P'u Sung-ling: Painting on the Wall (first made public in 1680)


In general, novelists and story-tellers enjoyed little respect in China. While philosophical or annalistic literature was highly esteemed, fiction was called "small talk" ("hsiao shuo") and neither writing nor reading it was considered worthwhile. P'u Sung-ling (1640-1715) and his collection of about 400 stories collected and published under the title "Liao-chai chih yi" ("strange stories from the liao-studio") are an exception. Having passed only one of the three Civil Service examinations, P'u spent most of his life in his native village in Shantung under dire conditions. He devoted his time to the collection and reiteration of folk tales. During P'u's lifetime the "Liao-chai chih yi"-collection was circulated in manuscript since he was too poor to have it printed. In 1740, his grandson had them printed for the first time, and P'u's collection subsequently became famous. The stories themselves, though "strange", are not unusual within the context of Chinese fiction. What makes this collection of stories unique is the exquisiteness of P'u's style.

When Meng Lung-t'an, a native of Kiang-si, was strolling around in the capital with a Second-Degree-Graduate (1) named Chu, they came upon a Buddhist temple. Its halls were not spacious and only one monk was residing there.

Having caught sight of the visitors, the monk adjusted his robe and stepped forward to greet them and show them around. In the main hall stood a statue of Lord Zhi Lord Chih, a.k.a. Shih Pao-kung, was a Buddhist monk of the Zen (chin. Chan)-School, who was later on worshipped as a bodhisattva. , and on the walls on both sides people and animals were so skillfully painted that they seemed to be alive. On the eastern wall, in a scene depicting the Celestial Maiden scattering flowers there was the image of a girl with her hair in two girlish buns on both sides of her head, holding a flower and smiling. Her cherry lips seemed about to move, her glistening eye seemed about to overflow. Chu fixed his eyes upon her for so long that his mind began to waver. He lost all his determination, and dazed he sank into deep contemplation. Suddenly, he floated up as if riding on clouds and mist and up he went into the wall.

Now he saw halls and pavilions of all kinds, so beautiful that they resembled heaven. Nothing like it could be seen on earth.

An old priest on a high seat was preaching a Buddhist sermon, surrounded by a crowd of listeners in Buddhist attire, and Chu joined them. Yet suddenly he felt someone tugging at his robe. Turning around he beheld the smiling girl with her hair in buns just as she laughingly slipped away. Without thinking for even a moment Chu followed her as she passed along a balustrade. Yet when she entered a small chamber, Chu hesitated, not daring to enter. But the girl turned around and waving the flower in her hand seemed to beckon him. Swiftly he stepped into the room.

The chamber was empty, and Chu immediately embraced the girl. And since she offered no resistance, they consumated their passion. Later, when she left the room, cautiously closing the door, she told Chu not even to cough and promised to come back at night.

After two days had passed in this manner, the girl's sisters began to suspect something and following her discovered the scholar. Jokingly they teased the girl: "How can you still wear your hair in these maiden-buns while there is a baby already growing in your belly?" They brought enameled hairpins and jeweled ornaments and went about binding her hair in a matron's knot. She obediently lowered her head but said nothing. They went on teasing her for a while until one of the girls said with a smile: "Sisters, let us stay no longer, certain people don't want our company!" Giggling, they left.

Chu looked at the girl with her hair piled high like clouds and with phoenix-ornaments dangling, and she seemed even more bewitching than with her hair worn in girlish buns. No one was around, and again they slowly and lovingly embraced each other, inflamed by musk and the orchid's sweet fragrance. Their pleasure had not yet reached its height, when suddenly there arose an uproar: boots tramped, chains clanked, and above all was the noise of angry voices. Terrified, the girl leaped up, and the two stealthily peeped outside. They saw a herald in golden armour, with a face like black laquer, and in his hands were chains and a hammer! As the other girls surrounded him, he asked: "Is everyone here yet?" "Yes, we are all here" they replied.

"It seems as if a man from the lower world is being hidden here," the herald went on. "If so, bring him here or you shall be sorry!" "There is no one here," the girls replied.

The envoy turned around and, scrutinizing everything like an eagle, seemed about to begin a search. The girl grew pale as death with fear. In panic she entreated Chu to hide under the bed. Then she opened a small screen-door in the wall and disappeared. In his hiding-place under the bed Chu did not even dare to breathe. Soon he heard the sound of boots enter the room and leave. Eventually, voices seemed to fade away into the distance, yet he still heard people come and go outside the door. Having been in such cramped position for so very long, Chu felt increasingly uncomfortable. His ears seemed to buzz as if locusts were nesting inside, and his eyes seemed to be on fire. It was almost too much to bear. Yet he kept quiet, straining his ears for the girl's return and giving no thought to whence he had come and where he was.

Meanwhile, Meng Lung-t'an in the temple noticed that Chu had disappeared and asked the monk where he could be. The monk smiled and said: "He has gone to listen to the preaching of the Doctrine!" "But where is that?" Meng asked. "Not far," the monk answered, and tapping with his finger against the painting on the wall, he called out: "Friend Chu, why does it take you so long to return?" At once there appeared on the wall a portrait of Chu, cocking his ear as if he were eagerly listening. Again the monk called out: "You have kept your companion waiting for quite some time!" And suddenly Chu floated down from the wall. And there he stood: stiff as wood, his heart turned to lead, eyes staring and legs trembling. Meng was startled but quietly asked Chu what had happened. Well, what had happened was that Chu, while hiding under the bed, had heard a noise like thunder and rushed outside to find out what it was.

Now they all looked at the girl in the painting holding a flower: And see, her hair was piled into a matron's knot and no longer fixed in the buns of a maiden!

Chu was dumbfounded and, bowing to the old monk, begged for an explanation. With a chuckle, the monk replied: "Illusions are born in those who see them. How can this old monk possibly offer an explanation?" Upon hearing this, Chu was thoroughly dejected and Meng was greatly alarmed. They stumbled down the stairs and slowly walked away.

The "Teller of Strange Tales" says: "Illusions are born in those who see them" - this seems to be true. If a man turns his mind to lust, then filthy scenes will appear. If a man turns his mind to dirt, terrifying scenes will appear. When a bodhisattva teaches those without knowledge, a thousand illusions will appear. Yet it is the mind itself that creates them. The monk was too keen on seeing results. (2) Translated by Lydia Gerber

Notes

(1) A Second-Degree-Graduate or Chu-jen is a Chinese scholar who has passed both the local and provincial examinations and is waiting to take the examination in the Capital.

(2) According to the Teaching of Zen, being "too keen on seeing results" may lead to failure. But it is sad indeed that having heard the monk's words Chu did not become enlightened, loosen his hair and retire to the mountains!


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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

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