I wasn’t able to do any seasonal reading for October last year, but now that I have a little spare time I decided to check out Pu Songling’s collection, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. I’ve read a few of these stories before in adapted form via the app Du Chinese, and eventually I’d like to read the original book. For now, though, I have to be content with the translation by John Minford.
Unfortunately, Minford’s edition is abridged, and includes 104 tales, roughly 1/5 of the total in the original. He does say that he tried to choose not only the best stories, but a representative sample of the wide variety of themes and subjects. The stories I’ve read previously were essentially horror stories, so that’s mostly what I expected and that’s why I thought of Strange Tales for Halloween.
Since these tales are so short it’s difficult to discuss or summarise them without completely spoiling them, but I’ll offer a few examples to give an idea of the range of stories Pu Songling wrote (or compiled – several of these stories exist in earlier versions, and he explicitly attributes some to people he knew). “The Painted Skin” is one I’ve previously read, and one that does qualify as a horror story. A man comes across a young runaway and invites her to live in his studio. He’s enamoured with her, but after some time a Taoist priest suddenly approaches him in the street to tell him he’s in great danger. He disregards the priest, but of course, this girl does have a monstrous secret.
Even stories that aren’t exactly horror, which is most of them, do have some supernatural element. For instance, in “Dying Together” a man passes away, but as his family begins making funeral arrangements he wakes up. He explains that he didn’t want to leave his wife behind in this world, and so asks her to lay with him on his deathbed. They assume he’s simply delirious, but he’s insistent so she goes along with his request, and then, well, you can guess. In “Past Lives,” Pu Songling tells of a man who, as the title suggests, can remember his past lives. After a wicked life, he was reincarnated as a horse, but attempted to expedite the process of being reincarnated as a man again by starving himself. As punishment for that he’s reincarnated as another animal, and so on for a few more cycles.
There are also stories that aren’t really supernatural at all, they’re more just odd things that someone witnessed. “The Devoted Mouse” relates the story of a mouse who bravely fights a serpent that had eaten his friend. In “The Male Concubine” a man purchases a concubine, only to find he’d been swindled (you can guess how). In “The Fornicating Dog,” a woman gets rather lonely when her husband is away.
As a warning, some stories do get rather gross, in multiple ways. Besides the odd adulterous canine, for instance, the resolution of “The Painted Skin” involves swallowing a load of phlegm. There’s also a lot of sex; not graphic, but people are getting in to bed with each other (or with ghosts or fox-spirits) in every other story, so this is a book for adults.
It’s commonly pointed out that Pu Songling used his stories as allegories for contemporary social problems. That is true, and Minford is good about pointing these themes out in his endnotes. They can also be enjoyed simply for their own sake, though – this isn’t like Animal Farm or many of the Narnia books where the allegory is almost the entire point, even if it is significant. Speaking of the annotations, Minford’s notes and introduction are very good and worth reading, clarifying obscure points in the stories and providing some context for the genres the author wrote in.
Finally, this is a very quick read – most of the 104 tales are extremely short, more of an anecdote or vignette than a typical short story, so even the less entertaining ones are easy to get through. Even with my constrained schedule, I was able to read the whole thing in a few sittings, and am definitely interested in reading a full, unabridged edition.