P'U Sung-Ling Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

P'u Sung-ling 1640-1715

Chinese short story writer, novelist, poet, songwriter, and essayist.

P'u is regarded as a monumental figure in Chinese literature for his entertaining collection of supernatural and satiric folk tales, Liao-chai chih-i (partially translated as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio). This collection contains many masterpieces of short narrative written in a highly allusive, traditional Chinese style.

Biographical Information

P'u was born into a merchant's family in Tzu-ch'uan, Shantung, near the end of the Ming dynasty. During his lifetime, the Manchus of northern China overthrew the Ming empire. P'u aspired to a scholar's life at an early age. After completing his prefectural examination with high honors in 1658, P'u undertook the more difficult provincial exam, which would enable him to enter government service. P'u never attained this goal despite repeated attempts throughout his life. Some biographers believe that his failure to pass was due to the clash of his humanitarian sensibility with the elitism of the ruling Manchus, rather than any deficiency in scholarship. P'u earned his living largely as a teacher, factotum, and scribe. In 1670 he became secretary to the magistrate in the southern province of Chiangsu; two years later he obtained a job with a wealthy friend, with whom he and his family resided for over thirty years.

Major Works

Historians believe that P'u began compiling and writing stories early in life but are not certain of exact dates. It is known that he visited many notable landmarks and amassed numerous regional stories whenever he traveled. In 1679 P'u composed a preface for his collection Strange Stories, indicating that the work was completed, or nearly so. For approximately eighty years Strange Stories circulated in manuscript until an admiring scholar undertook its publication. P'u's stories belong to the genre ch'uan-ch'i, a short narrative form that originated during the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). In Strange Stories P'u successfully revived this early literary tradition, producing works of compact, semi-poetic prose embroidered with esoteric allusion.

Critics note, however, that P'u surpassed his T'ang predecessors through a greatly refined style and innovative fusion of social criticism with entertainment. Largely drawn from imaginative folk tales and legends, his stories contain ghosts, fairies, and various birds and animals symbolizing both the ruling and ruled classes. In this carefully masked social criticism, P'u protested the harsh Manchu domination of the Chinese. His stories depict a dualistic world in which forces of evil, though initially triumphant, are ultimately overcome by forces of good.

Critical Reception

Scholars have observed that in Strange Stories P'u wrote unevenly, at times liberating his narrative from reference to antecedent works, writers, and events, while at other times overloading it with these elements. And although P'u has been criticized by Maoist critics for failing to acknowledge that the Manchu system itself was the fundamental cause of injustice and cruel abuse, other scholars note the frequently sharp satirical commentary found in Strange Stories. In addition, despite the otherworldly features and romantic sensibility of the tales, critics unanimously commend the realistic effect of Strange Stories and credit P'u for his ability to develop fantastic situations into readily visualized and even believable scenes. Known as a serious writer to few people beyond a small circle of scholars and writers in his day, P'u attained enormous status in the centuries after his death because of the enduring intellectual and aesthetic appeal of the tales, many of which were imitated by later Chinese writers or adapted to the stage.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

*Liao-chai chih-i [Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, partial translation, 1880] 1765

Hsing-shih yin-yuan chuan [Marriage as Retribution, partial translation, 1984] (novel) 1870 Liao-chai chih-i wei-k' an kao 1936 Liao-chai ch'uan-chi. 2 vols. (essays, poetry, short stories, and songs) 1936

*Exact dates remain unestablished for much of P'u's work. Liao-chai chih-i is believed to have been in near-final form in 1679, though scholars agree that later additions and emendations to the collection were made.

Hsing-shih yin-yuan chuan, according to some sources, may have appeared in book form as...

(The entire section is 90 words.)

Herbert A. Giles (essay date 1908)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Boni and Liveright, 1925, pp. xi-xxiii.

[A highly regarded English sinologist, Giles, through his numerous lectures and publications in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was instrumental in conveying the rich variety of Chinese culture to the English-speaking world. In 1880 Giles translated and published Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, the first and most extensive translation of P'u's Liao-chai chih-i. In the following introduction, originally written in 1908, Giles comments on P'u's stature in Chinese literature. In his text Giles also includes a 1679 essay by P'u and an 1842 essay by...

(The entire section is 4593 words.)

Carl Glick (essay date 1946)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Oriental Otherworld," in The New York Times Book Review," December 15, 1946, p. 20.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Chinese Ghost and Love Stories, translated by Rose Quong in 1946, Glick somewhat misleadingly describes this partial collection of Pu's stories as retold folk tales.]

In old China no story was considered worthy of being published until it had been told and retold by word of mouth for generations. Then, when its popularity was assured, and the telling had been so perfected that each word and every line had meaning, the story was ready to be printed. So around 1680. Pu Sung-Ling collected some 400 of the best-known and best-loved...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Lin Lien-hsiang (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Examination Syndrome in Liao-chai-chih-yi," in Tamkang Review, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer, 1983, pp. 367-96.

[The following excerpt is taken from a biographical and critical essay relating P'u's stories about civil-service examinations to his own lifelong inability to pass the examination himself. The excerpted portion of the essay discusses examination stories that feature corrupt or incompetent administrators and those that feature retribution on the part of unsuccessful test-takers.]

Sung-ling might have started collecting his strange stories just as a hobby or a time-killer to relax himself from teaching and preparation for all the examinations he...

(The entire section is 7899 words.)

Fatima Wu (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Foxes in Chinese Supernatural Tales (Part I)," in Tamkang Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 121-54.

[In the following excerpt, Wu examines P 'u's innovative use of the images, symbols, themes, and motifs of the traditional Chinese fox tale.]

Fox Spirits in P'u Sung-ling's Liao-chai chih-yi

It can be said that P'u wrote the most fox tales up to his time in his one collection of Liao-chai chih-yi. There are almost seventy-one fox tales in his book. P'u's fox spirits can be put into two categories: the good and the bad. There are also vengeful foxes that are used to emphasize a satiric viewpoint, such as in the tale named...

(The entire section is 8150 words.)

Judith T. Zeitlin (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Obsession," in Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 61-97.

[In the following excerpt from her book-length study of P 'u's life and works, Zeitlin examines some of Pu's stories within the context of the Chinese cultural condstruct of obsession. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the development of an obscure or unusual addiction, compulsion, mania, or craving became a fashionable pursuit of the intelligentsia and occasioned many works of literature and art.]

Without an obsession, no one is exceptional.
—Yuan Hongdao, A History of Flower Arranging

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Barr, Allan. "The Textual Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44, No. 2 (December 1984): 515-62.

Surveys the Liao-chai's textual history in an attempt to place P'u's stories in chronological order.

——. "A Comparative Study of Early and Late Tales in Liaozhai zhiyi." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 45, No. 1 (1985): 157-202.

Compares the first and last volumes of the collection and considers some differences between subject, theme, plot, and characterization that demonstrate P'u's development.

——. "Disarming Intruders: Alien Women in Liaozhai zhiyi" Harvard Journal of Asiatic...

(The entire section is 364 words.)