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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #1 (January 1, 2008), page 16.

Strange tales told as true

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

By Pu Songling

Translated and edited by John Minford
Penguin Classics, 2006
Paperback, 562 pages, $16.00

By Ronault L.S. Catalani

There’s nothing apparently remarkable about Pu Songling’s stories. In one story, a pretty dead girl gets up and sucks the life-breath out of snoring travellers. In another a lonely lady looks forward to the solace of dusk and the intimacy of her little dog. In another: to everyone’s surprise, if not alarm, a recently deceased man comes back saying he wants his wife along. Just to calm the guy and help him on his way out of this life, she lies beside him. The scene settles down. While everyone thinks she’s only snoozing, someone notices she’s gone. With him. Finito.

It all happens, Master Pu tells each unsettling tale, in his totally pedestrian tone. So much of this understated brilliance must be credited to Pu Songling’s editor and translator in this present volume, John Minford. Professor Minford is Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University of Hong Kong.

Pu Songling, the teller of these disarming little stories, was a seventh-century writer from China’s northern Shandung Province. It was a time of the Ming Dynasty’s disintegration. Scholars say he authored around 500 of these tasty treats. Penguin Classics sets out 104 in this volume. Some are told as single paragraph anecdotes, others are fully developed short stories, and many are somewhere in between. But as Master Pu plainly warns in his title, all are really strange. The joy of each is their rendering in what those same scholars say is the learned, salon style of those times.

Of course, by those times Mother China had already accumulated a long literary memory. Inside that written tradition there are artsy conventions and scholarly references to historical characters, intended to hook the refined taste of the Mandarin class way back then, as well as now. All that smart commentary, including a glossary of language and distinctly Chinese ideas, accompanies this present selection of Pu Songling stories.

Scholarly and creepy

All that brainy academe aside, these are simply startling, often funny, little stories. The kind that raise neck hairs, no matter our historical times or cultural milieu.

Take "Silver Above Beauty," story number 94. A certain scholar studying in the mountains wakes late one night to find two beautiful women sitting next to him, smiling, "their light silken sleeves brushing silently against the bedstead.

"Presently, one of them rose and spread a white silk scarf on the table, inscribed with three or four lines of fine grass-script calligraphy." The other lovely visitor set on it several taels of silver. Our scholar is not so curious about why heavenly ladies were settled on his lonely bed, he’s not even interested in what wise words were given him under that magical moonlight. What he does, like Master Pu’s storytelling, is simply ordinary.

It’s not hard imagining this tale, or any of Pu Songling’s stories, refitted with urban American characters, retold late at night, around a fire, as a northern wind scratches tree twigs against your window. That’s the power of our shared imagination and the persistence of our humanity.

Who knows, maybe Master Pu picked up the thread of this tale at a roadside inn, also under stormy stars, also already a thousand years old.


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