This book is one of the best I've read in ages. While many many books have been written about Pu Songling in Chinese this is the first dedicated to his strange tales in English, (though many articles about his treatment of ghosts and fox spirits have been written). Zeitlin does a truly excellent job, first of outlining the history of strange tales, then placing this book in that context, tracing its development and then focusing on three specific aspects of the tales. The three aspects she focuses on are obsession, gender transformation and dreams. Areas not often discussed in relation to these stories. As such she offers and interesting and fresh insight into the work and I learnt an awful lot. I took so many notes, on almost every page there was an interesting fact or quote or insight.

One of the themes that gets repeated throughout the book is the straddling of fiction non-fiction that is present within the book. Pu Songling combines historical people and events with fantastic occurrences so the line between where the fiction starts is blurred. This theme is taken up later in the book when it discusses how characters who originated in fiction become "real" in the minds of their readers, so much so that they are able to interact with them in dreams and the characters prove their existence. The blurring of fiction and reality was a common theme in Ming and Qing times.

In the introduction Zeitlan starts out with a very good definition of the Chinese terms 异 yi (Different) 怪 guai (anomalous) 奇 qi (marvelous) and talks about how they are used to describe the fiction, and why she settles on the translation of strange (5).

The first chapter traces the history of the book and Pu Songling. Zeitlin states how the standard edition is Zhang Youhe's annotated version which includes "prefaces, colophons, dedicatory verses, interlinear glosses, and interpretive commentaries and crowned with a new foreword and appendix" (15). This comes from the traditional Chinese literary criticism that was interactive as well as interpretative with people having discussions on the pages of the manuscript, "readers recorded their reactions all over the pages even between the lines" (15) and these commentaries were preserved. "The text became an ongoing dialogue not only between the author and his readers but also between generations of readers" (15). In many cases the commentary on a book is much longer than the original text. In the first chapter Zeitin traces the original commentaries and sees how they develop, by scholars who knew Pu Songling and were trying to promote his work, to those who were trying to promote a moral message within the work and justify it as literature to the third wave of interpretation. She compares the commentaries and introductions with other similar works produced at the time and themes within Ming and Qing literature and culture. As such it includes many titles and descriptions of other collections of strange tales.
Zeitin then examines Pu Songling's own introduction to the collection in which he makes reference to the fact that the only ones who will truly understand his words will come after his death (51).

Chapter two deals with obsession and is fascinating. It looks at the way collecting became an obsession and how it was praised and criticised. There is a great criticism of obsession by the woman writer Su Shi (68) saying there is no difference between obsession with objects and obsession with money. It is interesting that she was writing after the fall of the Song which saw the death of her husband and the destruction of their book collection. Clearly at such times things become less important. It is not surprising then that during the end of the Ming after a long period of stability there is an increase in obsession, one Zeitin describes as "the Late Ming Craze for Obsession (69). As Zhang Dai (1599-1684) stated "One cannot befriend a man without obsessions for he lacks deep emotion" (69).

The specific story discussed in this chapter was about a man obsessed with a rock, a beautiful rock that was magical. The man gave up years of his life in order to keep the rock and it was still stolen repeatedly from him. In the end it was only when the rock was smashed (having destroyed itself) that it was buried with him and stayed with him. Here the rock was seen as rewarding the mans love and returning it. (Rather odd but it worked).

The next story discussed is in the chapter Dislocations on gender. Zeitin says this story is not included in many modern versions because of it's subject matter. In this story a rather wanton husband and wife live next door to an old woman who has a young maid come and live with her. The maid is supposed to be good at giving women massages to relieve women problems, but insists the husband be not home. The husband lusts after the maid and has his wife arrange for him to get the maid into bed. The wife does this and the husband gets the maid into bed only to discover that she is in fact a man whose been ravishing women having learnt the art of dressing as a woman from (an actual real life) gangster. The man castrates the maid/boy and she lives the rest of her life as his concubine and serves his wife. As such he manages to avoid the beheading that the rest of the gang receives.

There are so many interesting discussions on gender and gender transgressions in this chapter. Zeitin points out that here there is able to be a "happy ending" as by castrating the man his life is saved, and he is no longer a threat to the traditional gender roles, or to women's chastity. She discusses in great detail the different stories of men dressing as women and women dressing as men (As well as each transforming into the other gender). What is interesting is that women transforming into men is seen as something which is virtuous and done out of respect, filial piety and is largely praised. While the reverse is not true. One thing I thought was missing from this chapter was a discussion of the Buddhist versions of this, where gender is seen as an illusion and it is perfectly acceptable for men to change into women (see Guan Yin). But still this was a small oversight in a most excellent chapter. I marked down many many references within this part as it was simply fantastic.

The next section looked at dreams. Here the difference between dreams and reality was explored. There was a very touching story about a man who fell in love with one of the fox spirits in the collection, whose obsession led a fox spirit to give him her daughter a lover, who in turn was immortalized in another of Pu Songling's tales. The difference between reality and dreams was blurred.

In this chapter there was also a great discussion on the difference between fiction and reality and how they interacted. An example was given of an official who mocked villagers for having an alter to Sun Wukong (the monkey from Journey to the West) as he was fictional, but then Monkey appeared to him and proved himself and the official became a true believer. Zeitin had a great quote about how it wasn't the origin of a deity that mattered but their "ling" or spiritual efficacy. This agrees completely with other arguments I've read on the nature of folk religion.

It was a fascinating book. I'm very glad I have a copy for reference. Both books I've read by Zeitlin have been fantastic and I hope she writes more soon. In the meantime I shall have to search out some articles.

p. 40-41 fictionalising histories and two-tired meanings are introduced
p. 46-47 Pu Songling's introduction and how he is obsessed with the strange
P. 65 history of obsession- tang written records
P. 90 "those who are foolish in their love of books are sure to excel in composition" - Pu Songling.
P. 91 - a man's homosexual obsession with a young boy who is converted to heterosexuality in his next incarnation as a reward for his devotion
(many many more)


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