P’u Sung-ling (June 5, 1640—February 25, 1715) was a Chinese author who wrote “the Strange Stories from Chinese Studio” during in the Qing Dynasty. His family name was P’u; his particular name was Song-ling; and the courtesy name or literary epithet was Liu-Xian, or “Last of the Immortals”, he was also known as Liu-Quan Jushi, or “the Hermit of Willow Spring”, but he is now familiarly spoken of simply as Pu Song-ling.
P’u was from a poor landlord-merchant family from Zichuan (淄川, now Zibo, Shandong province). Possibly he
was of Mongol ancestry. When P’u was born, his father dreamed a sickly-looking Buddhist priest, P’u took this dream as a bad omen of his ailing childhood and harsh adult life; or to some extent, he might have belived he was the incarnation of this buddhaist priest. He said in the preface of the Strange Story from Chinese Studio:
When the bow was hung at my father’s door, he dreamed that a sickly-looking Buddhist priest, but half covered by his stole, entered the chamber. On one of his breasts was a round piece of plaster like a cash and my father, waking from sleep, found that I, just born, had a similar black patch on my body. As a child, I was thin and constantly ailing, and unable to hold my own in the battle of life. Our own home was chill and desolate as a monastery and working there for my livelihood with my pen, I was as poor as a priest with his alms-bowl. Often and often I put my hand to my head and exclaimed,“Surely he who sat with his face to the wall was myself in previous state of existence”.
In ancient China, when a family give birth of a boy, a bow was hung at the left side of the door, while that of a girl, a small towel wasd displayed, indicative of the roles that each would hereafter be expected to play. But P’u was quite weak and constantly ailing in his childhood, even unable to hold his own battle of life, let alone to become a warrior.
At the age of nineteen, he received the Bachelor’s degree(秀才 xiucai) in the imperial civil service examination, but it was not until he was seventy-one that he received the Gongsheng degree. This unsuccessfull pursue of scholarship had turned the author back to the disappointment of a private life, he spent his life in the retirement of home, in the society of books and friends. As a result, many of P’u Sung-ling’s tales are scholars down on their luck, who have not risen to prestige through the examination system, often because the system is corrupt.
The Strange Stories from Chinese Studio
Pu Songling spent most of his life working as a private tutor, and collecting the stories. He was a drinker and a listener. As he himself writes, ‘ in the lapse of time my friends from all quarters have supplied me with quantities of material, which, from my habit of collecting, has grown into a vast pile’.
The Strange Stories are retellings of old tales from the Tang dynasty and earlier, many of them are a wild phantasmagoria of ghosts, were-foxes, were-tigers (even one were-turtle), demons, sorcerors (often, in P’u, Taoist priests), psychic transmigrations, and journeys into the underworld and other levels of reality (as in the famous “Painted Wall”). These kinds of stories were very popular in China, and had been so for centuries, perhaps millennia. However, upon this collection of folktales and old stories he indelibly stamps his own style and notably adds his own opinions.
The Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio contains no less than 491 tales. It was originally, and for many years, circulated in manuscript only. P’u Sung-ling, as we are told in a colophon by his grandson to the first edition, he was too poor to meet the heavy expense of block-cutting. His aforesaid grandson finally printed and published the collection posthumously in 1740. An alternate title was ‘History of Foxes and Ghosts’.
The book title: What does Liao Zhai Zhi Yi mean?
Herbert Giles has disscussed the title in the preface of his translation:
With regard to the meaning of the Chinese words Liao Chai Chih I, this title has received indifferent treatment at the hands of different writers. Dr. Williams chose to render it by “Pastimes of the Study,” and Mr. Mayers by “The Record of Marvels, or Tales of the Genii” neither of which is sufficiently near to be regarded in the light of a translation. Taken literally and in order, these words stand for “Liao-library-record-strange,” “Liao” being simply a fanciful name given by our author to his private library or studio. An apocryphal anecdote traces the origin of this selection to a remark once made by himself with reference to his failure for the second degree. “Alas!” he is reported to have said; “I shall now have no resource (Liao) for my old age” and accordingly he so named his study, meaning that in his pen he would seek that resource which fate bad denied to him as an official. For this untranslatable “Liao” I have ventured to substitute “ Chinese,” as indicating more clearly the nature of what is to follow.
According to a Chinese-English Dictionary, Liao has three meanings: (1)merely, just; (2)a little, slightly; (3) Chat; Chat is an informal conversation, a “Chitchat Studio” is a studio where informal conversation were taking place without serious academic intention or meaning. Certainly devil and fox stories have never been taken seriously by Chinese scholars, and even sometimes despised as heresy by those who strictly followed Confucius doctrine, as in Analects, “Confucius did not speak of oddities (or strange), feats of power (or violence), disorders of nature, or spirits (or gods).” and he also said: “To throw oneself into strange teachings is quite dangerous.”
Denis C. & Victor H. Mair translated Liao Zhai into Make-do Studio, and named the book as Strange Tales from Make-do Studio (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989).
Nevertheless, no other names except for “Chinese Studio” could be more clearly indicating the nature of this book which was written by a Chinese, and more established and widely accepted by western readers because of the wonderful translation by Herbert Giles.
Herbert Giles and His Translation
Some 160 of Pu Song-ling’s stories were translated into English by Herbert A Giles, who is perhaps best
|(Herbert A Giles (1845-1935)
shown in his garden at the Ningbo British Consulate in 1889)
known as the developer of the Wade-Giles system of transliterating Chinese characters into Roman script.
Herbert Giles (1808-1884), was born in Oxford, an Anglican clergyman. After four years at Charterhouse, Giles did not, as might have been expected, proceed to Oxford, but went instead to Peking, having passed the competitive examination for a Student Interpretership in China and became a British diplomat to China.
During his 25 years service in China, he devoted his time and energy to Chinese research and publication, with the result that when he retired he had established a reputation as a sinologist which enabled him, despite his lack of formal qualifications, to advance to one of the most prestigious academic posts in Chinese studies, the only the second professor of Chinese appointed at the University of Cambridge, succeeding Thomas Wade. Giles was therefore free to spend time among all of the ancient Chinese texts donated by Thomas Wade, publishing what he translated from his wide reading.
Giles’ translations were first published as two volumes in 1880. Although there have been subsequent translations, Giles remains the best source for the English speaker.