Doing research for a novel is not like bookkeeping, a matter of assiduously ticking all the boxes. I discovered this while inquiring into the Japanese occupation of Nanjing during my first attempt at full-length fiction. Previously, I believed the real fun surely lay both before and after the research: brainstorming and inventing the story from scratch, then shaping a well-wrought narration. The emotional and intellectual stimulation –– the creativity itself –– would be set on standby, or so I envisioned, as I studied the historiography, perused eye-witness accounts, and scrutinized photo archives. Continue reading
In the Tang dynasty there lived a man named Wei Pang. His strength surpassed all others and at night he walked about without a fear in the world. As he was an excellent rider and bowman, he took his bow and arrows with him wherever he went. And not only did he nab birds and wild game to toss into the pot, but also snakes, scorpions, worms, beetles and crickets. No sooner had he laid eyes on such a creature, then he would make a meal of it. Continue reading
King Gwuang-chwun of the Han was fond of digging up ancient graves. When he broke into a tomb at Luanshu, the coffin, still inhabited, and all of the pledges and utensils had been smashed to pieces and ruined. Then a white-furred fox appeared which, upon seeing the grave-diggers, immediately dashed off. Everybody present gave chase but failed to nab it, managing only to spear its back paw with a halberd.
That night, the king dreamed of a man whose eyebrows and beard had grown completely white. This man stepped up to the king and asked, “Why did you hurt my left foot?” He then whacked King Gwuang-chwun’s left foot with his staff. The king saw his foot swell and it grew terribly painful: an ulcer took form. His condition remained the same for a time until it finally killed him.
Text: Taiping Guangji, volume 447
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It came to pass in the Tang dynasty that a high-ranking official named Shang-gwan Gee became Superintendent of the Calvary, Jiang Province. At the time, he had a son who was about twenty and one morning, at the break of dawn, the young man happened to be standing outside his front door when a girl strolled past. She looked to be thirteen or fourteen and could have brought a dynasty to its knees, such was her devastating beauty. Quite naturally, Shang-Gwan’s son fell for her. He pursued and tried to flirt with her. He made lewd propositions. In the end, the girl continued on her way and the best he could hope for was to find out where she lived, then visit her sometime.
“Although my family is no longer well off,” the girl said, “I am the daughter of a civil servant from Lang Province. So as for the two of us meeting, I wouldn’t want anyone to find out. But providing you’re really sincere, I’ll come see you as soon as an opportunity presents itself.” Continue reading
The Taiping Guangji contains stories of the occult and supernatural and, as such, is a key source for information about Chinese fox spirits. For a general impression of what fox spirits are, I prefer to let the stories speak for themselves: the three examples given below should serve this purpose. But why were these stories written in the first place and what do they represent? Many of them quite plainly illustrate beliefs surrounding Buddhist reincarnation; that is, fox spirits attempt to by-pass legitimate karmic progression, through the use of magic and trickery, in order to attain fraudulent human status. But the stories may also comment on aspects of society, such as class and social mobility. The desire to better one’s lot and thwart the forces aligned to frustrate such ambitions.
The stories below are my own translations. Continue reading
The following passage is from Master Zhuang’s eponymous collection of stories and essays. This ancient work is central to Taoist thought and an important text in the Chinese literary tradition: “Master Lieh could ride upon the wind wherever he pleased, drifting marvelously, and returning only after fifteen days. Although he was not embroiled in the pursuit of blessings and thus was able to dispense with walking, still there was something that he had to rely on. Supposing there were someone who could ride upon the truth of heaven and earth, who could chariot upon the transformation of the six vital breaths and thereby go wandering in infinity, what would he have to rely on? Therefore, it is said that the ultimate man has no self, the spiritual person has no accomplishment, and the sage has no name.” (trans. Victor H. Mair, Wandering on the Way) Continue reading