(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Those Americans who are not readers of Classical Chinese but already know the work of Pu Songling owe their knowledge to the English translation of the British consular officer and scholarly sinologist Herbert A. Giles (1845-1935). He gave his translation, which was first published in London in two volumes in 1880, the title Strange Stories in a Chinese Studio, and he annotated it. A second edition, revised, was published in one volume in Shanghai, in 1908, and later reprinted in New York. If these Americans also learned the work’s romanized title, however, they knew it not in the pinyin spelling Liaozhai zhiyi (records of the strange in the casual studio) but according to the traditional Wade-Giles system as Liao-chai chih-i (meaning the same thing). They also knew its author not as Pu Songling but as P’u Sung-ling. Pu Songling (1640- 1715) was a native of Shangdong province and the son of a merchant. Unable to advance via the civil service examination above the level of xiucai (“flowering talent,” roughly equivalent to a bachelor’s degree), he never became a scholar-official but was limited to working as a secretary or teaching children. His leisure was spent in literary writing, especially of short stories written in Classical Chinese. His collection of “strange” tales, Liaozhai zhiyi, is the great masterpiece of short fiction of the Qing Dynasty, well worthy of Judith T. Zeitlin’s deep critical appraisal.

Zeitlin’s broad study depends basically on Chinese sources but is especially indebted to the modern standard edition of the Liaozhai edited by Zhang Yube. Its full title is Liaozhai zhiyi huijiao hui-zhu huiping ben (Beijing, 1962; reprinted with a new preface, Shanghai, 1978). This edition is collated and annotated; with its prefaces, colophons, dedicatory verses, and interlinear glosses as well as interpretive commentaries, itis a treasure-trove of information and a model of traditional Chinese discourse. It includes all the commentaries and annotations of previous Liaozhai readers and publishers, from Wang Shizhen (1634-1711) to Dan Minglun (fl. 1842). This twelve-chuanedition contains 491 tales and anecdotes, sixty more than the popular first printed edition sponsored by Zhao Qigao in 1766, on which Giles had depended. From this springboard Zeitlin dives into her investigation with scholarly aplomb.

Zeitlin notes the significance of the hao, or literary name, which Pu adopted: Yishi shi, or “Historian of the Strange.” This hao recalled the Herodotus of Chinese history, Sima Qian, who lived 145-86? B.C. and was the author of the famous Shizhi, or Records of the Historian, the model for all the later dynastic histories of China.

Thus, any study of Pu’s work must consider the relationship of history to fiction, of historiography to the fictive imagination. Why would a writer of fiction call himself a historian? What is the realm of the “strange”? Zeitlin suggests that the “strange” is located “in the changing zone between fiction and history, reality and illusion.” Pu’s tales blur the distinction between “fictional and historical discourse,” promoting ambiguity.

Zeitlin sees Pu Songling’s own preface to the Liaozhai (prepared in 1679, considerably before his collection was completed) as an important key to the critical understanding of his book. Terming it “a masterpiece of parallel prose and a model of rhetoric and illusion,” Zeitlin notes that the preface demonstrates Pu’s ability “to infuse a personal voice into the often stilted cadences of Qing formal prose.” Zeitlin concludes that in it he was trying to accomplish three things he deemed important to his project: to establish his “authority and credibility” as a “historian of the strange,” to reveal his genealogy in order to account for his “affinity with the strange,” and to show himself working at night in his cold studio “in the very act of recording the strange.” Zeitlin then demonstrates that Pu made these points effectively by placing himself within a literary tradition that included poetry, history, myth, heroic legend, folktales, and tales of the supernatural and miraculous. By linking himself to certain famous writers of the past, he created a literary genealogy for himself that even included the possibility of reincarnation, and by autobiography and confession he showed himself a natural-born connoisseur of the strange and a dedicated beggarly-monk-of-a- writer searching for a “true reader.” Having already linked himself to Sima Qian he proceeded to link himself to Qu Yuan (fourth century n.c.)...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)