Once upon a time in 1938 a children’s book was created that should be studied by anyone who wants to understand deception.
It has Chinese men with superhuman powers, the death of a small boy because he doesn’t obey orders, a man sentenced to death, and a public execution to be carried out in four different ways – by decapitation, drowning, being burned alive, and suffocation.
It is of course the classic children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers, written by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.
To get the full experience, you must read the entire story, and you must read it holding the physical book.
(Click to enlarge)Note the expressions on the fish.
Why? The text and illustrations are made just right to fit the long and narrow book. Some take up the entire length of two pages, and one illustration forces you to turn the book sideways. These may seem like little things, but they make the book extremely visceral.
There’s something about this book that enthralls many kids, who remember it years later.
I’m one of those former kids.
But if you haven’t read it, here are some excerpts and an explanation of why it’s required reading for any deceptionista.
Once upon a time there were Five Chinese Brothers and they all looked exactly alike.
They lived with their mother in a little house not far from the sea.
It’s important to know that they all looked alike, but they all had different powers:
The first Chinese Brother could swallow the sea.
The second Chinese Brother had an iron neck.
The third Chinese Brother could stretch and stretch and stretch his legs.
The fourth Chinese Brother could not be burned.
The fifth Chinese Brother could hold his breath indefinitely.
(Click to enlarge)The book never shows a picture of the doomed little boy.
So the first brother is always very successful when he goes fishing. A little boy begs to go fishing with him, and finally the brother agrees – if the boy will obey him. They go and the brother swallows the sea. The boy is enchanted by the uncovered treasures, and doesn’t listen to the brother:
Then the first Chinese Brother felt the sea swelling inside him and he made desperate gestures to call the little boy back. But the little boy made faces at him and fled as fast as he could.
…he thought he was about to burst.
The first Chinese Brother held the sea until he thought he was going to burst. All of a sudden the sea forced its way out of his mouth, went back to its bed . . . and the little boy disappeared.
The brother is condemned to have his head cut off for killing the boy.
"It is only fair," said the judge.
On the morning of the execution he said to the judge: "Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?" "It is only fair," said the judge.
Of course his other brother takes his place, and his head cannot be cut. So the assembled crowd gets angry, and they decide he should be drowned. The switch is made again and the brother who can stretch stretches his legs to the bottom of the ocean. But he cannot be drowned.
The angry crowd decides on death by burning, which is also unsuccessful.
Finally they decide on suffocation, using whipped cream and an oven. To ensure they can’t be tricked, the skeptical crowd watches all night, but in the morning, the brother pops out and says:
"My! That was a good sleep!"
Everybody stared open-mouthed and round-eyed. But the judge stepped forward and said, "We have tried to get rid of you in every possible way and somehow it cannot be done. It must be that you are innocent."
So he was released…
And the Five Chinese Brothers and their mother all lived together happily for many years.
Why is this a classic of deception?
Some might argue that it’s illogical. But of course it’s illogical – it’s a fairy tale.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it.
Here’s what it’s trying to teach you:
People or things that look exactly alike can easily fool you – because they might not be exactly alike. Every brother was the same on the surface, but underneath he had just the talent to foil his execution.
If you know an activity is risky, don’t be persuaded by someone’s pleading. You might be deceived when a little boy promises to obey you, but it’s the nature of little boys to be enthralled by treasures.
If you’re a judge, question any procedure that you do because you’ve always done it, even if it seems to be based on being fair or humane. In this case, letting the brother visit his mother sets up the deceptive switches.
Know crowd psychology. Give them many opportunities to act like a crowd. Know that they’re going to be skeptical and will try to beat you, and try to wait you out, especially if you’re in an oven, smothered in whipped cream. Win anyway.
(By the way, there’s been controversy in the past over whether this book is racist and violent. I concede that it’s violent, which is another reason that it’s endured, just as many violent fairy tales have endured. As to racist, take a look at this post, at Fairrosa’s Reading Journal>>)