More strange tales from Pu Songling
By way of followup to my post discussing Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio here’s three examples of the tales, with the accompanying commentaries set out at the bottom of the post. If you like these I really do suggest buying the entire collection, which is excellent.
THE DEVOTED MOUSE
Yang Tianyi told this story.
Once he saw two mice come out into his room. One of them was swallowed by a snake. The other mouse glared angrily from a safe distance, its little eyes like two round peppercorns. The snake, its belly full of mouse, went slithering back to its hole and was more than halfway in when the second mouse dashed forward and bit it hard on the tail. Furiously the snake backed out of the hole, and the mouse darted once more to safety. The snake gave chase but was unable to catch the mouse, and returned to its hole. As it entered the hole a second time, the mouse seized it by the tail again, exactly as before. Each time the snake went crawling in, the mouse struck; and each time it emerged, the mouse ran for cover. And so it continued for quite some time, until finally the snake came right out and spat the dead mouse on to the ground. The second mouse approached, sniffed at the corpse and began crying over its friend. Then, squeaking dolefully, it picked it up in its mouth and left.
My friend Mr Zhang Duqing wrote a poem on this subject, entitled ‘The Ballad of the Devoted Mouse’.
THE GIRL IN GREEN
In Yidu County, there lived a young man by the name of Yu Jing. He had taken his books with him to lodgings at the Temple of Sweet Springs, and one night he was sitting there chanting a text when he heard a woman’s voice at his window.
‘Oh Mr Yu, what a very serious student you are!’
He was still wondering what a woman could possibly be doing up there in the hills, when in she came, pushing the door open with a disarming smile.
‘So very serious!’
He jumped up in alarm, and found himself standing before a young lady of the most incomparable delicacy and the most exquisite beauty, clad in a green tunic and a long skirt. He knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and asked her, perhaps a trifle emphatically, where she was from.
‘I’m hardly going to bite you!’ she replied. ‘Why the inquisition?’
He was instantly captivated, and they shared his bed that very night. When he came to loosen her silken tunic, it revealed a waist so slender that his hands could encircle it with ease.
The last watch sounded and she slipped away, returning to him the following, and every subsequent, night. On one such night, they were drinking together when she made a remark which betrayed an unusual understanding of music.
‘I love the sound of your voice,’ he said. ‘It is so fine and soft. Sing me a song. I am sure it will quite carry my soul away…’
‘I’d rather not,’ she replied, smiling as ever. ‘I wouldn’t want to carry you too far away…’
He pleaded with her all the more.
‘I am not trying to be unkind,’ she said. ‘It is just that I do not want others to hear. Oh, if you really insist, I’ll sing a song. But quietly, just for you.’
She tapped her ‘Golden Lotuses’, her tiny bound feet, lightly on the edge of the bed and began to sing:
Jackdaw singing in the tree
Tricks me away before the light;
I’ll gladly wet my pretty shoes,
If I can stay with you tonight.
Her voice was light as silk, and barely audible. Yu Jing listened intently, and his whole being vibrated to the haunting, lilting melody.
The song ended. She opened the door and peeped outside.
‘I must make sure there is no one at the window.’
She searched the whole length of the building.
‘You seem so frightened. What is the matter?’ asked Yu Jing, when she returned.
‘There is an old saying,’ replied the girl, with her ever-present smile. ‘A ghost that steals life must forever live in fear. Such is my fate.’
She lay down to sleep, but she seemed restless and ill at ease.
‘This idyll of ours is fated to end,’ she finally said to Yu Jing. He begged her to explain.
‘My heart beats strangely. I know my end is close at hand.’
‘Strange movements of the heart, flutterings of the eyes, such things happen to us all from time to time,’ he protested. ‘You must not be so gloomy!’
She seemed a little comforted by this, and they united once more in tender passion. As the last watch of the night came to an end, she threw on her dress, descended from the bed, and walked as far as the door. There, instead of undoing the bolt, she began pacing back and forth.
‘I do not know why, but something fills me with dread. Come outside with me, I beseech you.’
Yu rose and went out with her.
‘Stay there and watch me,’ she said. ‘Do not go in again until I am beyond that wall.’ ‘Very well,’ said Yu, and he watched her walk silently down the outer wall of the cloister and round the corner, until she was out of sight. He had already turned and was on his way back to bed, when he heard a desperate cry for help. It was her voice. He hurried out again, but though he gazed all around him he could see no trace of her. The voice was still audible and seemed to be coming from up above him, from the eaves over the door. Looking up he saw a huge spider, like a big black bolus, holding in its clutches a little creature that was making the most pitiful noise: it was a green hornet, in the throes of death. He carefully disentangled it and carried it back to his room, where he placed it on the table. Soon it recovered sufficient strength to move, crawled slowly up on to his inkstone and down into the ink. Presently it emerged again, clambered down from the inkstone and began dragging itself across the table, tracing the words
on the wooden surface. Then it shook its wings several times and flew out of the window. He never saw it again.
LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES
A certain man bought a new house, only to discover that it was haunted by fox-spirits, who constantly spoiled his clothes and other belongings and dropped dirt into his noodles.
One day, one of this gentleman’s friends dropped by to visit him. Unfortunately he was not at home, and that evening, since her husband had still not returned, his wife prepared dinner for the guest, before eating separately with her maid.
Now, her husband was a somewhat dissolute character who made a hobby of collecting aphrodisiacs of one sort or another. At some time or other that day the resident fox-spirits had secretly slipped one of the drugs from his collection into the congee. While the wife was eating her dinner she noticed a strange taste that resembled camphor and musk and asked her maid what it might be, but the maid said she knew of nothing. After dinner, the wife began to experience an overwhelming feeling of sexual arousal, and the more she tried to suppress it, the stronger and the more urgent it became. There was no available man in the house other than the guest, her husband’s friend, and so she made her way to the guest-room and knocked at the door.
The guest asked who it was, and the woman gave her name. He asked her what she wanted, and when she remained silent, he guessed her intentions.
‘Your husband and I are friends and treat one another decently. I could never behave in such a bestial manner with my friend’s wife.’
The wife remained there standing at the door and refused to leave. ‘Your husband,’ he protested angrily, ‘is a man with a reputation in the community! Are you determined to destroy it?’
With these words he spat at her through the window-lattice, and finally in great embarrassment she left. As she went she began asking herself how she could have done such a thing. Then she recalled the strange taste in her congee bowl at dinner. It entered her mind that it might have been caused by one of the aphrodisiacs from her husband’s collection, and when she went to look, she found that one of the packages had indeed been tampered with, and the contents scattered all over the cups and bowls on the kitchen table. She remembered having once heard that cold water acted as an antidote in such cases, so she drank some water immediately and soon came round. She awoke from her state of drugged confusion to a feeling of intense remorse and shame. All that night she lay there brooding restlessly, and as dawn was almost breaking, unable to face the world, she threw her sash over a beam and hanged herself. Her maid found her and untied her in the nick of time. Although by this time she was all but dead, she gradually recovered consciousness.
The guest meanwhile had left during the night. The following day at dawn, the master of the house returned to find his wife in bed and plainly unwell. No matter how many times he asked her what the matter was, she lay there in complete silence and would do nothing but weep. When the maid informed her master that her mistress had tried to hang herself in the early hours, he pressed his wife with more and more questions, and finally she sent her maid away and told him the whole story.
The husband heaved a sigh. ‘It is my lust that is being punished! This is no fault of yours. Fortunately, this friend of mine is a good man, or I would never be able to hold my head up in the world again.’
After this experience, he became a reformed character, and the foxes disappeared completely.
Commentaries (not all tales come with commentaries, but the majority do):
42 THE DEVOTED MOUSE Zhang Duqing: (1642–?1716), a poet-friend of Pu Songling’s, who like Pu was never appointed to an official position. His ballad, a poem in thirty-six lines, is extant. The contemporary poet and novelist Vikram Seth has retold this tale in verse in his collection Beastly Tales from Here and There (London, 1992).
83 THE GIRL IN GREEN light as silk: Some texts have ‘light as a fly’.
88 LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES The Chronicler of the Strange points out that whereas most people are aware of the danger involved in storing ordinary poisons (such as arsenic) in the house, few appreciate the havoc that can be caused by leaving aphrodisiacs lying around the place. Men have a healthy fear of the dangers of the military battlefield, but are blissfully unaware of the far greater dangers lurking in the bedchamber. For a glimpse of the type of thing our gentleman may have been collecting, the reader is directed to Robert van Gulik’s excellent study Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden, 1961), especially pp. 133–4, where the author describes various potions listed in the ancient sex handbook of Master Dong Xuan, such as ‘Bald Chicken Potion’ (‘if taken for sixty days one will be able to copulate with forty women’ – this drug was apparently so named after an unfortunate cock who ate it by mistake when it had been thrown out in the courtyard, and copulated with a single hen for several days without dismounting, pecking her head bald); ‘Deer Horn Potion’ (to cure impotence and involuntary emission); a potion for enlargement of the penis (a mixture of broomrape and seaweed); and a potion for shrinking the vagina (made up of four ingredients, including sulphur and birthwort root). The same text is translated by Douglas Wile in Art of the Bedchamber, pp. 112–13.