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The Strange Tales from Liaozhai

(The following is a post by Jeffrey Wang, reference specialist for the Chinese Collection, Asian Division.)

Figure 1 – Corrupt officials and powerful gentry commit crimes and subject the common people to endless bullying and humiliation. “The Story of Xi Fangping” from “Strange Tales from Liaozhai,” 1886. Chinese collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

The “Strange Tales from Liaozhai” (Liao zhai zhi yi 聊齋誌異), written in classical Chinese, is a collection of short stories from the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912). It consists of 491 tales in 16 volumes, mostly stories about fox-fairies, flower-spirits, ghosts, and goblins, which are the dominant theme of the entire collection.

Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715), the author of the “Strange Tales from Liaozhai,” was a native of Zichuan County, in the Shandong Province. “Liaozhai” is the name given by the author to his private study room, where he composed his work. Pu Songling was born into an impoverished middle-class family. Like most of the intellectuals of his era, he studied hard and tried to make a career by first passing the imperial examinations, which would lead to securing an appointment as an imperial bureaucrat. Unfortunately, he passed the examination only at the county level and never succeeded at the provincial level. This failure compelled him to divert his talent to the creation of imaginary stories. For many years, Pu Songling lived in the countryside, where he found great pleasure and motivation in collecting folk tales. Because of his failure to pass the imperial examinations, some of his works criticize the corrupt examination system, and injustice in society, and evoke sympathy for the common people. He also emphasizes that corrupt officials collude with powerful gentry for their own interest. They enjoy privileges and power granted to them by the government, based purely on their social status and wealth and work hand and glove with one another when subjecting the common people to endless bullying and humiliation. For example, in the tenth story in volume ten, “The Story of Xi Fangping” (席方平) (see figure 1), Xi Fangping is a young commoner whose father is embroiled in a feud with a corrupt landlord. The landlord dies before the dispute is resolved, and his ghost begins haunting and terrorizing the father. Xi travels to hell and challenges the ghost in the courtroom of hell. Ultimately, the king of hell finds the ghost of the corrupt landlord guilty and punishes him.

Figure 2 – A young intellectual becomes infatuated with a demon disguised as a beautiful young maiden. “The Story of Huapi” from “Strange Tales from Liaozhai,” 1886. Chinese Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

The main characters in this collection of stories, however, are ghosts, fox-fairies, and demons. Pu Songling made effective use of fantastic plots to bring out the personality of the characters and to reveal their inner world. He has a particularly clear yearning for pure, faithful love, shown in many stories about the romance between beautiful and kind female ghosts and poor intellectuals. For example, in the fourteenth story in volume one, “The Story of Huapi” (畫皮) (see figure 2), one of the best-known entries in this collection, a young intellectual is seduced by a demon who is disguised as a beautiful young maiden. They develop a romantic relationship, which goes awry after he discovers her true identity. A Taoist priest is then asked to exorcise the young intellectual of evil spirts. In the second story in volume two, “The Story of Nie Xiaoqian” (聶小倩) (see figure 3), a young intellectual saves a beautiful female ghost from being coerced into the service of a demon. The ghost then takes care of the young intellectual and helps him achieve success in passing the civil examinations.

Most of the so-called ghost stories in “Strange Tales from Liaozhai” are not intended to scare or frighten readers. Rather, they are works rich in romanticism that explore the concept of qing 情, a Chinese term whose range of meanings includes emotion, sentiment, sympathy, lust, love, desire, and passion. Although the “Strange Tales from Liaozhai” is not recognized as one of the Four Great Classical Novels (Si da qi shu 四大奇書) of Chinese literature—a category comprised of “Story of Water Margin,” “Journey to the West”, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” and “The Plum in the Golden Vase”—it is nevertheless one of the most famous and widely-read works and occupies a unique place in Chinese literary history.

Figure 3 – A young intellectual saves a beautiful female ghost from being coerced into the service of a demon. “The Story of Nie Xiaoqian” from “Strange Tales from Liaozhai,” 1886. Chinese Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

In the Asian Reading Room, there are several Chinese publications of this collection of stories, such as “Liao zhai zhi yi tu yong,” an edition published during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (r. 1875-1908). This edition reproduces an earlier work from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and features the amazing traditional Chinese illustrations displayed here. There are also several English versions of the work at the Library of Congress, such as the multivolume edition translated by Zhang, Zhang, and Yang, the annotated translation of Sondergard, and Lu’s illustrated English rendition.

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