About the texts

This blog is a vehicle for draft hobby translations of tales that interest me from literary Chinese. I started with translations of accounts recorded in literary Chinese in the Huhai xinwen yijian xuzhi 湖海新聞夷堅續志 (Continuation of Records of the Listener with New Items from the Lakes and Seas), a likely early to mid-fourteenth-century collection of strange tales. The compiler remains unidentified, but the work continues the celebrated Yijian zhi 夷堅志 (Record of the Listener) collection by Hong Mai 洪邁 (1123-1202) and its first sequel, Xu Yijian zhi 續夷堅志 (Continued Records of the Listener), collected by the celebrated poet Yuan Haowen 元好問 (1190-1257), and bound together with the Huhai in the 1986 Zhonghua Shuju edition.

This Huhai is divided into two ‘collections’ (ji 集) each containing two chapters (juan 卷). In total there are seventeen thematic men subdivisions, and just over five hundred pieces (tiao 條) with an additional juan of added material, forty-one pieces in length. The work has quite a messy transmission history. The collator’s preface to the 1986 edition notes that, although printed editions survive from the Mongol era, they do not match other extant versions, either printed or in manuscript form, in terms of divisions or content.

The Huhai collection is far from being the most highly regarded of the zhiguai (anomaly tales) genre; the Mongol era (1206-1368) being regarded as a low point for such literary production. Moreover, few of these accounts present particularly satisfying narratives. Tales tend to be brief and lack explanation or resolution. In many cases little is offered in the way of moral or interpretive framework. They can seem mere fragments, an aspect that may suggest a sort of rawness, or freedom from the compiler’s treatment, that might seem more authentic or likely than the sculpted and carefully narrated versions presented by Hong Mai and others. Alternatively, of course, they may not reflect a direct literary transmission, but rather a filtration through oral retellings.

The latter interpretation is supported to some degree by the compiler’s treatment of Tale 429, ‘A Ghostly Hand Through the Window’ 鬼手入窗, a version of which is found in the 11th century collection Kuoyizhi 括異志 (Gathered Reports on Strange Matters), compiled by Zhang Shizheng 張師正. The Huhai version is far shorter than this earlier example. The Kuoyizhi account explains the human subject’s reaction to the hand, without which the story seems somewhat baffling. The earlier telling also includes the name of a transmitting intermediary, who had apparently heard it in person from that subject. Neither the explanation nor the claim to credible reporting made it into the Huhai account. This may reflect the collection’s positioning, as identified by Gu Xijia 顾希佳, as a record of material circulating orally, a suggestion supported by the use of the term Huhai 湖海 (‘lakes and seas’) in the collection’s title; in Tale 433 ‘A Dead Servant Sells Geese’ this same term is clearly employed to denote a kind of floating common population.

The Huhai tales are, nonetheless, lots of fun, and include the full range of ghosts, demons, fox spirits, dragons and mystical dreams, alongside haunted toilets and people turned into tigers. I hope you enjoy them. Any suggestions, improvements, criticism of translations or hints on where else to look for crossovers and similarities would be very welcome.

I have recently moved on to fiddle with the Tang-era collection Du yi zhi 獨異志 (Outstanding Fantastic Stories), compiled by Li Rong 李冗 (on whom we know very little except for an indication that he governed Mingzhou 明州), probably between 846 and 874 CE.[1] Originally ten juan in extent, this work was scattered at an unknown point, and then collected into two- and three-juan versions in similarly obscure conditions.[2] The stories collected in the work are mostly extremely brief, some as few as eleven characters in length, explaining or expanding even less than the Huhai stories.

[1] He has also been named as Li Kang XX, Li Yin XX and Li Yuan XX.

[2] On the compilation and transmission of the work, see Zhang Yongqin 張永欽 and Hou Zhiming 侯志明, ‘Dianjiao shuoming’ 點校說明 (Punctuator and Editor’s Explanation), in Li Rong 李冗, Du yi zhi, 獨異志 (Outstanding Fantastic Stories) in Du yi zhi, Xuanshi Zhi 獨異志,宣室志 (Outstanding Fantastic Stories, Stories from the Chamber of Dissemination), edited by Zhang Yongqin 张永钦 and Hou Zhiming 侯志明 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983), pp. 1-3.

The image above is my drawing based on an image from the wonderful 13-14th century handscroll ‘Zhongshan Going on Excursion’ 中山出遊圖 by Gong Kai 龔開 (1222-1307) (http://archive.asia.si.edu/collections/edan/object.php?q=fsg_F1938.4)

Geoff Humble