‘Liaozhai’ in the English-speaking world

By ZHANG QINGLI / 12-02-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: A poster for “A Touch of Zen,” a film adapted from Liaozhai 

Liaozhai Zhiyi (hereinafter called Liaozhai), or Strange Tales from Liaozhai, is a classic among ancient Chinese novels. This work was introduced to the West by travelers who came to China in the 19th century, and has attracted the attention of Western sinologists ever since. Overseas scholars, mainly British and American missionaries, diplomats, ethnic Chinese scholars, sinologists, film critics, and artists, promoted the translation, review, research, and dissemination of Liaozhai in the English-speaking world.
In a recent interview with CSST, Ren Zengqiang, director of the research and editing office of the Integration of Chinese Ancient Books Project at the International Sinological Research Center of Shandong University, expounded on Liaozhai’s cultural influence on the English-speaking world, and Western sinologists’ unique perspectives on this novel.
CSST: Could you tell us about British and American sinologists’ translation, introduction, and response to Liaozhai in the early years?
Ren Zengqiang: Early Chinese studies in the West paid attention to Chinese novels, including Chinese opera and other popular literature, to a large extent to meet the need of observing Chinese customs and traditions. Under this context, Chinese literature was regarded as a component of Chinese culture. In 1842, nine stories from Liaozhai, retold by the German missionary Karl Gützlaff, were published in the Chinese Repository. These nine stories were early translations and an introduction to Liaozhai. Karl Gützlaff commented that the Liaozhai stories were beautifully written. 
In his Easy Lessons in Chinese, a textbook on the Chinese language published in 1842, the American linguist Samuel Wells Williams praised Liaozhai as a perfect work with pure language and elegant style. In 1867, the British sinologist William S. Frederick Mayers stated in the journal Notes and Queries on China and Japan that Pu Songling [author of Liaozhai, 1640–1715] was mostly known for his writing style, which was clear and innocent. It can be said that the beautiful writing style of Liaozhai has been praised by many early sinologists.
CSST: Liaozhai has always been very popular in China, and many art forms, such as films and TV series, have been based upon this novel. Your research also paid attention to the spread of these derivative works overseas.
Ren Zengqiang: In addition to operas, there are also movies and TV series adapted from Liaozhai in the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, among which the 1971 film “A Touch of Zen” directed by King Hu and the 1987 film “A Chinese Ghost Story” directed by Ching Siu-tung and produced by Tsui Hark are very influential. 
However, a scholar from the University of Chicago had a different opinion, saying that although “A Touch of Zen” was adapted from Liaozhai, people love it mainly because it is a wuxia [martial arts] movie. To what extent can “A Touch of Zen” be known to overseas audiences as a Liaozhai story? This scholar’s concern is real. We can’t expect all or most Western audiences to know that “A Touch of Zen” is adapted from Pu Songling’s Liaozhai. 
CSST: Could you give an introduction to various translations of Liaozhai in Britain and the US? 
Ren Zengqiang: Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, published in 1880 by British sinologist Herbert A. Giles, is the earliest English translation of an excerpt from Liaozhai. The other translated works also have their own characteristics, such as Chinese Ghost & Love Stories (1946) by Rose Quong, Strange Tales from Make-do Studio (1989, excerpted translation) by Denis Mair and Victor Mair, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (2006, excerpted translation) by John Minford, and Strange Tales from Liaozhai (2014, full translation) by Sidney L. Sondergard. 
Judith Zeitlin, an American sinologist, said that because Herbert A. Giles’s translation is the earliest, it may be more in line with original Liaozhai, which was written in classical Chinese. Herbert A. Giles’s translation was based upon manuscripts that contained commentaries by a Qing Dynasty scholar named Dan Minglun (1782–1855), while John Minford and Sidney L. Sondergard translated from Liaozhai Zhiyi: Full Text with New Annotations, a 1989 edition of Liaozhai edited by Zhu Qikai, which was less traditional as it was written in vernacular Chinese with the use of modern punctuation marks. Moreover, there is a tendency towards Western consumerist culture in John Minford’s translation. John Minford used to refute my argument and believed that the translation of the Chinese classic he engaged in was a kind of “Nouvelle Chinoserie.” We should be more tolerant of sinologists who have made efforts at translation. They have their own philosophy of translation and target readers, and have made great contributions to the overseas spread of Chinese culture.
CSST: Liaozhai has been known to the English World for over 100 years. It reveals Western sinologists’ interest in Chinese classical literature. From what unique perspectives does Western sinology see Liaozhai?
Ren Zengqiang: From the perspective of ideological and cultural history, searching for a methodology of sinology is an important reason for Chinese scholars to pay attention to Western sinology. On the one hand, Western sinology provides us with some new ways of thinking and new research methods from the “Other’s” perspective. For example, Yang Rui received his Ph.D. from Massachusetts State University in 1991. His doctoral dissertation analyzed Liaozhai by using psychoanalytic approaches developed by Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, and explored the relationship between Pu Songling’s secret inner world and his literature. Judith Zeitlin focused on gender dislocation found in some Liaozhai stories, such as “Ren Yao” (“Castration”) and “Yan Shi” (“Female Scholar”). Yenna Wu, an ethnic Chinese sinologist, translated and introduced some Liaozhai stories, such as “Ma Jiefu” (“An Unreasonable Wife and a Hen-Pecked Husband”) and “Jiangcheng” (“End of Trouble”), exploring “shrews” in Chinese literature written during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
CSST: In your new book, you mentioned “Liaozhai Study” in Britain and the US. Could you explain what that is?
Ren Zengqiang: “Liaozhai Study” seems to have appeared in 1991. In recent years, academia has also proposed to officially establish “Liaozhai Study,” and suggests to collectively call the academic study of Pu Songling and Liaozhai as “Liaozhai Study.” However, influenced by the Western concepts of New Criticism, “the Intentional Fallacy,” and the idea of “The Death of the Author” of deconstructionist critics, Western sinologists pay more attention to translation and research than the text itself. 
Therefore, “Liaozhai Study in Britain and the US” refers to the academic study of translating and researching Liaozhai and its derivatives by foreigners, mainly composed of British and American sinologists. This study includes: translation, review, and research of Liaozhai, as well as the dissemination, acceptance, and influence of Liaozhai’s derivative art forms, such as movies, commemorative coins, cigarette cards, etc. The research object determines that “Liaozhai Study in Britain and the US” must be cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary, integrating multiple research fields such as translation studies, literature, aesthetics, and cultural theory.
CSST: How about the exchanges and dialogues between Chinese and overseas studies of Liaozhai in recent years?
Ren Zengqiang: There are few overseas monographs on the study of Liaozhai, while the translated works are bountiful. It can be said that Liaozhai has been translated into the most foreign languages among Chinese novels. In recent years, Chinese academia have discussed with sinologists, conducted research, and made comments on the translated versions of Liaozhai by sinologists. These efforts have once again stimulated the academic dialogue between China and other countries.
 In addition to the English world, translation, research, and the influence of Liaozhai on France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand, as well as how this influence further enriches our understanding of Liaozhai and provides inspiration for the overseas dissemination of Chinese literature, need further attention and discussion.