Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Despite the rationalist tradition of Confucianism, the Chinese people before the republican era were no less superstitious and credulous than were Europeans during the Middle Ages. Supernatural tales are still cultivated in Taiwan, though less extensively or seriously than they were from the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries under the Manchu Dynasty, when a great number of such collections were published and enjoyed by a wide audience. Of these collections, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio is the recognized classic, superior to the rest for its style, learned allusions, wonderful mixture of humanity with the preposterous, and inventiveness. Although Pu Songling claimed in his preface that he did nothing more than copy down what he heard and edit contributions from his friends, quite a number of the stories were his creations, judging from the sophistication of sentiment and the neatness of plot. These stories, mostly supernatural in theme, rich in poetic symbolism, and deep in psychological insight, are a unique achievement in Chinese literature as studies of the feminine mind clothed in vivid imagination.
The preponderant supernatural element in these stories is far from naïve: The human nature revealed here is what is known to a wise scholar or to a passionate lover rather than to an innocent blessed with sense of wonder but little experience. Like the fairy tales of Western civilization, the stories are governed by their own logic. Supernatural intervention is common, and men associate freely with spirits. Causes are followed by effects, but not in the same manner as in the natural or everyday human world. Spirits, demons, and human beings are all under the control of the law of causation or just retribution; good deeds or evil bring forth rewards or punishments. Therefore the author believed that his stories, in spite of their weirdness, absurdity, or even, in certain cases, obscenity, had a moral purpose.
Of the 431 pieces collected here, some are short bits of curious information. The account of a chorus composed of frogs, for example, runs to no more than two lines in the original. Another account, in three lines, concerns a show with a cast of mice that perform, under masks, a puppetlike drama. Some longer ones, about a page in length, have greater human interest. In “Mr. Chu, the Considerate Husband,” an old man, revived after he was thought dead, has his old spouse lie down by his side, whereupon they die together. In “The Tiger of Chao-ch’eng,” a tiger, after killing a man, allows himself to be arrested, confesses his crime to the court, and agrees to serve as a son to the destitute and lonesome old mother. He constantly brings dead animals and other valuables to her door, and he sometimes comes to her house to keep her company. After her death, he is present at the funeral. When the human mourners are all frightened off, he roars terribly to give vent to his grief.
Short and comparatively artless pieces such as these can be found in other collections of a similar nature. The fame of this book rests...
(The entire section is 1259 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Buber, Martin. Chinese Tales. Translated by Alex Page. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1991. A critical introduction to translations of several of the tales provides biographical information and discusses the composition of the stories and the psychological significance of the ghosts.
Chang, Chun-shu, and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang. Redefining History: Ghosts, Spirits, and Human Society in P’u Sung-ling’s World, 1640-1715. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Examines the career, times, and ideas of Pu Songling, with special attention to historical developments in seventeenth century China. Provides an extensive analysis of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which includes discussion of the work’s structure, context within the early history of the Qing Dynasty, and its depiction of gender relations, love and passion, family and ethical values, and country life.
Ch’en, Shou-Yi. “Ch’ing Fiction.” In Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction. New York: Ronald Press, 1961. Describes Pu Songling’s fascination with the unusual. Maintains he was a master of his craft in his command of the classical Chinese language and in the way he handled characterization and description.
Chiang, Sing-chen Lydia. Collecting the Self: Body and Identity in Strange Tale Collections of Late Imperial China....
(The entire section is 483 words.)