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.
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.
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.
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.