Collecting the Self: Body and Identity in Strange Tale Collections of Late Imperial China

Collecting the Self: Body and Identity in Strange Tale Collections of Late Imperial China

Collecting the Self: Body and Identity in Strange Tale Collections of Late Imperial China

Collecting the Self: Body and Identity in Strange Tale Collections of Late Imperial China

Synopsis

Chinese strange tale collections contain short stories about ghosts and animal spirits, supra-human heroes and freaks, exotic lands and haunted homes, earthquake and floods, and other perceived anomalies to accepted cosmic and social norms. As such, this body of literature is a rich repository of Chinese myths, folklore, and unofficial histories. These collections also reflect Chinese attitudes towards normalcy and strangeness, perceptions of civilization and barbarism, and fantasies about self and other. Inspired in part by Freud's theory of the uncanny, this book explores the emotive subtexts of late imperial strange tale collections to consider what these stories tell us about suppressed cultural anxieties, the construction of gender, and authorial self-identity.

Excerpt

This uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something
familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged
only by the process of repression. This reference to the factor of
repression enables us, furthermore, to understand… the uncanny
as something which ought to have been kept concealed but which
has nevertheless come to light.
—Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny"

This chapter examines horror fiction in the lesser known zhiguai narratives in Pu Songling's Liaozhai zhiyi. This group of horror stories has been often considered unrepresentative of Pu Songling's intent and style, dismissed by mainstream critics as immature, incomplete, devoid of thematic import, or simply wanting in artistic interest. In other words, they have been regarded as "anomalies" to a perceived "norm" of Pu Songling's art. However, I treat his neglected tales of terror as integral components of the story collection. This chapter seeks to answer the following questions. Why did Pu Songling bother to write and include these seemingly meaningless and artless tales in his magnum opus? In the formal and thematic frameworks of the entire story collection, what functions do they serve? How does horror fiction enhance or deconstruct the other, better known Liaozhai tales of magic, romance, and enchantment? If a story collection is in essence an expression, extension, and construction of the collector's selfhood, then how do Pu Songling's repulsive, anti-aesthetic pieces participate in this artistic process? Furthermore, what can the critically marginalized tales in Liaozhai reveal about our own assumptions of an essentialized Liaozhai aesthetics, how these assumptions were formed, and how were they informed by and perpetuated the accepted "norms" of classical Chinese fiction? Finally, what can these disturbing tales of creeping body parts, walking corpses, and flying human heads tell us about the Ming-Qing . . .

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