Authors: Pu Songling

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Chinese short-story writer

June 5, 1640

Zichuan, Shandong, China

February 25, 1715

Shandong, China


The ancestors of Pu Songling (pew suhng-lihng) were probably of Turkic origin and came to China with the Mongol armies around the middle of the thirteenth century. Two of them were governors of Shandong in the last two or three decades of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), but nothing was heard of the family again until 1592, when a granduncle of the author became a jinshi and later served a term as magistrate. Pan, the author’s father, also studied for the examinations, but after failing several times to pass the first hurdle he turned to trade. He was apparently the most distinguished member of the clan in his day, for it was recorded that in 1647 he led a successful defense of his village against a band of marauders who had sacked several neighboring cities. {$I[AN]9810000052} {$I[A]Pu Songling} {$I[geo]CHINA;Pu Songling} {$I[tim]1640;Pu Songling}

Pu Songling.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pu was the third of four sons. He passed his xiucai examinations with highest honors in 1658, but the gongshi degree, the next in order, eluded him, though he attended the examinations regularly until he was seventy-one. As a result he was thwarted in his ambition, shared by all literocrats of traditional China, of entering government service, and he was forced to content himself with serving as secretary to more fortunate friends (from 1670 to around 1692) and in teaching in the family schools of the local gentry (until 1710).

Pu spent a considerable amount of time collecting and embellishing stories of strange events. These stories usually depict men’s or women’s romantic encounters with ghosts, fox fairies, or other spirits in mortal disguise. With few exceptions, these spirits exemplify ideal human qualities with regard to love, honor, loyalty, and wisdom; thus, they serve to form a striking contrast with the evils that existed in the world of actuality.

The major portion of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio must have been completed by 1679, the date of the preface, but internal evidence suggests many subsequent additions, one as late as 1707. The book was circulated in manuscript during the author’s lifetime and was much esteemed by some of his more prominent contemporaries. Upon its publication in 1766, it was an immediate success. For the traditional literocrat, Pu’s stories are masterpieces of the polished, allusive, classical style. For the modern reader, they represent a radical advance over all previous examples of the same genre because of the richness of invention displayed by the author and the touch of humanity that he gives to all his ghosts, fox fairies, and flower spirits, which makes them seem real, if not probable.

Until 1932, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio was virtually the only work by which Pu was known. In that year, however, Hu Shih published his study of Pu’s Xingshi yinyuan zhuan (marriage as retribution) and proved conclusively that this epic novel of a henpecked husband, which had appeared anonymously in 1870, was also written by Pu. Because of the interest aroused by this discovery and the recognition of this hitherto neglected novel as one of the two or three greatest works of Chinese fiction (the other two being Jin ping mei and Hong lou meng), the unpublished works of the author were sought out and published in 1936 under the title Liaozhai quanzhi (collected works). The two books of prose and three of verse in the literocratic tradition included in the collection occasioned no surprise, but the rest of the material would have seemed incredible if Hu Shih’s study had not prepared the reader for it, for this body of work comprises seven short satires and eleven longish romances in the guzici or tanci form (singing accompanied by a drum or by a stringed instrument) of the popular tradition. Some of these last, elaborations of stories of wicked mothers-in-law, jealous wives, and henpecked husbands, had appeared in briefer forms in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. In thus dealing with the same set of themes in three different media—first in the short tale form, then as romances in prose and verse, and finally in a long epic novel—Pu Songling is unique in the history of Chinese literature.

Author Works Short Fiction: Liaozhai zhiyi, 1766 (also known as Liao-chai chih-i; Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, 1880) Liaozhai zhiyi weikan gao, 1936 Chinese Ghost and Love Stories: A Selection from the Liaozhai Stories by Pu Songling, 1946 Long Fiction: Xingshi yinyuan zhuan, 1870 (also known as Hsing-shih yin-yuan chuan; The Bonds of Matrimony, 1995) Miscellaneous: Liaozhai quanzhi, 1936 (also known as Liao-chai ch’uan-chi) Bibliography Barr, Allan. “A Comparative Study of Early and Late Tales in Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 45 (1985): 157–202. Since a comparison of the text’s narrative development with its chronological progression shows no precise relationship between them, Barr believes it best to consider the text as having progressed through early, middle, and late periods. Barr, Allan. “Disarming Intruders: Alien Women in Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49 (1989): 501–517. Barr offers a new interpretation of Pu’s “alien women,” or women of supernatural character—ghosts, fox spirits, flower nymphs, predatory femme fatale demons—analyzing their relationships with their lovers and other humans and classifying them as residents, transients, and wicked predators. Barr, Allan. “The Textual Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44 (1984): 515–562. A comparison of the arrangement of the extant text with the individual stories that can be dated provides a means of tracking its chronological development. Chang, Chun-shu, and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang. Redefining History: Ghosts, Spirits, and Human Society in P’u Sungling’s World, 1640–1715. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. An examination of the characters, human and nonhuman, in Pu’s fiction. Li, Wai-yee. “Rhetoric of Fantasy and Rhetoric of Irony: Studies in Liao-chai chih-i and Hung-lou mâng.” In Dissertation Abstracts International 49 (August, 1988): 249A. A fine study of truth, fiction, irony, and illusion in a collection of classical short stories and a vernacular novel, with analysis of the play and limitations of the structure of desire—embracing freedom, justice, and the ideal—and the structure of order—embracing morality, individual discipline, love, and the real. Prusek, Jaroslav. “Liao-chai chih-i by Pu Songling.” In Chinese History and Literature: Collection of Studies. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1970. (Article originally published in 1959). A sensitive discussion of Pu’s life when employed as a tutor in various rich families and while engaged in the writing of Liao-chai chih-i, especially while residing with the Pi family. Prusek links certain aspects of Pu’s life during this period with certain of his poems to advantage and corrects an important misinterpretation that alters those facts as given in the American collection Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (1976). Prusek, Jaroslav. “Pu Songling and His Work.” In Chinese History and Literature: Collection of Studies. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1970. (Article orginally published in 1962). A fine general discussion of the circumstances of Pu’s unfulfilled life of poverty; his personality, family life, and political philosophy; his literary achievements, especially the realism of his fantasies; and his literary importance both in respect to the history of Chinese literature and as a world figure. This piece was originally a foreword to Prusek’s volume of selections under the title Zkazky o sestery cest osudu (1955; tales of six different paths of destiny). Prusek, Jaroslav. “Two Documents Relating to the Life of P’u Sung-ling.” In Chinese History and Literature: Collection of Studies. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1970. (Article originally published in 1959-1960). Two documents concerning Pu’s life are presented which heretofore have never been translated into any European language: one written by Pu himself at the age of seventy-four; the other an inscription on the stela erected on Pu’s grave. Yang, Rui. “Oedipal Fantasy in Disguise: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Liaozhai Zhiyi.” Tamkang Review 25 (Winter, 1994): 67–93. Using the psychoanalytic theories developed by Norman Holland in The Dynamics of Literary Response, this essay discusses Pu Songling’s treatment of the Oedipal conflict. Zeitlin, Judith T. Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. A good study of Pu’s fiction and its place in modern short-fiction canon. Zhou, Jianming. “A Literary Rendition of Animal Figures: A Comparison Between Kafka’s Tales and P’u Songling’s Stories,” translated by Jerry Krauel and Dariusz Rybicki. In Kafka and China, edited by Adrian Hsia. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1996. Discusses Kafka and Pu Songling’s treatment of animals in their fiction.

Categories: Authors