Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling

"A lonely soul in a strange land dreads the desolation of the grave."
-- One of the many attractive ghosts in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (178)

This Penguin edition collects 104 of the short tales of odd and frequently supernatural occurrences written by Pu Songling, who died in 1715, but whose work wasn't published until 1766. Just like the people in these stories, we're living, 250 years later, in a time full of soul-crushing bureaucracy, only without the consolations of shrines, ghosts, and fox spirits. Personally, I'd love to visit the Island of Antiquities (185), or be able to believe that grievances against the dead could be settled in the courts of the Nether World (147), although I wouldn't be too thrilled to have a miniature person come out of my ear.

I was surprised by the number of tiny people in these stories, as well the often-sympathetic view taken toward the spirit world. The presence of ghosts may often be harmful to the living, and the fox spirits may be known for their seductive and otherwise trickstery ways, but the individuals of their -- species?, particularly women, are shown in many of the tales to be loving and essentially decent.

Also, there is a tale about a giant turtle, about whom the nearby monks proclaim "All we can do is worship it and pray to it not to fly into a rage" (194): the original Gamera? It doesn't fly, or breathe fire, but frankly, that wouldn't be at all out of place here.

Editor and translator John Minford provides so much in the way of fascinating backstory and detailed footnotes, I wish I could fake-drink that cup of oblivion offered by Yama in the afterlife, and be reborn to study Chinese literature in more depth. Clearly, it would take me a lifetime to read through all the relevant texts mentioned. Especially since there are whole genres of stories called "Weird Accounts" and "Strange Stories," the former being shorter records of peculiar events, and the latter more fleshed-out short stories on similar themes. (Both styles represented here).

Highly recommended, particularly for a time when you don't have a lot of time, or attention span, to devote to reading. Some of the tales are only half a page long, and even the longer narratives fly by quickly.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Translated and edited by John Minford.  London: Penguin, 2006.

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