A close look at Pu Songling’s immortal short stories
For centuries the imperial examination was the de facto method for members of any strata of Chinese society to join the ranks of the scholar-bureaucrat class. Success in the exams, in many ways, was central to success in society. Many, many men failed.
However, Chinese bureaucracy’s loss was Chinese literature’s gain. It turns out that years of literary education, coupled with a harsh spoonful of bitter failure and ample free time, are a recipe for authorial success. Chinese literature is so littered with failed mandarins that it sometimes feels like flunking the imperial exam is a pre-requisite. And Pu Songling (1640 – 1715) is a chief among these frustrated scribes.
Pu’s early Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) anthology Liaozhai Zhiyi, in English usually titled Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (《聊斋志异》) are preeminent in China’s zhiguai xiaoshuo, a genre of very short classical Chinese stories loosely translated as “miraculous tales”—and miraculous they are.
Strange Tales Indeed is a story from our issue, “Wildest Fantasy.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.