(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In his Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Pu Songling mostly presents encounters between human beings and supernatural or fantastic creatures. The human beings may be students, scholars, officials, peasants, Daoist or Buddhist priests, fortune-tellers, magicians, maidens, wives, concubines, and so on. Some of these human beings, especially the Daoist or Buddhist priests and the magicians, may possess supernatural powers or illusionary skills of various kinds. The supernatural or fantastic creatures may be animals, birds, flowers, fairies, devils, or ghosts who have assumed human shape, or they may retain their natural forms but have the human powers of speech and understanding. Although when portraying supernatural or fantastic creatures Pu is highly imaginative, in dealing with ordinary mortals he controls his imagination to the degree that they are not exaggerated or unnatural. He appears to seek to make the extraordinary plausible and the ordinary interesting and to press home the point that the ordinary world is endowed always with extraordinary possibilities.

His favorite themes seem to be changeableness, in which animals or devils are changed into human form or vice versa; reincarnation; living humans becoming immortals; the dead being brought back to life; male students falling in love with beautiful women; exposure of corrupt or incompetent officials; and criticism of the civil service examination system and of pedantic scholarship. Although Pu imitated the classical short tales of the T’ang Dynasty, he introduced original elements in terms of his personal views and he included criminal and detective stories in his collection. Some of his stories seem to have been written from motives of pure entertainment, but the majority of them state or imply some moral lesson. The stories demonstrate Pu’s sincere or facetious conviction that in this world evildoers are eventually punished and the kindhearted are in the long run rewarded for their good deeds.

“The Tiger of Zhaochang”

“Zhaochang hu” (“The Tiger of Zhaochang”) is the story of a tiger who eats the son of an elderly widow who has no relations besides her son and depends entirely on him for her support. Thus left to starve to death, the mother indignantly journeys to town, where she levels a charge against the tiger with the magistrate. Eventually, the tiger confesses to the crime of having eaten the young son. The magistrate informs the tiger that it must forfeit its own life unless it can act as the old woman’s son and support her in the same manner that he did, in which case the magistrate will allow it to go free. The tiger declares that it can fulfill this obligation and does. In conclusion, the narrator warns the reader not to take the story as true; on the other hand, he says, it is not to be considered a joke. Indeed, it is a moral exemplum. Although the tiger is of the brute, it displayed human feelings. Hence it is quite unlike some human beings of the present day, who follow the practice of oppressing orphans and widows and are far from being equal to a member of the brute creation.

“The Pupils of the Eyes That Talked”

In “Tongran yu” (“The Pupils of the Eyes That Talked”), a young scholar, Fang Lian, a married man, has a character weakness: He likes to look at pretty women and girls other than his wife. On one occasion his ogling results in a handful of dirt thrown in his face, which blinds him. Although a variety of medical remedies are tried over a good period of time, he remains a blind man. Now very worried, he repents of his past sins. He obtains a copy of the Buddhist sutra known as the Guangming jing and begins to recite it daily. Although its recitation at first is boring, he eventually experiences a quietude of mind that he has never known before. He starts to hear a voice in each eye. These voices turn out to be two tiny men, who exit through Fang Lien’s nose to see what is transpiring outside.

Eventually, Fang Lien hears a small voice in his left eye say, “It’s not convenient for us to go and come by way of these nostrils. We had each better open a door for ourselves.” The small voice in the right eye, however, declares that his wall is too thick to break through. They therefore break through the wall of the left eye. Immediately the light flows into Fang Lien’s darkened orb. To his great delight, he can see again. Although he always remains blind in his right eye, he never ventures to fix his good eye on any woman other than his own wife.

In an annotation to this story, the translator implies that its plot is based partly on a folk belief widely held throughout China—namely, that each of a person’s eyes contains a tiny human figure. He thinks this myth originated from one experiencing the reflection of oneself when looking into another person’s eyes, or into one’s own when viewing oneself in a mirror.

“The Picture Horse”

The story “Huama” (“The Picture Horse”) concerns a Mr. Cui, who finds a strange horse—black marked with white and with a scrubby tail—lying in the grass inside his premises. Although he repeatedly drives it away, it persists in returning to the same spot. Mr. Ts’ui decides to borrow the horse and ride it to see a friend, some distance away.

Mr. Ts’ui finds that the horse travels at an astonishingly rapid rate, and it needs no food and little rest. It is not long before Mr. Ts’ui reaches his destination. When the local prince hears of the speed and endurance of this remarkable horse, he purchases it after a long wait for its owner to appear.

After a time, the prince has business near Mr. Ts’ui and rides there on the remarkable horse. Upon his arrival, he leaves it in the custody of one of his officers. The horse breaks away from its custodian and escapes. The officer gives chase to the...

(The entire section is 2419 words.)