Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Ming Dynasty magic fox cautionary tale - don't steal books from foxes

“Divine Foxes Lose a Book at Small Water Bay” by Feng Menglong, a story published in Constant Words to Awaken the World in 1627, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang in Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 (University of Washington Press, 2009).  Constant Words to Awaken the World is not much of a title, so I can see why it was changed.  “Divine Foxes Lose a Book at Small Water Bay” is an unsurpassable title.  Its only problem is that it overpromises.

Ricardo de la Caravana de Recuerdos was asking forfavorite short stories several months ago.  Amid the usual suspects, commenters supplied many curiosities, none more curious than “Divine Foxes,” suggested by humblehappiness aka Cleanthess, who I am pleased to say also visits Wuthering Expectations on occasion.

The narrator begins with an old story about a man who saves an injured bird and is rewarded by the bird with good fortune.  Everyone knows this story in some form.

Why even bother to tell it?  Well, dear audience, I did so because I plan to move on to a story about a young man who also hit nonhuman beings with slingshot pellets.  But, unlike the one who repented after having hurt the bird, this young man ruined his family’s considerable fortune as a consequence of his action and became an object of ridicule.  (117)

The young man who errs, Wang Chen, “had only a slight acquaintance with the classics and histories and barely knew the rudiments of writing,” which is what makes his sin especially serious when he comes upon “two wild foxes talking and laughing” who “were discussing the book that one of them was holding in its hand” and injures them both with his slingshot just to get a look at the book.  What does he care about books?  And then it turns out that it is “printed in ancient tadpole-like characters completely unknown to him” (119).

For the rest of the story, the foxes, who have magic powers mostly related to disguise, try to get their book back.  Wang Chen keeps it from them out of nothing but peevishness.  Eventually, the foxes succeed through a scheme that seems unnecessarily complex, in the process not exactly ruining Wang Chen, but causing his family to lose half of its wealth.

The narrator occasionally inserts poems and italicized commentary, such as this one at the end (Wang Zai is Wang Chen’s brother:

(What did Wang Zai do to deserve such punishment?  The foxes were wicked enough.  That’s why they don’t get reincarnated as humans, after all.)

A glimpse into another ethical world appears there, almost as strange as the central mystery of the story, the book that the foxes were discussing so intensely.  What could be in it?  The true catalog to Borges’s Library of Babel; the key to all mythologies.  Something like that.  Or perhaps just the Tang Dynasty fairy fox equivalent of George R. R. Martin, stolen before either fox had reached the end.

Book bloggers will sympathize with the foxes.

I guess this counts as a kind of Halloween story.  Magic Chinese foxes instead of ghosts.

Of the 2,800 pages of Feng Menglong that has been translated, I have only read “Divine Foxes.”  Cleanthess – what’s the wise thing to do next?


  1. The title is intriguing... and it was published in 1627? I am jealous. I see the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. Thanks for sharing

  2. I'm glad to see Feng Menglong referenced on a Halloween post, thank you for that. Good point about the over promising title. Anyway, since buying three expensive books is too much to expect, I'll limit my recommendations to just my favorites from Menglong's Histories to Caution the World:

    The White Maiden Locked for Eternity Under the Thunder Peak Tower.
    With it's ironic moral: 'Judging from the case of Empress Wu, how can we be so sure that a snake cannot become a woman?'

    Judge Bao Solves a Case through a Ghost that Appeared Thrice
    The Golden Eel Brings Calamity to Officer Ji
    Wang Jiaoluan's One Hundred Years of Sorrow
    Du Shiniang Sinks her Golden Box in Anger.
    The King of the Honey Locust Grove Assumes Human Shape.

    And the first and last anecdotes from Three Times Wang An Shi tries to Baffle Su Dungpo, which are hilarious (the Delicious One, yeah right!).

    That handful of stories has inspired so many movies, cartoons, TV shows, comic books, playlets, etc. Reading the original sources is always an enriching experience.

  3. No story can live up to "The Golden Eel Brings Calamity to Officer Ji." Might as well stop at the title. It is so good.

    For a Chinese reader, the experience must be a bit like reading the Grimm brothers.

    Thanks so much for the expanded recommendations. Cost is no object (as long as the university library has the books), but the prospect of plowing through nearly 3,000 pages of this stuff is - well, intriguing, actually, but a project for some time in the future.

    Nana - 1627, I know, it is all so surprising. Nothing in Chinese literature lines up with Western literary history. A separate, exciting field.

    The note about reincarnation is interesting. I assume it is really an ironic comment on the hero. If the foxes have been wicked enough to stunt their cosmic progress, what will happen to Wang Chen? He'll be lucky if he comes back as a fox.

  4. If you like the Feng Menglong stories I recommended (taken from the second volume, the best one of the three, imho), you might also like some of the Strange Tales from a Chinese studio.

    The complete Chinese Studio by Pu Song Ling is about 2000 pages long, though.

    Among the complete editions I can recommend the Italian version I racconti fantastici di Liao, Giovanni Di Giura, Mondadori, 2 vols, and the complete French (good luck finding a copy, though) Chroniques de l'etrange, Andre Levy, Philippe Picquier, 2 vols, 2005, 2016 p. Both include about 500 tales from the Liaozhai. Even the shorter version of Andre Levy's translation is quite good at 500 pages.

    For English versions, the best one I've read is Strange Tales of Liaozhai (Revised Enlarged Edition- Classical Chinese Novel Series ), which includes the ironic send-up commentaries by The Chronicler of Wonders (Pu Song Ling himself) and is also about 500 pages long. The most complete version available in English is Strange Tales from the Liaozhai Studio, 3 vols. (Beijing: People’s China Publishing House, 1997), which includes 194 tales and is about 1000 pages long, but I've read that it's a careless translation.

    Speaking of great titles: Fox confessor brings the flood. How's that for a country music album title?

  5. Like many people, I know of Pu Song Ling via Jonathan Spence's The Death of Woman Wang. He is on my list, too, my "Chinese, someday" list.

    Neko Case has a strong taste for cryptic lyrics, which sometimes slips into her album titles.

  6. I tremendously love stories where the author is commenting on them as they are happening. There is a danger that it will become precious, but in general I'm all for it.

    (Neko Case! Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is indeed a wonderful album title, and she is a wonderful singer.)

  7. "Precious," that is a good word here. I can see that being a problem with this kind of story. It is, after all, a fairy tale, and the devices to remind us of the oral roots of the fairy tale also can make it seem that the story is being told to children. The poems work - well, I do not know how they work. Something to attend to.

    I am not prepared to defend the opinion, but I thought the new Neko Case album was her strongest yet. Its title is unwieldy but not obscure: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.

    Jenny, I do remember you commenting before. Welcome, and thanks.