zhang Xiaobao instantly thought of it. This was definitely not Shiliu’s intention. Shiliu dared not call him over there—that needn’t be said. So other than Shiliu, Wang Juan was the one left remaining. It was guaranteed that there was an important matter to discuss. He nodded, spreading out his arms to let Yingtao pick him up, as he said: “Let’s go over. Hurry a little. There might be something urgent. Have that child that hasn’t run far called back here. Ask him what he’s seen and what he’s heard.”
Yingtao picked up Little Mister after calling Xiaoshitou to her to find out. Xiaoshitou naturally didn’t know what the matter that Shiliu sent him out to find them for was so he blankly shook his head.
“Not asking you about Shiliu’s business. It’s that you were playing over there—did you come across anything fun?” Zhang Xiaobao saw that Yingtao didn’t know how to ask so he could only interrupt to speak.
“Little Owner,6 I and the others from the manor were playing in the water, ~ne. That was real fun. I—oh, right. We heard that Great Philanthropist Song was coming and we all ran over there. I ran too slowly.” Xiaoshitou was a bit nervous facing the master-family’s Little Mister so his speech was a bit stumbling.
“Who is Great Philanthropist Song? He gave you guys stuff for free?” Upon hearing this, Zhang Xiaobao felt that there was a bit of a problem. He had always felt that with this word7 of philanthropist, if they were true philanthropists, then they wouldn’t have any reputation; any who had fame were all not good things.
He had seen too many of these types of people. When there were some natural disasters, they’d advertise how charitable they were and how much money would be doled out. After a round of adulation from the media, they’d have the fame but then, the money was simply not given. He had seen genuine philanthropists before, too. Whichever place needed help, there would be people who drove SUVs equipped with satellite phones, hauling carloads of emergency supplies over there themselves to disperse upon reaching the site. If someone was in danger, they’d make a phone call. Once there was no more stuff, they’d once again drive their car elsewhere to buy more.
So this Great Philanthropist Song definitely didn’t belong to the latter group. What was he doing here? Could it be for the sake of creating a reputation?
Just as Zhang Xiaobao was making conjectures, Xiaoshitou spoke again: “Actually, Great Philanthropist Song really is a good person. He helped a lot of needy people but there are always some people who’d say that he’s a swindler. I hear that it’s all people from several wealthy manors that would claim this.”
This mention of his caused Zhang Xiaobao a moment of distraction. Such a familiar feeling. Helping impoverished people and swindling wealthy people—he himself operated like this back then. The problem was that while he was in China, he generally didn’t swindle legitimate business people and only tricked the officials. Could it be that this Great Philanthropist Song sought out only the wealthy as a target? Too extreme—it really was a bit too extreme.
He pondered this on the way until they reached the site of that bridge. Wang Juan and Shiliu were waiting there. Once the two of them met, Wang Juan spoke first: “Xiaobao, Shiliu said that Great Philanthropist Song is a swindler. I think that’s not possible. What do you say, ~ne?”
Upon hearing this, Zhang Xiaobao understood. Seeing that excited gaze of Wang Juan’s, he could only follow along as he said: “What Juan-Juan said is right. With such a good place, how could there be any swindlers? A philanthropist—definitely a philanthropist, I guarantee it. Let us wait here. A philanthropist shouldn’t do good deeds for just the people on the other side of the bridge.” As he spoke, he glared at Wang Juan, blaming her for her meddling.
But Wang Juan smiled. She really hoped coming over would be a swindler. At that time, they’d encounter Zhang Xiaobao—that would be extremely fun. Swindler? How much skill could the swindlers of this time period have? Even the International Criminal Swindler was honestly doing business, ~ne. Whoever dares swindle had better broaden their horizons.
Considering this yet afraid that swindler wouldn’t come over, she said: “Why don’t we go over to see?”
“Forget it. Let’s not go over there. This side of the bridge is our territory. Over there is someone else’s. We should give people a single chance.” Zhang Xiaobao overruled this suggestion. If they really went over there, then that would be aggressive. Waiting on this side would be considered defensive. The world had too many people that were eyesores,8 so they shouldn’t look for trouble when there was none.
Shiliu and Yingtao weren’t clear on what the two children were communicating but they were concerned. What if Little Mister and Little Miss Juan-Juan suffered a grievance—that would be trouble, then. They were particularly vigilant against this Swindler Song. Next to them, Shiliu first urged: “Little Mister, that person really is a swindler. Let’s stay on this side for a while. If that person comes, ignore him. All right, Little Mister?”
“Shiliu, don’t you worry about this type of thing. We’ll just play here. If he comes, it’ll be natural to know what’s happening. Don’t always listen to what others say. It’ll only do to witness it with your own eyes. The ears hear false, the eyes… The eyes might not be true, either.9 In short, just wait.” Wang Juan wanted to catch a swindler right now. It was possibly a professional habit.
While Zhang Xiaobao didn’t speak a word as he gazed at the bridge in front of him. Knowing that river passed by the front of his own house, he immediately had another new method to make money. He wanted to implement it yet discovered that the people by his side that he could use really were too few and moreover, the investment this time wouldn’t be small. He was calculating at what time to carry it out when from the bridge’s opposite side, a person and a group of people surrounding him walked over here.
Upon seeing this person, Wang Juan’s eyes lit up. She could guess that person should be Swindler Song—oh, called Great Philanthropist Song. She turned her head to glance at Zhang Xiaobao as Zhang Xiaobao resignedly shook his head and sighed. This person, ~ah, didn’t know when to advance or retreat. He originally thought that they wouldn’t come over to this side but he didn’t think that they’d insist on falling upon their own sword.10 How could this bridge be so easily crossed?
“Little Mister, that’s Great Swindler Song. He came over. You [honorific] and Little Miss must not speak. There’s no need to heed him.” Shiliu grew nervous, her eyes tightly fixed on that person opposite them, hoping he wouldn’t come over.
That person didn’t seem to have heard Shiliu’s inner desire and finally got on the bridge. His face bearing a smile, he conversed with the people by his side on the one hand while on the other, he sized up the two kids dressed in silk as well as the people carrying the kids. That smile suddenly grew even more brilliant.
Upon seeing that person’s smile, Wang Juan and Zhang Xiaobao also smiled along with him. Wang Juan smiled because she could finally strike a blow against the criminal element while Zhang Xiaobao’s smile was a bit wry. There is a road to Heaven that you do not walk and no gate to be cast through to Hell.11 All right, let’s brush up on a bit of swindling technique. It’s been so long since he’d swindled. Such nostalgia, ~ah.
How could Song Jing-gong know what he would be facing soon? Upon seeing these two kids, he was happy. The people of Ge Manor were afraid; those of this area might not be, especially the kids. It really was great. He had found another type of excuse.
He casually said two sentences with the people beside him before quickly walking over. Song Jing-gong reached a hand into his sleeve to pull out two sugar people;12 in his mind, the vividly lifelike sugar people would definitely impress the two kids.
Wang Juan and Zhang Xiaobao were originally still judging whether this Great Philanthropist Song was really like a swindler like how Shiliu described. Now, upon seeing the sugar people, they set a character type for this person. Offering up attention for nothing,13 ~ah. His props were even readily at hand. It looked like he was a repeat offender, too.
“Look here, kid. How good. Come, taste this sugar person.” Song Jing-gong waved the two sugar people in front of the kids’ eyes as he spoke.
“What person? To even dare take out stuff to give to my family’s Little Mister and Little Miss to eat? You fed up with life?” Seeing that Great Swindler Song had come and was even holding sugar people, Shiliu’s face was chilly as she rebuked him.
Here, Song Jing-gong was even happier. From these words, he could determine the identities of these two kids. He said while staring into the kids’ eyes: “Yes, yes, shouldn’t give this stuff to that Little Mister and Little Miss of yours [honorific] to eat. I’ll stow it away here. These kids really are good looking. I liked them with a glance. Don’t know who you [honorific] are…?”
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“Jing-gong” (靜功) works out to mean “quiet/calm, work/power.” It is a name with a scholarly air. ↩
The idiom used here is “bian ti lin shang” (遍體鱗傷), which literally translates to “everywhere body scaled injury.” It is usually used to describe someone who’s wounded all over with the scales likely a metaphor for the injuries that might result in scabbing or bruising. ↩
Song Jing-gong uses “Lao Tian Ye” (老天爺), which literally means “Old Heavenly Lord.” But despite the personification implied in the meaning of the name and the existence of various mythological figures that can and have stood in as the ruler of the Heavens in Chinese folklore, when this particular title is used in speech, it is usually meant in a generic or abstract sense without referring to a specific figure. So though it shares some surface similarities with the broader concept of a sky-father that is prevalent in Indo-European mythology, it is not nearly as anthropomorphized in Chinese as it is in other cultures. The closest equivalent anthropomorphized figure in Chinese mythology similar to Odin or Zeus would likely be the Jade Emperor, who serves as a ruler of the Celestial Court and acts as the father of a Chinese pantheon of celestial gods and demigods. Also, when the Christian missionaries were translating the Bible and miscellaneous Judeo-Christian concepts into Chinese, many existing Chinese folklore terms were co-opted such as with “Shangdi” (上帝), which meant “High Deity/Emperor” and referred to an actual deity that the ancient Chinese worshipped, that they used to translate for “Lord” when referring to the Christian God. So some of the terms or names used in Chinese folklore can tend to take on Judeo-Christian connotations when translated into English because of this. Thus, “Lao Tian Ye” (老天爺) can also be used in Chinese Christian text to translate for “Heavenly Father.” For all of these reasons, I am translating this particular term as a neutral and de-personified “Heavens.” ↩
The original text uses “dong jia” (東家), which literally translates to “east house” and is typically a way to address superiors like a boss or an owner of the business you are working for and hosts of parties or events where the guests are being invited or treated at the host’s expense. The east part likely is because the sun rises in the east and acts as a source of light just as the owner or host is the origin of wealth or largesse in the relationship. It could also have part of its origins from an ancient Chinese idiom, “dong jia shi xi jia su” (東家食西家宿), that roughly translates to “eating with the East family while sleeping with the West family.” This particular idiom summarizes an anecdote of a beauty from the Warring States period who had two rival suitors vying for her hand in marriage. The rich but ugly suitor was from the East family while the handsome but poor suitor was from the West family and the beauty was unable to choose, lamenting that if she could, she would eat with the East family one but sleep with the West family one. This proverb is similar in meaning to the English idiom of “having your cake and eating it, too” but it also has a negative connotation of shameless greed that the English phrase doesn’t necessarily have. ↩
“Xiaoshitou” (小石頭) literally translates to “little stone.” Because it could actually be his name rather than a nickname due to the rural naming superstitions for children the Chinese had, I used the pinyin instead of translating it. ↩
Xiaoshitou is calling Xiaobao “xiao dong jia” (小東家), which is simply “little” added to the title that he would normally call Xiaobao’s father for being the current head of the Zhang household. This choice of address suggests Xiaoshitou’s family is likely employed by and thus subordinate to the Zhangs but not sold in service to them and thus, free citizens. ↩
The Chinese text here is “two words/characters” (liang ge zi/兩個字) but since I have translated shan ren/善人 as “philanthropist,” two words, characters, or syllables no longer fit this situation. ↩
The Chinese used here is “bu shun yan” (不順眼) and literally means “not smooth (to the) eye.” Similar to the intent behind “finding favor” in someone in English, to find someone smooth to the eye was to find favor in them. So the opposite would be looking at them and finding them unpleasant to the eye or an eyesore—like how some fights can be picked for no apparent reason just because one side simply thought that the other side had looked at them in a way that they took offense to. ↩
The proverb Wang Juan was about to quote in full here is “er ting wei xu, yan jian wei shi” (耳聽為虛，眼見為實), which basically means that what your ears hear is false and what your eyes see is true. It is typically used as a warning against believing too much in the veracity of rumors, gossip, or hearsay while advising the listener to believe only what they see (i.e. experience it themselves) and judge the truth for themselves. However, Juan-Juan corrects herself here because modern knowledge (and probably her own personal experience working cases) tells her that the testimony of an eyewitness might not be indisputable, either. ↩
The expression Xiaobao uses here of “wang qiang kou shang zhuang” (往槍口上撞) means to collide on top of a spear point and describes someone who is essentially impaling themselves on a spear. By the way, qiang/槍, which is the name of the Chinese spear, was reused as the Chinese word for gun so ancient idioms that use qiang/槍 can also take on the newer meaning of the word and thus new connotations. If translating this phrase for the meaning of gun, then a similar image would likely be “colliding with the muzzle of a gun.” This idiom is generally used to describe acts that are suicidally stupid or asking for trouble though the intent of the person who is doing so isn’t necessarily to seek death. Because the imagery of the English idiom of “falling on one’s sword” was so similar, I opted to use this in the translation despite the fact that this English expression does have a connotation of an intended suicide so it is likely an imperfect replacement. ↩
Xiaobao is quoting a common saying here, “tian tang you lu ni bu zou, di yu wu men tou jin lai” (天堂有路你不走，地獄無門投進來), which is usually a one-liner to throw at someone the speaker thinks is dooming themselves to a fate worse than death by denying themselves a path to Heaven as well as the gate to Hell. I haven’t found any clear literary source or origin for this saying although versions of this expression are often quoted in various Chinese literature (usually fictitious novels) so it is likely an expression that circulated through the spoken vernacular before being put to paper. ↩
Sugar people (tang ren/糖人) are a type of Chinese handcraft, art, and edible sweet made using liquid sugar. It uses the caramel color of the sugar itself along with yellow or green dyes in its art. It is generally sold in public food stalls so buyers can request what figures they wish to be made or simply watch the artist create one. ↩
The expression used here is “wu shi xian yin qin” (無事獻殷勤), which translates to “no thing offering hidden industry,” and the meaning conveyed is roughly like the one found in the English phrase “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Basically, the Chinese saying describes someone who is attentive and industrious for no apparent reason so it warns that there is a hidden motive for such behavior.