These stories are taken from a work-in-progress entitled Heart’s Reason: Stories of Affection from the Liaozhai Zhiyi, edited and translated by Susan Wan Dolling. Liaozhai Zhiyi–literally, “Strange (Historical) Stories from a Studio for Leisurely Conversations”–is a posthumous collection of five hundred-odd entries that the author Pu Song-ling made into little books called juan and circulated among his scholar friends during the last thirty or so years of his relatively long life (1640-1715). Although the stories met with immediate success upon publication and are now classic, it was ironically not Pu’s life ambition to be known as the author of these “strange tales.” For the most part, Pu Song-ling viewed himself as a failed “imperial scholar” chasing the empty dream of public office.
It is a challenge to categorize the five hundred entries, but we might roughly divide them into three genres: biji (notes/journal entries), zhiguai (tales of the supernatural and/or phenomenal happenings), and zhuanqi (prose romances.) The character “Mr. Historian of Strange Tales” does not comment on all the stories but makes his appearance often enough to warrant the reader’s special attention.
In its heyday the Geng family of Taiyuan lived in a large mansion with many apartments. Now that the family had fallen on hard times, many of the buildings were left empty, and strange occurrences had been reported: doors opening and closing all on their own, people being jolted from their sleep, screaming at the top of their lungs. Master Geng finally decided it wasn’t worth the trauma to live there anymore and moved the entire family to another residence, leaving just one old servant to look after the place. From then on, the mansion became even more deserted, and sounds of laughter and music could often be heard coming from inside.
One of the nephews, Geng Qubing, a rambunctious young man, had told the old servant to come for him immediately if he saw anything unusual. So, when lights went on of their own accord in one of the second floor rooms one night, the servant ran to tell the young man, who then wanted to go see for himself. Nobody could stop him. Since he knew the mansion well, he had no difficulty negotiating the wild grass and serpentine walkways to find the stairs to the second floor. At first, he saw nothing strange, but as he crossed the landing to the other side, he heard people talking. Peering over the window, he saw the room lit up as bright as day by two huge red candles. There were four people sitting at the table: an older man in scholar’s garb, facing in his direction, and an older woman with her back to him, both over forty or more; on the old man’s right sat a young man, maybe twenty, and on the left sat a young lady just old enough to have her hair pinned up. They were having a good time; appetizing dishes and wine were set out. Geng Qubing burst in on the scene, laughing as he announced, “You have an uninvited guest, folks!”
Everyone scattered in alarm and left the room. Only the old gentleman held his ground and demanded to know what manner of man this intruder was, to which question Geng replied, “Why, this is my house! You’re the ones who are taking over my rooms. You have good wine and you haven’t even invited the master of the house to share it with you? What kind of misers are you anyway?”
“You’re not the master of the house!” the old man said, looking straight at him.
“No, but I’m his nephew. My name is Geng Qubing.”
Hearing this, the old gentleman responded formally, “I have long been an admirer!” Then, bowing deeply, he invited the young man to sit down and called for more dishes to be brought and the wine refilled. It was then Geng’s turn to be polite, saying this was not necessary and that wine alone was more than enough, as the old gentleman personally filled his cup.
“Our families have known each other for generations; there’s no need to stand on ceremony, please ask the others to come back out and join us,” the guest now said.
“Xiao Er!” the old man called, and when the young man appeared, said, “My son, sir, still rough around the edges.” His son bowed deeply before taking his seat. In the course of formal introductions, the old man volunteered that their family name was Hu. Easygoing and a talker, Qubing got along famously with the young man, who was, unlike his father, sociable and uninhibited. They soon warmed up, delighting in each other’s company. Qubing, at twenty-one, was a couple of years Xiao Er’s senior, and so treated him like a younger brother.
After a while, the old man asked, “I have heard said that one of your forebears had compiled an edition of the Personal Tales of Painted Mountain; would you by any chance know something about it?”
When Qubing said that he did, the old man continued, “For you see, I am a direct descendant of the Lady of Painted Mountain;1 I am quite familiar with the history of our tribe as of Tang times, anything before that is a bit murky; would the young master perhaps be willing to enlighten us?” In answer, Geng Qubing launched into a brief account of how the Lady of Painted Mountain helped the legendary Emperor Yu tame the floods that plagued China since the beginning of time, delighting his listeners with fantastic flourishes and creative trivia.
The old gentleman was exultant. “We are fortunate indeed to have this opportunity to hear of things hitherto unknown to us. Our guest is no stranger to our home; it would be a pity for your mother and Qing Feng to miss out on the pleasure of listening to the great deeds of our ancestors; go then, my son, invite them to join us!” Xiao Er thus went behind the curtain and brought out the women. The girl appeared: sinuous as green willow in a gentle breeze, she moved; cool as autumn waves, her eyes, and her beauty exuded intelligence beyond mere mortals.
Introducing his wife, the old gentleman said: “The old thorn in my side, sir.” And, pointing to the girl, “This is Qing Feng, my inept niece; quite clever she is, doesn’t ever forget what she’s been taught; thus, I have asked her to come and hear you speak.”
The young scholar told a few more stories and drank more wine. When he stopped, his gaze settled on Qing Feng and stayed fixed on her. She noticed this and lowered her head. He stealthily pressed his foot on her little three-inch lotus under the table; she quickly pulled her feet away, but expressed no anger on her face. That was enough to send Qubing’s spirit soaring. He could not hold back his emotions; slapping his palm on the table, he said, “I would not trade such a woman for the king’s throne!”
Seeing that their guest was getting drunk and unruly, the mother quickly excused herself and took her niece with her back behind the curtain. Disappointed, Qubing decided to take his leave, though his heart had already been stamped with his love for Qing Feng.
The next night, he returned to the room. The aroma of wine and musk was still strong; he waited all night, but no one came. He went home and tried to convince his wife to move their whole family over to the mansion but she refused. In the end, he moved his books over there by himself and stayed to study on the ground floor. That night, as he was dozing off at his desk, a ghost appeared, its long hair all tangled and its face as black as tar, its big, protruding eyes staring down at him. Instead of running, Qubing started to laugh. He picked up his writing brush, dipped it in the inkwell, and painted his own face just as black as that of the ghost’s and glared back at it. Defeated, the ghost slunk away.
The next night, nothing happened until after his candles burned out and he was about to go to bed. He heard the latch at the back door lift with a click, and when he got up to look found that the back door was left half open. Then, he heard footsteps and soon, he saw candlelight coming from the room above. When he went to investigate, Qing Feng was in the room. She was caught by surprise at the sight of him, tried to back away, thought the better of it, and quickly closed the door, locking him outside. Denied, Qubing knelt on the floor and pleaded with her, “Don’t you know I have braved all odds to come here just in the hope of seeing you again? Fortunately you are here by yourself. If you would just let me hold your little hand for a while, I’ll die a happy man.”
“Do you think I don’t know how much you care for me? But my uncle is very strict and I’ve been brought up by rules of propriety that I don’t dare break,” she replied from her safe distance.
“I wouldn’t dare ask you for intimacy of the flesh, I’m only hoping for a look at your lovely face, that’s the sum of my request,” he persisted.
On hearing that, the girl unlocked the door trustingly and stepped out. Qubing grabbed her by the arm, his heart pounding with anticipation, led her downstairs to his study, and sat her on his lap.
“I’m glad we have been given this chance to be together. After tonight we may never meet again,” she said.
“My uncle is afraid of your wild passion. He was hoping to scare you off last night when he came to you as that terrifying ghost, but you wouldn’t budge. So, he’s found us a new home and the whole family is moving even as we speak; they’ll be coming for me and the rest of our things tomorrow.” She told him she must leave right away as she feared her uncle might be back soon, but Qubing stood in her way and pulled her into his arms, and as they were struggling, the old man noiselessly entered the room. There was no place for her to hide, so she stood by the bed, speechless, ashamed and afraid, fiddling with the sash on her dress.
“You shameless hussy! You have brought shame to my family! Go now, and fast; the whip is following right behind you!” He screamed at her. The girl hurried out, head down, pursued by the old man. Chasing after them, Qubing heard him scolding her mercilessly, and Qing Feng’s pitiful sobbing, each sob making a stab at his heart.
“The fault is entirely mine. It’s not Qing Feng’s idea! Spare her and I will take any form of punishment you wish, whip, knife, hammer, ax, anything you choose!” Qubing hollered after them. After a long silence and no response, he decided there was nothing he could do but go back to bed. All was quiet at the mansion for a long time after that.
When the Geng patriarch heard the story of how Qubing got rid of the ghosts, he told his nephew the mansion was his for whatever he wished to pay for it. Qubing was only too happy to comply and moved his whole family in. From then on, they lived comfortably in the mansion, but he never forgot his Qing Feng.
After visiting the ancestral graves on Qing Ming2 that year, he saw two little foxes being chased by a hound. One of them was able to scramble away, but the other was confusedly running round when it spied him coming down the road. It ran up to him, ears pulled back, head cocked, whining most pitifully, as if begging for help. Qubing couldn’t resist and picked it up, tucked it in his robe, and took it home. Closing the door behind him, he placed it on his bed, and lo and behold, it turned into Qing Feng! Qubing was as pleased as he was amazed, and started asking how she was and what had happened.
“I was playing with my maid when disaster struck. If it weren’t for you, my lord, the dog’s belly would’ve been our grave. I hope you won’t hate me now that you know I am not of your kind,” she said.
“I think of you night and day; even in my dreams I cannot forget you. Now that I have found you, my love, I have found the most precious treasure there is for me. How can you speak of *Šñhate’?”
“Then, this was meant to be, my meeting you again on this topsy-turvy day. And now, my maid thinks I’m dead, so I can stay with you forever and no one will come looking for me!”
Happily, he settled her in one of the apartments in the mansion.
Another two years passed by. One night, while he was in his studio, Xiao Er suddenly appeared; Qubing stopped reading in astonishment. Xiao Er, ashen, threw himself on the floor, and said, “My father has met with unforeseen misfortune and you are the only one who can save him. He was going to come in person to beg for your help but was afraid you would refuse to receive him, that’s why he sent me.”
“Why, what has happened?”
“You are acquainted with one Mo Sanlang?”
“Yes, I know him well; his father is my father’s friend.”
“He will be coming this way tomorrow. He has been hunting and will have among his kill, a wounded fox. Please sir, could you ask to keep that fox, sir?”
“I have not forgotten the insult your father heaped on me that time right here in this very room. I don’t normally poke my head into other people’s business. If you wish me to intercede then you must ask Qing Feng herself to come and plead for you.”
“But my sister has been dead for three years now; she died in the countryside!” Xiao Er said with tears in his voice.
“Well,” Qubing said as he waved his arm in the air, “in that case my hatred is even deeper than before!” So saying, he picked up his book and started reading out loud, ignoring the other man completely. Xiao Er wept till he lost his voice, covered his face, and ran away.
Qubing went to Qing Feng then and told her what happened. The girl turned pale and said, “So are you or are you not going to save him?”
“Um . . . I suppose . . . I must save him. The only reason I didn’t promise right away is to pay him back for the insult from before.”
“I lost my parents at a young age. My uncle saw me to maturity. Even though he offended you then, it was out of his concern for me, to make sure I didn’t step out of the bounds of propriety,” she happily explained.
“You are right of course, but he was still a pain. If you had really died, I’d never help him!” he teased.
“What a hard heart you have!” she answered, feigning dismay.
The next day, Mo Sanlang indeed arrived on a handsome hunting horse, carrying a tigerpelt pouch full of arrows and a bow; he had with him a hunting team and much wild game. Geng Qubing went out to greet him and, looking over his kill, saw among them a black fox, his pelt wet with blood, and stroked it. Its body was still warm. He asked the hunter if he could keep it as it matched the color of a coat he had torn. Mo generously gave him the fox. Geng handed it to Qing Feng and went off to have a drink with his guests.
After they left, the girl picked up the fox and held it in her arms. She held it for three days before it came round. Turning and turning, it returned to the shape of her uncle. When he first saw Qing Feng the old fox thought he had died, until she told him all that had transpired. The old man knelt on the ground then and kowtowed to Geng in thanks. Looking at Qing Feng, he said happily, “I told them you were still alive, and look, here you are!”
Then, the girl turned to Qubing. “If you truly care about my feelings, I beg you to let my relatives return and live here as well. That way, I can fulfill my filial duties and show my gratitude to my uncle for bringing me up.” Qubing agreed. The old man left sheepishly and came back that night with the whole family.
From then on, they all lived happily in the mansion without suspicion or spite. Xiao Er came often to chat and drink with Qubing in his studio. Later on, Qubing’s wife gave birth to a boy. When his son grew old enough to study, Qubing asked Xiao Er to tutor him. Xiao Er turned out to be an exemplary teacher!
A note on names: Hu, a common surname, is also a homonym for “fox.” It was used to refer to the non-Han nationalities living in the north and west in ancient times. Used as an adjective with other words, it can mean nonsensical, wild, hairy, or foreign. Qing = spring grass green; Feng = phoenix. Geng = bright or disquiet; qu = go or be gone; bing = illness, disease.Xiao = filial; Er = child. Mo = no, don’t, not.
1Painted Mountain is Tushan in Anhui; according to myth, Yu married this “lady,” a nine-tailed vixen.
2Qing Ming occurs in late spring, roughly corresponding to Easter time or the end of the Third Lunar Month. Families gather to sweep ancestral graves and remember the dead. This Qing is a different word from the Qing in Qing Feng’s name; Qing Ming means “clear and bright.”
Skin PaintingThere was a man named Wang who lived in Taiyuan. He went out early one morning and saw a girl who seemed to be in a great hurry and was carrying what looked like a heavy blanket in her arms. When he caught up to her, he found to his delight that she was a beautiful young woman, no more than sixteen. He was instantly taken with her.
“Why are you all alone, out so early before dawn?” he asked.
“You’re out so early yourself, you should know, what does my misfortune have to do with you?” she responded.
“What misfortune might that be, young lady? If you tell me, I may be able to help.”
The girl’s face grew sad as she replied: “My parents sold me for money into a rich family as their concubine. The jealous wife screams at me and beats me night and day. I can’t bear it any more, so I’m running as far away as I can.”
“I don’t know; a fugitive has no home.”
“My place is not far from here. Won’t you come and have a look to see if you like it?”
Overjoyed, the girl agreed. Wang took her bundle from her and led the way.
Looking round the empty room, she asked why nobody lived there. He told her this was his studio. “It suits me fine,” she said then, “but if you truly pity me and let me live here, you must keep me a secret and not breathe a word to anyone.”
Wang promised not to tell and kept her in this hiding place for many days. And nobody would have known had he not told his wife. Now, this wife, whose name was Chen, tried to talk him into giving up the girl when she heard that she was a concubine belonging to an influential family, but he wouldn’t listen.
In town one day, he ran into a Taoist monk. The monk took one look at him and asked in alarm what had happened to him. “Nothing,” was his reply.
“Sir, you are trapped in an aura of depravity and still you say ‘nothing’?”
And again, Wang denied that anything was wrong. So, the monk left with these words: “Yet another fool! Death is at his doorstep and still he refuses to rouse himself!”
What a strange thing to say, Wang thought, and started to wonder about the girl. No, she was clearly no demon, a beautiful girl like that. The monk was just fishing for prayer money. So thinking, he arrived at his gate, but found himself shut out. Suspicious, he walked round to where the wall had tumbled down and climbed in; the studio door, too, was locked. Sneaking round to a window, he peered in and saw a grotesque fiend with a dazzling green face and long, sharp teeth; laid out on the bed before it was a piece of human-shaped skin on which it was expertly painting. Then, tossing the paintbrush aside, it lifted the skin and threw it over itself as if it were a piece of clothing and changed into a woman. The sight so appalled him that he slunk backward like a frightened beast and went looking for the monk, who was by now nowhere to be found. Finally, deep in the woods, he tracked him down, and fell on his knees, begging for help.
“I’ll get rid of it for you if you’ll do as I say. That poor thing, just when it’s found someone to take its place; I don’t want to hurt it if I don’t have to.” So saying, the monk handed Wang a long tassel used for shooing away flies and directed him to hang it over his bedroom door. Before they parted, they agreed to meet again at the Green Lord Shrine.
Wang dared not go to his studio this time and headed directly for his bedroom, where he hung up the tassel and went straight to bed. At midnight, he heard a shuffling outside the door but was too afraid to look. Instead, he sent his wife. Peering out, she saw a girl approach their door, but then stop short at the sight of the long tassel. The girl stood there a long time, staring at it, shaking with rage, and then left. Shortly afterward, she returned, and this time hollered, “I am not going to be scared away by that monk; he cannot make me spit out the morsel I have already put in my mouth!” So saying, she pulled down the tassel, tore it to pieces, broke into the room, jumped onto the bed, slit open Wang’s chest, yanked out his heart, and left with it. The wife’s scream brought the maidservant running in with a candle. The sight of her husband’s butchered body shocked Chen into silence.
The next day, she sent her brother-in-law, Er Lang, to go after the monk. When he heard what happened, the monk exploded: “So that is how the demon returns my kindness? What gall!” He immediately followed Er Lang home, but the girl had disappeared. The monk looked about and sniffed the air. “Luckily, she’s not gone far,” he proclaimed. “Who lives in South Court?”
“That is where I live,” Er Lang answered.
“She’s there right now,” said the monk.
Er Lang looked at him in disbelief.
“Has anyone unusual stopped by recently?” the monk asked.
“I have no idea. I’ve been at the Green Lord Shrine since dawn. Let me go home and ask.” He came back shortly and said, “Yes, an old woman came this morning asking for work. My wife kept her waiting at the house; she’s still there now.”
“Very good!” said the monk, and headed toward the house, brandishing his wooden sword, halting at the center of the courtyard. “Accursed demon, return my tassel!” he shouted.
Inside, the old woman turned white and tried to slip away, but the monk was right at her heels. He struck her hard with his sword. As the woman dropped to the ground, the human skin ripped open and fell from her, revealing a vile specter lying flat on her back, snorting like a pig. The monk whacked its head off and held it up with his sword for everyone to see. As he did so, her body turned into a whirl of black smoke, hovering above the ground. Then, the monk took out a gourd, uncorked it, and placed it in the middle, whereupon the smoke was sucked up with a loud slurp and disappeared into the gourd. When he had corked up his catch and stuffed it into his bag, everyone started staring at the piece of human skin, complete with eyes and brows, hands and feet, while the monk proceeded to roll it up like a scroll painting, tucking it away as he said good-bye.
He was about to step through the gate when Chen stopped him, imploring him to help bring her husband back to life. The monk said she had thought him more capable than he was and that he was unable to do so. Chen was devastated and threw herself on the ground, blocking his way. He thought for a long while and then said, “My skills are inadequate to the task. I am not able to raise the dead, but possibly I can point you in the direction of someone who can. If he agrees to help you, you will have your wish.”
“Who is this person?”
“There is a madman in the marketplace often found sleeping on a heap of dung. Go to him and beg for his help, but remember this, no matter how much he rails against you or insults you, Madam, you must not get angry.”
Er Lang did know of such a person, so they took leave of the monk and went towards the market. On their way, they saw a beggar, singing madly, trailing snot three feet long, unapproachable in his filth. Chen instantly dropped to the ground and walked on her knees toward him. The beggar laughed.
“O my darling, do you want me?”
Chen told him why she had come, and again he guffawed. “The world is full of husbands, why must you have that one?”
But Chen would not give up. Turning on her now, he said, “That’s strange, why look to me to snatch him back from the dead? Am I Hell’s Keeper?”
He struck her with his walking stick. The woman gulped down the pain. By now, a crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle. The beggar coughed up a handful of phlegm, pressing it close to Chen’s mouth, saying, “Eat!”
Chen’s face turned crimson, straining with disgust. She was about to admit defeat when she remembered the monk’s words. She forced herself to lap up the phlegm, but as she swallowed, it caught in her throat and felt like a hard cotton ball making its way down bit by bit until it reached her chest where it lodged.
The beggar let out a peal of laughter and squealed, “O my darling you want me bad!” Having said that, he up and left without so much as a backward glance. She tailed him to a shrine, but before she caught up to him he had disappeared, leaving no clue, no sign.
Humiliated and more miserable than ever before, she went home. Grieving for the death of her husband and angry at herself for swallowing that phlegm, reeling and weeping, she just wanted to die. The rest of the household watched as she tried to tidy up the bloody corpse; no one dared go near them. Chen cradled the body and scooped its innards back inside, crying as she worked, wailing so hard her voice broke and caught in her throat, making her want to vomit. Just then, she felt a hard object come gushing up from inside of her and before she could turn her head away, it fell out onto his chest. She stared in horror at a human heart, a throbbing, pumping, steaming, simmering human heart! Giddy with bewilderment, she pushed close the two sides of his body and held on for dear life. Each time she loosened her grip, hot vapors bubbled up from the wound; she tore up a piece of silk and wound it round the dead man’s chest. Then, she placed her hand on his body and felt warmth returning to it. She pulled a soft quilt over him and kept vigil through the night. Once, she lifted the quilt to look at him and saw breath come through his nostrils, by dawn, he had come back to life.
“It was as if I was in a dream till now. Yet, what is this curious ache I feel in my chest?” And, looking at the tear, he saw there a scab, hard as a row of coins.
Mr. Historian of the Strange Remarks: O men of the world! Clearly a demon and he thinks a beauty. O fools of enchantment! Blind to the beauty that is truth. A skirtchasing husband leaves his wife no choice but to swallow other people’s phlegm and bear it. What goes around comes around, but fools will remain in fools’ paradise. Too sad, too true!
Note on Names: Wang, a common last name, also means king, royalty; when used with ba, as in wang ba dan, it means “son of a turtle’s egg,” or bastard. Er Lang means second son/master. Chen, a common last name, also means to arrange, spread, to make a statement, a plea, petition; a long time, old, stale; seasoned; to expose; path to a house.