Publishing creates strange bedfellows. A new magazine has just hit the shelves in Italy, in which I find myself side by side with Robert E. Howard, Lin carter and Pu Songling.
Now Pu Songling was a weird chap.
He spent his life collecting ghost stories and other strange tales, and circulated them among his friends, privately, because stories of the supernatural were not considered a proper thing to take an interest into according to the dominating Confucian culture of the time.
This was, after all, the Qing dynasty.
Today, Pu Songling’s Liaozhai Zhiyi, translated as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is a well known and much loved classic. It can be found in a number of translations, and it inspired a number of movies and plays and whatnot.
It is probably the first stop for anyone interested in Chinese supernatural and folk tales.
Steeped in Taoist folklore (and Confucian horror at Taoist folklore), Pu Songling’s stories feature a selection of quite unusual hauntings, a lot of fox spirits and other trickster creatures, and showcase the belief that anything has a soul and can therefore interact spiritually with anything else.
The version most readily available in English of the Liaozhai is the one translated in 1888 by Herbert Giles, a giant in the field of Sinology.
You can find a copy in the Internet Archive, but be warned, this is a Victorian translation, and it suffers from the same strange fate of other translations from that time, and Giles cut
“anything connected with sex, procreation, blood, sometimes indeed the human body in any of its aspects”
Which is awkward, because Chinese ghosts and fox spirits and other such creatures often show a very sexual nature. Maybe it’s because they feed on qi, the vital energy that flows through our bodies and is spent during intercourse. Maybe it’s because the afterlife is a boring place. Or maybe because the condition of being dead – or of not being human – frees one from human morals and concerns.
But whatever the reason, Chinese supernatural beings tend to be a racy breed, and Herbert Giles did all he could to “sanitize” the stories, thus dropping a lot of the fun, and a lot of the strangest elements.
Hence, fox women that want to chat and play and drink tea with men, and lovers that are such because they hold hands once in a while.
While the Gutenberg version of the book has the enormous advantage of being free, that strange beast, the serious reader, should probably get the current Penguin edition, even if the general wisdom seems to point at the Russian 1920s translation in two volumes as the best around. A pity it’s in Russian.
No matter what version, this is an essential book for the ghostly/supernatural shelf of any fan of the genre.