Liaozhai Zhiyi by Pu Songling: "The Fox Dream"
Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715), the author of the “Strange Tales from Liaozhai,” was a native of Zichuan County, in the Shandong Province. “Liaozhai” is the name given by the author to his private study room, where he composed his work. Pu Songling was born into an impoverished middle-class family. Like most of the intellectuals of his era, he studied hard and tried to make a career by first passing the imperial examinations, which would lead to securing an appointment as an imperial bureaucrat.
These stories are taken from a work-in-progress entitled Heart's Reason: Stories of Affection from the Liaozhai Zhiyi, edited and translated by Susan Wan Dolling. Liaozhai Zhiyi--literally, "Strange (Historical) Stories from a Studio for Leisurely Conversations"--is a posthumous collection of five hundred-odd entries that the author Pu Song-ling made into little books called juan and circulated among his scholar friends during the last thirty or so years of his relatively long life (1640-1715). Although the stories met with immediate success upon publication and are now classic, it was ironically not Pu's life ambition to be known as the author of these "strange tales." For the most part, Pu Song-ling viewed himself as a failed "imperial scholar" chasing the empty dream of public office. It is a challenge to categorize the five hundred entries, but we might roughly divide them into three genres: biji (notes/journal entries), zhiguai (tales of the supernatural and/or phenomenal happenings), and zhuanqi (prose romances.) The character "Mr. Historian of Strange Tales" does not comment on all the stories but makes his appearance often enough to warrant the reader's special attention.
In the final analysis, it seems a harsh existence that Pu Songling led with his fourteenattempts at the Examinations, stopping only after his mother died when,at his wife’s urging, he set aside that hard ambition. Yet his decades asschoolmaster cannot have been wasted; and it is impossible not to feelgrateful for his forty-six years as classicist and instructor. Perhaps his life inclassrooms, though a fall back position for failed candidates, was in his mindwhen he wrote the tales. Like the textbooks he prepared, the Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is another primer of sorts, one donated to generationsunknown to him: a meticulously shaped, classically elegant, exercise bookin spiritual agility, composed in the spirit of his earlier primer, The Essentialsof Elementary Learning, that he had written for the grandsons of Bi Jiyou.