Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling and translated by John Minford
Over 600 pages of 17th/18th Century Chinese ghost stories and accompanying commentary. Does that sound tempting? Probably not, but it should because Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is quite wonderful and quite unlike almost anything else I’ve read.
Pu Songling was a mediocre scholar, but a gifted author. He wrote one of the most comprehensive collections of Chinese fantastic fiction to reach us today. He told tales of ghosts and fox spirits, of odd encounters and peculiar visions. His work was playful, allusive and frequently erotic. He wrote for men like himself, Chinese gentlemen who would read the stories by lamp or candle light in their scholar’s studios which looked out on carefully crafted views of sculpted gardens and artfully placed rocks which brought distant mountains within their walls.
The Penguin Classics edition contains over a 100 of these stories. They’re short, never more than a few pages and many only a page or so long. They come with quite beautiful illustrations in classical Chinese style (and which I wish I could reproduce here for you). On their surface these are tales of the supernatural, of encounters with ghosts (who are often quite unlike our Western ghosts) and fox spirits (a sort of mischievous faery race, foxes who can change shape into human form and are capable of all sorts of mystical trickery). Underneath that there are all sorts of contemporary political and philosophical references that a lay reader like me can’t hope to catch, but doesn’t need to because the endnotes explain many of them and anyway the stories are a joy even at the shallow surface level I read them at.
In Chinese folklore there is no clear demarcation between ghost and fox spirit, both are liminal entities, ambiguous beings that interact with us mortals for their own ends. They are physical entities, save when they don’t wish to be, capable of being mistaken for human and even of becoming human in the right circumstances. They are transgressive, breaking the rules of the carefully codified society of civil service examinations and scholarly pursuits that the human characters here are part of, and which Pu Songling and his audience were of course part of.
In a typical tale (except that there is no such thing, which is why this review is so hard to write), a scholarly youth is visited by a beautiful maiden (or in one a beautiful boy). He falls in love, and is seduced by this vision. He grows weaker, his essential strength being drained by intimacy with the occult. Or perhaps not, perhaps the spirit wishes to protect the man but he insists on seducing it, spending his own life to possess that which wishes to protect him but which cannot resist his insistent charms.
Others are more redolent of Western folklore and experience. In one story “Tiles, pebbles and brick shards […] fly around the house like hailstones at any moment,” as classic a description of poltergeist phenomena as one could hope to find. In another a sleeping man is frozen in his bed as a bloated hag enters his room and squats upon his chest (google night terrors for that one, it’s actually a surprisingly widely reported form of hallucination).
In one absolutely charming tale a magistrate named Ding Chenghe (Crane Rider) befriends a failed scholar named Ye. Ding helps Ye with his examinations, but despite Ye’s talent Ye still fails and so his career in China’s intricate bureaucracy is stillborn. Ye sets off for home broken-hearted, but becomes ill on the way. Meanwhile Ding is dismissed when he causes offence to a superior, and so retires to the country where he sends for Ye to act as tutor to his son.
Ding’s son flourishes under Ye’s tutelage, and passes his own exams with ease. Ye is consoled that his worldly failure has at least been recompensed by being able to help the son of the man who sought to help him. Time passes and Ding is restored to a position of importance, and so uses it to reward Ye who finally returns home to his own wife and son to show them that he is now a person of rank. When he arrives though his wife is astonished to see him, for Ye has been dead for many years and is buried in a pauper’s grave.
Realising he is dead Ye vanishes, but on hearing what has happened Ding pays for his funeral and for Ye’s son to be properly tutored. When Ye’s son time comes for his own exams, he passes them and so the karmic debt owed by Ding to Ye is repaid.
It’s a beautiful story, and the summary above of course totally lacks the grace of Pu Songling’s language as translated by John Minford. It’s a useful illustration though of how permeable the divide between living and dead, natural and supernatural is. At the same time, the commentary on the tale brings out how it is a parable about a friendship so deep that one friend did not even realise he was dead so keen was he to repay the kindness done to him. “How deep it is, the friendship, the predestined affinity between men of letters who spin out their very hearts in intricate webs of words, how deep the friendship between artists and musicians who share inner visions of mountain peaks and rolling streams?”
Bloggers are of course in their own way our version of friends who spin out their hearts in intricate webs of words.
The immediately following tale is a sadder one, of a scholar who dreams he owes a debt of forty strings of cash and realises it is money owed from a previous life. His wife gives birth to a son. When the boy reaches nearly four years old the scholar’s own fortune of nearly forty strings of cash is almost exhausted. The boy dies, and the scholar uses the remaining funds to pay for the funeral. The commentary makes clear that virtue can be accumulated, as can debts. Virtuous children are the sign of past lives well spent. A childhood death may be the settling of a debt long overdue.
As Pu Songling says elsewhere”A good son is the repayment of a debt due to his parents, the result of good karma; a bad, wilful child is a creditor come for his money, a bad karmic debt. The birth of a child should not be cause for joy, nor should the death of a child be cause for sorrow.” Hard counsel, but perhaps a comfort in a society where death in childhood would have been all too common.
John Minford is a marvellous companion for these tales. He wears his evidently deep understanding lightly, showing how much is buried within them without discouraging the lay reader in the process. His introduction is well worth reading, ideally before reading the tales themselves as he sets the context which here is useful to know, and he includes in a small number of tales notes to show how they would have been read by contemporaries of Pu Songling. Italics in the following quote are mine, to make clear where the commentaries start and end.
Translator’s note: In this longer story, I have incorporated some of the commentaries into the text, to show how this was normally done in the old Chinese editions of Strange Tales. The commentators were constantly at one’s side.
When he asked her where she hailed from, she replied that her name was Lotus Fragrance, and that she was a sing-song girl from the Western District. Dan Minglun: Game Two – enter the fox, as a consequence of Game One. Sang was aware that there were quite a number of houses of pleasure in Saffron Bank, and he believed her tale. The lamp was soon extinguished, and the two of them climbed into bed, where they enjoyed to the full the sweet pleasures of love. From that day on, Lotus Fragrance returned to visit him every few nights. Dan Minglun: The ‘real’ sing-song girl has prepared us for Lotus Fragrance [the false sing-song girl]. What subtlety, what skill! Li’s subsequent appearance is linked to that of Lotus Fragrance. The whole story repeatedly links ghost and fox. They appear together, and the whole is in jest, it happens naturally, without the slightest trace of artifice. This scintillating text, with its strange transformations, grows entirely out of this word ‘jest’. The essence of the writer’s art lies in the playfulness of his conception.
‘Someone’s been saying that you’re a fox-spirit. I don’t believe it myself, but…’ ‘Who’s been saying so?’ snapped Lotus Fragrance, and pressed him for an answer. Sang laughed awkwardly. ‘Oh, I was only teasing…’ ‘And anyway, what makes fox-spirits so different from humans?’ she asked. ‘They cast spells on men, they make them fall ill, even die. That’s why we are so frightened of them.’ ‘No!’ protested Lotus Fragrance. ‘It’s not like that at all! A strong young man such as yourself can restore his vital energy three days after the act of love. Even a fox-spirit can do you no harm. But if you go indulging yourself day after day, then a human lover can do you more harm than a fox. Feng Zhenluan: Wise counsel! Young people, take heed of this!
In the afterword Minton is also excellent at bringing out the plays on words and images which can be difficult to translate (a character says to a fox-spirit girl “It wasn’t your face… It was your tail”, it’s fair to say that tail is meant to make the reader think of certain other lower parts of the woman’s anatomy). He brings out too the Taoist and other philosophical underpinnings of the stories, the obsession with the concept that ejaculation could lead to a loss of spiritual and physical strength, the analogisation of detumescence with death which is quite alien to most Western symbolism.
In the foreword Minton quotes a 19th Century Chinese scholar of the tales, who wrote a guide on how to read them. Two of that scholar’s maxims in particular are worth quoting. “If one reads the Strange Tales just for the plot, and not for the style, one is a fool.” “Every time one thinks a situation weird, it is in fact very real and true to human nature. It contains both pure sense and pure sensibility.”
He’s right. So, when a tale starts “In the southern region of China known anciently as Chu, there lived a merchant who was often away from home on business, leaving his wife much on her own.” one knows the woman will be visited by some ghost or mischievous spirit intent on her virtue, but one knows too that in our own world in which neither ghosts nor fox-spirits appear it’s still not wise to neglect those you love.
These are wise and human stories, rich and strange and quite beautiful. I’ll follow up this post in a day or so by quoting a couple of the smaller ones to give a greater idea of Pu Songling’s style, but in the meantime all I can say is that this is absolutely worth buying and reading. Take the stories as I did, one here, one there, spread over weeks and months as a small comfort to return to that is a joy with every visit.
I’ll end this post with a couple of pictures of a scholar’s garden, the garden of the Master of Nets. I’ve seen this in real life, if anything the pictures struggle to do it justice.