A Guide to Reading Pu Songling

Pu Songling

In vernacular Chinese, the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is regarded as the supreme novel. In classical Chinese, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) by Pu Songling (蒲松齡) has the equivalent status. Mao Zedong claimed to have read the Red Chamber five times. I say you need to read Strange Tales two times.

Read it in English the first time. I discover Pu Songling through Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Experience how Kafka and Borges read Pu, and recognize their voice and practices in Pu’s work. The three together grasp the absurdity and weirdness of the civilized world and human conditions.

Read it in classical Chinese the second time. Appreciate Pu’s humour, playing and twisting with the classical text that he was obliged to memorize and digest as a member of the Chinese literati. This is at heart a revolutionary work.

The works of Pu, Kafka and Borges are dark and understated. Some advice from 19th century commentator Feng Zhenluan (馮鎮巒) on how to read Strange Tales would apply to all three authors: Read these tales properly, and they will make you strong and brave; read them in the wrong way, and they will possess you.

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From Tolstoy, Kafka, to Taleb

Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we are always in a state of ignorance. The moment we decided to escape, we sank into the faint light of fake knowledge. The good news is that, from Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we are slowly finding our way back.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy expressed frustration at mankind’s inability to know all connections and causality. Like mathematical integration, he thought we could arrive at the laws of history by summing up the infinitesimal contributions of all individuals. Isaiah Berlin criticized him as a fox, who knows many things, wanting to be a hedgehog, who knows one big thing. Kafka’s more superior The Castle is a quiet acceptance of the puzzles and perplexities of life. He told us to fully immerse ourselves in our suffering. Our contemporary Taleb takes one step further. How do we thrive in ignorance and uncertainty, and comprehend what is deliberately beyond our comprehension? He calls it the philosophy of antifragility.

The Wall and the Tower

Kafka’s Great Wall of China, with the system of piecemeal construction, is filled with gaps and does not offer protection from barbarism. Likewise, the builders of the Tower of Babel, who purport to found a universal language, end up inviting God’s punishment, speaking different languages and becoming barbarians to each other.

Rather than failures, I subscribe to the view that these constructions succeed in their objective. Consider this: What we secretly desire are differences and barbarisms. What if the goal is not the wall but the gaps between the blocks which enable the flow of barbarians? What if we trick God into giving us the punishment so that we can escape from a unified humanity which speaks a single language?