I decided to add a new column to my 2015 reading list, the Literati Corner, which will appear between every book we finish in the original languages, and this post kicks off the first installment. This time, I have selected the Ping Yao Zhuan by Feng Menglong (which I will translate as The Demon Suppressing Tale). In Chinese, that’s 冯梦龙的 “平妖傳”, which he wrote during the Ming Dynasty in China sometime in the 16th century. Half of the book is actually someone else’s work written centuries before, and I’m not going to cover that in these posts for that reason. Feng Menglong’s dates are 1574 to 1645 AD. Here is the version in Chinese:
and here is an English language translation by Nathan Sturman:
Sturman describes the work of Feng Menglong generally as follows:
He was also a philosophical proponent of the Wang Yangming “left” group (“eccentric” school founded by Li Zhi, (1527-1602) epicurean/libertine advocate of openness and a critic of stoic/one-dimensional fiction that, he pointed out, disregarded the full range of human feelings and experience. Li, once magistrate of Yao An Fu, (Wang Yangming’s home in Zhejiang) hated all sorts of taboos and wrote freely of tales of the supernatural and eventually his words and behavior got him thrown into prison where he took his own life. Feng Menglong carried on this tradition, concerned deeply with human feelings and behavior, and held a high regard for women, advocating their advancement.
Wikipedia adds that Li Zhi openly identified as a heretic, wrote books called A Book to Burn and A Book to Hide; he also “denied that women were inferior to men in native intelligence, and that many historical women such as Empress Wu were actually superior.” No wonder Li Zhi got himself in trouble since many staunch Confucians had a particular animosity for Empress Wu. But this is the tradition that Feng Menglong followed, and we’ll see how those views come out as we read the novel.
The Demon Suppressing Tale has 40 chapters, and the original fox spirit storyline only runs through the first 15 chapters. My personal opinion is that the second story from centuries earlier tacked on the ending 25 chapters really doesn’t fit the general way fox spirits were used in East Asian literature, though my knowledge is by no means comprehensive. Fox spirits were usually the primary agents in the stories they appear in rather than peripheral figures, so all the more reason to skip over that.
As I stated at the beginning of the year, I’m focusing on foxes this year since my recently published novel, The Vulpecula Cycle, features Chinese fox folklore, and so on my own personal imaginary calendar I’m declaring 2015 the Year of the Fox. Stories of foxes are always pretty exciting, and this one in particular is special because it features a male fox spirit that can turn into a human. Most of the stories you come across with this folkloric element feature female spirits, even in modern portrayals, and while there may be more novels from old China depicting male fox fairies, this is the first I’ve seen. It’s also of interest to me that this story features brother and sister fox spirit characters, which I also use in my novel. But let’s pause before we review this storyline of the novel to see how the situation with foxes is explained by Feng Menglong when he first introduces them:
Generally speaking if a vixen wishes to lure a human male she need only change into a beautiful, charming woman. And if the male fox wishes to seduce a woman he need only change into a handsome man. Both of these metamorphoses require that Yin and Yang seminal and blood vital forces be stolen from the target manifestation. And whatever kind of magic changes you can dream of, the fox has the ability to perform these and more from birth. For example, if a vixen wants to become a woman she must use the skull and bones of a dead human female, and if a male fox wishes to change into a man he must use the bones and skull of a dead man. In either case it must place these upon its head and body and then worship the moon. If the desired change is not possible at the time the skull will tumble down knockety-knock. But if it stays firmly in place, well, then after finishing forty-nine incantations and bows the creature will change on the spot into the form of a man or woman, and will then gather some leaves and flower petals with which to cover its body. These in turn change into fashionable clothes of five colors. Once a person has seen its beauty and its elegant dress, he or she will fall head over heels for the siren or handsome dandy. (Ping Yao Zhuan, Ch. 3, trans. Nathan Sturman)
And indeed, this story begins with the appearance of the male fox spirit, Hu Chu:
And it is said that in Citong Village of Ande District, Western Sichuan, there lived a hunter called Zhao Yi. He was from a once-powerful family, now down on its fortunes. Now, this Zhao Yi had a wife surnamed Qian, the daughter of Squire Qian of that district; she was only twenty-two years of age and very beautiful. Zhao Yi earned a sort of livelihood by hunting, while this Qian woman stayed home in their reed cabin, taking in sewing to help them survive. Who would ever imagine that one day, when going out to draw water, she would be spotted by the sorcerer fox, that the beast’s vile heart would be moved and that it would then seek to seduce her? And who would think that it would change into a handsome Xiucai degree holder, wearing such impeccable clothes and only waiting every day for her husband to leave? Who would have thought that a fox so transformed would then go to their door, perhaps sitting or maybe standing, possibly pretending to be hungry or thirsty and begging for some gruel or water, all the time only seeking to lure her into speaking? Or that try as it did to force out some charming words, that wife would remain as hard as stone, entirely unmovable, and that because of this he could not lure her to the kang and take her? Now our hunter Zhao spotted this Xiucai on the doorpath for two days in a row, and, suspicious, asked the stranger his name. The Xiucai said his name was Hu Chu, that he had studied in his home village and for now had wandered to this place. Zhao Yi had the mind to visit his hometown and check up on him, and finding that no such person had ever lived there his doubts increased. (Ping Yao Zhuan, Ch. 3, trans. Nathan Sturman)
Zhao Yi then goes out hunting with his buddies, and he sees the fox in question performing this strange ritual and changing into a handsome man right before his eyes. He takes his bow and arrow and shoots the fox in the left leg, maiming it, but the fox changes back into animal form and escapes.
The fox, Hu Chu, runs back to his mother, a white fox named Holy Auntie, and his younger sister, Hu Mei at their home on Goosegate Mountain. Their last name Hu (胡) sounds like the Chinese word for fox (狐). They decide he needs medical attention, and Holy Auntie uses her powers to change into an old human beggar woman to approach a famous doctor who immediately sees through her disguise. After providing some medical advice to her and declaring that Hu Chu will always be lame, he tells her that when he checked her pulse, he felt her daughter had a sad destiny. This frightens her into dragging her two children along to find a Taoist temple where they can learn magic to help Mei avoid her horrible fate.
The three of them transform into humans and end up at Swordgate Mountain. At a temple called the Tomb of Virtuous Bravery, they meet two Taoists priests, Wizard Nie and young twenty-four year old Wizard Jia, who offer their guests a place to stay for a few nights. Hu Chu nips some of the wine Wizard Nie carries, and both wizards are besotted by Hu Mei’s beauty and scheme to seduce her, which she playfully turns around by confusing them into seducing each other instead! They finally decide that Hu Chu should remain at the temple and become their disciple, while Hu Mei and Holy Auntie move on. I’ll deal with Holy Auntie’s storyline next time since it breaks off from that of her children. This time we’ll just focus on Hu Chu and Hu Mei.
Hu Mei disappears on the way to a Taoist convent with her mother in chapter 6 where she is to set to become a Taoist nun, but Mei pops up again later in chapter 14. Her solo storyline is introduced with the description of two cool male characters, exorcist Zhang Dapeng and his sworn brother, weapons expert Zhu Neng, and their involvement with the Emperor, for whom they create some heavenly dream using their magical skill. Court intrigue messes up their fine situation, however. They are accused of deceiving the Emperor, and Zhu Neng is arrested and executed by slicing, while Zhang Dapeng is on the lam. Zhang walks out in a moonlit garden one night and sees an immortal maiden descending from the sky: Hu Mei. She had been blown away with the wind while Holy Auntie was indisposed hearing more about Mei’s fate, which I’ll get into next time.
Zhang revives her, and he enters her name into the selection to enter the palace as Prince Chongxiao’s bride! But Eunuch Lei who comes to fetch her is immediately lured by her beauty, and he rejects Hu Mei on the basis of age. She is sixteen, too old for the prince, who is fourteen. Lei longs for a companion himself though he has been castrated, and he takes Hu Mei for a wife. He recites a list of eunuchs in history who have done so and plans for their wedding the next day. But the wedding night doesn’t go well because of Zhang’s magic, and neither do subsequent nights. Upset by this turn of events, Hu Mei asks for a storyteller to be summoned, and the story he tells is that of Daji, the bloodthirsty concubine of Emperor Zhou of the Shang Dynasty. Daji was thought to have had her soul sucked out by a fox spirit, who then impersonated her, and she brought the Emperor to ruin. Hu Mei dreams she should be queen and is inspired by Daji’s story. Another eunuch takes her to the third selection for the prince’s wife, but she is unimpressed with the girls. She decides to take matters into her own hands and sneaks out to meet the prince:
Now, this was what they called the Zishantang, the place where the future Emperor read his books. And although it was already late, so innately clever and fond of study was this Prince that he sat and studied by candlelight. A few eunuchs were slumping over the tables or lying around the room. “I’d better grab this chance while I can,” thought Mei’r, and so she invisibly flew down through that hole in the roof for a better look. In the hall behind the seminar some old women were gathered round the stove making tea. On the table were arranged some carved lacquered cups, silver teapots and golden spoons. Mei’r removed her scarf, erased her face and mouth with a wipe of her hand and changed herself into a beautiful and charming young Palace maid. Then she suddenly took a cup and teapot and spit into them. Next she blew into them, and her saliva changed magically into fragrant hot tea! Now, fox spittle is a fine agent for bewitching folks, and one who drinks it will surely swoon. No matter whether the most morally cultivated of men or the purest of women, it’s hard to say they wouldn’t fall for the fox’s lure! Hu Mei’r slipped into the study hall in the most bewitchingly beautiful way imaginable, holding the teacup with both hands and approaching the Crown Prince as if to offer it to him when suddenly what should appear in a flash from behind but the figure of a revered deity! (Ping Yao Zhuan, ch. 15, trans. Nathan Sturman)
One illustrious spirit protecting the prince goes to the Jade Emperor, and they strike the fox girl dead immediately. The prince merely finds a dead fox in his room after hearing her yelp, which is interpreted as a sign of good luck. But that is not quite the end of Hu Mei. When Eunuch Lei can’t find her, Zhang goes back and revives her from her portrait:
Locking the door he wrote and recited charms, hoping to snatch up his niece’s soul and find out what had happened. This had always summoned spirits but now failed to work. “What a weird affair!” shouted Zhang, frustrated and puzzled. Then, facing that portrait of Mei’r’s original spirit, he once more concentrated his thoughts on the ever-gathering swarm of ghosts. And sure enough a blast of cold wind came through and the painting seemed to emit some bitter sounding chirps. Then suddenly the spirit and soul of Hu Mei’r came out and manifested itself, tugging at Zhang Ying’s sleeves and weeping bitterly. Zhang consoled her and asked what had happened. “I don’t dare hide it any longer,” she proclaimed; “I’m really a fox-spirit from the foot of Goosegate Mountain. Following my mother Holy Auntie on a journey through the clouds in search of Dao we met a squall that picked me up and cast me here, where you have so kindly sheltered and fed me. Then it happened that I was forcibly married to Eunuch Lei and then neglected. Two nights ago I awoke mumbling to myself in my sleep and felt as though my strength was leaving me. But come morning I heard about the selection of a queen, so I sneaked over for a look. Thinking my beauty to be uniquely irresistible, I burrowed into the Palace intent upon seduction, but alas I met with the anger of Spirit General Guan, who took me to Hades at swordpoint. I cried out bitterly, protesting my innocence over and over until General Guan reexamined the records of my case and pronounced me fated to go forth to a human rebirth, to someday make good at a place called Beizhou where I’m fated to become a queen in a harem. (Ping Yao Zhuan, ch. 15, trans. Nathan Sturman)
Zhang Dapeng goes in search of Squire Hu and his wife Lady Zhang, who are childless, and this is where the novel grafts on the old story from centuries earlier that has nothing to do with what we’ve read so far. So the final ending of the fox children storyline has Hu Mei killed in the palace before she can get to the prince, and her brother Hu Chu is in training to be a Taoist priest. Next time we’ll look at where Holy Auntie ends up, but that will be in a few months after we read our next foreign language book.