Contemporary Writers' Views on Literature: Fiction and Animals

By Wei, Zhang | Chinese Literature Today, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Writers' Views on Literature: Fiction and Animals


Wei, Zhang, Chinese Literature Today


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There are obviously many things that can be said on today's chosen topic, "fiction and animals," especially since fiction about animals or that describes animals is always interesting, even amusing.

Pu Songling and Strange Tales from Liao Studio

When we speak of fiction and animals, the first thing that comes to mind is the king of the Chinese short story, Pu Songling ... and his Liaozhai zhiyi ... (Strange Tales from Liao Studio). If we broaden our horizons a little we may also think of Jack London's Call of the Wild and White Fang.

Speaking of Pu Songling, I hope you will permit me a modicum of pride, because I also come from Shandong. Today's Shandong Province encompasses the land of the kingdoms of Qi and Lu during the Spring and Autumn period (772-481 BCE), as well as parts of other states. So I can claim that Pu Songling isn't just a compatriot of Shandong, but in fact we both come from the area of the Qi kingdom. In other words, if we had lived in the Spring and Autumn period, we would be from the same country.

In the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period (476-C221 BCE), Qi was one of the most powerful nations. Its capital, Linzi, was a burgeoning commercial metropolis very much like Hong Kong is today. In its day, Linzi was an amazing place. Not only did commerce thrive, it was also home to the famous Jixia Academy, which, if it existed today, would be similar to a combination of the Academy of Science and the Academy of Social Sciences. It gathered together the most renowned scholars in the known world, including writers. The expression, "the hundred flowers blossom, and the hundred schools of thought contend" (baihua qihua, baijia zhengming ... revived in modern Chinese history, actually refers to the learning and culture of the Qi state. It describes its flourishing scholarship and atmosphere of erudition. It was this illustrious place that would later produce just such an incomparable author of animal stories. So, in this respect there is a tradition we can trace.

Pu Songling, who lived during the late Ming to the early Qing, clearly carried on the rich cultural tradition of Qi. Pu is today mostly known for his stories about foxes. His literary immortality rests on his subtly drawn animal characters and the mental associations he created for each. Known the world over as one of China's most representative authors, few can dispute his reputation as a remarkable classical writer.

I spend most of my time in the Kingdom of Qi: While in temporal terms I am far removed from Pu Songling, in spatial terms, the place I live is geographically quite close. These days it's just a little over an hour by car. Many of Pu's stories of foxes are very familiar to the people in our area. They all know that the wisest of all animals is the fox and most can recite a number of tales by heart. Yet they also tell many stories that differ greatly from those in Pu's Liao Studio stories. To me, the charm of these vernacular stories and the skills of the local storytellers are just as good as in Liao Studio, it's just that they haven't been written down and molded into concise, polished prose.

So, when I come to look at Pu Songling's Strange Tales from Liao Studio, I don't have the same perspective as scholars of classical literature. They manage to uncover all kinds of abstruse significance in the text, for example, the oft-cited "satire of greed and tyranny." For my part, I really can't make out too much of that sort of thing. Looking at it today, naturally we can see how he sometimes uses foxes as a kind of metaphor when he wants to vent some of his personal feelings, but I don't think this is the main point. Someone like me, who has grown from the soil of the Kingdom of Qi, can even ignore Pu Songling's literary skills entirely. To me it's more about how his work is steeped in popular legends and the colorings of the natural environment. …

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