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China’s imperial legacy offers a local spin on a classic scam

On June 19, 2017, the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court opened its second hearing on Liu Qianzhen, an unemployed 57-year-old villager from Jiangsu province—or, as his victim Zheng Xueju knew him, the “Qianlong Emperor,” the still-surviving inheritor of multiple Qing family fortunes and sound investment opportunity.

Liu met Zheng back in 2012, claiming to be the man who ruled China from 1735 to 1796 and imbibed an “elixir of life” to ensure he was alive and kicking nearly 300 years later. However, the imperial assets that the “emperor” controlled were frozen, necessitating the gullible Zheng and her husband to hand over a reported 40 million RMB (around 7 million USD) to grease the wheels before finally wising to the scam in 2016.

Liu was tried in Shenzhen for impersonation and defrauding the couple out of 2.2 million RMB, including 1.5 million RMB to purchase a lucky cabbage-shaped jadestone similar to one now displayed at the Imperial Palace Museum in Taipei. The cash, intended for “financial derivatives,” was actually spent by Liu on cars and houses.

Zheng is far from the first to fall for aristocratic impersonators. In Forgery and Impersonation in Imperial China: Popular Deceptions and the High Qing State, historian Mark McNicholas describes how 18th-century swindlers would pretend to be high-ranking officials in order to collect “tax” from the unsuspecting populace. The same era saw the “Spanish prisoner” scam in Europe, as conmen sought bribes to help free fictional wealthy noblemen from unjust imprisonment in Spain. In China, the con tends to take on local ingredients such as claims of immortality, and invoke its almost continuous 2,132-year imperial history, which only ended in 1912 with the abdication of the last Qing emperor, Puyi.

Other precedents include Wang Fengying, a 47-year-old Henan farmer sentenced to 13.5 years in 2015 for bilking a total 2 million RMB from numerous victims, supposedly to access 175 billion RMB in imperial assets. In 2011, another scammer convinced a Sichuanese victim that she was a descendant of Puyi’s family, who only needed 30 million RMB to access an underground fortune three times that amount. The most recent form of the swindle, exposed only last December, involved an education consultant convincing a Beijing couple that their son was a reincarnated god—they just needed to buy 36 million RMB’s worth of relics to unleash the boy’s divinity.

While the more profitable schemes target rich urbanites who should know better, countryside dwellers are susceptible to the more mystical cons. In December, police cut down an extra-tall sorghum that was being worshipped as a “cereal god” in Shandong province, and arrested a local man for embezzling the donations being made to the supernatural stalk by village worshippers.

Quasi-imperial cults have threatened stability even in the recent past. In 1981, for example, blind villager Ding Xinglai declared himself the “reincarnation of the immortal Baizi,” and established a fiefdom in Luotian county, Hubei province, that lasted nine years. Ding’s cult spread to cities in both Hubei and Anhui, and enlisted followers among village and township leaders, war veterans, and even members of the Communist Party. Though one of the earliest aims of the Party in the 20th century was to stamp out these types of feudal superstitions, it seems there’s still a long way to go.

Dynasty of Dupes is a story from our issue, “Home Bound.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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