Pu Songling: Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

Classical Chinese literature obviously does not consist solely of the Six Great Novels, and I wanted my reading project to also include some shorter (but not necessarily minor) books. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio was my first attempt at a canonized work which is not a several thousand pages long, and overall I enjoyed it, if not quite as much as the novels, which I strongly suspect is due to more getting lost in translation.

Pu Songling’s work is written in “classical” Chinese as opposed to the “vernacular” of the novels. Not knowing any Chinese at all, I have not the faintest clue what the implies, but according to the translator of the edition I have read, John Minford, the former is highly elliptical and allusive, while the latter is much more straightforward. The tales in this volume often rely heavily on references to other works, and are often oblique in their allusions – a Chinese gentleman reader of the 17th century would probably have caught them easily, but a modern day Western reader is quite lost and has to rely on annotations. John Minford thankfully supplies a generous amount of those (as well as a highly informative introduction), but it still is not quite the same – the whole situation is rather reminiscent of Plum in a Golden Vase – and in fact, Strange Tales shares another trait with that novel, namely that it is very frank about sexuality; the sex is not as explicit, but it occurs rather more often.

When I was starting with this, I was expecting a Chinese version of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but what I got instead was a Chinese version of Hebel’s Kalendergeschichten with added supernatural elements (and more sex). Which, as I hasten to add, is not a bad thing at all. The stories in this volume (104 in all, a selection from the original) are all short to very short (I don’t think there is a single one above twenty pages) and vary in nature, from didactic morality tales over ghost stories to reports of strange occurrences like you’d find them in the Miscellaneous section of your newspaper (if it was published in 17th century China, that is). And there is, of course, cannibalism – I guess no piece of Classical Chinese literature would be complete without it. Some tales I found delightful, some left me scratching my head, some were amazing, some plain bizarre, some I got, some left me baffled – in short, this collection is very much like the notorious box of chocolates, you never know what you will get.

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is best read one or two tales at a time, so that each piece has space and time to unfold its own peculiar charm. Another trait this collection shares with chocolates is that too many ingested at once will spoil your stomach, and that while they are delicious, they are not particularly nourishing. Only maybe half a dozen stories felt like they’d make any lasting impact, the rest, while a pleasant diversion, also seemed somewhat shallow. Which may be because of the shortness of the tales, but I’m more inclined to blame it on them being translations. John Minford’s translation does appear to be a good one (as far as i can tell not knowing the original), but translations can only do so much; and if a work which depends as much on nuances and wordplay (not to mention the occasional double entendre) as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio appears to do, then it will unfailingly be bound in its original language and any translation, no matter how good, will only give a blurry, washed-out reproduction of the original’s splendour. Even so, just for the glimpse it grants us, it is well worth reading translations. And who knows, readers might find themselves motivated to actually learn the language of the original…

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2 comments

  1. “Delicious, but not particularly nourishing”. I love the way you describe books… I am tempted to pursue you in some of your Chinese reading, but I just feel this one might be a tad too esoteric for me. Thank you for going there so I don’t have to *grins*

  2. You’re being way too kind there, but thank you none the less. 😉

    The novels even though considerably more voluminous were indeed a lot more accessible and entertaining than this comparatively short (well, 600 pages, but that’s short compared to several thousand) collection of tales. They are not really hard to understand, the diffcult thing is to figure out what the point is which I found very baffling even with the helpful notes. Sill, I’m glad I’ve read it, even if it’s just for adding yet another facet to my image of Chinese culture which I’m finding quite fascinating.

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