Jun 052014


Today is the birthday (1640) of Pu Songling (蒲松龄) an early Qing Dynasty Chinese writer, best known as the author of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Pu was born into a poor merchant family from Zichuan now Zibo, Shandong). At the age of 19, he received the Xiucai degree in the civil service examination. It was not until he was 71 that he was awarded the Gongsheng degree for his achievement in literature rather than by passing the Imperial examinations at an earlier age –  equivalent to receiving an honorary doctorate in the West. He repeatedly failed the examinations because he did not have the money to bribe officials, a theme that emerges in his writing.

He spent most of his life working as a private tutor, collecting the stories that were later published in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Some critics attribute the Vernacular Chinese novel Xingshi Yinyuan Zhuan to him as well.


Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio or Liaozhai Zhiyi (聊齋誌異) is a collection of nearly 500 mostly supernatural tales written by Pu in Classical Chinese. The stories differ greatly in length, with the shortest under a page long. Many are classified as Chuanqi, sometimes translated as “marvel tales,” that is, stories that involve supernatural characters. Pu borrowed from a tradition of oral storytelling where the boundary between reality and the odd or fantastic is blurred. The stories are filled with magical foxes, ghosts, scholars, jiangshi, court officials, Taoist exorcists, and beasts.

The compilation was first circulated in manuscript form before it was published posthumously. Sources differ in their account of the year of publication. One source claims the Strange Tales were published by Pu’s grandson in 1740. However, the earliest surviving print version was printed in 1766 in Hangzhou. Pu is believed to have completed the majority of the tales some time in 1679, though he could have added entries as late as 1707. The first English translation, by Herbert Giles, can be found here. It is well worth dipping into.


The main characters of the stories are ghosts, foxes, immortals and demons, but Pu is really focused on the everyday life of commoners. He uses the supernatural and the unexplainable to illustrate his ideas about society and government. He criticizes the corruption and injustice in society and sympathizes with the poor. There are four main themes in Strange Stories.


The first is a complaint about the skewed feudal system. Pu argues that many officers and rich people committed crimes without being punished, because they enjoyed privilege and power granted to them by the government, purely by their status and their wealth. This theme can be found in short stories such as “The Cricket,” “Xi Fangping,” and “Shang Sanguan”. It is clear that Pu resents the unfairness of the feudal governments.


Second, Pu reveals the corruptions of the examination system at the time. He had taken imperial exams many times and discovered that they were unfairly graded. He believes that many students cheated and bribed examiners or the grading officers. The education system, thus, became pointless in Pu’s eyes, because it was not about intellect and creativity, as illustrated in such stories as “Kao San Sheng,” “Ya Tou” (The Maid), and “Scholar Wang Zi-an”.


Third, Pu has a clear admiration for pure, faithful love between poor scholars and powerless women, writing many stories about the love between beautiful and kind female ghosts and poor students, as allegories of this love. Pu especially praises women who nurture their husbands, helping them to succeed in life, as can be found in stories such as “Lian Xiang”, “Yingning” and “Nie Xiaoqian.”


Fourth, Pu criticizes immoral behavior in general and seeks to educate people in correct behaviors. He embeds Confucian moral standards and Taoist principles in parables such as “Painted Skin” and “The Taoist of Lao Mountain.”

Unfortunately Pu Songling’s work was not available in translation at all in the West until the late 19th century, and the English translation by Herbert Giles is deficient in many ways because, based on Victorian moral standards, Giles altered many stories, particularly the erotic passages. Martin Buber made the first German translation of the work, included within his Chinesische Geister- und Liebesgeschichten. His was a more faithful rendering of the original Chinese and this has now been translated from German to English.

John Minford and Tong Man  authors of “Whose Strange Stories? P’u Sung-ling (1640-1715), Herbert Giles (1845-1935), and the Liao-chai chih-i,” describe his translation as “prudish.” Minford and Tong Man say that Giles chose not to translate “anything connected with sex, procreation, blood, sometimes indeed the human body in any of its aspects” and often went to “extraordinary lengths to cover up his traces, showing considerable craft and cunning.” In the Giles translation fox spirits wish to chat and share tea with people rather than trying to seduce and engage in sexual intercourse, and romantic partners at most exchange kisses. They write that “Giles was a creature of his time” since he was required to follow Victorian Era morality, and urge readers to “not get Giles’ bowdlerising of Liao-chai out of proportion.” They add that “the widely distributed Commercial Press (HK) edition of the stories makes many of the same prudish cuts as Giles.”

Strange Tales is a progressive work. Its romantic spirit is above all reflected in the characterization of positive figures, especially the images of flower goddesses and fox-fairies. Many of the tales are original, but the majority are rooted in traditional folk tales which Pu collected and adapted. The characters are rich and complex. The language, even in translation, is fluent, vivid, exaggerated, and satirical. Both plots and language provided models for later writers of the era.

Franz Kafka admired some of the tales in translation; in a letter to Felice Bauer (January 16, 1913) he described them as “exquisite.” Jorge Luis Borges also greatly admired the story “The Tiger Guest,” writing a prologue for it to appear in his Library of Babel, a collection of writings on his favorite books.


Imperial court food of the early Qing dynasty is legendary and profoundly influenced cooking down to the present day. There are extant detailed notes on dishes and the daily eating habits of the emperors. There are particularly detailed notes on Emperor Qian-Long (1711 to 1799). The dishes of his court became part of the general cuisine of the country. He had five chefs, an executive chef, and a steward who recorded every dish that was made, which chef made it, and how much of it Qian-Long ate.

For the main meal of the day there were about 40 dishes many of which he never tasted. He ate alone except for imperial banquets. Leftovers went to members of his family and retinue. Dishes were laid out the night before, and therefore eaten at room temperature. He was apparently very fond of duck but never ate beef. Many of the dishes had fanciful names such as Swallow Flying to the Moon, and Golden Hill Buddha.


One duck dish served often had its bones removed, the cavity stuffed with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, white meat of chicken, shrimp, sausage, and the neck meat of the duck. Eight items stuffed into this duck was preferred because eight is a lucky number. Later, this dish became known as Eight Treasure Duck. It is still a popular banquet item. He and the Empress loved it and records indicate they even enjoyed it at breakfast.

You can make Eight Treasure Duck at home provided you have a large lidded wok. The eight ingredients are really up to you, but you should try to preserve a yin-yang balance. Modern cooks usually do not bone the duck although it is better if you do.

Eight Treasure Duck


For the duck

1 whole duck (2.0 – 2.5kg)
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp 5 spice powder
Oil for frying (around 2.5 L)

For the filling:

2 pieces lap cheong sausage (cut into thin, diagonal strips)
½ cup dried lotus seeds (soaked 24hrs, then drained)
5 pieces dried chinese mushrooms (soaked 24hrs, then drained)
2.5 tbsp dried shrimps (rinsed and drained)
1 medium carrot, diced
1 ¼ cups glutinous rice (soaked 24hrs, then drained)
5 dried red dates, pitted
2 yolks of salted duck egg
2 ½ tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp Shao Xing wine


Rub the soy sauce all over the duck and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

Pour enough oil in a large wok so that when the duck is placed in it at least half the duck is covered. Heat to 350°F/175°C and carefully place in the duck. Fry until dark, not just golden, then turn it over to fry the other side. Remove and set aside.

Dice the mushrooms and chop the dried shrimps. Mix all the ingredients for the filling in a large bowl.

Stuff the cavity of the bird with the filling. Pat gently to enclose. Pour ¼ cup of hot water into the cavity.

Place the stuffed bird in a large, deep metal dish and steam in a wok on the lowest heat for 2 ½ hours, covered. Can be served hot or, more traditionally, at room temperature with glutinous rice (which traditionally was cooked in the wok beside the duck).