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.
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.
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.