In the Song (960 – 1279 A.D.) and Yuan (1279 – 1368 A.D.) Dynasties, short stories had been told and sung by story-teUers to crowds gathered around them. There were story-tellers’ notes; as they were not written by experienced writers, their language is generally rather crude. During the Ming (1368 – 1644 A.D.) dynasty, certain writers began to polish those notes and write new stories. In the last years of the dynasty there was a great advance in short fiction.
Feng Menglong and his Three Volumes of Words
During this period the man who made the greatest contribution to the growth of short fiction was Feng Menglong( 1574- 1646, his name 冯梦龙， first name Menglong literally means Dream of Dragon). He was born into a scholarly family in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. he was recognized as an outstanding literary talent in his youth, but repeatedly failed to pass the Imperial Civil Service examinations. For some time he was a county magistrate (between 1630 and 1638), but all his life he was a passionate lover of literature, especially fiction. He collected, edited, revised and published a great number of jokes, anecdotes, short stories, plays and folk tales. The first collection of short stories he edited was originally called Ancient and Modern Stories, or Stories Old and New (Gujin Xiaoshuo) published (1620). When the second and third collections came out, he entitled them Ordinary Words to Warn the World and Lasting Words to Awaken the World. Then he changed the title of the first collection to Clear Words to Illustrate the World. The three volumes were then given a general title: Three Volumes of Words. Selections of Feng’s works have been translated by Cyril Birch, Stories from a Ming Collection: Translations of Chinese Short Stories Published in the Seventeenth Century (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1959); translated in its entirety by Yang Shuihu and Yang Yunqin, Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000). A full lists of his works can be found bellow.
In these three volumes are collected 120 short stories based on earlier story-tellers’ notes and revised or rewritten by Feng. As a result of his work, those stories are not only interesting but also readable. Most of them reflect life in prosperous cities, and most of the characters are people of the lower and middle classes. Some of the stories describe young people who are faithful to those they love;some describe craftsmen, vendors and small merchants who are willing to make sacrifices to help their friends;others expose the crimes of corrupt officials and big landlords, and the conflicts within feudal families. They are like mirrors in which the reader can see what urban life was like, and how people of different classes lived and behaved in the Ming and earlier periods.
Take the story of the oil vendor Qin Zhong, for example. He is poor and is very low on the social ladder, but he wins the love of a beautiful prostitute Shen Yaoqin, because he is sincere and loves her wholeheartedly. When Shen compares this poor young man with those sons of wealthy families who treat her as a plaything and insult her, she sees the meaning and value of true love, and decides to marry Qin. This story shows a change in urban people’s attitude towards marriage: sincere love is more important than wealth and social position, and in this theme lies the significance of the story.
Ling Mengchu and his Two Volumes of Slapping
When Feng Menglong was editing his stories, another writer was doing similar work. Ling Mengchu(1580- 1644)was born into the Ling clan of Wuxing, Zhejiang province. The Ling family had supplied numerous officials to the empire. No doubt the Ling family prospered on land rents and agriculture. In addition family members were actively engaged in the printing business with a local specialty of books in polychrome.
Like Feng, he was a lover and promoter of popular literature. He compiled two volumes of short stories called Surprising Stories to Make One Slap the Desk, or Two Volumes of Slapping for short. He wrote most of the 78 stories in them, though the material came from earlier folk tales. Ling’s short stories were a detailed study of his 17th century moral world. A new factor that Ling Mengchu insisted on was empiricism, an objective study of what existed before the eyes of the observer. In the prefatory material to his first short story collection he insisted it was infinitely more difficult to paint a likeness of a dog or horse one had actually seen than to render a ghost or goblin had never observed.
The Old Man Hugging the Jar and his The Wonderful Sights of Ancient and Modern
Later, a man who called himself the Old Man Hugging the Jar selected 40 from the nearly 200 stories in the Three Volumes of Words and Two Volumes of Slapping and put them together in a book entitled Wonderful Sights of Ancient and Modern (Jin gu Qi Guan), which was to become more popular than the five original books.
A list of works from Ming Collections available in English
A list of Works available in English:
- Chinese Love Stories from “Ching-shih” (Li Huayuan Mowry). Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1983.
- Four Cautionary Tales from a Collection (ed. by Feng Menglong) (Harold Acton and Lee Yi-hsieh). New York: Ace Books, 1931; London: J. Lehmann, 1947.
- Lazy Dragon: Chinese Stories from the Ming Dynasty (by Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu) (Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang). Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1981.
- Stories from a Ming Collection: Translations of Chinese Short Stories Published in the Seventeenth Century (compiled by Feng Menglong) (Cyril Birch). New York: Grove Press; London: Bodley Head, 1958; New York: Grove Press, 1968; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.
- Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (compiled by Feng Menglong) (Shuhui Yang and Yungin Yang). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.
- The Chinese Femme Fatale: Stories from the Ming Period (Anne E McLaren). Broadway, New South Wales: Wild Peony, 1994.
- The Courtesan’s Jewel Box: Chinese Stories of the Xth-XVIIth Centuries (by Feng Menglong and others) (Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1957.
- The Perfect Lady by Mistake and Other Stories (William Dolby). London: P. Elek, 1976.
- Wisdom’s Way: 101 Tales of Chinese Wit (Walton C. Lee). Jamaica Plain, Mass.: YMAA Publication Center, 1997.
Studies and Biographies:
- Shuhui Yang, Appropriation and Representation: Feng Menglong and the Chinese Vernacular Story. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1998.
- Huayuan Li Mowry, Ch’ing-shih and Feng Menglong. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 1983.