One of the many positives of my daily stories this Christmas has been the (admittedly small) inroad it has made into my ignorance of Chinese literature. Having already had glimpses into the 19th and early 20th centuries, I now find myself in the 17th with a collection from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (in a 2006 translation by John Minford). As the title suggests these are short stories around three to five pages long, frequently featuring some aspect of the supernatural.
In one of my favourites, ‘Stealing a Peach’, a man who claims “I can make the seasons go backwards and turn the order of nature upside down” is asked to produce a peach in winter. In order to do so he sends his son up a rope into heaven to steal one. The peach drops down from the sky but soon after the rope is cut and then the boy’s head falls to earth followed by the various parts of his dismembered body (lest we think these stories were for children). In the end it is a trick to dupe the watching mandarins out of money, but the man’s magic is never in question.
In ‘Growing Pears’ (not all the stories are about fruit) there is also a moral lesson as a pear vendor refuses a request from a Taoist monk. Eventually a waiter buys a pear and gives it to the monk. “Meanness,” says the monk,
“…is something we monks find impossible to understand. I have some very fine pears of my own, which I should like to give you.”
He then proceeds to eat the pear, keeping only a seed which he immediately plants. Before the gathering crowd’s eyes it grows into a pear tree which the monk climbs in order to distribute the fruit. When the tree is empty he chops it down. Only the does the vendor notice his cart is empty:
“Then he knew that the pears the monk had just been handing out had all been from his cart. And he noticed that his cart was missing one of its handles; it had been newly hacked away.”
While magic might raise my hackles in a contemporary novel, I found these tales, with their assumption that the natural and supernatural exist side by side, a liberating release from the strait-jacket of verisimilitude. There are fourteen in total in this brief volume, but, as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is over six hundred pages long, clearly many more exist to be enjoyed.