P'U Sung-Ling Sung-ling, P'u (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

P'u Sung-ling 1640-1715

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

A prolific storyteller, 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 (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio). Written in a highly allusive, traditional style, Strange Stories both attacked and appeased the oppressive Manchu government of P'u's time. 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.

Biographical Information

P'u was born into a well-educated merchant's family in Tzu-ch'uan, Shantung, near the end of the Ming dynasty, a period during which the warring Manchus of northern China systematically overthrew the Ming empire. He aspired to a scholar's life at an early age. After completing his prefectural examination with high honors in 1658, P'u resolved to pass the more difficult provincial exam, which would enable him to enter government service. Although P'u never attained this goal despite concerted attempts throughout his life, biographers believe that it was his questioning, humanitarian sensibility, and not a deficiency in scholarship, which barred him from obtaining an official position, as the Manchu testing system was designed to promote only those who displayed allegiance to the elitist views upheld by the state. Thus excluded from enjoying the material comforts and elevated status that accompanied official appointment, 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 Chiang-su; two years later he left southern China after obtaining a position as administrator for a wealthy friend, with whom he and his family resided for over thirty years. During this period, P'u also worked as a licentiate for the district school.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although historians believe that P'u began compiling and writing tales early in life, exact composition dates are not ascertainable. It is known that during his return from Chiang-su, following completion of his duties there, he visited many notable landmarks and amassed numerous regional stories along the way. In 1679 P'u composed a preface for his collection, signifying the near-final form of the work. For approximately the next eighty years Strange Stories circulated in manuscript until an admiring scholar undertook its publication.

P'u's stories are modeled upon the genre ch'uan-ch'i, a short narrative form that originated during the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Considered a singularly successful revival of this early literary tradition, Strange Stories closely adheres to the ch'uan-ch 'i mode 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. Thus carefully masking his social criticism, P'u protested the harsh Manchu domination of his people, which he had witnessed since a child. His stories depict a dualistic world in which forces of evil, though initially triumphant, are ultimately overcome by forces of good. P'u's verbal attacks on corrupt landlords and government officials firmly demonstrate his desire for social reform within the feudal system.

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. 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 believe the frequently sharp satirical commentary found in Strange Stories outrivals more recognized examples of political satire, including Wu Ching-tzu's eighteenth-century novel, Ju-lin wai-shih (1768-1779; The Scholars). In addition, despite the otherworldly features and romantic sensibility of the tales, critics unanimously assert the realistic effect of Strange Stories and credit P'u for his ability to develop fantastic situations into readily visualized and even believable scenes.

While P'u wrote in several genres, he is best remembered for his Strange Stories, a work that has appealed to readers for over three hundred years. In tribute to this longstanding classic, Tsung Shu has claimed that it "surpasses any previous collection of ghost and fairy tales in scope, literary merit, and profundity of ideas, serving as a landmark in the history of Chinese fiction." As one of the first Chinese writers to imbue the short narrative with a serious authorial voice, P'u commands an important and unique place in the history of Oriental literature.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

*Liao-chai chih-i [Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio] 1765

Liao-chai chih-i wei-k' an kao 1936

Liao-chai ch'uan-chi. 2 vols. (essays, poetry, short stories, and songs) 1936

Other Major Works

Hsing-shih yin-yuan chuan [Marriage as Retribution] (novel) 1870

*Exact years of composition remain unestablished for any of P'u's works. 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. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (1880) is only a partial translation.

Hsing-shih yin-yuan chuan, according to some sources, may have appeared in book form as early as 1728, though this too has not been conclusively verified. Marriage as Retribution (1984) is only a partial translation.

Martin Buber (essay date 1911)

(Short Story Criticism)

Introduction to Chinese Ghost & Love Stories, by P'u Sung-ling, Pantheon, 1946, pp. 9-13.

[An Austrian-born Israeli religious and social thinker, Buber is highly regarded for his research of popular myths and legends and, especially, for his translations of traditional Hasidic tales. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1911 as an introduction to his German translation of P 'u 's tales, Buber notes the engaging subject matter and fascinating supernatural figures in Strange Stories.]

During my studies in the myths of demons and spirits, I became familiar, first through translations, and later under the friendly instruction of Mr. Chingdao Wang, with the Chinese collections of ghost stories, and particularly with the classic Liao Chai Chih Yi. I was especially drawn by one characteristic of the tales, not possessed to this extent in the ghostlore of any other people—the atmosphere of intimacy and concord. In these stories spirits are loved and possessed by human beings, and human beings by spirits. But the spirits who come to woo or to take possession of mortals are not Incubi and Succubi surrounded by the vaguely terrifying aura of the other world, but beings of our own experience, only born into a deeper, darker plane of existence.

In their accuracy of imagery and expression the Chinese tales remind us of the accounts of Celtic peasants of their contacts with ghosts; but here it is not the mystic vision perceived in lucid terror that becomes articulate, but natural magic operating in a familiar world. The order of Nature is not broken, its perceptible limits merely extend; the abundant flow of the life force is nowhere arrested, and all that lives bears the seed of the spirit. Not only in animals, plants, and stones does the spirit blossom forth, yearning toward a human form as a flower toward the fruit. What your hand has created longs for the breath of life and for union with living, breathing creatures; what your mind has devised becomes animated and projects itself forth into reality before your eyes. Any act of yours can beget a spirit who will henceforth enter your house as your friend, your wife or your son, and reward you according to your merits. But there is nothing uncanny in all this—it is your home, it is your life.


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Jaroslav Prušek (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

"P'u Sung-ling and His Work," in Chinese History and Literature: Collection of Studies, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1970, pp. 109-38.

[A well-known Czechoslovakian scholar specializing in Oriental studies, Prušek is highly esteemed for his interpretive and investigative treatment of P 'u 's works and life. In 1962 he translated into his native language several selections from Strange Stories. In the following excerpt from his preface to this collection, Prušek places P'u's stories in their historical context, highlighting several pieces for their fusion of reality, fantasy, and satire.]

The eighteenth century . . . appears more and more clearly to us as the...

(The entire section is 5854 words.)

Chun-shu Chang and Hsueh-lun Chang (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

"P'u Sung-ling and His 'Liao-chai Chih-I'—Literary Imagination and Intellectual Consciousness in Early Ch'ing China," in Renditions, Vol. 13, Spring, 1980, pp. 60-81.

[In the following essay, the critics provide a thematic overview of P'u's Liaozhai zhiyi.]


One of the major tasks of an historian is the search for and depiction of the spirit of an age. But the spirit of an age is forever elusive and tantalizing. This is particularly so if the historian follows only the traditional politico-socio-economic approach in his research and analysis. The gist of the spirit of an age is what Raymond Williams has called "the structure of feeling" and...

(The entire section is 10959 words.)

Judith T. Zeitlin (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Discourse on the Strange," in Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 15-42.

[In the following essay, Zeitlin reviews how P'u's Strange Stories has been received over time and comments on the many varied interpretations of the stories.]

The Master did not speak of prodigies, feats of strength, disorder, and gods.

The Analects of Confucius, 7.21

"Here is that crazy scholar who didn't believe in ghosts and spirits and who presecuted our minions when he was alive." The King of the Ghosts...

(The entire section is 10740 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

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

Surveys the Strange Stories' 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 (June 1985): 157-202.

Contrasts P'u's early and late stories, offering insight into the author's creative development.

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

(The entire section is 369 words.)