These tales of ghost hauntings, monsters and magic tricks, written by Pu Songling in 17th century China, are fabulously entertaining.
Some, for instance the tale of The Monster in the Buckwheat, are horrific, plain and simple. A huge monster appears to terrorise a peasant farmer. One night it attacks, takes a bite out of his forehead (“a piece the size of a man’s palm had been bitten off, bone and all”), killing him even before his men can carry him to his home. There is no real resolution, simply the chilling statement that “the monster was never seen again. Nobody could even agree on what sort of creature it was.”
These are tales to tell small children to keep them tucked into their beds at night, safely at school or generally on the straight and narrow. Perhaps more deeply, these are stories shaped by a sense that there are some things simply beyond explanation, things out of the realm of human understanding or control.
Others of this collection of stories do have a clear moral. Growing Pears, the story of the pear seller who won’t give one of the many pears in his cart to a poor beggar, and then finds that a monk has played a fabulous magic trick on him and distributed all his pears to the people of the surrounding village, is one example. The moral is “don’t be ungenerous” or, “what goes around comes around”, and you can quite imagine it being told by an wizened grandmother to her wide-eyed grandson as she dandles him on her knee.
Yet some other tales are simply joyous, like Stealing a Peach, the story where a fakir sends his son up a rope into the clouds, to steal a peach from the sky. The son tosses down a magnificent peach from a hole in the clouds. The story takes a surprising, and graphic turn, when the son himself falls down, literally pieces by piece; arms, legs and finally his head crash to the earth. The father, grief-stricken, gathers these up into a basket (as well as plenty of loose change from the surrounding crowd) and gives a little speech. Suddenly he takes the lid off the basket and, like magic, the little boy emerges alive and whole.
Excellent stuff! Now onto the next one, A Modest Proposal….
PS This is the seventh in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week or so I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.