Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale 0804729689, 9780804729680

This is the first book in English on the seventeenth-century Chinese masterpiece Liaozhai's Records of the Strange

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Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale
 0804729689, 9780804729680

Table of contents :
Branchfire Bookmarks
Ch 1 the discourse on the strange
Ch 2 the historian of the strange self introduction
Part 2 the tales
Ch 3 obsession
Ch 4 dislocations in gender
The human prodigy 人妖
Ch 5 dream
Conclusion: the painted wall
Appendix translations
Footnotes intro
F 1
F 2

Citation preview

Historian o f the Strange Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale

Historian of the


Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale Judith T. Zeitlin

Stanford University Press

Stanford, California


S ta n fo rd U n iv e r s it y P ress S ta n fo rd , C a lifo r n ia

© 1993 by the Board o f Trustees o f the Leland Stanford Junior University Printed in the United States o f America CIP data are at the end o f the book Frontispiece: Anonymous Song painting o f an immortal. Reproduced by permission o f the Palace Museum, Beijing.

To m y parents, G eorge and From a Zeitlin

In 8i i, the sixth year o f the Yuanhe reign period, Zh an g jo u rn eyed to H uaiyang, w here he stopped for the night at the governm ent inn. T he official in charge o f the inn threw a banquet for the guests at which the fo llo w in g drinking gam e w as decided upon: those present w ould take turns recounting a strange experience that had befallen them, being obliged to drink a forfeit i f the experience w ere ju d ged insufficiently strange. — Li Fuyan, Sequel to Records of the Strange and the Mysterious


I have accum ulated m any debts in the preparation o f this book, and I express m y gratitude to the teachers, colleagues, friends, and in­ stitutions w h o have so generously helped me: to Patrick Hanan, w ho directed this study in its first incarnation as a doctoral disserta­ tion; to Stephen O w en , for his inspiration and critical involvem ent throughout; to Y u an Shishuo and M a R uifang o f the Chinese de­ partment o f Shandong U n iversity for sharing their expertise and resources on Pu Songlin g, and to Lu Fan for helping to make m y stay at Shandong U n iversity fruitful; to Jonathan Spence and the Society for the Hum anities at Yale for their help and support during the postdoctoral year I spent revising the manuscript. I especially thank Allan B arr for his advice in the initial stages o f this project and for his meticulous reading o fth e final m anuscript and Ellen W idm cr for her help in navigating rare book collections and for sharing rare materials and unpublished w orks o f her o w n w ith me. A num ber o f other readers took time from their ow n w o rk to make valuable suggestions on the manuscript at various stages o f the project: Val­ erie Hansen, Sue N aquin, Joanna Handlin Sm ith, Sarah Queen, Cynthia Zarin, N an cy Berliner, M arston Anderson, A riel Zeitlin, and From a Zeitlin. I gratefully acknow ledge the financial support o f the Am erican C ouncil o f Learned Societies, the M rs. Giles S. W hiting Founda­ tion, and the N ational Resource C ouncil. I also thank Eugene Wu and the staff o fth e H arvard-Yenching Library, especially Sidney Tai; M i-chu Wiens and the staff o f the Chinese collection at the Library


A ckn ow led gm en ts

o f C ongress; and the staff o f the Rare B o o k R oom s o f the Shandong Provincial Library, the B eijin g Library, and the A cadem y o f Sci­ ences Library in B eijin g. Jin h ua E m m a Teng provided crucial assis­ tance w ith the last stages o f the manuscript and the index. Finally, I thank Helen Tartar and Jo h n R . Ziem er, m y editors at Stanford U n iversity Press, for their invaluable editorial assistance and sup­ port. M y biggest debt o f all is to Wu H ung, w h o shared m y obsession with Pu Songling for so long and w h o contributed so much intellec­ tually and em otionally to this study. W ithout him this book w ould never have been written. J .T .Z .


Note on Citations and Abbreviations Introduction p a r t

i :


I T h e D isc o u r s e

The Discourse on the



The First Wave: Legitimating the Strange 17 The Second Wave: Self-expression and Allegory 25 The Third Wave: Style and the Analogy to Vernacular Fiction 34 The Historian o f the Strange's Self-introduction Liaozhai s Own Record 43 Ghostly Writer 56 p a r t




Seeing the Self as Other 52


T h e T a le s


The Chinese Concept of Obsession 61 A Brief History o f Obsession 65 The Late Ming Craze for Obsession 69 The Ethereal Rock 74 Addiction and Satire 88 Dislocations in Gender


The Human Prodigy 98 The Female Body Transformed 106 The Transformations o f Sang Chong 109 Heroes Among Women 116 The Grotesque Woman 125 The Shrew 127

xii 5

Contents Dream


Pu Songling’s Dream 132 Late Ming Interest in Dreams 135 The Interpretation o f Dreams 140 Dream and Experience 151 Dream and the Emotions 154 Dream and Fictionality 164 A Fox Dream 174 Conclusion: The Painted Wall


Crossing Boundaries 183 Illusion That Is Not Illusion 187 Making the Strange Legible 193 Appendix: Translations


The Ethereal Rock 203 Miss Yan 207 Dream 2 1 1 The Painted Wall 216 Notes


Selected Bibliography Character List Index




A Fox

Note on Citations and Abbreviations

T he chapter (juan) and page num bers provided in the text are keyed to Zh an g Y ou he’s Liaozhai zhiyi huijiao huizhu huxiping ben. Pu Songlin g ’s ow n preface is paginated separately from the tales, as are the various prefaces, colophons, and poem s to the book that fo llo w Pu S o n g lin g’s preface. Citations w ith juan num bers refer to the tales; citations w ithout numbers refer to the prefatory materials. I use a colon to separate a volum e num ber and a page num ber and a period to separate a juan num ber and a page number. Unless otherw ise indicated, all translations are m y ow n. T h e fo llo w in g abbreviations are used throughout the text (see the Selected B ibliography, pp. 28 3-3 0 0 , for com plete bibliographic data): DMB ECCP H JA S IC Liaozhai M Q SB PSLJ PSLK TPGJ ZL

G oodrich and Fang, Dictionary o f Ming Biography, 1368— ^44 H um m el, Eminent Chinese o f the Ch'ing Period (16 4 4 -19 12) Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Nienhauser, The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature Pu Songling, Liaozhai zhiyi huijiao huizhu huipin^ ben M in g Q ing xiaoshuo shanben congkan Pu Songling, Pu Songling j i Pu Songling yanjiu jikan Taipin^ guangji Z h u Y ix u a n , Liaozhai ziliao huibian

Historian o f the Strange Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale


Like m any o f his contem poraries, Pu Songling (1640—17 15 ) gave h im self a num ber o f names, o f which tw o are intim ately related to his w riting. In accord w ith prevailing practice, he used a scholarly sobriquet, Liaozhai— the Studio o f Leisure or Studio o f C o n versa­ tion— to designate the title o fh is masterpiece, Liaozhai's Records of the Strange (Liaozhai zhiyi), or sim ply Liaozhai, a collection o f nearly five hundred tales that constituted his life’s w ork. In a som ew hat m ore arresting step, Pu Songling derived a second and m ore evoca­ tive literary name, Yishi shi— the H istorian o fth e Strange— from an ancient tradition. M an y scholars have pointed out that he modeled this epithet after the title Grand H istorian o f Sim a Q ian o f the second century B . C . and have found a connection betw een the tw o titles not only in their sim ilar w ordin g but also in their parallel usage: Sima Q ian em ployed “ Grand H istorian” w hen com m enting on his historical narratives; Pu Songling called h im self the “ H istorian o f the Strange” only in the interpretive and evaluative com ­ ments he appended to his tales. The deliberate echoes betw een H istorian o f the Strange and Grand Historian, how ever, p rovoke the reader’s curiosity, for Pu Songlin g’s main subjects o f com m entary w ere not state affairs or eminent political figures but ghosts, fox-spirits, and abnorm al human experi­ ences— — things he considered “ strange.” His adoption o f the title “ historian” was thus prim arily rhetorical:1 the title conveys the sense o f com prehensiveness traditionally associated w ith historical w rit­ ing and affirm s his ow n authority in a field that he investigated with



great, but private, passion. This particular understanding o f “ his , to ry ” and “ historian” w as rooted in private form s o f historiography, w hich had proliferated long before Pu S o n g lin g’s time. (Again, w e can trace this tradition to Sim a Q ian, w hose Records o f the Historian was first com posed privately and only later accorded official status.) It is often argued that such private form s o f historiography had stimulated the creation o f fiction in C h in a.2 Indeed, tw o o f the chief names for fiction w ere waishi (“ unofficial h istory ” ) and yishi (ulefto ver h istory” ), because such w orks contained materials norm ally absent from official historical w ritings. A uthors o f these waishi often labeled them selves “ Waishi shi,” or “ H istorian o f an U nofficial H istory.” B u t during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writers increasingly took pseudonym s that indicated their specific interests m ore explicitly. We find authors calling them selves the H istorian o f L o ve (Q ingshi shi), the H istorian o f the Irregular (Jish i shi), and the H istorian o f Illusion (Huanshi shi),3 and anthologies entitled A Classified History o f Love (Qingshi leiliie), A B rie f History of Obsession and Lunacy (Pidian xiaoshi), and The Green Window History of Women (Liichuang niishi).4 Like Liaozhai, these anthologies o f stories and anecdotes are not arranged chrono­ logically and freely m ix fact and fiction; the idea o f history in these w orks seems closer to an encyclopedic com pilation o f narratives past and present organized around a central theme. Yet w e also find w orks such as Y u an H o n g d ao ’s ( 15 6 8 -16 10 ) History o f Flower A r­ ranging (Pingshi) that are not even narrative. The term “ h isto ry” in their titles seems only to indicate that these w orks are com pilations on a specialized subject.5 These exam ples suggest h ow free and elastic history as a concept or a category had becom e, a freedom that m ust have been conducive to the late M in g and early Q in g experi­ ments w ith fiction, in which Liaozhai played an im portant part. In a sense, “ h istory” during this period in China, at least in certain contexts, m ay approach the earliest G reek m eaning o f historia— an “ in quiry in to ” or “ an investigation o f.” — It is in the sense o f an inquiry or investigation, then, that I think w e can understand Pu S o n g lin g ’s project. C om pleted o ver the course o f thirty years, Liaozhai is encyclopedic in size and scope. T he collection ranges from a b rie f item describing a sym biosis between clams and crabs in the Eastern Sea as an exam ple o f



“ strangeness in the natural w o rld ” to a com plex and self-conscious m etafiction in which the fox-h eroine o f the story requests that the author add her b iography to his collection (see C hapter 5). M o re­ over, the collection consists o f not only stories but also the author s preface and his com m entary. A lth ou gh frequently didactic, these com m ents never condescend to the reader. C om posed in a style m ore ornate and difficult than the tales them selves, the com m ents, w hether passionate, discursive, or parodic, alm ost alw ays com pli­ cate the reader’s interpretation o f a story. U n like B o rg e s’s legendary Chinese encyclopedia, how ever, Liao­ zhai s richness does not mean that the book thwarts all apparent logical categories. Th e second term in Pu S o n g lin g’s self-character­ ization and in the title o f his book (Historian o f the Strange and Records o f the Strange) suggests the w a y in w hich the diverse sto­ ries, com m ents, and preface fit together. T h e theme o f the strange and Pu S o n g lin g’s strong voice and vision keep the collection from being a com pletely random assem blage. In fact, w e m ay say that the strange is the key Pu Songling offered to his readers to enter his literary w orld; accordingly, this concept is the focus o f m y inter­ pretation o f Pu S o n g lin g’s w ork. M y focus on the strange is also necessary because m ost previous critics o f Liaozhai have neglected or even denied its im portance, a denial that is itself an interesting and deeply rooted im pulse in the C hinese reading tradition (see C hapter 1). In the atm osphere that prevailed in the People’s Republic o f C hina beginning in the 19 50 ’s , the literature o f the strange was further tainted w ith politically undesirable associations o f superstition. Y u an Shishuo, a prom inent Liaozhai scholar, recounts that only after the injunction “ Speaking o f ghosts is certain to be h arm fu l” was lifted at the end o f the C ultural R evolu tion did he dare turn his scholarly attention to Pu S o n glin g’s b o o k .6 T h e m any publications devoted to Liaozhai dur­ ing the 19 80 ’s attest to the renewed interest in this w o rk both in C hina and abroad, but the problem o f the strange still tends to be shunted aside w ith som e disco m fort.7 T h e relative silence shrouding the strange in the contem porary scholarship on Liaozhai becom es m ore glaring w hen w e reflect that the problem o f the strange long exerted a pow erful fascination on



w riters and readers, and that the desire to record the strange played an im portant role in the developm ent o f C hinese fiction. Indeed, records o f the strange w ere produced in great num ber throughout Chinese history, not only during the S ix D ynasties w hen w riters began to form ulate the strange as a cultural category in zhiguai (brief accounts o f anomalies) but also during the Tang w hen authors began to exploit the full literary potential o fth e strange in longer and m ore artfully narrated chuanqi (tales o f the m arvelous). E specially during Pu S o n g lin g’s o w n age, previous collections o f zhiguai and chuanqi w ere w id ely re-edited and reprinted, and m any new collections o f “ strange events” w ere com piled and published.8 Interest in the strange becam e so far-reaching that it penetrated m any other fields o f M in g and (^ing learning, including historiography, astronom y, and medicine. jThe great physician Li Shizhen (15 18 - 9 3 ), for exam ­ ple, ends his definitive encyclopedia o f pharm aceutical natural his­ tory, Classified Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), w ith an inquiry into hum an anomaly. H e discusses m ultiple births, births from channels other than the vagina or the belly, transform ations in sex, the m etam orphosis o fh u m an s into animals or minerals, the birth o f non-hum an offspring, and hum ans born from non-hum an parents. His concerns here— prodigies, freaks o f nature, bizarre births, and m etam orphosis— had long been staples o f zhiguai collections. In­ deed, his proof-texts are in the main culled from accounts o f the strange. Li Shizhen ends his m agnum opus w ith a passionate plea that men o f learning investigate “ hum an changes that fall outside constant principle” and not sim ply reject as preposterous “ the boundless transform ations o f the universe past and present.’’9 Liaozhai contains w orks belonging to both zhiguai and chuanqi, the tw o m ajor genres in the tradition o f recording the strange. In m odern times, both zhiguai and chuanqi have com e to be called the “ classical tale” (wenyan xiaoshuo) to distinguish this form o f narra­ tive written in the literary language from the now -dom inant field o f vernacular fiction (tongsu xiaoshuo). Liaozhai is not ju st the culm ina­ tion o f the classical tale in style, com plexity, and range; it is no exaggeration to say that this collection has com e to define our very notion o f the genre. Th e m odern privilegin g o f vernacular fiction has tended to ob­ scure the w ays in which the classical tale diverges from Western-



derived models o f fiction. A Liaozhai tale is not sim ply a vernacular story that happens to be w ritten in another idiom . U n lik e vernacular stories, w hich arguably unfold in a space clearly demarcated as fictional, Liaozhai tales deliberately straddle the border between fictional and historical discourse and are indeed predicated in part on the ensuing am biguity. Th is am biguity is particularly pronounced w hen Pu Songling provides inform ation on sources in the fashion o f a responsible historian— H o w are w e to interpret such claims? In the eyes o f som e traditional critics, Liaozhai is “ bad h isto ry” since Pu Songling could not possibly have heard or seen all that he describes (see C hapter 1). For others, he deserves praise as an historian because the facts o f specific historical events and the official titles o f real figures in his stories are alm ost alw ays correct. We m ay dism iss both sorts o f critics as naive readers, but because Pu Songling lays claim at least nom inally to the authority o f history and never com pletely takes refuge in purely fictional license, the credibility and accuracy o f the events he describes alw ays remain potentially at issue for his readers. This tension betw een factual and fictional readings o f Pu ! S o n g lin g ’s w ork is closely related to his creation o f the strange. I em ploy the term “ strange” as the best, but still adm ittedly im perfect, counterpart o f three key Chinese characters, yi (differ­ ent), guai (anomalous), and qi (marvelous). These characters are com m on syn onym s and are frequently defined in terms o f one another. A n y firm distinction am ong them is blurred still further when they are com bined together to form com pounds, such as qiguai, guaiyi, and qiyi. A circular definition o f guai from a Tang dictionary perfectly illustrates the interchangeability o f these terms: “ A n yth in g qiyi and out o f the ordinary is called gu ai.,M0 A lter­ natively, a ghost story sp o o f from the M in g deliberately emphasizes the fungible nature o f these terms for com ic effect : the skeptical hero o f the story has the style name D ayi (En orm ously Strange) and the given name Q i (M arvelou s).11 N onetheless, the semantic ranges and connotations o f each char­ acter are not com pletely identical. O f the three, “ y i,” the term that Pu Songling chose for the title o fh is book, is the broadest in range and most flexible in u sag e.12 Its prim ary m eaning is “ difference” or “ to differentiate,” w ith the consequent im plications o f cxtraordi-



nary, outstanding, foreign, heterodox, eccentric— w hatever differs from the norm . “ G u ai” has the narrow est span o f m eanings— weird, uncanny, freakish, abnorm al, unfathom able— and carries the m ost pejorative flavor. A s the late M in g w riter Feng M en glon g (15 7 4 -16 4 6 ) phrased it, “ A ll in all, guai is not a pretty th in g.” 13 In keeping w ith its rather baleful connotations, guai also designates the dem onic spirit o f animals, plants, and inanimate th in gs.,,‘ Q i,” w hich has enjoyed the m ost consistent history as a term o f aesthetic appraisal, covers the area o f rare, original, fantastic, am azing, odd. A lth ough qi is usually an index o fh ig h praise, the term is potentially negative in that it designates a deviation from the norm . A s a M in g w riter defending the heroic adventures recounted in a vernacular w o rk o f fictionalized history loud ly protested, “ N o w what I mean by qi is not the deviant, queer, bizarre, outlandish sort o f qi. . . . I mean nothing like the type o f thing that shocks the com m on people and makes them bite their fingers in astonishment because it is un­ fathom able,,,14 W hat this w riter does mean b y qi is rather m urky, and he resorts to the com m on argum ent that polarities like qi and its op­ posite zheng (correct, orthodox) give rise to one another. It is indeed helpful to think o f each o f these three terms in conjunction w ith its most frequent polar opposite: yi/tong (different/sam e), guai/chang (aberrant/norm ative), qi/zheng (exceptional/canonical). T he difficulty o f pinpointing a clear or adequate definition o f the strange poses a question; Is the strange definable? O r is the key quality p f the strange its sheer elasticity, elusiveness, and changeabil­ ity? It'、 皆 as early recognized in C hina that the strangeness o f a thing depended not on the thing itself but on the subjective perception o f its beholder or interpreter (see C hapter 1). T he strange is thus a cultural construct created and constantly renewed through w ritin g and reading; m oreover, it is a psychological effect produced through literary or artistic m ean s.15 In this sense, the concept o f the strange differs from our notions o f the supernatural, fantastic, or mar­ velous, all o f w hich are to som e extent predicated on the im possibil­ ity o f a narrated event in the lived w orld outside the text. Th is oppo­ sition betw een the possible and the im possible has been the basis o f m ost contem porary Western theories o f the fantastic, m ost notably Tzvetan T o d o ro v’s influential study. T od orov distinguishes three



basic genres: the m arvelous (le merveilleux), the fantastic (la fantastique), and the uncanny (Vetrange): I f the narrated events accord w ith the law s o f post-Enlightenm ent scientific com m on sense, w e are in the realm o f the uncanny; i f they contradict these law s, w e have entered the realm o f the m arvelous. O n ly when the reader hesitates betw een these tw o alternatives are w e in the realm o f the fantastic.16 A s C hristine B ro o k e -R o se has sum m arized, “ T h e basis o f the fan 、 tastic is thus the am biguity as to w hether the w eird event is super­ natural or n o t/,17 O ne problem w ith applying a Todorovian schema to the Chinese literature o f the strange generally and to Liaozhai specifically is im m ediately apparent: w e cannot assume that the same “ law s” o f com m onsense reality are alw ays operant in other cultures or during other historical periods. Li Shizhen’s chapter on hum an anomalies and his view o f the boundless transform ations o f the natural w orld reveal a standard very different from that m odern science w ould accept as possible or from that a nineteenth^century European nov 〜 ella w ould present as “ supernatural.” E ven so, although the bulk o f Liaozhai tales in vo lve ghosts, fox-spirits, gods, and im m ortals, quite a num ber are entirely free o f supernatural elements. A s Waiyee Li has argued, the presence o f supernatural elements does not ultim ately determ ine the status o f a narrative as either fiction or history in Liaozhai. Perhaps even m ore im portant, T o d o ro v’s chosen narratives can still be view ed in terms o f clear-cut generic distinctions between realism and fantasy. In his prim e exam ple o f The Turn o f the Screw , the reader is invited to hesitate betw een tw o mutually exclusive interpretations— either the governess in the novella is mad and hallucinating, or she is actually seeing ghosts. A s T o d oro v asserts, at the end o f such a story the reader m ust “ opt for one solution or the other.’,19 B u t the rules are different in Liaozhai. Ghosts can be ac­ cepted as both psych ologically induced and m aterially present, ju st as a sequence can be cast sim ultaneously as a dream and as a real event. A s w e w ill see, the strange often results w hen things are paradoxically affirm ed and denied at the same time. In other w ords, the boundary between the strange and the norm al is never fixed but is constantly altered, blurred, erased, m ultiplied, or redefined. In



fact, the p ow er o f the strange is sustained only because such bound­ aries can be endlessly manipulated. A story from Liaozhai m ay helpMlluminate the deliberate blurring o f the boundaries betw een the real and the illusionary, w hich lies at the heart o f m y study o f Pu S o n g lin g’s creation o f the strange. Entitled “ Scholar C h u ” (“ C h u sheng ”;8 .10 8 1-8 5 ) , the tale first nar­ rates C h en ’s friendship w ith an im poverished schoolm ate, Scholar Chu. Chen is from a w ealthy m erchant family, but his father forces him to leave school after discovering that his son stole m oney to help w ith his friend’s tuition. When C hen is finally able to return to his studies after his father’s death, C hu has becom e a teacher. To express his gratitude to C hen, C hu volunteers to pass the civil service exam inations in C h en ’s place. B efore the exam , he asks Chen to spend the day w ith a person he introduces as his cousin Liu. A s C hen is about to fo llo w Liu out, he suddenly feels C hu pulling him from behind; he alm ost trips, but Liu qu ickly takes hold o f his arm and leads him away. Chen remains at L iu ’s house for som e time before he suddenly realizes that the M id -A u tu m n Festival is approaching. Liu invites him on a holiday jaun t to the R o yal Gardens, w here a painted barge awaits them. O nce on board, Liu sends for a fam ous courtesan, only n ew ly arrived in the district, to provide entertainment. B u t w hen he asks her to perform for the party, she m ournfully sings “ T h e Burial G ro u n d ,” an ancient funeral dirge. Chen is most displeased and demands: “ What do you mean by singing a song o f death before the livin g?” She apologizes and forces h erself to assume a m ore cheerful expression. Som ew hat m ollified, Chen requests her to sing a sensual lyric o f her ow n com position. She com plies. A fter they m oor the boat and disem bark in the garden, Chen passes through a long covered w alkw ay, w hose w alls, he notices, are covered w ith the poetic inscriptions o f other visitors. To m ark the occasion, he takes up his brush and records the courtesan’s lyric on the wall. It is n ow nearly dusk, and Chen goes hom e on L iu ’s instructions to await his friend’s return from the exam inations. C h e n o b se rv e d that the ro o m w a s d ark an d u n o cc u p ie d . A fte r a b r ie f w h ile , C h u cam e th ro u g h the d o o r, b u t w h e n C h e n to o k a care fu l lo o k it w a s n 't



C h u after all. J u s t as he w a s h esitatin g , the stra n g e r s w ift ly cam e up to h im and c o llap sed . [C h e n h eard] the serv an ts call o u t, ‘‘ O u r y o u n g m aster m u st be tir e d !” A s th e y w e re liftin g h im to his feet, it s u d d e n ly d a w n e d o n h im that the p e rso n w h o had c o lla p se d w a s in fact h im se lf zn d n o t s o m e b o d y else. C o n fu s e d , as in a d re a m , C h e n fo u n d S c h o la r C h u sta n d in g b y his side. O rd e rin g the se rv an ts to retire, he ask ed his frie n d fo r an e x p la n a tio n . “ D o n ’ t be ala rm e d w h e n g h o st/’

I tell y o u ,” C h u rep lied , “ b u t y o u see, I am re a lly a

(8. 1084)

T h e next m orning C hen attempts to contact the courtesan but learns that she has died several days earlier. Retracing his steps, the story goes, he a r r iv e d o n ce m o re at the c o v e re d w a lk w a y in the R o y a l G a rd e n s.

He s a w

that the lines he had in scrib ed w e re still th ere, b u t the in k w a s fa in t and a lm o st ille g ib le , as th o u g h the w o r d s w e re a b o u t to be effac ed en tirely. O n ly at th at m o m e n t d id he realize th at the in scrib e r o f the lines had a c tu a lly been a d ise m b o d ie d so u l and the au th o ress o f th e lines a g h o st.

(8 .10 8 4 )

This final realization surely results from C h e n ’s sober reflection on his experience, but it also leads us to reread the w hole story in a different light. It appears that C hu has been a ghost throughout the story, that w ithout C h en ’s know led ge he had m agically switched identities with his friend to repay his extraordinary past kindness, that Liu and the courtesan w h o entertained Chen w ere also ghosts, and that the M r. Chen being entertained during the M id -A u tu m n Festival w as only his disem bodied soul. Ju st like C hen, w e have been led astray by the m isleading aspects o f the narrative: confusing indications o f time, frequent om issions o f explicit subjects in sen­ tences, and spatial disjunctions.20 E ven when C hen com es face to face w ith h im self as other and learns that his friend is a ghost, he is still unable to com prehend w hat has happened to him. A m azed and not entirely convinced, he seeks external corroboration. This corroboration, how ever, com es from C hen him self. His investigation ends w hen he discovers that he has inadvertently be­ com e the recorder o f the strange in his o w n life. It is his o w n w riting on the w all that m ost tangibly registers the crossing o f boundaries in the narrative, not on ly betw een life and death but betw een self and other. Significantly, this w all is not the w all o f an ordinary building or a room but the w all o f a passageway, a transitional zone that



ostensibly connects tw o places but seems to lead now here. Like the painted barge adrift on the lake, the w all itself configures his experi­ ence in lim bo. T h e material m arks o f the ink on the w all have uncannily assumed the status o f their w riter— disem bodied, elusive, in the process o f dissolving entirely. This is truly phantom w ritin g, ghostly traces m om entarily suspended betw een presence and ab­ sence, inscribed by h im self and b y a dou b le.21 A lthough the narra­ tive carefully roots C h e n ’s experience in his subjective perception, w e are not asked to w onder w hether it is a figm ent o fh is im agina­ tion. Th e point here is that the subjectivity o f C h en ’s vision does not cancel out the strangeness o fh is experience but is rather the means b y w hich it acquires a recognizable form . B u t that form is b y nature unstable, and the record itself is in the process o f transform ation. Th ough brief, m y reading o f this story suggests a radical depar­ ture from T o d o ro v’s approach. True, “ Scholar C h u ” contains m any elements T od orov isolates in narratives o f the fantastic, such as the double, hesitation, and am biguous language. B u t the expectation that the reader m ust inexorably choose betw een a supernatural cause or a rational solution is entirely absent. T he narrative self-co n -1 sciously acknow ledges the need to supply further p ro o f for both the character and the reader, but that p ro o f is deliberately left am big­ uous. 丁he final im age o f the w riting on the w all, which is both there and not there, graphically spells out one w a y in w hich this story, like m any others in Liaozhai, erases the border betw een reality and illu­ sion, history and fiction. O ne lesson m ay be that o verly rigid classi­ fications create false dichotom ies. T he recognition that such catego­ ries are com plem entary rather than oppositional is best sum m ed up in a couplet from the eighteenth-century novel The Story o f the S 咖 e (Shitou ji) : “ Truth becom es fiction w hen the fiction’s true, / Real becom es not-real w here the unreaFs real.” 22 A nother lesson m ay be that i f the strange can ever be defined, it must be defined in the changing zone between history and fiction, reality and illusion. R obert C am pan y proposes that in the Six D ynasties the strange m ay be understood as w hatever arouses amazement by being “ anom alous w ith respect to a w riter’s or reader's expectations.,,23 A lth ou gh his study hinges on the argum ent that the strange w as self-consciously recognized to be a cultural rather than a natural



category, the expectations o f w riters and readers in this pioneering early period w ere still largely engendered b y their experience or kn ow led ge o f the w orld. T h e present study attempts to show h ow Pu Songling recreated the strange in a much later age, an age sur­ feited w ith w riting, w hen a w rite r’s and a reader’s expectations w ere conditioned less b y the w orld around them than b y their fam iliarity w ith other literature. In this respect, “ Scholar C h u ” supplies a visual metaphor. When Chen first com es upon the garden w alkw ay, the walls are not blank; they are already covered w ith the literary traces o f past w riters. T h e surface has already been con­ verted into a series o f superim posed texts. W hen C hen in turn adds his lines to the w all, there is nothing rem arkable about his gesture, nothing to distinguish his lines from the other inscriptions; he is sim ply one m ore w riter adding his experience to the lot. B u t upon his return, the other inscriptions serve as a stable yardstick. T he im plication is that they have not changed; only C h en ’s inscription, prem aturely fading away, appears strange. M etaphorically, the presence o f these other inscriptions em pha­ sizes the need for a textual context or textual contexts in studying Liaozhai. We need to place Pu S o n g lin g’s stories in the long tradition o f recording the strange, which provided him w ith a background o f m aterial and forced him to bring cliches alive. We need to place his stories in the context o f late M ing and early Q in g literati culture, both as a w a y o f recuperating the full m eaning o f the stories and as a w a y o f better understanding the culture out o f which they em erged. We also need to reexam ine the traditional criticism on Liaozhai, w hich form s a separate discourse and enables us to chart the chang­ ing understanding o f this great w ork. In the hope o f interpreting Liaozhai in these contexts, I organize m y analysis in tw o parts. In the first part, I trace the interpretive h istory o f Liaozhai from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries to establish h ow its readers understood or explained the strange. I then closely exam ine Pu S o n g lin g’s presentation o f h im self and his relation to the strange in his rem arkable preface to Liaozhai. In the second part, which constitutes the core o f the study, I turn to the tales them selves. Instead o f concentrating on the ghosts and fo x spirits that have becom e the tradem arks o f Liaozhai, I explore three im portant themes that w ere o f keen interest in sixteenth- and seven­



teenth-century literati culture, themes not usually associated with the collection in either the popular or the scholarly im agination. These three themes, all o f which in volve the crossing o f fundam en­ tal boundaries in hum an experience, are obsession (subject/object), dislocations in gender (m ale/fem ale), and the dream (illusion/real­ ity). B y focusing on these themes, I am able to circum vent the prob­ lem o f the supernatural and explore Pu S o n g lin g’s renewal o f the strange as a literary category. The relationship betw een inventing the strange and crossing boundaries is highlighted in the conclusion, in which I investigate a Liaozhai tale called “ T he Painted W all,” which echoes the story o f Scholar C hu. A gain, at the end o f his jo u rn e y the hero finds that the w all has changed— a beautiful girl portrayed on the painted w all has altered her hairstyle from that o f a you ng maiden to that o f a m arried w om an. B u t this time the hero is not only the recorder o f the change but also the cause o f it: he has entered the w all and m arried the girl. When he returns to norm al life, neither this w orld nor the boundary separating this w orld and the w orld beyond re­ mains the same.

p a r t

o n e

The Discourse


The Discourse on the Strange T h e M a s te r d id n o t sp eak o f p ro d ig ie s, feats o f stren g th , d iso rd e r, and g o d s .

— T h e Analects o f C onfucius, 7 .2 1

“ H e re is that c ra z y sch o la r w h o d id n ’ t b e lie v e in g h o sts and sp irits an d w h o p ersecu ted o u r m in io n s w h e n he w a s a liv e .” T h e K in g o f the G h o s ts g la re d ira te ly at the p riso n e r: “ Y o u p o ssess fiv e so u n d lim b s and in b o rn in te llig e n c e — h a v e n 't y o u h eard the line 'A b u n d a n t are the v irtu e s o f g h o sts an d s p irits ’ ? C o n fu c iu s w a s a sag e , b u t still he said: ‘R e v e r e th em b u t keep y o u r distan ce fr o m th e m !’ . . . W h at k in d o f m an arc you th at y o u alo n e sa y w c d o n ’ t e x is t? ”

Q u Y o u , N e w Tales U nder the Lam plight

“ A literary w ork is not an object that stands by itself and that offers the same view to each reader in each period.” 1 Hans Robert Jau ss’s n o w alm ost-com m onplace pronouncem ent is given strikin gly new visual force in the standard edition o f Liaozhai fs Records of the Stranj^ , Z h an g Y ou he’s collated and annotated version, which amalgam ates editions and the w ritings that circulated w ith them before the tw en­ tieth century.2 Em bedded in a welter o f prefaces, colophons, dedica­ tory verses, interlinear glosses, and interpretive com m entaries, and crow ned w ith a new forew ord and appendix, this edition encom j passes a virtual, though incom plete, history o f Liaozhai’s interpreta­ tion .3 This form at derives directly from traditional Chinese critical dis­ course, which was not sim ply interpretive but interactive as well. There was a snow balling effect: as a book or m anuscript circulated, readers recorded their reactions all over its pages, even between the lines. N e w readers m ight even treat the com m ents o f their pre­ decessors as part o f the book and com m ent on them accordingly.4 In this way, the text became the site o f an on going dialogue not only between the author and his readers but also between generations o f readers. A later reader thus finds it increasingly difficult to ignore


The D iscourse

this organic process o f interpretation, to screen out com m ent from text in reading. A lth ou gh the collation o f editions, a m ainstay o f Chinese schol­ arly activity past and present, has resulted in redactions in which the am ount o f com m entary far exceeds the am ount o f original text, the unusual volum e o f w ritings in Z h a n g ’s edition o f Liaozhai is un­ precedented for a collection o f classical tales. It consists o f three fulllength com m entaries, tw o extensive glossaries, and a mass o f pref­ aces, colophons, and poem s. These w aves o f literary activity attest both to Liaozhai s great popularity and to the continuous printing o f new editions. B u t these w ritings also reveal a strong underlying need to interpret the w ork. This need to interpret Liaozhai is bound up w ith the problem o f the strange posed by the tales. A n understanding o f what the strange represents and o f the im portance or value o f the strange within Liaozhai is thus tightly intertwined w ith the history o f the b o o k ’s overall interpretation. Th is history began even before the collection had been com pleted.5 Pu S o n g lin g’s literary friends w rote tw o pref­ aces, several poem s, and scattered com m ents for the manuscript w ell before it reached its final form in the early 170 0 ’s.6 A fter the author’s death in 17 1 5 , additional prefaces and colophons w ere w rit­ ten as the collection circulated in m anuscript for fifty years. T h e first printed edition was published in 1766 and, not surprisingly, contrib - 、 uted its o w n influential preface and forew ord. The am bitious tulllength com m entaries written in the first h a lf o f the nineteenth cen­ tury m ark another watershed. The traditional critical discourse on Liaozhai, like that surround­ ing vernacular fiction and pornography, is on the w h ole apologetic and defensive; each contribution must ju stify anew the value o f the w ork to a som etim es im plicit, som etim es explicit, hostile interlocu­ tor. A n attentive ear thus enables us to detect elements o f the nega­ tive reception o f Liaozhai as w ell, even i f w e allo w that for rhetorical purposes the defenders o f the book m ight have altered or exagger­ ated their opponents’ argum ents. A n exam ination o f the traditional w ritings surrounding Liaozhai uncovers three m ajor interpretive strategies: (1) legitim ating the practice o f recording the strange; (2) understanding the w o rk as an allegorical vehicle for serious self-expression; and (3) ackn ow led g­

T he D iscourse on the Strange


ing the w o rk as a m odel o f stylistic brilliance and as a great w ork o f fiction. A fourth approach, a conventional m oral didacticism, drones softly through the discourse on Liaozhai} but w ith one or tw o exceptions, notably in funerary w ritings about Pu Songling, this argum ent seems to have been taken for granted as the most obvious line o f defense and is rarely elaborated w ith m uch vigor. These approaches, all o f which appeared w ell before the twentieth century, have profoundly shaped m odern readings o f the w ork. In provid in g this selective interpretive survey, I necessarily sim ­ plify and im pose order on m any often contradictory and sketchy argum ents. Since previous argum ents are often repeated perfuncto­ rily in later w ritings, I try to trace changes in em phasis rather than note m ere inclusion. Finally, I have concentrated on prefaces and colophons rather than on dedicatory verses because prose w ritin gs by necessity entail exposition and argum ent. D edicatory verses, in contrast, tend to be written in an altogether lighter and m ore banter­ ing vein, caring m ore for a w itty turn o f phrase than for advancing an argum ent.

The First Wave: Legitim ating the Strange In 1679, Gao H eng ( 16 12 -9 7 ), an eminent, retired scholar-official from a prom inent gentry fam ily in Pu S o n g lin g’s h om etow n o f Zichuan and a man o f eclectic interests in literature and religion, com posed the first preface for Liaozhai.7 T hree years later in 1682, Tang M englai (16 27-9 8 ), another retired high official, a leading m em ber o f the local Zichuan gentry, and a w riter o f som e renow n, com pleted a second preface for the m anuscript.8 T he social and literary prestige o f these tw o men ranked am ong the highest in the com m unity and extended well beyond Shandong provincial cir­ cles.9 A s personal friends o f the author, w h o w ere also featured as inform ants or even as protagonists in several tales in the collection ,,0 their prefaces offer valuable insight into the im m ediate circle o f readers for w h o m Liaozhai was written and the social and intellec­ tual climate from which the book em erged. G ao and T an g’s prefaces share a sim ilar orientation: both redefine an interest in the strange in m orally and intellectually acceptable terms w ith the aid o f precedents from the C onfucian classics. A


T h e D iscourse

corollary o f their effort w as to w iden the boundaries o f the main­ stream literary and philosophical tradition to incorporate the m ore m arginal tradition o f recording the strange. To this end, they re­ hearse m any argum ents that had becom e alm ost standard b y the seventeenth century in prefaces to collections o f strange accounts. Tang begins b y scrutinizing the concept o f the strange. He argues that w e cannot base our understanding o f the strange on our ow n em pirical experience because the latter is far too lim ited and indi­ vidual pow ers o f perception vary too greatly. What is com m only deemed strange is based on convention rather than on any identifi­ able qualities inherent in strangeness; conversely, fam iliarity blinds us to the potential strangeness that lies before us. N o w , p e o p le c o n sid e r th at w h a t th e y see w ith th eir e y e s e x ists, and that w h a t th e y d o n ’ t see, d o e s n ’t e x ist. T h e y say, “ T h is is n o r m a l,” an d w h a t s u d d e n ly ap p ears an d s u d d e n ly v an ish es am azes th em . A s fo r the flo u rish ­ in g an d fa d in g o f p lan ts, the m e ta m o rp h o se s o f in sects, w h ic h su d d e n ly a p p e ar and s u d d e n ly v a n ish , th is d o cs n o t am aze th em ; o n ly d iv in e d ra g o n s am aze th em . B u t the w h is tlin g o f the w in d , w h ic h so u n d s w ith o u t s tim ­ u lu s, the c u rren ts o f r iv e rs, w h ic h m o v e w ith o u t a g ita tio n — are n ’ t these am a z in g ? B u t w c are a c cu sto m e d to th ese and arc at p eace w ith th em . W e are am a ze d o n ly at w ra ith s and fo x - s p ir its ; w e arc n o t am a zed at h u m a n ­ k in d .

(p. 4 ) 11

T an g’s contention that strangeness is a subjective rather than an ob­ jective category echoes a late third-century inquiry into the strange, G uo P u ’s (276-324) influential neo-D aoist preface to the m ysterious Classic o f Mountains and Seas (Shanhai jin^), an ancient book o f geo­ graphic m arvels. A s G uo Pu argued: “ We kn o w not w h y w hat the w orld calls strange is strange; w e k n o w not w h y what the w orld does not call strange is not strange. H o w is this? Things are not strange in and o f them selves— they m ust w ait for me before they can be strange. Thus the strange lies w ithin me— it is not that things are strange.” 12 C asting the strange as an epistem ological problem to refute skep­ tics had its seeds in the D aoist parables about great and petty under­ standing in Zhuangzi. G uo Pu declares, in fact, that he took as his point o f departure Zh u an gzi’s dictum : “ What hum an beings k n o w is far less than what they don ’t k n o w .” 13 It is w orth recalling here part

The D iscourse on the Strange


o f the fam ous dialogue that Zhuangzi uses to illustrate this point. T h e N orth Sea lectures the Y ello w R iver: “ Y o u c an ’ t d iscu ss the o cean w ith a w e ll fr o g — h e ’s lim ite d b y the space he liv e s in. Y o u c a n ’ t d iscu ss ice w ith a s u m m e r in se ct— h e ’s b o u n d to a sin g le season . Y o u c a n ’ t d iscu ss the W ay w ith a c ra m p e d s c h o la r— h e ’s sh a c k le d b y his d o c trin e s. N o w y o u h a v e c o m e o u t b e y o n d y o u r b an k s an d b o rd e rs and h a v e seen th e g re at sea— so y o u realize y o u r o w n p ettin ess. F r o m n o w o n it w ill be p o ssib le to talk to y o u a b o u t the G re a t P r in c ip le .” 14

A lth ou gh elsew here Zhuangzi draw s upon m arvels to illustrate these epistem ological points, G uo Pu w as probably the first Chinese thinker to ask w hat the strange is and to ponder w hat makes som e­ thing strange. His radical conclusion, reached through an elaborate series o f double negatives, is that the strange exists on ly in the perceiver’s mind, not in any objective reality, and that therefore “ nothing is im p ossible.’’ 15 G uo P u ’s and Tang M en g lai’s argum ents w ill seem odd ly fam iliar to a reader w h o has encountered M o n taign e’s celebrated essay, “ O f C ustom , and N o t E asily C han gin g an Accepted L a w ”:“ These ex­ amples from strange lands are not strange i f w e consider w hat w e regularly experience; h ow much habit stupefies our senses.” 16 Like M ontaigne, w h o developed this stance after confronting ethno­ graphic accounts o f the N e w World, G uo Pu was responding to the depiction o f exotic lands. N o t so Tang M englai, in w hose preface the conventional im age o f the strange is represented b y the other­ w o rld ly beings in our midst rather than b y the inhabitants o f distant barbarian lands: “ We are amazed only at wraiths and fox-spirits; w e are not amazed at h u rm n k in d ,” B u t T an g’s preface to Liaozhai represents another turn in under­ standing the strange. A lth ou gh he b o rro w s G uo P u ’s neo-D aoist argum ents, profound differences exist. G uo Pu w as ultim ately argu­ ing for the veracity o f the places and creatures depicted in the Classic o f Mountains and Seas and for its practical use as an om en book and as an encyclopedia o f k n o w led g e .17 Tang is neither confirm ing nor denying the factuality o f books like Liaozhai; rather, he is contend­ ing that unless w e allow a greater tolerance for the discussion o f things that lie beyond em pirical experience and ordinary discourse, “ the beginnings and endings o f the W ay” are in danger o f being


T h e D iscourse

“ obscured to the w o rld .” I f our curiosity is entirely suppressed, then ignorance w ill trium ph and “ w hat w e see becom es less and less and what amazes us becom es greater and greater” (p. 4). T an g’s preface shares som e o f the concerns voiced in sixteenthand seventeenth-century prefaces to both strange tales and vernacu­ lar fiction. For instance, Jia n g Y in g k e ’s ( 15 5 3 - 16 0 $ ) com ic preface to Tales o f Hearsay (Ertan), a collection o f strange anecdotes, also adm onishes the reader to reconsider w hat is really strange. Jian g m ischievously selects the ear o f the title as som ething that is not am azing because it is too com m onplace: “ N o w an ear measures only one inch in w idth, tw ice that in length, and about three inches inside— that’s ju st a couple o f inches. A n d yet it can receive any­ w here from a single syllable to m illions o f w ords, far too m any to count. N o w isn ’t that exceedingly odd? B a t no one considers it o d d .” 18 Sim ilarly, Lin g M en gch u ’s (15 8 0 -16 4 4 ) preface to his first collec­ tion o f vernacular stories, Slapping the Table in Amazement (Pai’an jingqi) (dated 1628), closely resembles T an g’s preface. B oth begin w ith different halves o f the same proverb (“ To see a cam e 】and call it a hum pbacked horse” 一 Tang, p. 3; “ To the man o f little experience, everything is strange” 一 L in g 19), and both dem onstrate that ordi­ nary experience is far m ore extraordinary than is com m on ly recog­ nized.20 The tw o men draw different inferences, h ow ever; Tang justifies recording otherw orld ly beings (“ wraiths, fox-spirits, and prodigies” ), whereas Ling advocates depicting “ the wonders before our ve ry eyes,” b y w hich he seems to mean the curiosities to be found in daily life.21 Tang insists that accounts o f the strange should not be dism issed as untrue or subversive. Strange tales are valuable because they can break dow n the lim itations o f petty understanding and reason, ju st as D aoist parables do. His argum ents, penned to an obscure manu­ script w ith no im m ediate hope o f publication, w ere presum ably aimed at a small hypothetical audience o f N eo-C o n fu cian skeptics. Lin g M engchu, on the other hand, is arguing that stories o f daily life can com pete in interest and n ovelty w ith m ore fantastical and exotic accounts. T h is is clearly an appeal to a broad, existing reading public, one that Ling w as tryin g to w ean from w hat he perceived to be a considerable appetite for supernatural tales. L in g is thus distin­

T he D iscourse on the Strange


guishing the intriguing and n ovel sense o f strange from the super­ natural and exotic sense; the form er he tries to capture in his fiction, the latter he vehem ently rejects, at least in principle.22 “ T h e Rakshas and the Sea M arket” (uLuosha haishi ”;4 .454-6 5), one o f the few Liaozhai tales about a vo yag e to a foreign country, viv id ly plays out the argum ent that strangeness and norm ality lie in the eyes o f the beholder. A you ng Chinese m erchant is b lo w n ashore on a strange island populated b y a race o f hideously deform ed people, w h o are in turn appalled b y his m onstrosity. A sligh tly m ore hum an-looking inhabitant finally plucks up his courage and ex­ plains the native point o f view : “ I once heard m y grandfather say that 26,000 miles to the w est lies the land o f C hina w hose inhabitants are all o f a w eird physical appearance. B u t this w as hearsay; only today do I believe it” (4.455). Pu Songling is here m ockin g those proverbial cram ped scholars w h o refuse to believe anything that they have not seen w ith their o w n eyes. O n this isolated island, the ordinary appearance o f the C hinese merchant becom es truly ex­ traordinary. H ow ever, the m erchant quickly becom es habituated to the sight o f these m onstrous natives, and he is no longer frightened b y them; indeed, he quickly learns h o w to profit b y frightening them. In the w orld o f Liaozhai} the extraordinary is made to seem ordinary, but the ordinary is also made to seem extraordinary. In the first h a lf o f his preface, Tang argues that the strange is a subjective and relative concept. In the second half, in a radical shift, he attacks the com m on understanding o f strangeness as anom aly and its subsequent equation w ith m onstrosity and evil. In his hands, the strange is redefined exclu sively in hum an ethical terms. I c o n sid e r th at re g a rd le ss o f w h e th e r so m e th in g is n o rm a l o r a b n o rm a l, o n ly th in g s th at are h a rm fu l to h u m a n b e in g s are m o n s tro u s. T h u s [evil o m e n s lik e] eclip ses an d m e te o rite s, “ fis h h a w k s in flig h t an d m y n a h b ird s n e s tin g ,” ro c k s th at can sp eak an d the battles o f d ra g o n s, can n o t b e c o n sid ­ ered stran g e . O n ly m ilita r y an d c iv il c o n sc rip tio n o u t o f seaso n o r reb ellio u s so n s an d m in iste rs are m o n s tro u s and stran g e,

(p. 5)23

B y relocating the strange to the hum an w orld and m o vin g the m arginal to the center, Tang has diffused any potential threat that anom aly poses to the m oral order. For Tang, strangeness in the sense o f evil can exist only in the realm o f hum an events, especially in the


The D iscourse

political arena. In this regard, he sets the stage for the satiric de­ m ystification o f the strange often found w ithin Liaozhai itself.24 A t the end o f the tale “ G uo A n ” (9 .12 4 7-4 8 ), for exam ple, it is an­ nounced that this court case is amazing not because a servant saw a ghost but because o f the utter stupidity o f the presiding m agistrate and his m iscarriage o f justice. In the other seventeenth-century preface, G ao H eng also argues that the strange is prim arily a m oral category w ith canonical roots. He begins b y defining the term “ strange” to explain its inclusion in the title o f the book: “ To say that som ething recorded is ‘strange’ clearly means that it differs from the n o rm ” (p. 1). Th is definition is presented as the com m on understanding o f strange, and indeed, ju d g in g from other exam ples, it seems to be so.25 Like Tang, h ow ­ ever, G ao seeks to dem onstrate the inadequacy and even the in­ appropriateness o f such a sim ple definition: b y ju g g lin g a quota­ tion from the Book o f Changes and an audacious pun, he glosses yi (strangeness, difference) as yi (righteousness), one o f the cardinal Confucian virtu es.26 丁his is possible, he declares, because “ the prin­ ciples o f H eaven, Earth, and M an, the w ritin gs o f the S ix C lassics, and the m eanings o f the sages, can be ‘bound together w ith a single thread’ ” (p. i)_27 Thus this strangeness, this difference, is not ex­ ternal to the proper w orkings o f the universe and m oral concerns but is incorporated w ithin them. T he potential threat that irregular­ ity poses to order, as deviation or heterodoxy, is neutralized. T he strange is no longer unfathom able, but coherent and intelligible. B oth Gao and Tang are clearly operating w ithin what C harlotte Furth has described as “ a Iqng-standing C hinese view o f cosm o lo gi­ cal pattern that sought ta i^icorporatc anom aly rather than reject the irregular as inconsistent w ith the h arm ony o f natural pattern.” 28 In this tradition o f correlative thinking, anom alies w ere taken as om ens m anifesting H eaven ’s w ill and played a pow erful role in political discourse, especially during the Han dynasty. B u t i f w e accept the argum ent that b y the late M in g people w ere “ beginning to question the tradition o f correlative thinking w hich assumed that natural m oral and cosm ological phenomena w ere rendered intelligible by an underlying pattern o f affinities,’’29 w e can perhaps understand G a o ’s sophistry and T ang’s brashness as efforts to reassert the old m oral and political im plications o f anom alies in the face o f the age’s increasing dissatisfaction w ith correlative thinking.

Th e D iscourse on the Strange


A w are that his rhetorical conflation o f strangeness and righteous­ ness is shaky, Gao goes on to upbraid w ould-be critics for constru­ ing the great cultural tradition too narrow ly. To this end, he refutes the staunchest attack against an interest in the strange, the statement in The Analects o f Confucius that “ the M aster did not speak o f pro­ digies, feats o f strength, disorder, and go d s.” 30 Like m any other apologists for recording the strange, G ao argues that C onfucius was also the author o f the canonical Spring and Autumn Annals, a reposi­ tory o f the very subjects that the M aster supposedly avoided speak­ ing of: T h e n a rr o w -m in d e d sch o la rs o f later g e n e ra tio n s, w h o s e p u p ils are as tin y as peas . • . e x p la in a w a y e v e ry th in g th e y h a v e n ’ t seen w ith th eir o w n e ye s w ith the p h rase “ the M a s te r d id n ’ t sp eak o f i t . ” D o n ’ t th e y k n o w w h o s e pen r e co rd e d [the o m e n s o f] “ fis h h a w k s in flig h t and m e te o rs fa llin g ”

T o b la m e

M a s te r Z u o [c o m m e n ta to r o n the S pring and A utum n A n nals] fo r su c h e rro rs is no d iffe re n t fro m c o v e r in g o n e ’s ears an d lo u d ly d e c la rin g th ere is no th un der,

(p. i ) 3i

Gao also exploits other loopholes opened b y contradictory re­ marks w ithin The Analects itself to ju stify such Buddhist-influenced preserves o f the strange as a b elief in hell and the w orkings o f karm a and retribution. M odern critics m ay explain such textual contradic­ tions as stem m ing from different strata o f scriptural transmission, but for scholars such as Gao and Tang the Classics w ere a unified w hole; any apparent contradiction arose from an inadequate under­ standing o f the lines rather than from a problem inherent in the text. This attitude still prevailed in the seventeenth century, despite the new advances in philological studies (kaozheng), which w ere sub­ jectin g the Classics to increasingly rigorous modes o f scholarship. 32 Instead Gao and Tang prefer to resolve such contradictions in the canon by appealing to the role o f the listener or reader. G ao in particular emphasizes the p ow er o f the interpretive act to activate the m oral potential o f a written text: F o r the in te llig e n t m e n o f th is w o r ld , ev en “ w h a t the M a s te r d id n ’ t speak o f ” can h elp in the p laces th at c o n v e n tio n a l te a ch in g s d o n ’t reach . [T h e stra n g e acco u n ts o f] T h e Librarian's M iscellany [Youyang z a z u ] an d Records o f the Listener [Y ijia n zh i] can th us a c c o m p lish the sam e as th e S ix C la ss ic s . B u t fo r o th e r ty p e s o f m en , e v e n daily recita tio n s o f w h a t C o n fu c iu s alw ays sp o k e o f can b e u sed to abet e v il.

(p. i ) 33


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T hus, the good reader can glean enlightenm ent from any text; the bad reader can find a justification for evil in the m ost canonical o f texts. What is striking in this form ulation is not that esoteric or subversive texts require discerning and enlightened readers— ap^ pealing to the superior and understanding reader is a conventional m o ve— but that bad readers can pervert a sacred tex t.34 A lthough G ao grounds this point in historical precedent,35 he is chipping aw ay at the privileged authority o f the Classics over other texts: m oral authority is contingent not on a superior text but on a superior render. We thus find a m erging o f tw o seem ingly unrelated and even contradictory argum ents: since strangeness is a subjective percep­ tion, the m orality o f strange accounts ultim ately depends on the reader and his interpretation o f the text. This is a particularly pow er­ ful method o f challenging the canon to include non-canonical texts and non-canonical traditions. B u t this concern w ith the superior reader is also sym ptom atic o f an anxiety that Liaozhai w ill be m is­ read. A nd for a book to be in danger o f being misread, there m ust be a m arked disjunction betw een the content and the underlying mean­ ing that the inferior reader w ould miss. A lth ou gh Tang and G ao argue along sim ilar lines, G a o s final discussion o f the relationship between the strange and the fictivc im agination is unique. Th e last in G a o ’s series o f skeptical interlocu­ tors reluctantly allow s that strange things do occasionally occur in this w orld and that one can chat about them, but he bristles at taking im aginative license w ith them. “ To allow the im agination to gallop beyond the heavens and to realize illusions in the hum an sphere, isn’t this m odeled on Q ixie[ s legendary book o f m arvels]?” ( p. 2)36 G a o s first defense is rather predictable: he cites textual precedents for indulging the im agination in Sim a Q ian ’s biographies o f court jesters and the fanciful parables o f Zhuangzi. B u t his next defense is m ore startling, for he openly calls into question the veracity o f the official histories: “ A n d is every record in the tw en ty-fou r histories solid [shi]Vy (p. 2)37 O nce this point has been granted, he can lo g ­ ically argue that since w e tolerate fictions in the histories, w e ought also to tolerate fictions in other w orks. G ao begs allowance fo r authorial inspiration and invention, “ for the sw ift literary m ind w hose pen supplem ents the process o f cre­ ation, not on ly b y em bellishing the surface but even b y sm elting the

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m aterial” (p. 2). T h e allusion is to the m yth o f the goddess N il Wa repairing the toppling sky w ith m olten rock. Thus “ supplem ent” is meant in the sense o f “ filling in the holes” 一 o f placing new material w here it belongs w ithin a pre-existing structure, o f m ixin g small doses o f fiction w ith history. In this metaphor, literary invention bolsters and reinforces order rather than distorting and subverting it. Th is is not the Western im age o f the w riter w h o freely imitates the C reation but rather a view o f the w riter as an assistant to the natural process o f creation w h o selectively fills in gaps as needed. This im age o f the fictional im agination as a “ rock filling in holes” culm i­ nates in the opening o f the eighteenth-century n ovel Sfory o f the Stone: the novel itself originates as a rock rejected fro m the celestial repair process, w ho becom es both the protagonist o f the story and the surface upon w hich the story is inscribed. B u t for G ao, the hard-earned license o f literary invention is not to be squandered; it m ust be w ell spent in refining hum an beings. Th e polarity betw een exceptional and non-canonical (qi) and orthodox and canonical (zheng) that permeates the discourse on the strange is hereby introduced. Literary invention is qi, refining hum an beings is zheng; they are tw o sides o f the sam e coin, not incom patible extrem es.

The Second Wave: Self-expression and A llego ry T he earliest discourse on Liaozhai prim arily defends the tradition o f recording anom alies: Liaozhai itself is hailed as a superior but typical exam ple o f the zhiguai genre. To this end, an attempt is made to redefine the notion o f the strange and to w iden the m argins o f mainstream literature. B u t the next group o f w riters, particularly those seeking to publish the m anuscript in the fifty years fo llo w in g Pu S o n g lin g’s death, advanced a radically different approach. These new cham pions o f Liaozhai sought to distance it or even to rem ove it altogether from the anom alies tradition, claim ing that the book was not really about the strange at all. This tendency was reflected in the first published edition o f Liao­ zhai. T he prefect Z h ao Q igao (d. 1766), w h o sponsored the publica­ tion, mentions in his forew ord that he had excised forty-eight o f the shorter, m ore insipid, and m ore com m onplace items (p. 28). A l­


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though m uch attention has been paid to Z h a o ’s censorship o f a group o f supposedly anti-M anchu tales, these num ber only a hand­ ful; the rest are standard records o f anom alies in style and content: unem bellished, factual reports o f strange events such as “ A Freak M elo n ” (“ Gua y i ”;4,443), “ A Passion for Snakes” (“ She p i” ; 1.13 0 ), or “ The C la m ” (“ G e ”;9 .12 2 8 ).38 M oreover, Z h ao tells us he had originally planned to publish on ly the tales he considered the best, but he eventually decided to append the ones left over after his initial selection to the end o f the book. A ccordin g to A llan Barr, “ T he tales w hich w ere later incorporated . . . are b y no means lacking in interest, but have much m ore in com m on w ith the short anecdotes recorded b y other seventeenth and eighteenth century w riters, and as such, are rather unexceptional.” 39 In other w ords, these last tales, w hich tend to accentuate L iao zhai\ sim ilarity to conventional col­ lections, are relegated to the m ost inconspicuous place in the book and grouped together as an afterthought.40 A lth ough Z h ao does acknow ledge Liaozhafs affiliation w ith the anomalies tradition, the aim im plied in his selection o f tales is to distinguish Liaozhai from a stereotypical im age o f strange accounts. Z h a o ’s secretary and the collator o f the edition, the painter and poet Y u j i ( 17 3 9 -18 2 3 ) , explicitly states this idea in his preface: uC om paring it to Q ix ie ’s b ook o f m arvels or saying that it differs little from collections o f rare phenomena or strange tales is a ve ry shallow view and one that greatly contradicts the author’s intent” (p. 6). Pu Lide ( 16 8 3 - 17 5 1) , Pu S o n g lin g ’s grandson and a keen advocate o f Liaozhafs publication, makes this point even m ore forcefully in a colophon to an edition that he never succeeded in publishing: S in ce this b o o k has the w o r d “ s tr a n g e ” in the title, s o m e o n e w h o d o e s n ’t k n o w the w o r k w ill a ssu m e th at it m u st b e 】ik e T h e M a g ic ia n R e c o r d s [Y u C h u zh i) o r Seekin g the Spirits [Soushen j i ] , o r else th at it’s so m e th in g lik e Su S h i’s g h o s t sto ries, ra n d o m ly selected an d c a su a lly p r o lo n g e d , w h ic h arc to ld s im p ly as m aterial fo r c o n v e r s a tio n ,41 o th e r w is e th e y ’ ll sa y th e title is u n fair. S o m e o n e w h o k n o w s the w o r k , o n the o th e r h an d , w ill s a y th at it uses the su p e rn a tu ra l to d e m o n stra te r e w a r d s an d p u n ish m e n ts. B u t n o n e o f th ese u n d e rsta n d th is b o o k .42

In Pu L id e’s scheme, the ideal reader o f Liaozhai is not one w h o reads the stories for pleasure or one w h o understands the w o rk as a

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didactic tract, but one w h o realizes that the book is an act o f serious self-expression,43 Earlier, G ao H eng had introduced the dich otom y betw een Liao­ zhai s surface content and its underlying m eaning, appealing to a superior reader capable o f discerning this m eaning, but he w as still interested in the subject matter o f the tales and the im plications o f the strange. In contrast, the second w ave o f w ritin gs on Liaozhai vehem ently denies the im portance o f its content. T h e bizarre subject m atter o f the tales is dism issed as a sm oke screen, one that veils not so m uch a concrete m eaning as the presence and intention o f the author. Writers adopting this n ew approach interpreted the strange al­ m ost exclu sively as a vehicle for the author’s self-expression. Liao­ zhai is lifted into the highest reaches o f the literary tradition, not by challenging the conventional boundaries o f that tradition but b y assim ilating strange tales to the autobiographical reading conven­ tions o f the m ajor literary genres, especially poetry. Th e ancient definition o f poetry, “ that it speaks o f what is intently on the m ind” (shi yan zhi),44 had long been extended to other literary genres and other arts; b y the late M in g and early Q ing, this theory o f selfexpression could be applied to virtually any field o f human en­ deavor, no matter h o w trivial or eccentric. In this m ode o f interpretation, recording the strange was m erely the means through w hich Pu Songling articulated “ what was in­ tently on his m ind ”;the ve ry outlandishness o f the material alerted the reader to the personal distress behind the w ork. For the reader w ho styled h im self a k n o w in g reader, a zhiyin (literally, “ one w ho understands the tone” ), the prim ary question was no longer “ What is the strange?” or “ What can w e learn from the strange?” Rather, it was “ W hy w ould a man channel such extraordinary talent into a w o rk o f such a dubious genre?” Read against the background o f Pu So n glin g’s lifelong failure to realize his political and social am bi­ tions, the strange content o f Liaozhai was fam iliarized and excused. A s the collator Y u J i lam ented, “ H e entrusted to this book all the extraordinary qi [energy] that otherw ise had no outlet in his life. A nd so in the end he did not care that his accounts often in volve things so w eird and unorthodox that the w orld is shocked b y them ” (p. 6).45 (This m echanistic view o f qi, w hich here seems to mean


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som ething like creative energy, m ay rem ind the tw entieth-century reader o f the Freudian m odel o f libido: i f denied access to a proper outlet, it w ill involuntarily force its w a y out through som e other channel.) Th e prom otion o f Liaozhai as the author’s self-expression proba­ bly began to take shape tow ard the end o f Pu S o n g lin g’s life. B y this time, it had becom e clear that Pu Songling w ould never achieve conventional success and that Liaozhai, which had expanded in size and scope over the years, w ould be his lifew ork. T he first written evidence o f this v ie w appears in a grave inscription com m issioned by Pu S o n g lin g’s fam ily: since the norm al channels w ere insufficient for Pu to unleash his pent-up sorrow , he “ sought out the strange and com posed his Records o f the Strange. A lth ou gh things in it in vo lve the fantastic, his ju dgm en ts are sober and serve to w arn the people.” 46 This eulogist, Z h an g Y u an (16 7 2 -17 5 6 ), bore a strong resemblance to the man he was eulogizing. Like Pu, he w as a first-degree holder w h o spent m ost o f his life failing higher exam inations, the only avenue to success for intellectuals o f lim ited means; like Pu, he w as a man o f literary talent forced to support h im self as a tutor in a w ealthy household, separated from his ow n fam ily.47 B oth Pu and Zh an g, then, epitom ized the frustrated, public-m inded literary man unable to realize his ambitions in the political, social, or literary system . This resemblance reveals not so much an uncanny corre­ spondence betw een the tw o men as the typicality o f Pu S o n g lin g’s career during the Q in g .48 Y u an Shishuo’s painstaking study o f Pu S o n g lin g’s friends and fam ily demonstrates that this pattern applies b y and large not only to P u ’s childhood friends and his pupils, but even to his sons and his favorite grandson, Pu L id e.49 T h e literary w ork o f such frustrated scholars, especially if it betrayed any o rig­ inality or im propriety, was invariably interpreted to fit the ancient paradigm o f the w orth y man w ho meets unjustly w ith failure and so vents his so rro w and disaffection in literature.50 Z h an g Y u a n ’s eu­ lo g y introduces the self-expression theory not only because he felt sym pathy and adm iration for his subject, but because it was b y then virtually required to confer literary value on an unusual w o rk and to explain its em otional power. T h e pervasiveness o f this reading tradition ensured that a b rief biography o f Pu Songling w ould be inserted in the first published

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edition o f Liaozhai and appear in the m any subsequent reprints.51 Later readers thus began their reading o f the book w ith a strong im pression o f the author’s personal failure. O ne such reader, the late Q in g scholar Fang Ju n y i (18 15 -8 9 ), professes w onder that a w riter o f such exceptional talent chose to squander it on fantastic tales rather than em ployin g it m ore fruitfully in poetry and prose essays. B u t the question already contained w ithin it the answ er: the choice o f form and subject m atter was given m eaning as a desperate act. Thus Fang concludes; “ This w ork m ust certainly have been written b y a great man w h o met w ith failure in his time, I ache on his b ehalf,” 52 H ere w e see a tw o -w ay process at w ork: an im age o f the author’s life gleaned from his w ritin g is reinforced by his biography, and this know led ge is then read back into his w ork. What caused this shift in interpretation? We cannot explain it as a result o f historical differences betw een the intellectual clim ate o fth e seventeenth century and that o fth e eighteenth. Seventeenth-century readers w ere ju st as prone as eighteenth-century ones to interpret problem atic w orks as acts o f self-expression. Seventeenth-century readings o f the m acabre and visionary poetry o f Li He ( 7 9 1-8 17 ), for instance, reveal exactly the same im pulse to locate stereotypical political m otivations behind a difficult w o rk (although in the case o f Li H e ’s poetry these explanations seem much m ore forced).53 Alter­ natively, a fam ous eighteenth-century recorder o f the strange, the prolific and successful Y u an M ei (17 16 -9 8 ), specifically forestalls such an interpretation o f his w o rk by telling the reader that the contents o fh is collection w ere gathered purely for fun, “ not because I was m oved by so m eth in g.’’54 A better explanation for this shift m ay be found in the aging o f Liaozhai. O ften the process o f interpretation follo w s its o w n pat­ tern, one that m ay have less to do w ith a specific historical period than w ith the passage o f time and h ow this alters subsequent view s o f a w ork. In this light, the reinterpretation o f Liaozhai as a vehicle for self-expression, that is, as a plaint o f personal failure and a diatribe against the failings o fth e age, is a highly predictable m ove. It is predictable not on ly because it w as an ancient w a y to reclaim w orks that otherw ise threatened the tradition, but also because the w o rk itself had becom e gilded w ith the patina o f age. To Pu S o n g­ ling s senior contem poraries G ao H eng and Tang M englai, he m ay


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have been a man o f talent, but he was an insignificant figure. M o re­ over, w hen they w rote their prefaces, it was still not too late to hope for an im provem ent in Pu S o n g lin g’s career, and the collection was m uch m ore m odest in scope. For those w ritin g later (and for critics o f our times w h o m ay identify w ith Pu S o n g lin g’s plight), the author’s personal failure, w hich seemed m erely pathetic in its ow n time, lent a tragic glam or and profundity to Liaozhai. O ne treats the w ork o f a dead author differently from that o f a livin g writer. A s the em phasis shifted from the content o f Liaozhai to its au^ thor’s intention, a general allegorical reading o f the tales perhaps became inevitable. In this reading o f Liaozhai, the evil dem ons and ghosts in the stories are transparent sym b ols o f hum an wickedness, the bureaucratic hells o f the underw orld satires on corrupt hum an officialdom . Pu Songling was certainly cognizant o f the m etaphori­ cal possibilities o f the strange, a tradition that preceded the zhiguai genre and could be traced back as far as Zhuangzi and L iez i, w orks he particularly lo v e d .55 In m any tales he calls attention to an allegori­ cal reading, usually in the evaluative com m ents fo llo w in g a story, under his sobriquet H istorian o f the Strange. For exam ple, in “ T he Painted S k in ” (“ Hua pi ”;1 . 1 1 9 —24), a man w h o has been dallying with a beautiful w om an peeps through the w in d o w one day and discovers a hideous dem on using a paintbrush to touch up a human skin spread out on the couch. She lifts up the skin, and 4as though shaking out a garm ent,” drapes it over her body, transform ing herself back into a beautiful w om an. When he seeks to exorcise her through a D aoist charm, she flies into a rage and tears out his heart. The H istorian o f the Strange underlines the obvious m oral allegory in his final com m ents to the story: “ H o w stupid are the people o f this w orld! Som eone is ob viou sly a dem on, but people consider her beautiful” (1.12 3 ) . This exact point, that beautiful appearances can conceal souls blacker than any dem on ’s, is in fact offered in collator Y u J i s preface as an exam ple o f h o w to read the strange in Liaozh a i.S6 G ao H eng, the author o f the first seventeenth-century preface to Liaozhai, had already hinted that the m ore fanciful subject matter o f the tales could be explained as yuyan— literally as “ loaded w o rd s,’’ a com m on, all-purpose Chinese figure vario u sly translated as “ alle­

The D iscourse on the Strange go ry ,” ‘‘ m etaphor,’, and “ parable.” 57 In its broadest sense, yuyan designates fiction as opposed to fact. A com m ent to the seventeenthcentury novel The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou putuan) makes this usage quite clear: “ Fiction is ‘loaded w o rd s/ To say that w ords are loaded means th ey’ re not fact.” 58 Since the term yuyan is em ployed so broadly in this period, it m ay be best to think o f it sim ply as “ figurative language” 一 som ething not meant to be taken as literally true that points to a larger truth. A lth ou gh Gao H eng introduced the figurative possibilities o f Liaozhai, he was still w illin g to tolerate the coexistence o f several levels o f m eaning, and he enjoyed playing w ith the intellectual paradoxes posed b y the concept o f strangeness. T h e lapses in logic and w ide leaps in his preface reveal a refreshing lack o f dogm atism . The next generation o f readers, men like Y u j i and^PiuLide, h o w ­ ever, are rigorous allegorists: they reject the literal sense altogether and retain only the figurative m oral sense. B y reducing a story to only one possible m eaning, they eliminate L iaozhafs strangeness; they try to hom ogenize the collection, both in terms o f itself (all the stories are alike) and in terms o f other w orks (all great literature is alike).59 O ne o f the m ost original discussions o f the interpretive problem s posed by Liaozhai appears in a preface that has only recently com e to light. Written by the philologist and official K on g Jihan (17 39 -8 9 ), a m em ber o f the illustrious K on g clan that traced its origins back to C onfucius, this preface was preserved in K o n g ’s collected w o rk s.60 This preface m ay be seen to som e extent as a bridge between the first w ave o f interpretation and the second, or as a com prom ise between the two. For K on g, the central problem raised by Liaozhai is still its strangeness (yi), w hich he explores in terms o f its related m eaning, difference. He begins by setting out the com m on understanding o f the strange: ‘‘People alw ays consider that what runs counter to the norm and counter to nature is strange.” 61 But he im m ediately w on ­ ders what happens w hen so m any tales about the strange are read collectively: ‘‘When you put together all these m any piled-up stories and com pare them, it’s like fishing in a dried-up m arsh 一 though every fish head is strange or different, they no longer seem strange


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or different.” 62 When so m any tales are assembled, the im pression o f strangeness disappears, for the tales resem ble one another m ore than they differ. T h is point repeats an earlier objection leveled at the truly v o lu ­ m inous tw elfth-century zhiguai collection, Records o f the Listener: ‘‘N o w it is on ly because things that run counter to the norm and counter to nature are rare that w e say th ey’re am azing. If, how ever, th ey’re too num erous to record, then w e can no longer find them strange.” 63 B u t K ong refuses to conclude that Liaozhai transcends strangeness or that strangeness is only relative. H e continues: “ Then w h y did the author put the w ord ‘strange’ in the title? Because it can be considered strange.” 64 K o n g ’s fish-head analogy exposes the paradox that in quantity unusual things seem to 】ose their singularity. This leads him to introduce the opposite paradox: When ordinary things w e take for granted becom e rare, they suddenly becom e strange* K o n g ’s exam ­ ples are the biographies o f “ singular conduct” (duxing zhuan) in the dynastic histories. “ Transm itting biographies o f ‘singular conduct’ in the histories began w ith [the historian] Fan Y e .65 H e placed them in a separate category because they differed from ordinary biogra­ phies, that is, because o f their strangeness. B u t all the biographies o f singular conduct that he transmitted display loyalty, filial piety, and virtuous principles. These arc qualities present in ev e ry b o d y ’s heart; so h ow could they be considered strange or different?” 66 K ong resolves this contradiction, one that has profound im plications for Liaozhai, b y suggesting that in Fan Y e ’s time m orals w ere so odious and rebellions so frequent that ordinary behavior deserved to be singled out. Then why, he objects, when the ethical clim ate had presum ably im proved, did later histories continue the practice o f singling out ordinary m orality as extraordinary?67 K o n g is exploring the possibilities o f h o w som ething can sim ulta­ neously be both strange and com m onplace. For him , this paradox is the key to Liaozhai s bipartite structure o f m eaning: “ A ll o f w hat Records of the Strange relates here are things that are seldom seen or heard; so o f course people w ill say th ey’ re strange. B u t nine out o f ten are allegories [yuyan], and i f w e generalize [tong] their meaning, then none o f them are about things that people w ould say are strange.” 68

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K o n g locates the structure o f allegory in the term yuyan itself, w here yu is the figurative m eaning and yan the literal meaning. Th e things the stories describe are strange because they are unusual, but the ethical values they convey are commonplace* U n lik e his con­ tem poraries Pu Lide and Y u Ji, K ong is not entirely w illin g to dism iss the literal content o f the tales and concede that Liaozhai is not strange. N o r is he quite w illing to fo llo w his predecessor Tang M englai and dism iss strangeness as purely subjective perception. For K ong is quite frank about the pleasure that people (including him self) take in reading about the strange, a pleasure that is not necessarily dim inished by grasping the underlying m oral signifi­ cance. “ I f people don’t find strange the m eaning o f the allegory but find strange only the w ords as written, it is because o f people’s fondness for the strange. B u t i f this fondness for the strange is pushed to the opposite extrem e [i.e., com pletely negating it?], then I d o n ’t kn ow what happens to the notion o f strangeness!” 69 K o n g posits tw o levels o f reading and three kinds o f readers for Liaozhai: the frivolous reader w ho sees only the obvious allure o f the strange; the dogm atic reader w ho sees only the hidden m oral or satirical m eaning; and the h ybrid reader w h o sees the surface and underlying meanings and is affected by both. T he third reader in his scheme is naturally the best. Th u s K on g resembles other interpreters / o f Liaozhai w h o attem pt to prescribe an ideal reader. He concludes, h ow ever, w ith another paradox: We c a n ’ t k n o w w h e th e r fu tu re read ers o f Records o f the Strange w ill be startled at its stran g e n ess an d take d e lig h t in it. Wc c a n ’ t k n o w w h e th e r so m e w ill d esp ise the a lle g o r y an d g r o w fu rio u s o r en ra g e d at it. A n d lik e w is e , w e c a n 't k n o w w h e th e r so m e w ill c o m p re h e n d the stra n g e n e ss o f b o th the a lle g o r y and th e w o r d s an d sig h p a ssio n ately, sh e d d in g tears o v e r it. F o r w e sec th at p e o p le call stran g e w h a t th e y fin d s tra n g e an d d o n ’t call stra n g e w h a t th e y d o n ’ t fin d stran g e. S o m e o n e m ig h t e v e n d e n y that Records o f the Strange is stra n g e an d a rg u e in stead that it is o n ly reading it that is stran g e , th us a r g u in g th at th e re ’s n o th in g re a lly stra n g e ab o u t the w o r k at all— b u t h o w c o u ld this b e?70

K o n g ’s scheme presents strangeness as an elusive concept, in constant danger o f disappearing into relativity, subjectivity, or alle­ gory. He is am bivalent about w hether as a concept strangeness exists


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independently in the abstract or whether it m ust be grounded in concrete readers and reading. In the end, he seems to propose a tw otiered reading m ethod, in which the strange is accepted as both a subjective and an objective phenom enon, and in w hich the surface allure o f strangeness and the internal m oral balance each other out. Wang Jin fan , a contem porary o f K o n g ’s w h o published a rather drastically altered edition o f Liaozhai in 1767, also explores som e paradoxical im plications o f the strange.71 Like K o n g, Wang dis­ tinguishes betw een the content o f the tales, w hich is adm ittedly strange, and their underlying m orality, which is decidecl】y ordinary; “ There are certainly strange events in this w orld w h ose underlying principle is ordinary, and extraordinary language w hose intent is orth od o x.” 72 N evertheless, Wang is m ore interested than K o n g in the didactic potential o£Liaozhai. Thus, rather than propose an ideal reader w h o perceives the author’s true intentions, Wang posits tw o inferior extrem es w h o are manipulated b y the author, the unedu­ cated reader and the o verly sophisticated reader: the form er is aroused b y the satiric m oral o f the tales, the latter finds new delight in conventional m orality. From a stock appeal to the vastness o f the universe to support the claim that strange things really do exist, Wang shifts to another im portant topic related to the discourse 011 the strange: fiction m aking. I f the principle behind an event is true, he claims, then it does not matter i f the event occurred or not. In the end, he attempts to collapse the disjunction between story and m essage by appealing to the ancient principle that opposites becom e each other at their extrem e: “ Thus, there is nothing that is not figurative and nothing that is not real.” 73

T he T hird Wave: Style and the A n alogy to Vernacular Fiction T h e approaches introduced above m ay differ over the m eaning and im port o f the strange in Liaozhai, but they basically agree that the content o f the b ook is at stake. B u t the third w ave, the authors o f detailed, full-length com m entaries on published editions o f Liao­ zhai y circum vents this debate alm ost entirely. T h e strange is no longer a charged issue for them. What is m ost valuable in Liaozhai is no longer insight into the w orkings o f the universe that it con-

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tains, the intellectual paradoxes that it poses, or the allegorical selfexpression that it conceals. Instead nineteenth-century interpreters defend Liaozhai largely on grounds o f literary style and narrative technique, and these concerns shape their entire com m entary proj­ ect.74 To sum m arize, because o f their subjective and rd ativistic under­ standing o f the strange, previous defenders o f Liaozhai had in som e w a y to situate the strange in the reader. For them, the strange was not an absolute value or independent quality but was realized only in the reading process, for it required interpretation and mediation. In the nineteenth-century discourse on Liaozhai, the concern w ith the strange per se evaporates; w hat remains is essentially an interest in the reading process itself. Liaozhai is n ow defended because its m astery o f language and allusion can teach one to read other m ore im portant texts, such as the Classics and histories. C om m entator D an M inglun (17 9 5 —1853) exem plifies this new approach in his 1842 preface: I r e m e m b e r that w h e n I w a s lo s in g m y b a b y teeth, I ’d c o m e h o m e fro m s c h o o l an d read LiaozhaVs Records o f the Strange. I c o u ld n ’t b e a r to pu t it d o w n . M y fa th e r u sed to sco ld m e: “ H o w can a b o y w h o s e k n o w le d g e is still u n fo rm e d lik e to read a b o u t g h o s ts , fo x - s p ir its , and fr e a k s !” A frie n d o f m y fa th e r ’s o n ce h ap p en ed to b e sittin g th ere, an d he ask ed m e w h y I lo v e d this b o o k . “ W ell,” I re p lied , “ all I k n o w is I e n jo y h o w in so m e p laces it’s a llu siv e lik e T h e C lassic o f Documents, v a lu a b le lik e the Z h o u R ites, o r v ig o r o u s lik e the R itu al C an on , and h o w in o th ers the n a rra tiv e is p ro fo u n d lik e the Z u o Com m entary, T he Conversations o f the Stdfes, o r Intrigues o f the Warring States. F r o m L ia o z h a i, I also g a in in sig h t in to lite r a r y m e th o d s .” W h en m y fath er h eard this, his w ra th tu rn ed to la u gh ter,

(p. 9)75

T he child D an has precociously dem onstrated h im self to be a “ better” reader than his father b y divorcing Liaozhai s problem atic content from its brilliant literary style. O nce again an obvious plea­ sure in the strange has been deflected onto another, subtler level o f reading. To b o rro w Form alist terms, w e m ay say that our childcom m entator has distinguished discourse (“ the w orld o f the authorreader” ) from story (“ the w orld o f the characters” ).76 Th is favoring o f discourse over story characterizes the great Jin Shengtan’s ( 1 6 1 0 61) influential approach as com m entator and reader o f fiction and


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dram a.77 J in ’s annotated and amended editions o f The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan) and The Western Wing (X ixian gji) w ere so successful that they virtually drove previous editions o f these fam ous vernacu­ lar w orks o ff the m arket until the twentieth century. Scores o f readers, w riters, and com m entators w ere trained in Jin ’s m ethod o f literary analysis, in w hich every w ord and every sentence w ere considered deliberate and m eaningful w ithin the structure o f the w o rk as a w h o le.78 D an ’s o w n com m entary clearly reveals that he was w ell schooled in Jin Shengtan’s reading m ethods.79 We even begin to suspect that D an m ay have been a bit less precocious than he pretends since the gist o fh is schoolboy eloquence com es directly from Jin ’s “ Reading Instructions for the Fifth B o o k o f Genius” (i.e., The Water Margin). Jin ’s edition o f this novel w as specifically addressed to his yo u n g son. In the past w h e n c h ild ren read T h e Water M argin, all th e y lea rn ed w e re so m e tr iv ia l e p iso d es. N o w w h e n th e y read this e d itio n , t h e y ’ll learn so m e lite ra ry m e th o d s; an d th e y w o n ’t learn lite ra ry m e th o d s o n ly in T h e Water M argin, t h e y ’ll also be ab le to detect th em in b o o k s lik e Intrigues o f the States and Records o f the H istorian. In the p ast w h e n ch ild re n read b o o k s lik e Intrigues an d Records o f the H istorian, all th e y s a w w e re s o m e triv ia l e p is o d e s — h o w a b s o lu te ly rid ic u lo u s! . . . O n c e c h ild ren g ain s o m e sen se o f lite r a r y m e th ­ o d s, t h e y ’ ll b e u n ab le to tear th e m se lv e s a w a y fr o m su ch b o o k s . T h e Water M argin can d o q u ite a lo t fo r c h ild r e n .80

In fact, even D an ’s recollection o f his boyish love for Liaozhai echoes Jin ’s o w n account o f his childhood passion for The Water Margin, which “ he clasped to his b osom day and n igh t.’’81 These com m entators are b y no means the only devotees o f fiction to ground their strong attachment to a particular w o rk in childhood reading experience. Wu C h e n g ’en, the supposed author o f the fan­ tastic novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), w rote in the preface to his zhiguai collection o f the youthful delight that he took in such books. In m y c h ild h o o d , I lo v e d m a r v e lo u s acco u n ts. A s a p u p il at the b o y ’s acad em y, w h e n e v e r I sn eak ed o f f to b u y u n o ffic ia l h isto rie s an d fic tio n , I w a s a lw a y s a fraid th at m y fa th er o r teach er w o u ld b a w l m e o u t an d c o n fis ­ cate th e m ; so I ’ d read th em in secret. B u t as I g r e w up, m y p a ssio n b ec am e e v e r m o re in ten se, the a c co u n ts e v e r m o re m a r v e lo u s . B y the tim e I w a s an ad u lt, I s o u g h t th em in e v e r y w a y u n til I h ad accu m u la te d a v a st s to r e .82

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A ll these w riters m ay have been influenced b y the id eo lo gy o f childhood in the philosophy o f Li Z h i (15 2 7 -16 0 2 ). In his fam ous essay “ O n the C hildlike Heart^ (frT on gxin shuo” ), Li Z h i argued that all great literature derived from an author’s “ childlike heart,” that is, from a m ind that had not lost its original authenticity and spontaneity.83 T he nineteenth-century com m entators1 debt to Jin Shengtan is essentially threefold. First, their prefaces to Liaozhai b o rro w w h ole­ sale his defense o f vernacular literature— that i f properly read, it can teach children, and b y extension adults, the literary methods neces­ sary to read beneath the surface o f canonical texts, especially the histories.84 Second, their com m entaries adopt the literary methods and criteria Jin and his follow ers had developed for vernacular litera­ ture. Finally, Jin ’s exam ple show ed them that com m entary could be as im portant and taxing as authorship itself.85 Feng Zhenluan, an im portant nineteenth-century com m entator on Liaozhai, explicitly m odeled h im self on Jin , to w hose literary prow ess he attributed the very su rvival o f the masterpieces o f ver­ nacular literature.86 A s he w rote in his 18 19 “ Random Rem arks on Reading Liaozhai” (“ D u Liaozhai zashuo’,): “Jin Shengtan s com ­ mentaries on The Water Margin and The Western Wing are so insight­ ful and cleverly w orded that they constantly open the eyes and minds o f later readers. This is w h y these w orks [belonging to the lo w ly genres] o f the novel and dram a have not been discarded in our ow n d a y ” (p. 12). Jin Shengtan’s favo ring o f discourse over story provides the cor­ nerstone for F en g’s understanding o f Liaozhai. From the beginning o f his “ Random R e m a rk s,” Feng emphasizes that Liaozhai’s aim is “ to create literature” (zuowen), not m erely “ to record events” (jishi) (p. 9). “ A n yon e w h o reads Liaozhai on ly as stories and not as a literary w o rk is a blockhead!” he w arns (p. 12). Th e eighteenthcentury distinction between literal and figurative readings o f Liao­ zhai has given w a y to a distinction betw een literal and literary read­ ings.- This new literary reading is not syn on ym ous with a purely form al reading; rather, an attention to form al features alerts the reader to the m oral nuances o f a text. A lth ou gh this approach ultim ately derived from the traditional m ethod o f com bing the Spring and Autumn Annalsy laconic text for its ''subtle m ean in g”


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(weizhi), Feng concentrates on the stylistic techniques through w hich the m oral nuances are uncovered rather than on the m oral nuances them selves. This em phasis becom es obviou s w hen he casti­ gates the vogu e for Liaozhai im itations: “ Lacking Liaozhai s ability, these are ju st stories o f wraiths and fox-spirits, exaggerated accounts o f strange phenomena. Since their literary style is negligible, their pur­ port is unintelligible” (p. 12). Feng makes a halfhearted attempt to defend hxaozhaW strange content b y echoing an old seventeenth-century argum ent: num er­ ous accounts o f ghosts and prodigies are also included in the histo­ ries; Liaozhai cannot be blam ed for doing likew ise. B u t F en g’s solution is m ore daring: he suggests that the reader sim ply “ take the w riting itself” ( p. 13 ).87 It does not matter w hether the strange events in a story are true or not i f the w ritin g is good. Feng has arrived at a full-fledged defense o f Liaozhai as creative fiction. In F en g’s “ Random R em arks” w e encounter for the first time an explicit com parison between Liaozhai and the masterpieces o f ver­ nacular fiction and drama. Feng likens Liaozhai to The Water Margin and The Western Wing because all three w orks have “ large structures, finely w rou gh t ideas, extraordinary w riting, and orth odox meanin gs” (p. 9). U nlike eighteenth- century literary claims for Liaozhai that assimilated the w ork into the autobiographical reading tradi­ tion, the nineteenth-century argum ents fo r Liaozhai's literary merit derive from analogies draw n betw een vernacular fiction and histor­ ical narrative. This is a great change, one that attests to the im proved status o f vernacular literature. In this new environm ent, Liaozhai is understood as an offspring o f a genuine fictional tradition. B y the early nineteenth century, Liaozhai had becom e so iden­ tified w ith fiction that Feng was com pelled to point out that the book records m any historical events and personalities (p. 11) . C o m ­ pare this with original publisher Z h ao Q ig a o ’s caveat that although Liaozhai contains som e verifiable accounts, it is difficult to take most o f it as “ reliable h istory” (pt 27). T he em phasis has unm istak­ ably shifted. W ith the passage o f m ore than a century and w ith the expansion o f the readership outside Pu S o n g lin g’s native Shandong province, the historical nature o f m any events and characters in the tales w ould inevitably fade and be forgotten; the fictional im pression o f the tales w ould be correspondingly enhanced. Indeed, a m ajor

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task o f the nineteenth-century annotators w as to signal w hich char­ acters and events had a basis in history and to provide necessary facts about them for the com m on reader. T h e im pression o f Liaozhai s fictionality has accelerated w ith the im m ensely greater distance sep­ arating the m odern reader from Pu S o n g lin g ’s w orld. F en g’s reading o f Liaozhai as literature in w hich w ritin g takes precedence over event obliges him both to uphold the practice o f w ritin g fiction and to defend Liaozhai against the charge o f being bad history. Th e disparaging o f the fictional im agination has deep roots in the Chinese tradition. E ven fiction’s ch ief defender, Jin Shengtan, argued that it is easier to w rite fiction than history, for in fiction the author can give free reign to his im agination, whereas in history the author is constrained b y the facts.88 J in ’s insight recalls the ancient philosopher Han Fei’s fam ous rem ark on representation in painting: it is easier to paint a phantom or a dem on than a horse or a dog; since no one kn ow s w hat a phantom looks like, the artist need not w o rry about painting a recognizable likeness as he w ould in painting fam iliar creatures.Hv A lthough this valuing o f m im etic rep­ resentation in painting w as eclipsed quite early in China, vernacular fiction w riters frequently used Han F ei’s rem ark to attack the super­ natural orientation o f popular literature and to defend the focus on daily life in their ow n w o rk .90 Feng refutes this charge o f reckless im agination by arguing that even w hen w ritin g about phantom s, Pu Songling alw ays conform s to the logic o f the hum an w orld ; he makes the incredible detailed and v iv id enough to seem credible (P* U ) .91 Pu S o n g lin g’s use o f fictional detail and dialogue lies at the heart o f J i Y u n ’s (17 2 4 -18 0 5 ) w ell-k n o w n com plaints against Liaozhai. Ji, a leading scholar-official w h o w rote the late eighteenth-century s fin­ est collection o f strange accounts, objected to P u ’s inclusion o f both “ short anecdotes” (xiaoshuo) and “ narratives in the biographical style” (zhuanji) in a single w ork. In light o f this com plaint and the abbreviated style o f his o w n stories, it is clear that J i Y u n ’s real objection to Liaozhai w as prim arily epistem ological. H e maintained that as varieties o f historical narrative, both short anecdotes and narratives in the biographical style had to be based on plausible sources— autobiographical experience or eyew itness testim ony 一 and not freely invented b y the author, “ like plot elements in a


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play.” 92 A ll stories need not be true, but they m ust at least persuade the reader that they might have been seen or heard b y an actual source. Thus J i Y u n com plains: “ N o w P ’u Sung-ling [Pu Songling] gives a vivid picture o f the smallest details dow n to am orous ges­ tures and the secrets whispered before lovers. It w ould be unreason­ able to assume that the w riter experienced these things him self; but i f he was describing what happened to others, h o w could he have k n o w n so m uch?” 93 Pu S o n g lin g’s stories are too detailed and too v iv id ly dramatized for J i Y u n to accept as based on som ething heard or experienced by the author him self. For J i Y u n , verisim ilitude decreases the im pres­ sion o f a narrative’s realness, since he understands realness as “ the claim to historicity,” that is, as the claim that the events in a narrative really happened.94 It is not the strangeness o f Liaozhai that bothers Ji Y u n ; rather, Pu S o n g lin g’s narrative techniques too o b vio u sly be­ tray authorial fabrication. Feng Zhenluan defends Liaozhai against these charges b y apply­ ing these rigid epistem ological standards to the histories* A re the histories alw ays true accounts o f events? A re their sources im pecca­ ble? O r does their narrative technique also betray traces o f overt fabrication? A s an exam ple o f fictionalizing in the histories, Feng singles out a fam ous speech in the Zuo Commentary delivered b y the assassin-retainer C h u N i ju st before he smashed his head against a tree and killed him self. “ W ho heard the w ords o f C hu N i beneath the locust tree? H o w could M aster Z u o have kn o w n them ?” ( p. 13) F en g’s solution to this and the related problem o f discrepancies betw een different historical accounts o f the same event is once again to distinguish betw een discourse and story: the m ode o f telling a story m ay vary w ithout harm ing the essence o f the story. This exam ple in turn helps ju stify F en g’s assertion that he reads the Zuo Commentary as fiction and Liaozhai as the Zuo Commentary (p. 9). Th is argum ent for fictional license in narrative did not originate w ith Feng. A letter nearly tw o centuries earlier from a seventeenthcentury collection had cited the identical incident from the Zuo Commentary for the identical purpose: “ A s far as C h ’u N i ,s [Chu N i’s] utterance is concerned, there was no one else to k n o w what he had said, so h ow did T so C h ’iu [M aster Z u o ] k n o w about it?” 95 The letter’s bold conclusion is to hail M aster Z u o as “ the progenitor o f a

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w h ole line o f literary lies.” * Feng accepts the definition o f fiction as literary lies, but argues that ‘‘even lies must be told fu lly ” (p. 13), that is, fleshed out w ith sufficient skill and logic to convince the listener. Fen g’s defense o f lies is thus essentially the same as his defense o f painting phantoms. B u t what is a lie? A lie is an utterance that the speaker know s is untrue. In understanding the Liaozhai tales as literary lies, Feng reflects another nineteenth-century view , that the ghosts and fox-spirits in Liaozhai arc nothing but a gam e, a trick played b y the author on the naive reader.96 O nce again, a two-tiered level o f m eaning is posited; an appeal is made to a superior reader aware o f the discrepancy betw een content and intent w h o does not let h im self be h oodw in ked b y the author’s literary lies. In this last form ulation, the strange in Liaozhai has finally becom e a purely fictional and ironic construct, one predicated on the author’s and reader’s mutual suspension o f disbelief. To conclude, w e m ay also understand the developm ent o f these three interpretive approaches in terms o f the circumstances behind their adoption and the context in which they w ere w ritten. Pu S o n g lin g’s personal friends w rote the first prefaces and dedicatory verses w hen his m anuscript w as still unfinished. T h eir efforts w ere inherently social in nature. T h ey w rote to help introduce his w ork into society, that is, to a lim ited circle o f like-m inded readers. These established literary figures and statesmen lent their authoritative voices to an obscure and potentially suspect manuscript, supplying it with a pedigree and moral approbation.97 To this end, they tried to carve a niche for records o f the strange within the dom inant literary and intellectual tradition. T h e advocates o f Liaozhai s publication prim arily constituted the second w ave. T h ey w ere arguing to a new class o f readers, the general reading public, w h y people ought to read an u nknow n author’s w ork. For this reason, they sought to distinguish Liaozhai from the plentiful collections o f strange tales on the market, at★ T h i s q u e s tio n in g o f t h e a u th e n t ic ity o f t h e h isto r ie s a n d C la s s ic s m a y b e re la te d to th e s e v e n t e e n t h - c e n t u r y p h ilo lo g ic a l ka o zh en g m o v e m e n t. In a p p ly in g m o r e r ig o r o u s h is to r io g r a p h ic a l s ta n d a rd s to c a n o n ic a l te x ts , it is p o s s ib le th at th e p h ilo lo g is t s a lso c o n tr ib u te d to an in c r e a s in g ly s o p h is tic a te d u n d e r s t a n d in g o f fic tio n a l te c h n iq u e s. C o u ld th e re be a c o n v e r g e n c e b e t w e e n th e ris e o f th e p h ilo lo g y m o v e m e n t a n d th e b u r g e o n in g o f fic t io n ’s in te lle c tu a l c h a m p io n s in th e s e v e n te e n th c e n tu r y ?


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tem pting to convince the public that som ething special about this book warranted purchase and perusal. These w riters strove to ele­ vate a m ere collection o f strange tales b y reclassifying it as an allegorical w o rk o f self-expression, a high literary value not or­ dinarily associated w ith w orks o f this kind. A t the sam e time, social netw orks also shaped this second generation o f interpreters. Pu Lide com posed one o f his postfaces to enlist the help o f the sons o f his grandfather's friend Z h u X ian g , w h o had expressed interest in help­ ing him get Liaozhai published.98 Y u Ji, the collator o f the first published edition, w rote his preface at the behest o f the publisher, the prefect Z h ao Q igao, w h o was also his friend and em ployer. Y u J i ’s dedicatory verse for the edition is essentially a eu logy to Zh ao, w ho died before the book came out (pp. 37-38 ). Th e nineteenth-century com m entators w h o constituted the third w ave w ere associating them selves w ith an already fam ous book. B y elaborating the b o o k ’s literary m ethods, by “ scratching the auth ors itch,” as Feng Zhenluan put it (p. 74), they hoped to w in literary fam e for th e m se lv e s." (And to som e extent, they have succeeded. We rem em ber these men today solely as com m entators on Liao­ zhai.) Because a fictional tradition had been firm ly established by this period, the third w ave was able to transcend the problem o f the b o o k ’s strange content b y “ sim ply taking the w ritin g itself.”


The Historian o f the Strange’s Self-introduction T h e act o f w r itin g is a s le ig h t o f h an d th ro u g h w h ic h the dead han d o f the p a st reach es o v e r to our side o f the b o rd er. — M a r jo r ie G a rb e r, Shakespeare's Ghostwriters

L ia o z h a i’s O w n R e c o r d

Liaozhai’s Records of the Strange begins w ith Pu S o n g lin g’s self­ introduction. Scholars n o w agree that this 1679 preface, entitled “ Liaozhai’s O w n R eco rd ” (“ Liaozhai zizhi” ), was w ritten w ell be­ fore the entire collection was com pleted.1 In this piece, a masterpiece o f parallel prose and a m odel o f rhetoric and allusion, Pu Songlin g demonstrates his rem arkable ability to infuse a personal voice into the often stilted cadences o f Q in g form al prose. T he very success o f this personal and em otional stamp, h ow ever, has tended to blind readers to the extent o f its rhetoric: even m odern critics, fo r in­ stance, have tended to read this com plicated piece o f w ritin g as straight autobiography or as a reliable manifesto o f the author’s methods and beliefs in the tales.2 “ Liaozhai’s O w n R eco rd ” is usually treated in piecemeal fashion, one section or one line extracted to represent the w h o le.3 When the text o f the preface is considered in its entirety, h ow ever, w e discover that it traces a three-part trajectory: an opening discourse that seeks to establish the author’s credibility and authority to w rite a “ h isto ry” o f the strange; a sketch o f the author's origins and destiny that seeks to explain his personal affinity w ith the strange; and a final vignette that paints a self-portrait o f the author in the very act o f recording the strange. I. “ A b elt o f w o o d - lo tu s , a c lo a k o f b r y o n y ” 一 the L o r d o f T h r e e W ards w a s s tirre d an d c o m p o se d “ E n c o u n te rin g S o r r o w ’’ ;4 “ O x -h e a d e d d e m o n s


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an d serp en t g o d s ” 一 o f th ese the L o n g - N a ile d Y o u th ch an ted an d b ec am e o b se ssed . T h e p ip e s o f H e a v e n so u n d o f th eir o w n a c co rd , w ith o u t selectin g fin e to n es; in th is, th ere is p r e c e d e n c e .* I am b u t the d im flam e o f the a u tu m n firefly , w it h w h ic h g o b lin s jo c k ­ ey e d fo r lig h t; a c lo u d o f s w ir lin g d u st, je e r e d at b y m o u n ta in o g r e s .* * T h o u g h I la ck the talen t o f G a n B a o T I to o am fo n d o f “ se e k in g the sp irits” ; in d isp o sitio n I re se m b le Su S h i, w h o e n jo y e d p e o p le tellin g g h o s t sto ries. W h at I h a v e h eard , I c o m m itte d to paper, an d so th is c o lle c tio n cam e ab o u t. A fte r so m e tim e, lik e -m in d e d m en fr o m the fo u r d irectio n s d i s ' p a tch ed sto ries to m e b y p o st, an d b ecau se “ th in g s ac cru e to th ose w h o lo v e th e m ,” w h a t I h ad am a ssed g r e w e v e n m o re p len tifu l. In d e ed , w ith in the c iv iliz e d w o r ld , th in g s m a y b e m o re w o n d r o u s than in “ the c o u n tr y o f th o se w h o c ro p th eir h a ir ” ; b e fo re o u r v e r y e ye s arc th in g s stra n g e r than in “ the land o f the fly in g heads. ” *f M y e x c ite m e n t q u ick e n s: this m ad n ess is in d eed irre p re ssib le , and so I c o n tin u a lly g iv e v e n t to m y v a st fee lin g s an d d o n ’t even fo rb id this fo lly. W o n ’ t I b e la u g h e d at b y se rio u s m en ? T h o u g h I m a y h a v e h eard w ild ru m o rs at “ F iv e F a th ers C r o s s r o a d s ,” I c o u ld still h av e realized so m e p re -

★ T h e “ L o r d o f T h r e e W a rd s” w a s Q u Y u a n ’s o ffic ia l title. T w o o f h is p o e m s are te le s c o p e d in to o n e h e re : “ E n c o u n t e r in g S o r r o w ” (“ L i s a o ” ) an d a lin e fr o m “ T h e M o u n ta in S p ir it ” (“ S h a n g u i ’’) : “ T h e r e se e m s to b e s o m e o n e in th e cre a se o f th e m o u n ta in / W e a rin g a c lo a k o f w o o d 'l o t u s an d a b e lt o f b r y o n y ” ( C h u ci, p. 44). T h e “ L o n g - N a il e d Y o u t h ” re fe rs to th e T a n g p o e t L i H e b e c a u se L i S h a n g y in ’s ( 8 1 3 - 5 8 ) b io g r a p h y d e s c rib e d h im as h a v in g lo n g fin g e r n a ils ( L i H e s h iji, p. 3 58 ). In h is p r e fa c e to L i H e ’s p o s th u m o u s p o e t r y c o lle c tio n , D u M u ( 8 0 3 - 5 2 ) w r o t e : “ W h a le s y a w n in g a n d sea to rto is e s le a p in g , o x - h c a d e d d e m o n s an d s e rp e n t g o d s fa il to re p re s e n t h is w ild im a g in a t io n ” ( L i H e s h iji, p. 3 56). “ O x - h c a d e d d e m o n s a n d se rp e n t g o d s ” b e c a m e a k e n n in g fo r th e fa n ta stic . Z h u a n g z i 2 .3 d is tin g u is h e s “ th e p ip e s o f H e a v e n ” fr o m th e p ip e s o f m e n an d th e p ip e s o f E a r th : “ B l o w i n g o n th e ten th o u s a n d th in g s in a d iffe re n t w a y s o th a t ea ch can be i t s e l f — all ta k e w hat: th e y w a n t fo r th e m s e lv e s , b u t w h o d o e s th e s o u n d in g ? ” (T ra n s . W a tso n , C o m p lete Works of C h u a n g T z u , p. 37 ) ★ ★ A n a llu s io n to a s t o r y a b o u t th e m u s ic ia n X i K a n g ( 2 2 3 - 6 2 ) . O n e n ig h t as h e w a s p la y in g h is lu te , a g h o s t s u d d e n ly a p p e a re d ; w h e r e u p o n X i b le w o u t th e ca n d le , s a y in g : “ I ’ m a sh a m e d to j o c k e y fo r lig h t w it h a g o b li n .” “ A c lo u d o f s w i r lin g d u s t ” is a d a p te d fr o m Z h u a n g z i 1 . 1 . uH e a t-h a z c s , d u s t-s to r m s , th e b re a th w h ic h liv in g th in g s b l o w at ea ch o t h e r ” (tran s. G r a h a m , C h u a n ^ -tz u : T h e In n e r C h a p ters, p. 42). “J e e r e d at b y m o u n ta in o g r e s ” a llu d e s to an a n e c d o te a b o u t th e im p o v e r is h e d L iu B o lo n g . O n e d a y a g h o s t s u d d e n ly a p p e a re d an d b e g a n c h o r tlin g w ith g le e o v e r h is p o v e r t y , L iu B o lo n g s ig h e d : u P o v e r t y is c e r ta in ly d e c re e d b y fa te , b u t n o w I a m e v e n b e in g je e r e d at b y an o g r e !” (L i Y a n s h o u , N a n shi 2: 17 .4 8 2 ) ■J-Sima Q ia n ’s S h iji d e sc rib e s b a rb a r ia n trib e s th a t ta tto o e d th e ir b o d ie s and c r o p p e d th e ir h air, D u a n C h e n g s h i^ Youyang z a z u r e c o rd s a le g e n d a r y trib e o f p e o p le w h o s e h e a d s c o u ld s p r o u t w in g s a n d fly a w a y at n ig h t. A t d a w n th e h ea d s w o u ld r e tu rn an d re a tta c h th e m s e lv e s to th e a p p r o p r ia t e n e c k s.

T he H istorian o f the Strange


v io u s cau ses o n the “ R o c k o f Past L i v e s . U n b r i d l e d w o r d s can n o t be re je cte d e n tire ly b e c au se o f th eir sp eak er!

Pu Songling begins b y constructing a literary tradition and plac­ ing h im self w ithin it. T h e tw o poets nam ed in the striking opening couplet 一 tw o o f the greatest and m ost original in the language— are an unusual pair to claim as ancestors for a collection o f stories. A nd yet they can be claimed. T he ancient poet and courtier Qu Y u an (the Lord o f Three Wards) initiated the paradigm o f the virtuous man o f genius, w h o, m isprized during his lifetim e, expresses his alienation in strange and intensely personal im ages. T h e allegorical poem s attributed to him in the anthology Songs o f the South (Chu ci), espe­ cially “ Encountering S o rro w ” (“ Li sao” ), becam e fo r later ages the essence o f m arvelous w ritin g (qi wen), the founding w orks o f an alternative literary tradition.5 Th e late Tang poet Li H e (the L o n g -N ailed Youth), w as view ed as the em bodim ent o f the im agination pushed to its furthest and m ost dangerous extent: his poetry, it w as said, “ progressed from the extra­ ordinary to the w e ird .” 6 Li H e’s predilection for unearthly im ages and his ow n precocious death at tw enty-six helped earn him the repu­ tation o f the D em onic Genius (gui cai). Pu S o n g lin g’s choice o f epi­ thet here, the L on g-N ailed Youth, and the allusion to the chanting o f “ ox-headed dem ons and serpent gods” alm ost as a form o f dem onic possession, intensifies the m acabre effect o f this line. A lth ough scholars also reinterpreted Li H e’s life and w ork to fit the Q u Y u an m old, especially during the seventeenth century, Pu Songling w rote tw o poem s in explicit im itation o f Li H e, which above all reveal his fascination with the ghostliness and sensuality o f Li H e ’s im agery.7 M o re typical zhiguai predecessors are named next— Gan B ao , the Jin dynasty historian w h o com piled the collection Seeking the Spirits, and the great Song polym ath Su Shi, w h o w as said to have develJ ' T i v c F a th e rs C r o s s r o a d s ” w a s an a n c ie n t p la c e -n a m e in C h u fu c o u n ty , S h a n ­ d o n g , w h e r e th e R ites m a in ta in C o n fu c iu s w a s b u r ie d . T h e a llu s io n is e m p lo y e d as an a r c h a is m to b a la n c e th e “ R o c k o f P ast L iv e s ” in th e s e c o n d h a l f o f th e lin e. A c c o r d in g to a T a n g le g e n d re c o r d e d in Y u a n J i a o ’s S w e e t M arsh Tales ( G a n z e yao), a B u d d h is t m o n k a r ra n g e d to m e e t a fr ie n d t w e lv e y e a r s a fte r h is d e ath at a te m p le in H a n g z h o u . W h e n th e frie n d w e n t to th e r e n d e z v o u s , h e w a s g re e te d b y a h c r d b o y w h o id e n tifie d h i m s e lf as th e m o n k ’s in c a rn a tio n , s in g in g : “ [B e h o ld ] m y fo r m e r s o u l at th e ‘ R o c k o f P ast L i v e s ’ / . . . T h o u g h m y b o d y d iffe r s , m y n a tu re still p e r s is t s .” T h e “ R o c k o f P ast L i v e s ” w a s a c o m m o n a llu s io n fo r r e in c a rn a tio n an d p r e d e s tin e d fa te (see W a n g P ijia n g , Tangren x ia o sh u o , pp. 2 5 8 - 5 9 ) .


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oped a passion for ghost stories when exiled to H uangzhou. Later in the preface Pu Songling calls his book “ a sequel to Records o f the Underworld^ the title o f another fam ous S ix D ynasties zhiguai col­ lection.8 B y grouping Li H e and Q u Y u an w ith these m ore conven­ tional literary predecessors, Pu Songling w as reaching beyond ge­ neric categories to forge a broader and m ore p ow erful fantastic tradition. A lth ough he belittles h im self as a “ dim flam e,’’ “ a cloud o f sw irlin g dust,” on his jo u rn e y into the literary past he is casting h im self in exalted com pany. This b rie f introduction is follow ed b y Pu S o n g lin g’s announce­ ment that he derived the material for the stories from hearsay and later from w ritten accounts sent to him by others w ho share his interest. 丁his explanation for the genesis o f Liaozhai closely echoes the Song scholar H o n g M a i’s preface to the second installment o fh is fam ous collection, Records o f the Listener: “ People knew o f m y love for the strange, and so w henever they obtained a story, they w ould send it to me, even from a thousand miles away, and so w ithin five years I had obtained the same num ber o f volum es again as m y previous collection.” 9 U n like H ong M ai, how ever, Pu Songling j w as not a h igh ly placed or prom inent figure in his day, and his w o rk was never published in his lifetim e. It seems unlikely that his interest in the strange would have been w ell kn ow n before he w rote this I preface. Rather, this equation o f w ritin g w ith collecting strengthens the filiation o f Liaozhai to records o f anomalies and unofficial his­ tory, genres predicated on the collection o f hearsay. A lth ou gh the claim that the tales w ere based on hearsay, especially written ac­ counts, m ay be exaggerated, it cannot be dism issed. The am biguity that the pretext o f hearsay creates is o f utm ost im portance to ac­ counts o f the strange, for the burden o f truth is partially suspended: the claim becom es in som e sense that the story was told, not that the events in the story occurred. H earsay allow s an appeal to an author­ ity and an order o f reality above and beyond the record itself. E ven m ore striking, h ow ever, is the inversion o f the conventions o f collecting and travel literature im plicit in this fo rm u latio n .10 It is not the author-recorder w h o jo u rn eys to outlyin g lands or exotic places in search o f the strange, but the stories w h o make the jo u rn ey I to him. T h ro u gh this claim, Pu Songling effectively places h im self in the center, w ith all its canonical associations o f o rth od o xy and

Th e H istorian o f the Strange


authority in the Chinese historical tradition; his pivotal position is [ inscribed by the stories them selves, w hich arrive from “ the four directions.,M1 O nce he has redraw n the boundaries so that he stands sym bolically at the center rather than on the m argins, he has autho­ rized h im self to tell his readers that the strange lies in a place different from that the culture conventionally assigns it.12 “ Indeed, within the civilized w orld, things m ay be m ore w ondrous than in ‘the country o f those w h o crop their hair ’ ;before our very eyes are things stranger than in 'the land o f the flying heads/ ’’ The cultural categories o f strange and familiar, barbarian and civilized, are desta­ bilized and inverted; the “ geography o fth e im agination,M3 has been relocated to the here and now, shifted back to the center. T h e point is that the strange is not other; the strange resides in our midst. Th e strange is inseparable from us.u For Pu Songlin g, the strange is inescapable in yet another m ore personal sense. T h rou ghou t the first part o f the preface, he su g­ gests the involuntary and com pulsive nature o f Liaozhafs com posi­ tion. Like Li H e ’s fascination with “ ox-headed dem ons and serpent g o d s,” which became a fatal obsession, so Pu S o n g lin g’s “ unbridled w o rd s” are the fruit o f folly and madness: “ M y excitem ent quickens: this madness is indeed irrepressible, and so I continually give vent to m y vast feelings and don’t even forbid this fo lly,” T h is is certainly one w a y o f disclaim ing responsibility for culturally suspect w riting. B u t this disclaim er is disingenuous, for folly, madness, and obses­ sion are exalted values in the late M in g cult o f feeling {qing), w hose influence permeates Liaozhai. A nd ju st as Pu Songlin g had written earlier in the preface, “ The pipes o f H eaven sound o f their ow n accord, w ithout selecting fine tones,” so the stories eventually com e to him , uninvited, but eagerly desired, because in the w ords o f O u yan g X iu (100 7—72) describing his celebrated collection o f ini scriptions, “ things accrue to those w h o love th em .” 15 T he sixteenthcentury preface to another zhiguai collection phrases the same idea m ore explicitly: “ A nd so I secretly laughed at m yself, for in fact it was the strange that sought me out, not I w h o sought the strange.’’ 16 In this way, the recording o f the strange is linked with obsessive collecting, a paradigm o f particular resonance and popularity in the seventeenth century and a theme o f great im portance in m any Liao­ zhai tales.17


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Pu S o n g lin g’s assertion “ I could still have realized som e previous causes on the ‘R o ck o f Past L iv e s,’ ” w hich ends the first part o f the preface, ushers in the em bryonic autobiography he outlines in the next section, beginning w ith his birth as the reincarnation o f a poor m onk. II.

A t the h o u r o f m y b irth , m y late fa th er h ad a d ream : a g au n t, s ic k ly

B u d d h is t m o n k , w h o s e ro b e le ft o n e s h o u ld e r b are, en tered the r o o m . A p laster ro u n d as a co in w a s p asted o n his chest. W h en m y fa th er a w o k e , I had b een b o rn , w ith an in k y b irth m a r k th at c o r r o b o r a te d his d ream . M o r e ­ o v e r, as a ch ild I w a s fr e q u e n tly ailin g , and w h e n I g r e w up, m y fate w a s w a n tin g . T h e d e so la tio n o f m y c o u r ty a rd re se m b le s a m o n k ’s q u arte rs and w h a t “ p lo w in g w ith b ru sh an d in k ” b rin g s is as little as a m o n k ’s a lm s b o w l. I o fte n scratch m y head an d m u se ; “ C o u ld ‘ he w h o fa ced the w a ll’* h a v e re a lly b een m e in a fo r m e r e x iste n c e ? ” In fact, th ere m u st h a v e been a d e fic ie n c y in m y p r e v io u s k a rm a , an d so I d id n o t reach tran scen d en ce, b u t w a s b lo w n d o w n b y th e w in d , b e c o m in g in th e en d a flo w e r fallen in a c e ssp o o l. H o w m u r k y arc the “ s ix paths o f e x is te n c e !” B u t it can n o t be said th e y la ck co h eren ce.

Th is exact m o tif— the dream -visitation that a father receives at the hour o f his son’s birth from his son’s form er incarnation— crops up several times in Liaozhai and is a com m on theme in Chinese fo lk lo re .18 M oreover, the w ord ing used here (‘‘w hen he aw oke, a son had been born . . is form ulaic. We need not take this dream literally. Rather, on a sym bolic level this dream excuses the au th o rs subsequent poverty and isolation in adulthood as w ell as the nature o f his book. T he “ in ky birth m ark” (mo-zhi) that corroborates the dream is itself a pun: mo means ink, and zhi (birthmark) is w rit­ ten not w ith the custom ary “ illness” radical, but with the variant “ w o rd ” radical, a character that usually means “ to record,” as in the b o o k ’s tide, uRecords o f the Stran ge,” and even in the title o f the preface itself ,“ Liaozhai’s O w n Record/1 Thus the p roof- m ark o f his father’s prem onitory dream explains both the etiology o f his vo ca­ tion as recorder o f the strange and the source o f his privileged insight into such matters. We m ay still wonder w hat Pu Songling, w h o is not otherw ise ★ T h e m o n k B o d h id a r m a , w h o fo u n d e d th e C h a n s c h o o l o f B u d d h is m ca, th e s ix t h ce n tu ry . H e is sa id to h a v e re a c h e d e n lig h t e n m e n t a fte r “ fa c in g th e w a l l ” in m e d it a ­ tio n fo r n in e y e a rs .

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kn ow n for strong Buddhist leanings, was tryin g to achieve here by portraying h im self as the incarnation o f a Buddhist m onk. A letter sent to Pu Songling b y his friend Gao H eng in 1692, thirteen years after both men had w ritten their prefaces to Liaozhai, indicates h ow Pu S o n g lin g’s contem poraries m ight have interpreted this trope. W h en I read y o u r Records o f the Strange ye a rs a g o , I d id n ’ t p a y c lo se atten ­ tio n . N o w that I h av e read it c are fu lly , I fin d th at it fa r su rp a sses A C o m pen ­ dium o f Rare Beauties [Y a n yi bian] in n o v e lty . . • . T h e p o stfa ce s to the sto ries m o v e o th ers as e x h o rta tio n s and w a rn in g s an d s h o w d e lig h t in y o u r o w n lo ft y c u ltiv a tio n . O n ly n o w d o I realize th at the p art in th e p re fa ce ab o u t b e in g a b o d h isa ttv a in y o u r past life w a s n o e x a g g e r a t io n .19

In his old age, G ao H eng explains what he sees as the significance o f this reincarnation incident in Pu S o n g lin g’s preface: the author is claim ing that he has transcribed these strange stories out o f a bodhisattva-like desire to enlighten his fellow m en— an aim traditionally professed in prefaces to collections o f Buddhist miracle tales. Gao H en g’s w ords im p ly that he at first dism issed this unseem ly boast as “ exaggeration ,” but upon rereading the com m ents to the stories m any years later, he became convinced that the author did indeed possess the “ lofty cultivation” and com passion o f a bodhisattva. N evertheless, Pu Songling does not remain on this lofty level o f self-justification for long; he im m ediately returns to the present by staging for his readers the vivid but ghostly scene o f the author hard at w o rk on his collection; III.

It’s ju s t that h ere it is the g lim m e r in g h o u r o f m id n ig h t as I am ab o u t to

trim m y fa ilin g la m p . O u tsid e m y b lea k stu d io the w in d is s ig h in g ; in sid e m y d e sk is c o ld as ice. P ie c in g to g e th e r p atch es o f f o x fu r to m a k e a ro b e , I v a in ly fa sh io n a seq u el to Records o f the U nderw orld. D r a in in g m y w in e c u p an d g ra s p in g m y b ru sh , I c o m p le te the b o o k o f “ lo n e ly a n g u is h .,,2° H o w sad it is that I m u st e x p re ss m y s e lf lik e this! A la s! A ch ille d s p a r r o w startled b y fr o st c lin g s to fr ig id b o u g h s, an au tu m n in sect m o u rn in g the m o o n h u g s the ra ilin g fo r w a rm th . A r e the o n ly o nes w h o k n o w m e “ in the gre e n w o o d an d at the d a rk fr o n t ie r ”

S p rin g , the y e a r jim o [16 7 9 ] d u rin g the re ig n o f K a n g x i

The line ‘‘Piecing together patches o f fo x fur to m ake a robe, I vainly fashion a sequel to Records o f the Underworld" ostensibly de­ scribes the com position o f the collection, but it better characterizes


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the method o f the preface, w hich, like all parallel prose, is literally patched together out o f snippets o f allusions. T h e w h ole preface is a crazy quilt o f disem bodied im ages: the long nails o f Li He and his ox-headed dem ons and serpent gods, the jeerin g goblins, the flying heads, the emaciated half-naked m onk that appears in a dream. Several o fth e zhiguai themes that appear repeatedly in the collection are foreshadow ed in the preface’s allusions: prem onitory dreams o f rebirth and karm ic retribution; dreams o f encounters w ith the dead; the m ockery o fh u m an s b y o therw orld ly beings. T h e preface strives not so m uch to interpret or define the strange as to achieve an effect o f strangeness, creating the om inous atm osphere conducive to a nightm are. Pu Songling dated his preface spring, but w e find none o f the im ages o f gro w th or renewal associated w ith this season in literature or ritual. In the Chinese calendar, spring is the first three m onths o f the year; in the north, in Shandong, the weather w ould still have been bleak and wintry. M etaphorical concerns thus w o rk together w ith naturalistic ones in the preface s final scene. T h e desolate im ­ ages o f ice and w ind, the lam plight dim m ing, the Records o f the Underworld, the dark frontier— all seem to augur death. Like the chilled sparrow clinging to frigid boughs, like the autumn insect h ugging the railing for w arm th, the author finds tem porary refuge w here he can, in the com position o fh is book o f “ lonely anguish” fen). T h e ancient philosopher Han Fei coined this term as a chapter title, but it was the historian Sim a Q ian w h o first used it in his autobiographical postface to explain literature as the outpouring o f suffering and indignation.21 In the late sixteenth century, h o w ­ ever, the philosopher Li Z h i subtly amended Sim a Q ian s influential theory to argue that anguish is the only possible source o f literary creativity: “ In this light, the sages o f antiquity did not w rite unless they w ere anguished. For to w rite w ithout anguish is like shivering w ithout being cold or m oaning w ithout being ill; even i f one did w rite w ithout anguish, w h y w ould anybody read it?” 22 M ore im ­ portant, Li Z h i explicitly introduced the reader into Sim a Q ian ’s original form ulation— not only is anguish the sole legitim ate m o ­ tive for writing a w ork, but it is n ow also the sole possible reason for reading another’s w ork. Pu S o n g lin g’s preface closes b y posing an open-ended challenge

T he H istorian o f the Strange


to the reader: ‘‘A re the only ones w ho kn ow me ‘in the green w ood and the dark frontier’?” (Z h i wo zhe, qi zai qinglin heisai jian hu?) T he syntax here echoes C on fu cius’s cry o f despair in The Analects (14 .35 ): “ Is the only one w h o know s me H eaven?” (zhi wo zhe, qi tian hu?)23 T he same form ula, “ zhi wo zhe • . . qi zai . • . hu,’’ also appears in Mencius (3B.9), w here C onfucius is said to have rem arked that his reputation w ould ultim ately rest on his authorship o f one book: “ W ill those w h o understand me do so through the Spring and Autumn Annals?^ (zhi wo zhe, qi zai C hunqiu hu?)24 B u t in the telescopic form o f parallel prose, Pu Songling has replaced both “ H eaven” and the Annals w ith yet another allusion, the phrase “ the green w ood and dark frontier” from the first in D u F u ’s (7 12 -7 0 ) fam ous poem sequence “ D ream ing o f Li B o ” (“ M en g Li B o ”): “ When you r soul came, the maple w ood was green yet; / W hen you r soul returned, the frontier pass was dark w ith n igh t.’’25 In the poem , the living poet D u Fu longs for the dead poet Li B o and encounters his specter in dream; D u Fu thus presents h im self as Li B o ’s true friend and reader. Pu S o n g lin g’s allusion m ight be understood as a plea: I need som eone w h o w ill be m y true reader ju st as D u Fu w as for Li B o. In that case, the line could be interpreted as a terrible prophecy: only when I am dead w ill I find a true reader w ho understands me. B u t in his adaptation o f this couplet, Pu Songling reverses the relations governing the original poem . It is no longer the livin g w ho are the true readers o f the dead w riters o f the past. Instead, his true readers are w raiths, disem bodied spirits, inhabiting the sh adow y w orld o f the dead and o f dream; it is the w riter w ho is alive and alone, cryin g out for som eone to understand him. Pu Songling articulates this quest for a true friend and reader, for “ one w ho w ould k n o w h im ” and appreciate his talent, in several o f his poem s.26 In his tales, hum an protagonists often fmd true friends and soul mates am ong the denizens o f the underw orld. T h e tale “ Licentiate Y e ” (“ Y e sheng ”;1.8 1- 8 5 ) , for instance, recounts the narrative o f an aspiring scholar w h o is so anxious to requite his one true friend and patron that he rejoins his friend and passes the exam s even though he has already died. T h e H istorian o f the Strange’s em passioned postface to this tale resembles “ Liaozhai’s O w n R ecord” in m ood and diction; one nineteenth-century com m entator even reads it as Pu S o n g lin g’s ow n covert autobiography.27 The


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extraordinary achievem ent o f the scholar in this tale provokes an outburst from the H istorian o f the Strange: “ C o u ld a dead m an’s soul really fo llo w his true friend, forgetting in the end he w as dead? Listeners m ay doubt it, but I deeply believe it” (1.84). Seein g the S e l f as O th e r

It is above all the em otional intensity and the fierce literary am bi­ tion, barely masked b y continuous self-deprecation, that sets “ Liaozhai’s O w n R e co rd ” apart from m ost authorial prefaces to records o f the strange or notation books (biji). In keeping w ith the m odest status o f the w orks they introduce, such prefaces tend to adopt a casual, even com ic, tone and style. C onsider Wang Shizhen’s ( 16 3 4 1 7 1 1 ) preface to his Occasional Chats North o f the Pond (Chibei outan), a notation book that includes a section on the strange and even shares som e material w ith Liaozhai. In his preface (dated 16 9 1), Wang Shizhen, one o f the m ost celebrated poets and officials o f the age, draw s an enchanting picture o fh is studio, filled w ith guests leisurely chatting on a variety o f subjects. “ Som etim es w hen w e had been drinking and the m oon w as setting, w e ’d bring up events in vo lvin g gods and im m ortals, ghosts and spirits, as material for conversation; from there w e ’ d digress to trivia about the arts; w e ’d leave no subject untouched.” 28 O n these occasions, h ow ever, Wang Shizhen did not even bother to lift a brush him self; instead, he tells us, “ O u r ju n iors standing b y recorded w hat w as said, and as the days and months passed, their notes grew into chapters.” 29 T h e illusion o f artlessness and diffidence is com plete: Wang Shizhen’s book, as it were, has w ritten itself. What a contrast this relaxed, con vivial scene makes w ith the picture Pu Songling draw s o f the author alone at m idnight painfully copying his book. T h rou ghou t his preface, Pu Songling emphasizes the physical act o f w ritin g .30 A lth ou gh he too claims that his book organically gre w out o f the stories that he had heard or received, it is he w h o anxiously “ com m its them to paper ”;it is he, as the Chinese literally reads, w h o self-consciously “ com m ands his brush” (ming bi) to transform his collection into Literature. Taken as a w h ole, Pu S o n g lin g’s preface loosely belongs to a branch o f C hinese autobiographical w ritin g that Y v e s H ervouet has

T he H istorian o f the Strange


described as “ the preface or the chapter o f a w o rk that the author has fashioned as a parenthesis to the rest o f the w o rk to recount his life therein.’’31 In his pioneering w o rk o f 19 37, G uo D en gfen g lists “ the self-introduction appended to a w o rk ” (fu yu zhuzuo de zixu) as one o f his eight categories o f traditional Chinese autobiography.32 Wu P ei-yi has recently called the “ authorial self-account” “ the most flexible o f all subgenres” o f autobiography and sees its origin in “ the type o f preface that the author o f a book em ployed to introduce h im self to the reading pu b lic.’,33 We can trace this tradition back to Sim a Q ian ’s self-introduction in his Records o f the Historian, a w o rk Liaozhai consciously took as its m odel in a num ber o f im portant w a y s .34 B u t Sim a Qian placed his “ self-introduction” as a postface: in undertaking to record human h istory from beginning to end, the Grand H istorian concluded with his ow n life history, explaining his fam ily genealogy and tragic m utilation as w ell as the m otives and organization o f his b o o k .35 “ Liaozhai’s O w n R eco rd ,” how ever, like most later “ self-introductions,,’ is positioned at the beginning o fth e w ork. C onstructed as an entry w a y into the stories, Pu S o n g lin g’s preface above all reveals the author’s attempt to control or influence the reading o fh is book by fashioning h im self into a lens through which the book w ould be refracted for his readers. This is an account o f a life written in a particular context w ith a particular agenda: it aims not m erely to explain w ho the author is but to explain h ow he came to w rite the book in question and, on a deeper level, h ow the bo ok em bodies his secret am bitions and aspirations. Stephen O w en has argued that in traditional Chinese literature poetry (shi) rather than narrative becam e the ch ief m edium for autobiographical self-presentation. In his view, this choice reflected the m ost pressing concern o f traditiona 】writers and readers: “ N o t h o w a person changed over time, but h ow a person could be k n ow n at all or m ake h im self k n o w n .” 36 Pu S o n g lin g’s self-introduction resembles poetic autobiography in its overw h elm in g desire to make h im self know n. A t the same time, the artistry o f the parallel— prose form gave him an original voice that he could not find in poetry, a greater latitude for an im aginative projection o f the self. Like poetic autobiography, Pu S o n g lin g’s self-introduction is not prim arily narrative in thrust; w e learn far m ore about the im portant


The D iscourse

events in his private life when he w rites a m em oir o fh is dead w ife or recalls his late father in the preface to a book o f fam ily instructions.37 N o r like a certain brand o f Chinese autobiography does it present a form al public account o fh is career as though it w ere an official b io g­ raphy that happened to be w ritten b y the subject him self. uLiaozhai’s O w n R eco rd ” bears som e resem blance to those idealized portraits o f the se lf as recluse, such as Tao Y u an m in g ’s (365—427) “ B io grap h y o f M aster Five W illow s” (“ Wuliu xiansheng zhuan” ) and its countless im itations, which claim to reveal the true inner self. B u t recluse autobiographies after Tao Y u an m in g tend sim ply to invert the norm s o f official biograph y— they calm ly present the self acting in a stereotyped private rather than public role, w here private is equated w ith “ recluse.” U n like both these types o f autobiography, which tend to adopt a consistent role and present a unified voice throughout, “ Liaozhai’s O w n R eco rd ” teems w ith an alm ost fren­ zied profusion o f roles and voices; the author likens h im self not only to historical figures like Q u Y u an and Li He, Su Shi and Gan B ao, but to “ the dim light o f the autumn firefly,” “ a cloud o f sw irlin g dust,” “ a flow er fallen in a cesspool,” a “ sparrow startled by fro st,” “ an insect m ourning the m o o n .” His self-portrait dissolves into a vo rtex o f m etaphors and allusions. T he m ost sustained im age o f h im self that Pu Songling creates in the preface is his incarnation as the emaciated m onk. B u t even this ostensibly narrative section o f his self-introduction is not really narrative in intent: it depicts not a process o f change, but a stasis that begins in a previous life, is confirm ed at birth, and is lived out in childhood and adulthood. It purports to m ake m anifest “ the coherence” (or principle, U) that is in danger o f being obscured b y “ the m urkiness” o f the six paths o f existence. T h is is m ythical auto­ biography, one that strives to display the contour o f a life, not necessarily as it w as but as it was im agined to be. I f w e accept O w e n ’s insight that the enterprise o f autobiography requires the w riter to see h im self as other,38 the m onk is the m ost prolonged case in the preface o f Pu Songlin g vie w in g h im self as other. Reincarna­ tion creates a palimpsest, exposing vestiges o f another self, an an­ cient alter ego. Th is feat o f self-alienation m ay also be im plied in the very notion o f recording the strange, for it w as understood that strangeness lies not in things but in me.

The Historian o f the Strange


A s I mentioned in the introduction, Pu S o n g lin g’s alias H istorian o f the Strange verbally echoes Sim a Q ian ’s title Grand H istorian in the Records o f the Historian. Pu S o n g lin g’s selection o f this alias contains a self-conscious irony that helps undercut the authority it claims to establish, for the verbal parallels to the Grand H istorian call attention to a profound difference as much as to a sameness, a difference that is itself represented in the prim ary m eaning o f yi as other. U nlike Sim a Q ian, w h o claimed descent from Z h o u dynasty historians and w h o inherited the official position o f grand historian from his father, Pu Songling invented h im self as H istorian o f the Strange. In the first part o f the preface, he strives to create a literary genealogy for h im self.39 T h e trope o f reincarnation enables him to forge an alternative past for h im self outside the bonds o f fam ily tradition (though given a de facto stam p o f approval b y his father’s dream). B u t this past is conjured up entirely through sleights o f hand: through analogy, metaphor, and allusion* The infant au th o rs previous identity is verified by a likeness between the plaster pasted on the m on k ’s chest and his ow n sim ilarly placed birthm ark. A s he g ro w s up, “ T h e desolation o f [his] courtyard resembles a m o n k ’s quarters” and ‘‘w hat ‘p lo w in g w ith brush and in k ’ brings is as little as a m o n k ’s alms b o w l.” E ventu ally he show s h im self pondering his o w n identity, w ondering w h o he is. He openly exposes the in­ congruity betw een the se lf and the role he is tem porarily adopting: “ I often scratch m y head and muse: ‘C o u ld “ he w ho faced the w a ll” really have been me in a form er existence?’ ” B ut he im m ediately negates his question w ith yet another m etaphor: “ I did not reach transcendence, but was blow n dow n b y the w ind, becom ing in the end a flow er fallen in a cesspool.” Pu Songling has w ritten a h igh ly stylized but deeply m ovin g self­ introduction that incorporates w ithin it the idealized circumstances, m otives, speaker, and audience for the tales that follow . T he final tableau theatrically stages the circumstances o f the collection’s com ­ position, depicting the author w ritin g alone at m idnight in his freez­ ing studio. T h e m otives or excuses for recording the strange take up most o f the preface: there is historical precedent for doing so; he loves to do so; material abounds, and eventually stories are even sent to him ; it is an uncontrollable obsession, a fo lly he cannot suppress; he was predestined to do so; he is stirred by “ lonely anguish ”;the


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ghosts w hose history he records are the on ly ones w h o understand him. “ Liaozhai’s O w n R e co rd ” is not a confession o f sins, but it possesses the em otional intensity o f such a confession.40 T h e sheer overabundance o f m otives helps conjure up a speaker for the tales— a failed scholar w h o longs for literary greatness but is m ocked by goblins; the incarnation o f a m onk w h o cannot achieve transcen­ dence; the lonely w riter w h o com m unes w ith ghosts. T h rou ghou t the preface, Pu Songling seeks to create the ideal audience for his b o o k , to transform the “ serious m en” w h o w ill laugh at him and reject his “ unbridled w ord s” into sym pathetic readers w h o w ill strive to understand him . His self-portrait is not a self-contained im age; rather, it constantly fixes its gaze upon the view er, building up to a final clim actic question addressed directly to the reader: “ A re the only ones w ho k n o w me 4in the green w ood and at the dark frontier’ ?” T h e G h o s t ly W riter

The haunting quality o f Pu S o n g lin g’s self-portrait is affirm ed by readers w h o specifically responded to the preface, particularly to the challenge posed at the end: W ho w ill be m y true reader? Y u Ji, the collator o f the first printed edition o f Liaozhai, begins his preface w here Pu Songling left off, uncannily echoing the closing section o f “ Liaozhai’s O w n R e co rd .” Ju st as Pu Songling depicts the physical and em otional experience o f w ritin g his book, so Y u J i recounts the scene o fh is first reading o f the manuscript; T h e Y a n lin g m o u n ta in s e n c irc lin g the p refec tu re had h ig h , ja g g e d p eaks, and n e ar the p re fe c tu ra l b u ild in g s to o d m a n y an cien t trees an d stra n g e r o c k s .41 It w a s the se aso n w h e n the au tu m n w in d s h o w l an d ra g e an d w h e n the v e g e ta tio n lies sere an d w ith e re d ; fo x e s an d m ic e sca m p e re d ab o u t even in d a y lig h t, an d o w ls an d ja c k a ls screech ed at n ig h t. I sat h o ld in g the m a n u sc rip t in a tin y c u b icle th at w a s d im ly lit b y a flic k e rin g la m p ; b e fo re I had ev e n u n ro lle d it, a g h o s tly ch ill had a lre a d y set m y h air on en d.

(p. 6)

In terms sim ilar to those Pu Songling used to portray h im self com posing the collection, Y u J i situates his reading at night in a cold, isolated studio beneath a dim lam p w ith the w ind h ow lin g outside. Pu Songling had likened h im self to a “ chilled sparrow

T he H istorian o f the Strange


startled b y fro st” and an “ autumn insect m ourning the m o o n /’ H ere Y u J i places h im self am ong ill-om ened anim als— foxes and mice scam pering by day, ow ls andjackals screeching at night— that in the context seem no less metaphorical, no less descriptive, o f the scene and the w riter’s fram e o f mind. B u t Y u J i has exaggerated the disquieting m ood o f “ Liaozhai’s O w n R eco rd ” into the prelude to a h orror tale. B efore he has even unrolled the manuscript, “ a ghostly chill” sets his hair on end; he im plies that he has encountered Pu S o n g lin g ’s specter, w h om he addresses in the next line: “ Alas! you too once dw elled in bright sunlight; h o w miserable and alone you must have been to entrust you r intent so far beyond the world! W hen I had finished reading the manuscript, I grieved deeply for this m an’s intent” (p. 6).42 A n oth er reader, the Shandong painter Gao Fenghan (16 8 3 -17 4 8 ), w h o had met Pu Songling in his teens, also re-enacts the d o sin g o f Liaozhai’s preface in som e dedicatory verses that he w rote for the collection in 17 2 3 , a few years after the author’s death.43 Like Y u Ji, he begins by setting the scene for his solitary reading o f the book; it too is a cold, dark, om inous night in late autumn. A v o lu m e o f L ia o z h a i d issip ates m y lo n e lin ess; T h e la m p lig h t tu rn s g reen ish b e fo re m y a u tu m n w in d o w . I’ m u sed to re a d in g Seekin g the Spirits and Records o f the Shades; W h y sh o u ld I feel su ch pain to w a r d this b o o k ? (L ia o z h a i ,p. 35)

Lam plight turning greenish typically signals a ghostly visitation; as in Y u J i ’s preface, the im age suggests the fleeting presence o f the author’s apparition hovering over the reader o fh is tales. M o ved by his recollection o f the author’s w o rld ly failure from their meeting tw enty years earlier, G ao Fenghan not only explicitly addresses his ghost, but even makes a libation to appease his spirit: B e fo r e lo n g the m o o n sets, the w in d rises in the trees. I o ffe r y o u a lib a tio n , as th o u g h y o u had c o n sc io u sn ess. I th ro w m y s e l f o n m y p illo w , b lo w o u t the can d le, an d bid y o u g o o d -b y e ; W h ere arc y o u “ at the d a rk fro n tie r an d in the green wood”

(p- 35)


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To G ao Fenghan, Pu S o n g lin g’s ow n ghost is n o w w andering som ew here in the borderland o f “ the dark frontier and green w o o d .” N o w that Pu Songling is dead, he has join ed the spectral w orld with which he had m etaphorically affiliated h im self in his preface. The w riter o f ghosts has becom e a ghost him self. It is this n ow - perfect m erging o f the author with his tales that so stirs the sym pathy and im agination o f his later readers. T he sequence Gao Fenghan estab­ lishes— first reading Liaozhai, then grieving for the author’s intent, then m aking a libation to his ghost, then goin g to bed and inquiring after the gh ost’s w hereabouts— m ay suggest an attempt to incubate a dream -visitation from Pu S o n g lin g’s spirit. G ao Fenghan’s tw iceborrow ed allusion has restored the balance o f D u F u ,s original poem : it is once again a living man w h o longs to dream o f a dead w riter’s ghost. Thus both Y u j i and Gao Fenghan affirm the p o w er o f the selfportrait in “ Liaozhai’s O w n R e co rd ” and declare them selves Pu S o n g lin g’s posthum ous “ true reader,” the belated ones “ w h o w ould k n o w ” him.



The Tales

Obsession W ith o u t an o b se ssio n , no o n e is e x c e p tio n a l. — Y u a n H o n g d a o , A H istory o f F lo w e r Arranging

A ccording to one o f the apocryphal anecdotes that later sprang up around Liaozhai and its author, Pu Songling never passed the higher exam inations because “ his love o f the strange had developed into an obsession.” 1 A s a result, w hen he entered the exam ination hall, fo x spirits and ghosts jealo u sly crow ded around to prevent him from w ritin g about anything but them. This colorful legend continues the transform ation o f the author into a character in his tales that w e glim psed in the previous chapter. B u t it also contains an im portant insight: the nearly five hundred tales in the Liaozhai collection grew out o f the author’s lifelong obsession w ith the strange. We have seen that in his preface Pu Songling represented his fascination w ith the strange as an uncontrollable passion and linked his recording o f strange stories w ith the paradigm o f obsessive collecting, in which “ things accrue to those w ho love th em .” Within the stories them ­ selves, the notion o f obsession and collecting is likew ise a prom inent theme, one translated w ith great art into fiction. T h e C h in e se C o n c e p t o f O b se ssio n

T he concept o f obsession, or p i, is an im portant Chinese cultural construct that after a long developm ent reached its height during the late M in g and early Q ing dynasties. A seventeenth-century diction­ ary, A Complete Mastery o f Correct Characters (Zhengzi tong), offers the essential M in g definition o f the term: “ Pi is a pathological fondness for som ething” (pi, shihao zhi bing; see Fig. i) .2 This pathological


T he Tales

Fig. i. An ink album-leaf painting o f a rock by the seventeenth-century eccentric painter Zhu Da (Bada shanren). The painting’s most unusual feature is the two characters shi pi (“ The Rock o f Obsession” or “an obses­ sion with rocks”) framed by the hollowed-out rock. The album was ex­ ecuted after 1659 and before 1666. ([Shanghai bowuguan carig] Si gaosen^ huaji, pi. 85) component o f pi is significant: indeed a synonym for pi is sometimes “ illness” or “ mania” (bing). T h e medical usage o f pi can be traced l)ack to The Classic Materia Medica (Bencao jing) o f the second cen­ tury, where according to Paul U nschuld, the term p i shi or “ indigestion” already figures as “ one o f the most important kinds o f serious illnesses.’’3 A n influential early seventh-century medical book, The Etiology and Symptomatology o f A ll Diseases (Zhubing yuanhou lun) of­ fers the most detailed description o f this syndrom e: “ If digestion stops, then the stomach will not work. When one then drinks fluid, it will be stopped from trickling and will not disperse. If this fluid then comes into contact with cold qi [energy], it will accumulate and form a pi. A pi is what inclines to one side between the tw o ribs

O bsession


and sometimes hurts.,M A ccording to a m id-eighth-century medical book, the Secret Prescriptions o f the Outer Tower (Waitai biyao), a pi could even become as hard as stone and eventually develop into an abscess.5 From this sense o f pathological blockage most likely evolved the extended meaning o f obsession or addiction— something that sticks in the gut and cannot be evacuated, hence becom ing habitual. When written in its alternative form with the “ person” radical, rather than the “ illness” radical, however, the prim ary meaning o f p i becomes “ leaning to one side,” or “ off-center.” 6 An attempt to relate the meanings o f both graphs (which share a phonetic element) becomes apparent in the etym ology in The Etiology and SympMm 如 o f A ll Diseases: “ A pi is what inclines [pianpi] between the tw o ribs and sometimes hurts.” From this sense o f one-sidedness or partiality, pi also comes to denote the individual proclivities inherent in all hu­ man nature, as in the com pound pixing (personal taste), written with either radical. This paradoxical view o f obsession as at once patho­ logical and normative helps account for the peculiar range o f be­ havior associated with it and for the contradictory interpretations assigned to it. The concept o f pi is not merely a matter o f term inology, however: once the sym ptom s have been codified, this particular term need not be used for the condition to be instantly recognizable.* N onethe­ less, the term is charged with a strong emotional quality and has a wide range o f implicit meanings; this was particularly true during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the concept o f obses­ sion had deeply penetrated all aspects o f literati life. A s an indication o f its range o f meaning, “ pi” has been translated into English as addiction, compulsion, passion, mania, fondness for, weakness for, love of, fanatical devotion, craving, idiosyncracy, fetishism, and even hobby. O n this level, the idea o f obsession is most apparent in the pronouncements o f Y uan H ongdao ( 1 5 6 8 - 1 6 1 0 ) , one o f the ★T he concept o f pi is associated with a cluster o f words, notably shi (a taste for) and hao (a fondness for). These characters are further combined to form almost synony­ mous compounds, such as pihao, pishi, and shihao. One caveat: I am not em ploying “ obsession” in the technical psychiatric sense, which stresses negative and involun­ tary aspects. Com pare the definition o f obsession in Cam pbell, Psychiatric Dictionary, p. 492: “ A n idea, emotion, or impulse that repetitively and insistently forces itselfinto consciousness, even though it m ay be unw elcom e.”


T he Tales

great literary and intellectual figures o f his time. A s he w rote in his History o f Flower Arranging in 1599: I f s o m e o n e has s o m e th in g h e is re a lly o b sessed ab o u t, he w ill b e d e e p ly im m e rse d , in to x ic a te d w ith it. H e w i 】】 co n sec rate h is life an d ev e n h is death to it. W h at tim e w o u ld he h a v e fo r the affa irs o f m o n e y -g r u b b e rs and trad ers in o ffic ia l titles? W h en so m e o n e in a n tiq u ity w h o w a s g rip p e d b y an o b se ssio n fo r flo w e rs h eard tell o f a rare b lo s s o m , e v e n i f it w e r e in a deep v a lle y o r in steep m o u n ta in s, he w o u ld n o t be afraid o f s tu m b lin g an d w o u ld g o to it. E v e n in the fre e z in g c o ld and the b la z in g heat, e v e n i f his sk in w e r e crac k ed and p e e lin g o r cak e d w ith m u d an d sw e a t, he w o u ld be o b liv io u s . W h en a flo w e r w a s ab o u t to b lo o m , he w o u ld m o v e his p illo w and m at and sleep a lo n g sid e it to o b se r v e h o w the flo w e r w o u ld g o fr o m b u d d in g to b lo o m in g to fa d in g . O n ly after it la y w ith e re d o n th e g ro u n d w o u ld he take his le a ve . . . . T h is is w h a t is called z genuine lo v e o f flo w e r s ; this is w h a t is called genuine c o n n o isse u rsh ip . B u t as fo r my g r o w in g flo w e r s , m e r e ly to b reak up the pain o f idlen ess and so litu d e — I am in c ap ab le o f g e n u in e ly lo v in g th em . O n ly s o m e o n e a lre a d y d w e llin g at th e m o u th o f Peach B lo s s o m S p rin g c o u ld g e n u in e ly lo v e th e m — h o w c o u ld he still be an o ffic ia l in this d u st-stain ed w o r ld !7

Rather than condem ning the flow er-lo vcr as frivolous or ridicu­ lous, or lam enting the m isdirection o f his energies and passion, Y u an raises an obsession w ith flow ers to unprecedented heights, praising it as an ideal o f u n sw erving com m itm ent and genuine integrity incom patible with w orld ly success and conspicuous con­ sum ption. This idealization arises in part from his disgust at the shallow vogu e for obsession in his day. For Y u an , true obsession is alw ays a m arginal activity, an act o f alienation and w ithd raw al from conventional society. His polem ic aimed at w resting obsession from the inauthentic vu lgar m ainstream ; ironically it m ay have m erely reinforced obsession’s fashionability. Y u a n ’s description also im plies som e o f the general principles o f obsession. First, obsession describes a habitual fixation on a certain object or activity, rather than on a particular person, and it is par­ ticularly associated w ith collecting and connoisseurship. Second, it must be excessive and single-m inded. T h ird , it is a deliberately unconventional and eccentric pose.

O bsession


A B r i e f H is t o r y o f O b s e ss io n Th e identification o f behavior as obsessive and the attitudes tow ard that behavior evolved over time. O bsession first began to crystallize as a distinct concept in anecdotes about the free and unrestrained eccentrics included in the fifth-century anthology N ew Tales o f the World (Shishuo xinyu) w ith corresponding overtones o f erem itism and nonconform ity. The spectrum o f obsessions in N ew Tales o f the World ranges wildly, from a fondness for funeral dirges and donkey brays to a passion for o x fights and the Zuo Commentary. O ne anecdote in the anthology even recounts an inform al com petition betw een a lover o f m oney and a lover o f w ooden d o g s. The lo ver o f clogs proves h im self the superior, not because o f the object o f his obsession, but because o fh is utter self-absorption in his clogs even w hen observers pay him a visit.8 It w as not until the late Tang, how ever, that obsession was mated w ith connoisseurship and collecting and people began to leave w rit­ ten records o f their obsessions. O f particular interest is a m ovin g passage by the great ninth-century art historian Z h an g Y an yu an , which lays out the basic paradigm s o f the fanatical connoisseur’s spirit: these paradigm s w ill be re-enacted over and over in subse­ quent ages. E v e r sin ce m y y o u th I ’ v e b een a c o lle c to r o f rare th in g s. . . • W h en th ere w a s a ch an ce o f g e ttin g s o m e th in g , I’ d ev en sell m y o ld clo th es an d ratio n sim p le fo o d s. M y w ife , c h ild ren , an d se rv a n ts n a g an d tease m e, so m e tim e s s a y in g , ‘‘ W h a t’s th e p o in t o f d o in g such a u seless th in g all d a y lo n g ? ” A t w h ic h I sig h an d s a y “ I f o n e d o e s n ’t d o such u seless th in g s , then h o w can o n e take p le asu re in this m o rta l life ? ”

hu s m y p a ssio n g r o w s e v e r deeper, a p p ro a c h ­

in g an o b se ssio n . • . . O n ly in c a llig r a p h y an d p a in tin g h a v e I n o t y e t fo r g o tte n e m o tio n . In to x ic a te d b y th e m I fo r g e t all sp eech ; en ra p tu re d I gaze at an d e x a m in e th em . . . . D o e s th is n o t seem w is e r, after all, than all that b u rn in g a m b itio n an d ceaseless to il w h e n fa m e an d p r o fit w a r w ith in o n e ’s b reast?9

This autobiographical sketch begins b y enum erating the sym p ­ tom s o f obsession 一 the utter absorption and diligence, the w illin g­ ness to endure physical privation, the transcendent j oy. Z h an g hints at the notion o f obsession as a form o f individual self-expression,


Th e Tales

but his statement also becom es a defense, an apolo gy for a private obsession, that justifies the rejection o f public life. Z h an g introduces the notion o f obsession as com pensation for w o rld ly failure at the same time as he criticizes the fame, profit, and vain am bition under­ lyin g success. H e form ulates the idea that an obsession should be useless— som ething that does not contribute to official success or material wealth. In this way, obsession is linked w ith the tradition o f the recluse in Chinese culture and the w o rth y gentlem an w h o does not achieve success but instead disdains com petition for pow er and prestige as an inferior m ode o f life. Z h a n g ’s statement foreshadow s the flourishing o f art connoisseurship during the Song dynasty. N o t only ancient masterpieces o f painting and calligraphy but all sorts o f antiques— bronzes, carved jades, stone engravings, and ceram ics— as w ell as things from nature, such as rocks, flow ers, and plants, became objects o f collect­ ing. With the onset o f printing, the com piling o f handbooks and catalogues devoted to a particular type o f object came into fashion. N e w paradigm s o f eccentric collectors em erged, firm ly tying the pursuit o f obsession to Song literati culture. Th is mania for collect­ ing culminated in one o f the m ost notorious episodes in Chinese history, “ the levy on flow ers and rocks” (huashi gcinq), the mass appropriations for the collection o f H uizong (r. iio o —1 125), the last N orthern Song em peror and an aesthete w hose decadence w ould be blamed for the loss o f the north to the Jin barbarians. A s the craze for art collecting and connoisseurship became closely associated w ith the notion o f obsession in Song culture, an uneasi­ ness arose that an overattachm ent to objects courts disaster. Zh an g Y an yu an ’s discovery o f the jo y s o f collecting could not be repli­ cated unequivocally b y the m ore self-conscious Song connoisseurs. Fram ed b y the destruction o f the Five D ynasties in the m id-tenth century and the devastation o f the N orthern Song in the early tw elfth century, three fam ous essays debate the dangers o f obses­ sion. These essays should be read sequentially because the later ones seem in part a response to the previous ones. T he need to ju stify obsessive collecting despite its potential for harm is first raised in the eleventh century in O u yan g X iu 's preface to his catalogue o f epigraphy. H is solution is to posit a hierarchy o f value based on the kind o f objects collected. H e distinguishes ordi­

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nary treasures— pearls, gold, and furs— w hich incite conventional greed, from relics o f the past, w hose collection does not entail great physical risk and w hich supplem ent our understanding o f history. W ith ordinary treasures, what counts is the pow er to get them; with relics o f the past, w hat counts is the collector’s taste and his w h ole­ hearted love o f them. B u t even com piling a catalogue does not quite set to rest O u yan g X iu ’s anxieties about the future o f his collection. He consoles h im self in a fabricated dialogue: S o m e o n e m o c k e d m e s a y in g : “ I f a c o lle c tio n is la rg e , then it w ill be h ard to keep intact. A fte r b e in g a sse m b le d fo r a lo n g tim e , it is b o u n d to be scattered . W h y are y o u b o th e rin g to be so p a in sta k in g ? ” I rep lie d : “ I t ’s e n o u g h th at I am c o lle c tin g w h a t I lo v e an d th at I w ill e n jo y g r o w in g o ld a m o n g th e m .’’ 10

O u yan g X iu ’s fears about the dispersal o fh is collection m ust have been prom pted in part by the destruction o f the great Tang estates a century or tw o earlier, a subject he addressed in an essay called “ The Ling Stream R ocks” (“ L in gx i s h i j i ” ).11 A nother connoisseur, Ye M en gde ( 10 7 7 - 114 8 ) , reported that “ O u yang X iu used to laugh at Li D e y u ’s [787-848] rem ark that neither his sons nor grandsons w ould ever give aw ay one tree or one plant o fh is Pingyuan estate,’’ 12 for as everyone knew, the estate had been utterly destroyed. In the next generation, Su Shi adopts another strategy to m itigate the dangers o f collecting, one im plicit in O u yan g X iu ’s defense that w hat is im portant is the act o f lo vin g what one collects rather than the collection itself. Su Shi, too, posits a hierarchy o f value, but not o f the sorts o f collections but o f the sorts o f collectors: A g e n tle m a n m a y te m p o ra rily “ lo d g e ” his in terest in th in g s, b u t he m u st n o t “ d e ta in ” his in terest in th in g s. F o r i f he lo d g e s his in terest in th in g s, then e v e n triv ia l o b je cts w ill su ffice to g iv e h im j o y an d ev en “ th in g s o f u n e a rth ly b e a u ty ” w ill n o t su ffice to in d u ce m an ia in h im . I f he d etain s his in terest in th in g s, then e v e n triv ia l o b je cts w ill s u ffic e to in d u ce m an ia in h im , and e v e n th in g s o f u n e a rth ly b e a u ty w ill n o t s u ffic e to g iv e h im j o y . 13

Su Shi draw s a subtle distinction betw een “ lo d g in g ” (yu) one’s interest tem porarily in things and “ detaining” (liu) one's interest perm anently in them. In his scheme, lodging im plies view in g ob­ jects as vessels through w hich one fulfills on eself rather than as


T h e Tales

things that one values for their ow n sake. This m axim izes the benign pleasures o f lovin g things and prevents even “ things o f unearthly beauty” (youwu) from causing in ju ry.14 D etaining, on the other hand, im plies a pathological attachment to actual things as things. Su Shi em ploys the clearly pejorative term “ rm nia” (bing) rather than the m ore am biguous “ p i” to em phasize the harm ful nature o f the passions detaining engenders. H e concludes that only the detaining kind o f collecting brings personal and national catas­ trophe. O u yan g X iu ’s and Su Sh i’s clever argum ents, h ow ever, are chal­ lenged b y the poet Li Q ingzhao ( i o 8 i ? - i i 49 ) in her autobiographi­ cal postface to the epigraphy catalogue o f her husband, the anti­ quarian Z h ao M ingcheng (10 8 1 —112 9 ). H avin g su rvived the death o f her husband, the destruction o f their book collection, and the violent fall o f the N orthern Song dynasty, she speaks o f experienc­ ing the very disasters that O u yan g X iu and Su Shi had m ost feared and warned against. She begins b y echoing O u yan g X iu ’s claims that epigraphy collections serve the lofty aims o f redressing histo­ riographic errors. B u t suddenly her tone shifts, and she attacks his privileging o f scholarly collections over all others: “ Alas! in the disasters that befell Wang B o and Y u an Zai, w hat distinction was there between [collecting] books and paintings and [collecting] pep­ per?15 B oth H e Q iao and D u Y u had a m ania— w hat difference was there betw een an obsession w ith m oney and an obsession w ith the Zuo Commentary?^ T he reputations o f such men m ay differ, but their delusion w as one and the sam e.” 17 Li Q ingzhao also rejects Su S h i’s argum ent that the collector’s self-control can prevent his passion from becom ing pathological and thereby w ard o ff disaster. In recounting the saga o fth e progres­ sive w orsening o f her husband’s obsession, she show s that Su Shi’s distinction betw een “ lo d g in g ” and “ detaining” hangs b y a thread. A s Stephen O w en has pointed out, the book collecting that begins as a casual and jo in t pleasure for the you ng couple disintegrates into a nightm are o f anxiety.18 O u yan g X iu had argued in an autobio­ graphical essay that being encum bered by the things o f office made him distressed and w orried, but that being encum bered by his schol­ arly possessions made him detached and freed him from v e xa tio n .19 T he im age o f the lone w om an Li Q ingzhao stranded during the Jin

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invasion with fifteen boatloads o f books that her dyin g husband had ordered her to protect renders the detachment posited b y O u yan g X iu and Su Shi utterly absurd. T h e L a te M in g C ra z e fo r O b s e ss io n B y the sixteenth century, how ever, most scruples or fears about the perils o f obsession seem to have vanished. What is truly new in the explosion o f w ritings in this period is the glorification o f obsession, particularly in its most exaggerated form . O bsession becom es an im portant com ponent o f late M in g culture, in which it is linked w ith the new virtues o f Sentim ent (qing), M adness (kuan^), Folly (chi), and Lunacy (dian). N o longer do obsessives feel obliged to defend or apologize for their position. A lth ough som eone like the scholar-official X ie Zhaozhe (15 6 7 -16 2 4 ) m ight caution his contem ­ poraries that any preference, i f sufficiently one-sided and extrem e, should be considered ‘‘a form o f illness,,,2(, most o f them w ere only too w illing to contract such a pleasurable virus. O bsession had becom e a sine qua non, som ething the gentleman could not afford to do without. A s the preface to the sixteenth-century B rie f History o f Obsession and Lunacy (Pidian xiaoshi) puts it: “ E veryo n e has a predilection; this gets called obsession. T h e signs o f obsession resemble fo lly and madness. . . . T he gentlem an w orries only about having no obses­ sio n .5,21 Declares Y u an H ongdao: “ I have observed that in this w orld, all those w hose w ords are insipid and w hose appearance is detestable are men w ithout o b s e s s io n s .22 Z h an g D ai (1599—1684?), a M in g loyalist, concurs: “ O ne cannot befriend a man w ithout obsessions, for he lacks deep em otion; nor can one befriend a man w ithout faults, for he lacks integrity.” 23 A seventeenth-century aph­ orism by Zh an g C hao (fl. 16 7 6 -17 0 0 ) clinches the indispensability o f obsession on aesthetic grounds: “ Flow ers m ust have butterflies, m ountains must have streams, rocks must have m oss, water must have seaweed, old trees m ust have creepers, and people m ust have obsessions.’,24 The eleventh-century intellectuals had already argued that obses­ sions w ere valuable as an outlet fo r personal fulfillm ent; in the sixteenth century, obsession as a vehicle for self-expression becom es


T he Tales

the dom inant m ode. T h e traditional Chinese understanding o f the function o f poetry, that it “ speaks o f w hat is intently on the m in d ,” had long spread to the other arts, such as painting, m usic, and callig­ raphy; n o w this notion was extended to cover virtually any activity, no matter h ow preposterous. M oreover, this self-expression was no longer involuntary: it had becom e obligatory. M ost im portant, the virtue o f an obsession lay not in the object o f devotion, not even in the act o f devotion, but in self-realization. A s Y u an H ongdao ob­ serves: T h e c h ry sa n th e m u m s o f T ao Y u a n m in g , the p lu m b lo s so m s o f L in B u , the ro c k s o f M i F u — p e o p le all s w a p sto ries ab o u t th ese m e n ’s o b se ssio n s as d e lig h tfu l to p ics o f c o n v e rs a tio n an d then b lith e ly ta ke u p so m e th in g as an o b se ssio n in o rd e r to am u se th e m se lv e s. A la s! th e y arc m istak en . It w a s n ’t that T ao lo v e d c h ry sa n th e m u m s , L in lo v e d p lu m b lo s so m s , o r M i lo v e d ro c k s; rather, in each case, it w a s the s e lf lo v in g the s e lf.25

In this m ost radical equation, the boundary betw een subject and object has utterly dissolved. O bsession is no longer understood as a form o f alterity, but as a self- reflexive act: it is not the self lo vin g the other, but the se lf lovin g the self. B u t the idealization o f obsession in the sixteenth century also arose from a new evaluation o f love: the fanatical attachment o f a person to a particular object w as interpreted as a m anifestation o f “ that idealistic, single-m inded lo v e ,” 26 “ that headlong, rom antic passion,’,27 kn ow n as qing. O nce the relationship between som eone and the object o fh is obsession was conceptualized as qing, it was not a difficult leap to declare that the object itself could be m oved b y its lo v e r’s devotion and reciprocate his feelings. Since, for the most part, the objects o f obsessions w ere not hum an, this meant an­ thropom orphizing the object, adopting the view that animate and inanim ate things alike, are capable o f sentiment. A s w e w ill see, this is one o f the most im portant developm ents in the theory o f obses­ sion for Liaozhai. Such a position w as facilitated both by the traditional Chinese anim istic view o f the universe and by the broader im plications o f qing during this period as a universal force and even as life itself.28 For exam ple, the main project o f the seventeenth- century com pen­ dium o f fact and fiction called A Classified History o f Love is to

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docum ent the pow er o f qing over every part o f the universe— from w ind and lightning to rocks and trees, from animals and birds to ghosts and spirits: “ T he m yriad things are born o f qing and die o f q in g ,” com m ents the H istorian o f Q in g .29 In this scheme, the hu­ man race becom es m erely one m ore category subject to the forces o f qing. In earlier times, an im portant, though not mandatory, criterion for recording an obsession was that it be strange, peculiar, incom ­ prehensible. A s a preface to A B r ie f History o f Obsession and Lunacy explains: “ N o w a d a y s, no one is able to fathom the appeal that w atching ox fights or hearing donkey brays held for [those in the past] w ho w ere fond o f such things. That is w h y they are all p i.,’30 A particularly idiosyncratic obsession could w in som eone fam e in the annals o f unofficial history, such as Liu Y on g o fth e Southern D yn as­ ties w h o enjoyed eating hum an fingernail parings or Q uan C han gru o f the Tang w h o liked to eat hum an scabs because he said they tasted like dried fish flakes.31 B u t as the fad for obsession gre w during the M in g, another change began to take place: the objects o f obsessions became increasingly standardized as indexes o f certain virtues and personalities. B y the sixteenth century, obsessions have gro w n no­ ticeably less variant. A lth ou gh som e unusual obsessions are men­ tioned, such as a penchant for football or for operas about ghosts, and particularly disgusting eating habits are still listed w ith relish,32 m ost w ritings n o w concern h igh ly conventionalized obsessions. The m ost frequent are books, painting, epigraphy, calligraphy, or rocks; a particular musical instrument, plant, animal, or gam e; tea or w ine; cleanliness; and h om osexuality.33 B u t even w ithin these, the actual choices— which flow er, which gam e— have becom e circum ­ scribed and stereotyped. B y the seventeenth century, a rich tradition o f lore and a corpus o f specialized manuals or catalogues for the connoisseur had accum u­ lated around virtually every standard obsession. Pu Songling ap­ pears to have incorporated research from such manuals on a num ber o f the objects that form the focus o f his*obsessional tales. Liaozhai com m entators frequently cite specialized handbooks both to explain and to praise the accuracy o f Pu S o n g lin g’s connoisseurship. Allan B arr has dem onstrated that Pu partially derived the cricket lore in­ troduced into the fam ous tale “ T he C rick e t” (“ C u zh i ”;4.484-90)


T he Tales

from a late M in g guide to B eijin g, A B r ie f Guide to Sights in the Capital (Dijing jingw u lue), w hich Pu abridged and w rote a new preface fo r.34 A ccording to Barr, he made use o f “ a num ber o f tech­ nical details from the guidebook— the different varieties o f cricket, the insect’s diet” and even “ borro w ed som e phrases w h olesale” from it.35 T h e stylistic influence o f catalogues and manuals is particularly evident in the unusual opening o f the tale “ A Strangeness o f Pigeons” (“ G e y i ”;6.939—43), w hich abandons the biographical or autobiographical form ats typical o f Liaozhai and most classical fic­ tion. T h e opening o f the story is virtually indistinguishable from a catalogue: it lists the different varieties o f pigeons and their locales and provides advice on their care: “ T h e classification o f pigeons is extrem ely com plicated. A m o n g the rarest varieties are the Earth Star o f Shanxi, the Delicate Stork o f Shandong, the B utterfly W ings o f G uizhou, the A crobat o f Henan, and the Pointed Tips o f Z h e­ jian g. In addition, there are types like B o o t Head, Polka-D ot, B ig White, M arried Sparrow, Spotted -D og E yes, and innum erable other sorts that only connoisseurs can distinguish.’’36 Pu Songling explicitly acknow ledges his debt to such a catalogue w hen he in­ form s us that the w ealthy pigeon fancier o fh is story strove to amass an exhaustive collection “ according to the h andbook” (6.839). ^ In fact, Pu Songling h im self com piled tw o catalogues on other sub­ jects: a rock catalogue and a flow er handbook in his ow n hand arc still extant.38 N arratives recounting personal experiences w ith the subject o f a manual or a catalogue w ere som etim es included in such books. Such accounts m ay be am ong the most im portant inspirations for Pu Songling s connoisseurship tales. For instance, Y e M engde, a Song dynasty lover o f rocks, in a colophon to a fam ous record o f a Tang estate, relates h ow acquiring a w onderful rock m iraculously cured him o f sickness.39 T he therapeutic properties o f obsession are carried even further in “ White A utum n S ilk ” (“ B ai Q iulian ”;11.14 8 2 - 8 8 ) , a Liaozhai tale about a poetry-obsessed carp-m aiden, w hose lo v e r’s recitation o f her favorite Tang poem s not only cures her o f ill­ ness but even revives her from the dead. Y u an H on gd ao ’s portrait o f the ideal fiow er-lover in his handbook on flow er arranging antici­ pates to a rem arkable degree the peony fanatic in the tale “ G e jin ”

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(10 .14 3 6 -4 4 ), w h o anxiou sly begins w atching for peony shoots in the dead o f w inter and writes a hundred-line poem called “ Lon gin g for Peonies” (“ Huai m udan” ) as he goes into debt w aiting for the peonies to bloom . A s objects becam e associated with certain qualities and historical figures, the choice o f obsession became dictated b y those qualities and figures. B y lovin g a particular object, the devotee was striving to claim allegiance to that quality or to em ulate that figure. This idea can be glim psed already in the tw elfth-century preface to D u W ans fam ous Rock Catalogue o f Cloudy Forest (Yunlin shipu): “ T h e Sage C onfucius alw ays said, ‘T he benevolent man finds jo y in m oun­ tains/ T h e love o f rocks im plies ‘finding jo y in m ountains,’ for the stillness and lon gevity that C onfucius mentioned can also be found in ro ck s .”4。 Thus an individual m ight favor rocks i f he prized the m oral vir­ tues associated with rocks— benevolence, stillness, longevity, lo y­ alty— or if he wanted to im itate the fam ous Song rock-lo ver kn ow n as M i Fu or M i the Lunatic (Mi Dian). Som eone else, on the other hand, m ight feel draw n to chrysanthem um s because o f their associa­ tion w ith purity and aloofness and w ith the recluse-poet Tao Y u a n ­ ming. A lthough in theory the spontaneous im pulse o f a particular nature, in practice an obsession had becom e a studied act o f selfcultivation. O nce an object had becom e a fixed em blem o f certain virtues, it was again an easy leap to attribute these virtues to the object itself. T h is again led to the anthropom orphizing o f the obses­ sional object: the object not only sym bolizes a particular virtue but also possesses that virtue and behaves accordingly. Th e personification o f objects is an ancient poetic trope. In the sixth-century anthology N ew Songs from a Jade Terrace (Yutai xin ­ yong), for exam ple, the attribution o f sentiment and sentience to objects is a com m on device. B oth natural objects, such as vegeta­ tion, and m anufactured objects, such as m irrors, are portrayed as sharing or echoing the em otions o f hum an beings. A typical couplet describes the grass gro w in g over palace steps: “ Fading to em erald as though it kn ew the season, / H oldin g in fragrance as though it had em otion .” 41 T h is technique isJater form ulated in Chinese poetics as the overlapping o f scene (jing) and em otion (qing): em otion is both aroused b y the scene and located w ithin it.42 B u t this sort o f person­


The Tales

ification differs from the personification o f objects through obses­ sion. In N ew Songs from the Jade Terrace, objects are like m irrors— they reflect the narcissistic em otions o f the hum an w orld. Such objects have no separate identity or independent em otions; rather, they allegorically represent the speaker— for exam ple, the discarded fan that sym bolizes Lad y B an Jie y u ’s neglect b y the em peror.43 In Y u an H ongdao^ History o f Flower Arranging, how ever, flow ers, like hum an beings, experience different m oods; for exam ple, he advises fellow connoisseurs h ow to tell w hen flow ers are happy or sad, d ro w sy or angry, so as to w ater them accordin gly.44 Here flow ers are presented as feeling em otions o f their o w n accord; they do not m erely m irror or reinforce the em otions o f a hum an being. O nce things are seen as possessing independent em otions, they can be thought capable o f responding to a specific person. Th u s devel­ oped the idea that objects could find true friends or soul mates in those w h o love them. Z h an g C hao distilled this idea into another aphorism : “ I f one has a single true friend in this w orld, one can be free o f regrets. This is true not only for people, but also for things. For instance, the chrysanthem um found a true friend in Tao Y u a n ­ m ing . . . the flow ering plum found a true friend in Lin B u . . . and the rock found a true friend in M i the Lunatic.’’45 T h e E th e re a l R o c k It is this 】ast offshoot o f obsession that becom es the central theme o f Pu S o n g lin g’s brilliant tale “ T h e Ethereal R o c k ” (“ Shi Q in g x u ” ; 1 1 . 15 7 5 -7 9 ), which narrates the friendship betw een a fanatical rock collector called X in g Y u n fei and the rock named in the sto ry ’s title.46 O ne day, X in g finds a rock entangled in his fishing net. It is a fantastic rock, shaped like a miniature m ountain w ith peaks and crannies, and it has unusuaJ p o w ers— w henever it is go in g to rain, the rock puffs tiny clouds, ju st like a real m ountain. When w ord o f the rock gets around, a rich local bully brazenly orders his servant to w alk o ff w ith it, but it slips through the servant’s fingers and falls into a river. T he b ully offers a substantial rew ard but to no avail. T he rock is not recovered until the desolate X in g happens to w alk by the spot and sees it lyin g in a suddenly transparent spot in the river. X in g keeps his recovery o f the rock a secret, but one day he is

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visited by a m ysterious old man w h o demands the return o f “ his” rock. A s p ro o f for his claim, the old man names the num ber o f the ro ck ’s crannies (92) and reveals that in the largest crevice is carved the miniature inscription o f f e r e d i n w o r s h i p , e t h e r e a l , t h e c e l e s ­ t i a l r o c k . X in g is finally granted ow nership o f the rock on the condition that he forfeit three years o f his life. T he old man then pinches together three o f the crannies on the rock and tells X in g that the num ber o f crannies (89) is n ow equal to the num ber o f years he is fated to live. A fter m ore trials and tribulations— — the rock is stolen b y burglars, a corrupt official w h o wants the rock throw s X in g into ja il— X in g , as foretold, dies at the age o f eighty-nine and is buried, according to his last wishes, w ith his rock. B u t h a lf a year later, grave robbers steal the rock. X in g ’s ghost hounds the men into giv in g up the rock, but once again an unscrupulous official confis­ cates the rock and orders a clerk to place it in his treasury. T h e rock twists out o f his hands and smashes itself into a hundred pieces. X in g ’s son buries the pieces in his father’s grave once and for all. Pu S o n g lin g’s com m ent, as H istorian o f the Strange, begins by raising the old fears o f dangerous obsessions w ith beautiful things (youwu), but soon yields to the adm iration o f sentiment popularized during the late M ing; U n e a r th ly b e a u ty in a th in g m ak es it the site o f c alam ity. In th is m a n ’s desire to sa crifice his life fo r the ro c k , w a s n ’t his fo lly e x tre m e ! B u t in the en d, m an and ro c k w e re to g e th e r in death , so w h o can sa y the ro c k w a s “ u n fe e lin g ” 丁h e r e ’s an o]d s a y in g , “ A k n ig h t w ill d ie

for a true fr ie n d .” 47 T h is is n o lie. I f

it is tru e ev e n fo r a ro c k , can it be a n y less tru e fo r m en ?

T he H istorian o f the Strange’s rhetoric underscores the iron y that a technically “ unfeeling” rock (the phrase wu qing is a play on “ inanim ate” ) displays m ore true feeling than most hum an beings, w h o are by definition animate and hence should “ have feelin g” (you qing). Sentim ent is not a static force in the narrative: the friendship between the hero and his rock gro w s and deepens, culm inating in m utual self-sacrifice, j h e rock is an active participant in the tale. ‘‘Treasures should belong to those w h o love them ,” the proverbial saying about obsessive collectors reiterated b y the divine old man in the tale, is interpreted in a new light; the object itself chooses and responds to the one w h o loves him. T h e rock flung h im self into the


The Tales

Fig. 2. A section from a sixteenth-century handscroll by Qiu Ying (fl. 153050) depicting the Song statesman Sima Guang’s (1019-86) Garden for SelfEnjoyment (Dule yuan). Sima Guang designed each component o f his garden in emulation o f a famous historical figure. This Studio for Planting Bamboo (Zhongzhu zhai) was inspired by Wang Huizhi’s proverbial obses­ sion with bamboo. The scene depicts Wang Huizhi as a scholar who prefers the companionship o f bamboo to that o f human society. He is blissfully barricaded in the midst o f a private bamboo thicket, which shields him from the outside world. See Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, pp. 206-9. (Cour­ tesy o f The Cleveland Museum o f Art, John L. Severance Fund) rock-lover’s fishing net and entangled him self in the w orld o f pas­ sions; the rock’s desire precipitated his premature entry into the world, like the rock that becomes the human Bao Y u in The Story o f the Stone. A s the old man informs X in g , the rock surfaced three years ahead o f schedule, for “ he w as in a hurry to display him self.” A n d once in X in g ’s possession, the rock beautifies him self for his lover: the clouds that he miraculously puffs up cease when he is in anyone else’s custody. Even after the rock has once more been cruelly extorted from X in g , he comes in a dream to console X in g and arranges their final reunion. Thus this tale subtly inverts the roles o f object and collector: X in g becomes the object o f the rock’s obsession. T h e philosopher Li Zh i, one o f the most pow erful influences behind the iconoclastic trend in late M in g thought, had explored a similar idea in a brilliant polem ic called “ Essay on a Scroll Painting o f Square B am b o o ” (“ Fangzhu tujuan w e n ’’).48 It is a radical rein­

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terpretation o f a w ell-k n o w n anecdote from the fifth-century N ew Tales o f the World. This classified anthology detailing the w it and exploits o f the Wei-Jin eccentrics enjoyed particular popularity dur­ ing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ju d gin g from the nu­ merous editions and sequels to it published during this time, and it became a veritable bible for M in g and Q in g fanciers o f obsession.49 Th e anecdote that Li Z h i drew upon concerns the love o f bam boos: “ Wang Hui-chih [Wang Huizhi; d. 388] was once tem porarily lodg­ ing in another m an’s vacant house, and ordered bam boos planted. Som eone asked, 4Since y o u ’re only living here temporarily, w h y bother?' Wang whistled and chanted poems a good while; then abruptly pointing to the bam boos, replied, ‘H o w could I live a single day without “ these gentlemen” [ci jun]V ” 50 In Li Z h i’s misanthropic view, Wang Huizhi preferred the com ­ panionship o f “ these gentlemen” to the society o f humans, and the bam boos themselves recognized a kindred spirit in a man o f Wang 5s uncom m on temperament (see Fig. 2): The one who in the past loved bamboos [Wang Huizhi] called them “ gentlemen” out o f love. He didn’t call them gentlemen because he meant they resembled refined gentlemen; rather he was depressed and had no one to converse with— he felt that “ The only ones I can associate with are the bamboos.’’51 For this reason he befriended them and gave them that desig­ nation. . . . Someone said, “ Wang considered bamboos a s ‘these gentlemen so the bamboos must have considered Wang as 4that gentleman•’ ,, … . But it wasn’t the case that Wang loved bamboos— rather the bamboos loved Wang o f their own accord. For when a man o f Wang’s mettle gazed at mountains, rivers, stones, and earth, all would have naturally grow n beautiful, these gentlemen not least o f all. All things between heaven and earth have a spirit; especially these hollow gentlemen that rise straight up— could they alone be unspirited?52 A s the saying goes, “ For a true friend, a knight exerts himself; for an admirer, a lady makes herself beautiful/* So too these gentlemen. A s soon as they en­ countered Wang, their distinct virtue and extraordinary energy [qi] would have naturally grown exhilarated; their lifelong principle o f standing fast amid ice and frost would have blown aw ay into the fluty love songs o f phoenixes;53 all must have been out o f a desire to make themselves beautiful for the one who admired them. For how could they stand there so solitary, moaning in the wind for years on end, forever harboring the regret that they had no true friend?



T he Tales

In Li Z h i’s polem ic against the shallow ness o f the late M in g fashion for obsession, he reverses the hierarchy o f object and obses­ sive and anthropom orphizes the bam boos b y im puting to them hum an w ill and desire. H e argues that every object has a shen, a spirit— an animate force w ithin it— and extrapolates from this ani­ mistic view, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that for a m eaningful exis­ tence, an object, like a person, needs a true friend to love and understand him. Li cleverly im agines the scene o f the b am boos’ attempted seduction o f Wang H uizhi through an elaborate series o f puns that play on b am b oo ’s conventional associations w ith integ­ rity and steadfastness, but his anthropom orphizing o f bam boo was clearly a rhetorical pose, a conceit.54 In “ T he Ethereal R o c k ,” Pu Songling takes the ideas o f Li Z h i’s essay further. C arefully, w ith all the techniques o f a novelist, he gives the intense love betw een an inanimate object and a man a coherent narrative shape and in so doing realizes this rhetorical stance literally. B u t for an inanimate rock to be fully hum an, it must die. T h e m ost shocking m om ent in the tale is when the rock smashes h im self into smithereens: the valuable has been made worthless; the perm anent has been destroyed. T he rock is able to k n o w love, but at the price o f suffering and m ortality. His obsession w ith X in g culm i­ nates in self-sacrifice: to demonstrate his loyalty and remain w ith his true friend, the rock m ust in the end, like a knight-errant or a virtuous w idow , sabotage his ow n beauty and com m it suicide. O n ly in destruction is the rock safe and buried perm anently w ith his beloved. A s in D aoist parables o f crooked trees that su rvive because they are useless, the rock, that “ thing o f unearthly beauty,51 can only be left in peace once his material value is gone. It is no accident that Pu Songling chose an obsession w ith a rock to illustrate the theme o f perfect friendship: the rock was conven­ tionally valued as a sym bol o f lo yalty and constancy. T he phrase “ a rock friend” (shi you), for instance, signified a faithful friend and was a com m on poetic designation for a ro ck .55 T h e expression “ a friend­ ship o f stone” (shi jiao) likew ise describes a friendship as strong and permanent as stone; Pu Songling h im self em ployed this phrase in a little h om ily on friendship.56 A gain , as I noted earlier, it w as not uncom m on to locate the qualities sym bolized b y an object in the object’s innate nature. For instance, A Classified History o f Love

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argues that since love is “ as strong as stone or m etal/5 it can actually transform itself into stone or m etal.b7 In “ T he Ethereal R o c k ,” Pu Songling brilliantly gives these figurative expressions a concrete and literal fo rm .58 B y M in g times the rock had becom e a cult object. Jo h n H ay s study o f the rock in C hinese art, Kernels o f Energy, Bones o f Earth, has revealed the extent to w hich the rock had assumed the stature o f a cultural icon in late Im perial China. R ocks, like stories, w ere prized for being singular, bizarre, odd. A rock was no ordinary object; it was an objet d’art, valued not for the ingenuity and artifice o f hum an skill but for its exquisite naturalness. A n obsession w ith unpolished and uncarved rocks was considered refined; com pared to it, a pas­ sion for jad e and precious stones was m erely vulgar. (D uring the late M in g jades w ere even carved to look like rough stones.59) R ocks w ere supposed to be prized only b y real connoisseurs, but as Pu Songling makes clear, in a market w here rocks com m anded a high price, the pow erful and w ealthy extorted rocks for status and the ignorant chased after rocks for profit. Like Li Z h i’s bam boos, w ho are said to detest their phony m odern adm irers, Pu S o n g lin g’s rock could not possibly reciprocate the false love o fth e other collectors in the tale. It is the h ero’s pure and u nw avering obsession am id this atm osphere o f corruption that earns the ro ck ’s devotion. Th e most obvious inspiration behind Pu S o n g lin g’s rock-lo vin g hero is the Song painter and calligrapher M i Fu, w hose obsession w ith rocks had becom e proverbial. M i F u ’s flam boyant brand o f connoisseurship had enshrined him as the paragon o f obsession and eccentricity. T h e num erous collections o f anecdotes about M i Fu published during the M in g attest to his great appeal.60 T he heady m ixture o f lunacy and sincere passion attributed to M i Fu accorded well w ith the sensibility o f the late M in g and can be detected in a num ber o f Pu S o n g lin g’s heroes. X in g ’s fanatical devotion in “ T he Ethereal R o c k ” had a precedent in the m ost celebrated anecdote about M i Fu, which even figured in his official biography in the Song History: M i Fu was said to have donned official garb to m ake obei­ sance to a favored rock in his collection and to have respectfully addressed it as “ O lder B roth er R o c k ” (shi xiong) or, in a variant, as “ Elder R o c k ” (shi zhang).6] We can be certain o f Pu S o n g lin g’s fam iliarity w ith at least this


T he Tales

anecdote. N o t only did stories about M i Fu enjoy w ide circulation during the seventeenth century, but a rew orkin g o f this anecdote appears in a poem b y Pu Songling entitled “ Elder R o c k .” Th e rock described in this poem is thought to be still standing today on the form er site o f the Stone Recluse Garden (Shiyin yuan), w hich be­ longed to Pu S o n g lin g’s friend and em ployer, B i j i y o u .62 E ld e r R o c k ’s in laid s w o r d ju t s u p h ig h , so h ig h ; H e w e a rs a tu rb an , tab lier, an d san d als o f s tr a w .63 W h ere d ra g o n v ein s coi] on b o n e, stan ds a m o u n ta in s p irit , S till in a c lo a k o f w o o d - lo tu s , in a b elt o f b r y o n y .64 G o n g G o n g hit the p illar o f H e a v e n , an d it cam e c ra sh in g d o w n ; W h ere o n e sh ard stru c k , a fo ld in the eastern m o u n ta in s r o s e .65 U n e v e n p ea ks lik e h air k n o ts, d o zen s o f feet tall, B ru s h e d b y w h ite c lo u d s m o v in g th ro u g h the sky. I re a d y m y cap an d ro b e an d b o w r e v e re n tly : B r is k air fills m y b o s o m , h e a lin g m y g r a v e m a la d y .66

Pu S o n g lin g’s poem m ay be read as the literary equivalent o f the illustrations o f M i Fu b o w in g to his rock so popular in seventeenthcentury art,67 but w ith one im portant difference— it is the poet (“ I” ) w h o bow s to the rock in im itation o f M i Fu and finds therapeutic relief; M i Fu h im self is not depicted, as he often is in com parable poem s b y other w riters.68 In Pu S o n g lin g’s version, the m yth o lo gi­ cal description o f the rock as a miniature m ountain dom inates the poem ; the M i Fu poet-figure has receded into the background and makes on ly an alm ost routine appearance in the closing couplet. C om pared w ith the description o f the rock in this poem , the description o f the rock in the tale is startlingly restrained and sparse. G one are the ornate language and standard allusions o f the poem : in their place is sim ply a b rief but vivid description given w hen the rock first com es into view : it “ w as a rock barely a foot high. A ll four sides w ere intricately hollow ed, w ith layered peaks ju ttin g up.” Further details o f the ro ck ’s unearthly physical beauty— the num ber o f crannies, the m inuscule inscription bearing its name, the clouds it em its— are filled in only gradually as needed w ithin the fram ew ork o f the plot, but there are never enough details to dispel the ro ck ’s aura o f m ystery. T h e real im age o f the rock is left to the reader’s im agination, to be inferred from the endless struggles to possess it.

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M oreover, “ T he Ethereal R o c k ” does not retell any o f the w ellk n ow n M i Fu anecdotes; instead it creates a new cluster o f anecdotes w ithin the heightened atm osphere o f seventeenth-century obses­ sional culture. Pu S o n g lin g’s hero does not sim ply im itate M i Fu— he surpasses him , surrendering three years o f his life and then risking w hat remains all for the rock, w ho in turn eclipses any pre­ vio u sly recorded rock in history. A s Feng Zhenluan exclaim s: ‘‘M i Fu b ow ed to a rock, but I im agine he didn’t have a rock o f this caliber. N iu Sengru was called a rock connoisseur, but I’ll bet he never set eyes on such a ro ck ” (Liaozhai 1 1 .1 5 7 5 ) .69 A n d X in g ’s rock is not only w orshipped; invested w ith both dem onic pow ers (mojie) and a deep hum anity, he is able to respond to a true connoisseurs love as Elder R ock never could. In addition to “ Elder R o c k ,” Pu Songling w rote tw o other poem s expressly on rocks and, as already mentioned, com piled a b rie f cata­ logue on ro ck s.70 H e brilliantly incorporated the kn o w led ge o f rock lore so evident in his poem s and catalogue into his tale. T h e ro ck ’s m iraculous feat o f em itting clouds, for instance, m ay be im agina­ tive invention, but it plays on the traditional associations o f rocks, m ountains, and clouds.71 T h e ro ck ’s ability to predict the weather also has a quasi-historical basis in a description o fa fam ed m ountain­ shaped inkstone said to have belonged to M i Fu: “ When it is goin g to rain, the ‘dragon p o o l’ [in a cranny o f the rock] becom es w e t.’’72 G ivin g rocks personal names likew ise had a foundation in histori­ cal and contem porary practice. A s a poem written on a beautiful early seventeenth- century painting o f a rock proclaim s: “ R ocks, too, have names and sobriquets, / This rock is called M ysterious C lo u d .” 73 (Surely it is no coincidence that the nam e Pu Songling gave his rock-lover, X in g Y u n fei or M o vin g C lou d s in Flight, sounds like the name o f a ro ck .74) Lastly, the history o f rock collect­ ing is notorious for epic battles betw een connoisseurs. These battles are scaled dow n in “ T h e Ethereal R o c k ”;to underscore the purity o f the h ero’s obsession, his hum an com petitors for the rock are not true connoisseurs, and the rock is resold cheaply in the com m on m arket. Liaozhai contains a num ber o f w onderful tales about obsessions w ith flow ers and musical instrum ents. What distinguishes “ T he Ethereal R o c k ” from these other obsessional tales is not the an­ thropom orphism o f the object, for the heroes in Liaozhai frequently


T he Tales

fall in love w ith the hum an incarnations o f their obsessions. Th e sustained im putation o f hum an-like behavior to the non-hum an (objects, plants, animals, ghosts) is a staple o f the strange tale, but the ground covered b y such anthropom orphism is quite broad. A t one extrem e, things retain their o w n form but are m otivated b y hum an ethics and desires; at the other extrem e, things take on human form , often so convincingly that they are mistaken for peo­ ple until the denouement o f the tale. In the first case, there is no physical m etam orphosis, and only the spirit o f a thing is anthropo­ m orphized; in the second case, m etam orphosis is essential, and both spirit and form are anthropom orphized. W ithin any given instance o f anthropom orphism , h ow ever, the ratio o f thing to hum an is variable. T hus, although the objects o f m any different obsessions are anthropom orphized in Liaozhai, whether they seem m ore hu­ man or m ore thing- like varies enorm ously. In the Liaozhai tales o f flow er obsession, the flow ers prim arily assume hum an fem ale form in the story, although telltale clues to their floral nature are liberally provided. Part o f the charm o f a story about a peony-spirit like “ G e J in ” or a chrysanthem um -spirit like “ Y ello w P rid e” (“ H uang Y in g ”;1 1 . 1446—52) is that the revelation the heroines are flow ers rather than hum an beings is deferred; the tale becom es a riddle o f identity, one that contem porary readers w ould have found enjoyable and not too difficult to unravel*75 Pu Songling adopted a second approach in tw o tales o f obsession with musical instrum ents, “ Huan N ia n g ” (7.985—90) and “丁he Stin g” (“Ju zha ”;8 .10 2 9 -34 ). A lth ough the zither is the pivot o f both plots, it is not anthropom orphized at all; it undergoes no m etam orphosis and is given no distinct personality. It remains throughout a precious but passive object o f desire. “ The Ethereal R o c k ” is unique in Liaozhai because the rock ac­ quires a personality, an identity, a hum an presence, even though it remains an inanimate object. O n ly veiled in dream does the rock appear as a m an* and speak directly, introducing h im self as Shi Q in gxu . O rdinarily w hen a rock is given a name in a catalogue or in an inscription, the character shi or rock follow s rather than precedes the name. This is w h y the miniature inscription carved on the rock ★ A s M i F u ’s a d d r e s s in g h is r o c k as “ O ld e r B r o t h e r ” a ffir m s , r o c k s w e r e g e n d e r e d as m a le in th e C h in e s e im a g in a tio n , ju s t as flo w e r s w e r e g e n d e r e d as fe m a le .

O bsession


in the story reads: “ Ethereal, the Celestial R o c k ” (“ Q in g x u ,tianshi” ). This order ,h ow ever, is reversed in the ro ck ’s self-introduc­ tion and in the sto ry ’s title. Placed first rather than last, the character shi assumes the Chinese position o f a surnam e. T he deliberate inver­ sion o f the ro ck ’s name, then, suggests a subtle anthropom orphization. T h e delicate balance between the outw ard form o f a rock and the inner soul o f a man is thus encoded in this new name: “ Sh i” is in fact a com m on surnam e; “ Q in g x u ” (pure and ethereal), the ro ck ’s given name, evokes his extraordinary quality o f qi, for w hich rocks, as “ kernels o f energy,” w ere prized .76 Such a balance seems to have also been achieved in certain late M in g paintings o f rocks, w hich, as Jo h n H ay suggests, m ay have been “ portraying personalities as em bodied in structural form s and textures.5,77 Pu S o n g lin g’s rock m ay be fictional, but beginning in Song times num erous artists had portrayed their favorite rocks and im bued them w ith their ow n fantasies. A n extraordinary handscroll paint­ ing from the early seventeenth century gives us additional insight into “ T he Ethereal R o c k ” and the cultural milieu out o f w hich it em erged (see Fig. 3).78 Th e rock in question belonged to M i Wan­ zhong (15 7 0 —1628), a w ell-kn ow n official w h o adopted the sobri­ quet “ Friend to R o cks” (You shi) and claimed descent from none other than M i Fu him self. C ontem poraries said o f M i Wanzhong that he possessed M i F u ’s obsession but not his lunacy.79 A lthough M i Wanzhong was a fam ous calligrapher and painter specializing in rock paintings, the handscroll was the w o rk o f his friend Wu B in (fl. 15 9 1 —1626), a professional landscape painter and fellow rocklo ver.80 A t first glance, the painting seems to belong to the “ still life” genre: the rock is m ethodically painted, and M i W anzhong’s de­ scriptions are factual and m eticulous, docum enting the size, shape, gesture, and texture o f each o f its peaks. B u t w hen w e gaze at the painting longer, it becom es anything but still or photographic in feel; the rock is fantastic, bizarre, unearthly, w ith long stalagm ite­ like peaks, separated by m ysterious spaces. It alm ost seems to be m ovin g, w rithing as though on fire or b low n b y w ind; yet it still som eh ow retains the solidity o f stone.81 M ost unusually, the handscroll consists o f ten life-size portraits o f the rock, each painted from a different angle. Such attention lav­ ished on a single rock rem inds one o f an infatuated lover reveling in

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Fig. 3. A section from Wu B in’s handscroll showing two views o f M i Wanzhong’s rock, with inscriptions by M i Wanzhong dated 1610. (Reproduced with the permission o f the E. & J. Frankel Gallery)


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