In the second half of the 17th century, a Qing dynasty scholar named Pu Songling made a remarkable record of the strange and supernatural, called Liaozhai Zhiyi. Liaozhai was the name of his private study and, by extension, also a name given to the writer himself. Zhiyi literally means a record of the strange, or what we might call a cryptohistory. This record contains almost 500 accounts of everything unusual you can imagine – from supernatural figures such as gods and ghosts plus paranormal phenomena like poltergeists and possession through to anomalous incidents of human and animal behaviour or natural disasters like plagues and earthquakes. The accounts range from short reports of inexplicable events, sometimes just several lines long, to fantastic tales full of horror, humour, allegory and romance. Some of the accounts came from his own experience, some from his imagination, but most were collected from his contemporaries. We are told that he would set out tea for passers-by and in exchange ask them for their stories of the unusual. Thus we can say Liaozhai reflects not only Pu Songling’s obsession with the strange and unexplained but also the wonderful variety of ideas, lifestyles and traditions in the society around him.
Pu Songling was born in Zichuan (now the city of Zibo in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong) in 1640, just four years before the collapse of the Ming dynasty and its replacement by the Qing regime. This was a period of war, rebellion and upheaval, which is reflected in many of the accounts in Liaozhai. Pu Songling’s own life was also difficult. Despite showing great intellectual promise as a youth, as an adult he continually failed in the imperial exams, the only route to an official career, and as a result spent almost his whole life as a lowly teacher. Instead of bringing him material success and official recognition, his deep knowledge of literature and history led him into a love of the arcane and a pursuit of the unexplained. The masterpiece for which he is now remembered was not well-known during his lifetime, being circulated mostly among his friends and acquaintances. Only after his death was it widely distributed and appreciated, but it soon became a classic of Chinese literature and remains hugely popular and highly regarded to this day, inspiring numerous films and TV adaptations.
Though Pu Songling’s writing seems to be concerned with the supernatural, in fact it often becomes a platform for him to satirize society and government or express his dissatisfaction with certain social abuses or failings of official policies. As he puts it in his preface, Liaozhai is partly “a book of isolated indignation”. At the end of accounts that he finds particularly moving or instructive, Pu Songling appends his own remarks or verdict in the persona of ‘The Cryptohistorian’. Sometimes these comments may offer his sympathy for the oppressed or unfortunate, sometimes he expresses his anger with corrupt or irresponsible officials or shows his contempt for the vulgar and materialistic. He also has a nice line in insults – “boil-sucking hemorrhoid-lickers” as a term for flatterers is one of my favourites. Occasionally he includes an amusing anecdote from his own experience or passes on a wise piece of advice or observation. Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” is taken directly from Pu Songling’s commentary at the end of an account on driving out monsters.
This website will provide English translations of the accounts within Liaozhai. These accounts are divided into twelve volumes and, as the translations are completed, selected ones will be available to read here. Complete translations of each volume will also be published in time and made available to download. This is an ongoing project and one I hope to complete in this lifetime. If not, then I will have to continue it in my next incarnation, whatever that might be!
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please feel free to contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll do my best to respond as soon as possible.