Today I am celebrating the birthday of Pu Songling who was born on this day in 1640. During his life, he collected and adapted almost five hundred folk tales which were gathered together and published posthumously around 1740 in a work called ‘Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio’. His adaptations reflect his concerns about corruption in authority and sad, lonely academics. The book is considered to be the bible of Chinese supernatural tales. The language of his stories is rich and beautiful, full of significances that I haven’t a hope of understanding or doing justice to. But as his work seems to parallel that of his western contemporary Charles Perrault and the work of the brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, I can’t pass him by today.
Pu Songling passed his first degree level examination at the age of eighteen. But due to a lack of social standing or the funds to bribe officials, he did not pass his next exam until he was seventy-one. His dislike of ridiculous bureaucracy is evident in his tales, though he disguises it with supernatural elements. A corrupt society run by unhelpful officials is, in his stories, just as much of a problem in Hell as in is in our earthly realm. I found out that Franz Kafka was quite a fan of his work, and I can see why.
His stories often involve ghost lovers, spirit foxes and demons. Ghosts are pretty important in Chinese folk tales. When someone died, it was believed that their family must pray for them and also burn paper money so that the dead person could use it to bribe themselves a decent place in the underworld and eventually reincarnation. If someone had no family to pray for them, they had to wander the earth as a ghost. Their only hope then was to lure another person to their death, which would provide a replacement soul so theirs could then be released for reincarnation. If a young unmarried woman died she could not be placed in a family and sometimes relatives would seek a posthumous marriage for her so that her spirit could be looked after. Therefore lots of ghost stories are about young female ghosts who have taken the matter into their own hands and are looking for an earthly husband. In Pu Songling’s tales, sometimes as a result of the marriage, the ghost can become human. Sometimes the opposite happens and the human fades away and dies.
Spirit Foxes can be vicious murderers or utterly benign, but they really, really want to seduce humans. They can disguise themselves in human form and, whether male or female, are always beautiful. The disguise is not always complete though and sometimes you might notice a tail sticking out. If you were to discover a spirit fox and manage to kill it, you might then see that it was just an ordinary looking fox with a human skull balanced on top of its head. It would have used it’s magic to deceive you. Just as a the ghost of a human strives towards reincarnation, the ultimate goal of a spirit fox is to become a celestial fox which has nine tails and can communicate with heaven.
Probably his best known story is called ‘Painted Skin’. A couple of the details in it are revolting, so if you have just eaten, or are about to eat, probably don’t read on. It has been retold many times and made into at least one horror film. It is about a scholar who falls in love with a beautiful woman. But then he finds out that she is really a demon wearing a skin that it has painted to look like a human. He tries a charm to keep the demon away, but it doesn’t work and it tears out his heart and he dies. But the scholar also has a wife, who grieves over him and wants him brought back to life. She is sent by a priest to visit a raving madman and ask him for help. The madman insults her, beats her and finally coughs up a lump of phlegm and makes her swallow it. She returns home to prepare her husband’s body for burial and vomits up the lump of phlegm into the open wound in her husbands chest. Then, she sees it has become a beating heart. She binds up his wound with silk and he begins to breathe and lives again.
There’s something about tales of horror from a distant land that makes them somehow scarier than ours. Perhaps it is because they are rooted in a different culture. Maybe they just lack the familiar tropes that we’ve all got used to. If you want to read more, Pu Songling’s tales were translated into English by a man named Herbert Giles and published in 1880 and are easy to come by at Internet Archive. This version though, is bound by Victorian standards of morality, so his stories are devoid of some of the colour of the original. You won’t find any phlegm in his version of Painted Skin, and you will find his fox spirits who only want a nice cup of tea and a bit of a chat. I understand that a more recent translation by John Minford is much better.