Pu Songling Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Pu Songling’s literary fame rests solely on his collection of short fiction, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (composed of 431 stories), he was a versatile writer in both classical and colloquial Chinese. He was the author of various works, including a remarkable novel written in the vernacular titled Xingshi yinyuan zhuan (1870; the story of a marriage to rouse the world). Written under the pseudonym Xizhoushang (Scholar of the Western Chou Period), this novel’s author remained anonymous for two centuries, until Dr. Hu Shih, in the course of his important studies in the history of Chinese vernacular literature, revealed that the real name of the author was Pu Songling. The earliest known printed edition is dated 1870, but in 1933 a punctuated edition was published to which were added some discussions of the authorship problem by various authors who were in agreement with Hu Shih’s finding. Pu Songling’s literary efforts were by no means confined to the writing of fiction, whether short or long. A man of parts, he wrote several kinds of poems: Shi poems in regular meter; folk musical narratives; drum songs; and folk songs. He wrote plays and numerous essays. He indulged in miscellaneous writings (tongchu); a lexicon of colloquial expressions in daily use in the Zichuan district; a treatise on agriculture and sericulture; a treatise on grass and trees; a manual on truancy; a satire on the examination of the self; books on dealing with hungry ghosts; correspondence; and desultory and neglected pieces. Apart from the Liaozhai zhiyi and the novel mentioned above, all the works subsequently attributed to Pu Songling are included in the two-volume collection, Liaozhai quanzhi (1936; complete works from the Chinese studio).

Pu Songling Achievements

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Ch’ing, or Manchu, Dynasty, between its establishment in 1644 and the Opium War of 1840-1842, gave birth to at least four great literary masterpieces in drama and fiction. Drama produced Hongshang’s chuan qi style opera, Zhangshang dian (c. 1688; The Palace of Eternal Youth, 1955). Long fiction produced two great novels: Cao Xueqin’s romance, Hungloumeng (1792; Dream of the Red Chamber, 1929) and Wu Ching-tzu’s satire, Ju-lin wai-shih (1768-1779; The Scholars, 1957). Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio is the great masterpiece of short fiction of the Ch’ing era. The American scholar Allan Barr concluded that no really precise progression in sequence of characterization, theme, and structure corresponds to the chronological sequence. Hence he proposed that readers regard the Liaozhai zhiyi as “falling into three phases”: early (c. 1675-1683), middle (c. 1683-1705), and late (c. 1690-1705). Despite the great variety of the narrative aspects throughout the whole work, there is, according to Barr, a perceivable sense of “creative growth and technical development” from first to last of the volumes that can be appreciated by a close reader.

After the printing of 1766, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio attracted such widespread attention that the author’s fame was assured. Educated readers with some literary training recognized that his work represented the perfected culmination of a long tradition of the use of classical Chinese for fictional narrative from the shan ji (“records of marvels”) of the Wei and Tsin dynasties to the chuan qi (“strange transmissions”)—the short prose romances of the T’ang Dynasty, whose range of subject matter is practically identical with that of Pu’s stories. His superb handling of the guwan style, his ability to revivify old plots that had become hackneyed and flimsy through a new “magic realism” that made the improbable and the impossible probable and supernatural creatures, such as flower or fox spirits, seem human, went far beyond what had been accomplished in the past.

His stories appealed to an unprecedented number of readers from many walks of life, not simply educated people with some literary training. Consequently, his fictions revived the chuan qi tradition for nearly a century. Pu’s tales are admired for their masterly style, which combines terse expression with abundant literary allusions and succeeds in maintaining a contrasting yet harmonious balance between the fantastic and the realistic elements of his fiction.

Pu Songling Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barr, Allan. “A Comparative Study of Early and Late Tales in Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 45 (1985): 157-202. Since a comparison of the text’s narrative development with its chronological progression shows no precise relationship between them, Barr believes it best to consider the text as having progressed through early, middle, and late periods.

Barr, Allan. “Disarming Intruders: Alien Women in Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49 (1989): 501-517. Barr offers a new interpretation of Pu’s “alien women,” or women of supernatural character—ghosts, fox spirits, flower nymphs, predatory femme fatale demons—analyzing their relationships with their lovers and other humans and classifying them as residents, transients, and wicked predators.

Barr, Allan. “The Textual Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44 (1984): 515-562. A comparison of the arrangement of the extant text with the individual stories that can be dated provides a means of tracking its chronological development.

Chang, Chun-shu, and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang. Redefining History: Ghosts, Spirits, and Human Society in P’u Sungling’s World, 1640-1715. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. An examination of the characters, human and nonhuman, in Pu’s fiction.

Li, Wai-yee. “Rhetoric of Fantasy and Rhetoric of...

(The entire section is 647 words.)