Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Tang Stories

A popularizer of Chinese culture notes that the Chinese are generally regarded as “humanistic, non-religious, and non-spiritual.” [1] Indeed the national sage Confucius sounds as though he has scant regard for the imagination when says with pride that he transmits without creating. [2] Apart from the very worldly and prudential counsels of the national sage, one finds the mercilessly pared-down preaching of Zen which contrasts so dramatically with the florid mythological tendency of Buddhism in Tibet. Reading even the highly fanciful Zhuang Zhou it seems clear that all the magic is metaphor and that the fundamental basis of philosophic Daoism involves nothing supernatural. Yet the traveler in China will find putatively Buddhist temples animated by no end of representations of semi-divine characters having nothing to do with Buddha, many so lovely and frolicsome or so fierce and menacing that they seem to belong more in fairy tales than in myths.

Similarly, Chinese fiction seems to arise from a combination of factual historical chronicles and narratives full of marvels of the sort represented today by horror and science fiction stories. Some date the first flowering of Chinese fiction to the same era most celebrated for lyric poetry, the Tang. In his groundbreaking history of Chinese fiction Lu Xun proposed the name chuanqi for Tang Dynasty short stories in Classical Chinese in which the most fantastic events are presented with realistic frames in setting and time, with the narrator frequently claiming either personal or second-hand experience of their truth. [3]

Apart from this pretense of veracity (familiar to readers of Defoe, Swift, and even Samuel Richardson) the stories share the appetite for the marvelous one would expect from the generic name which might be translated "tales of strange events." Many are didactic with more or less explicit moral or philosophical themes. One of the earliest and most widely available collections of such stories in English translation is Tang Dynasty Stories. [4]

Virtually all of these tales are concerned, often centrally, with the main character’s twists of fate while possessed by romantic love. This may seem surprising, given that for Confucius ren, often translated virtue, altruism, or humanity, but sometimes as love, focuses on filial piety and defense of family as a whole. [5] Marriages were thus arranged by senior relatives and “romantic” behavior (as in ancient Greece) often relegated to relations with courtesans or extra-marital lovers.

Yet in the Tang Dynasty Stories, the supernatural is generally associated with women and even on the “natural’ register of experience, men are often totally infatuated after only a first glimpse of a female beauty. As in the literary worlds of ancient Greece and the European Middle Ages, the Tang lover appears possessed by a potent force beyond his control.

In Shen Jiji”s “Ren the Fox Fairy,” the first story of the collection, the beloved is a fox fairy (huxian). [6] Though such beings may be malevolent, in this story Ren, whom Zheng had encountered by chance while traveling, becomes his exceedingly loyal wife. Her fidelity and obedience become her undoing, however, when her husband, ridiculing her “superstition,” insists on bringing her on a trip she knows will be fatal. Passing a pack of hunting dogs, she reverts to fox form and is torn to pieces. In a lovely and poignant image, her clothes are left on the ground like a discarded cicada shell. Her fidelity is praised (“few women nowadays are equal to this!”) and Zheng is criticized for simply appreciating her beauty without inquiring more deeply into her nature. Her name is the same character as the Confucian word for virtue, humanity, or charity. As a paragon of faithfulness, Ren recalls heroines such as Sita in the Ramayana or the Griselda of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale.”

This story is exemplary for the collection, and presumably the genre, as a whole. Supernatural women of various sorts appear in one narration after another often causing the hero to fall utterly in love with her after a first sight. [7] In five of the stories [8] the woman is in fact a supernatural being, while in most of the others she is diminished though only to the level of a noble.

Three of the stories in this collection have themes other than male/female relations. In Li Gongzuo’s “Governor of the Southern Tributary State” Chunyu Fen, passed out from drinking, spends an entire career in a mysterious land which he finds upon waking to have been a single afternoon in the kingdom of ants. The narrator assures the reader he has confirmed the details of the story from Chunyu himself and has relayed his story as a reminder of the insubstantiality of worldly glory. Slyly evading direct reference to people, the author notes, “If even the mysteries of ants are so unfathomable, what then of the changes caused by big beasts in the hills and woods.” [9]

In Li Fuyan’s “The Spendthrift and the Alchemist” the potentially disruptive power of affection appears in another form. The wastrel Du Zichun eventually gains prosperity through a magic helper. Following the dictates of this advisor, he remains silent while enduring many trials including being transformed into a woman. He is about to become an immortal when he sees his child killed and cannot resist calling out. The magician laments that, having conquered all the other passions, he could not rise above love.

Whereas both of these anomalies could be considered Daoist themes with their reminders of the vanity of ambition and the pitfalls of desire, the final tale in the volume, “The White Monkey,” in which Ouyang’s wife is abducted and impregnated, seems to rely on fantasy alone for its appeal. Lu Xun is of the opinion that it was meant to insult a specific family, claiming its prominence could be traced to a monster in the family tree. [10]

In most of these Tang stories, though, the most accessible implications of these themes include the power of eros expressed in the projection onto female figures, the significance of fidelity in love relations, and at times the conflict of power relations and passions. Daoist themes questioning desire appear as well. The stories indulge a strong preference for the marvelous and the unlikely in both the inclusion of supernatural elements and coincidence while at the same time regularly framing the narrations with details of time and place and specific identity in pursuit of verisimilitude. Arising from earlier anecdotes illustrating philosophical teachings, legendary annals, and leading toward the highly episodic structure of Chinese novels, these chuanqi paralleled the development of the vernacular bianwen during the Tang.

As in Europe fictional narratives were not valued as were philosophical or poetic writing, allowing the authors of these short stories imaginative license in style, theme, and plot. They shed light on the universal taste for the marvelous and on the origins of fiction in legend and elaborated anecdote. In theme they suggest the prodigious power of sexual desire with its concomitant pleasures even while suggesting the vanity and peril of love. Though they were written during a time in which marriage was often arranged on the basis of financial and familial strategies, the stories prominently feature immediate attachment and passionate love while also valuing fidelity. As forerunners of the “four great Chinese novels,” Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber, these tales provide ta necessary foundation , apart from their own value as divertissements, curios, and psychological sketches.



1. Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of China and India. In this marvelous Modern Library Giant (over a thousand pages for $2.95 when I acquired it) I read for the first time many texts to which I returned in mature years. Lin in fact dissents in part after noting this commonplace.

2. Analects VII, 1.

3. During the Ming Dynasty many chuanqi were made the basis for operas. See Lu Hsun [Xun], A Brief History of Chinese Fiction (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1964). During the same period a different genre, the bianwen or “transformation texts,” were composed in the vernacular by literate storytellers who were not classically educated. These often combined poetry and prose. Their content, originally Buddhist in character, came to include a variety of material.

4. Trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang intro. by Zheng Zhenduo, Panda Books edition 1986 originally published as The Dragon King’s Daughter (Foreign Languages Press, 1962). Gladys Yang, who had been raised in China by missionaries, became the first Oxford graduate in Chinese. She married fellow student Yang Xianyi and the couple returned to China as supporters of the revolution. In 1968 they were accused of being “class enemies” and both were imprisoned for four years before being sent to remote factory farms as laborers.

5. See Analects XII. Similarly Bollywood films, produced for an audience for whom arranged marriages remain the norm, unfailingly celebrate romantic love.

6. Huxian (fox spirits) or húli jīng (fox immortals) are common in Chinese legend. The latter term is used today to refer to a woman who seduces a married man. Similar figures appear in Japanese and Korean narratives with the names kitsune and kumiho. Such fox fairies may be blamed by traditional medical practitioners treating cases of koro.

7. This motif appears clearly in seven of the thirteen stories in the book: “ Ren the Fox Fairy,” “The Dragon King’s Daughter,” “Prince Huo’s Daughter,” “Story of a Singsong Girl,” “Wushuang the Peerless,”” The Kunlun Slave,” and “The Jade Mortar and Pestle."

8. “Ren the Fox Fairy,” “The Dragon King’s Daughter,” “The General’s Daughter,” “The Jade Mortar and Pestle,” and “The Prince’s Tomb.” In addition in “Prince Huo’s Daughter” the principal female character is metaphorically called “a fairy has come down to earth” and in “The Spendthrift and the Alchemist” the main character is transformed into a woman.

9. The poetic skepticism of “Governor of the Southern Tributary State” is similar to that of Shen Jiji’s “The World Inside a Pillow,” a celebrated story whose author is represented by a different story in this collection.

10. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, 87.

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