Liaozhai Zhiyi by Pu Songling: "The Mural"
Pu’s impressive collection of 431 tales of the unusual and supernatural was largely completed by 1679, though he added stories to the manuscript as late as 1707. The work departed from the prevailing literary fashion that was dominated by more realistic huaben stories written in the colloquial language. Pu instead wrote his stories in the classical idiom, freely adopting forms and themes from the old chuanqi (“marvel tales”) of the Tang and Song dynasties.
In 1670, Pu was briefly employed as a private secretary to a friend and district magistrate. For most of his life, he managed to support himself and his family by working for wealthy gentry families in the area. In 1679, he was employed by Jiyou Bi (毕际有, 1623–1693) as a resident tutor to Bi’s grandson, a position he occupied for thirty years. Pu was an avid reader of zhiguai (志怪), which literally means “records of strange events.” When he was in his twenties, Pu began to collect anecdotes and stories of strange happenings. According to legend, Pu set up a stall on a busy thoroughfare and offered free tea to passers-by in exchange for their stories of unusual experiences or events. Knowing of his interest, his friends and relatives sent him raw material from everywhere. He compiled these anecdotes and stories by adding his own world view, as well as the source of most of the stories. It is unknown how much of the collection had been completed by 1679, the year dated on his own preface to Liaozhai. For many decades, Liaozhai was circulated in manuscript form. It was not published until 1766, fifty-one years after Pu’s death. In the 1766 edition, there are 455 stories. Later, more stories were gradually found and added to the first edition. Now Liaozhai edited by Qikai Zhu (朱其铠) and published in 1992 contains 497 short stories.
In sum, while acknowledging Liaozhai zhiyi 's now‐unshakeable status as a masterpiece of Chinese literature, this chapter traces the tortuous route of the work's literary and cultural ascension, and argues that much of its cultural relevance and popular appeal derives from its origin as a “minor discourse” rooted in the Chinese tradition of zhiguai , or records of the strange. Mixing genres and modes, and juxtaposing aesthetic refinement with discursive power, Pu Songling's ghost tales function as a literary construction, a projection of human psychology, an interpolation on religious belief, and a contested field of cultural and ideological debate.