The Sound of a Beautiful Woman: A Study of Sensory Imagery in Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi)

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2020-05

Authors

Smith, Caroline J.

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Abstract

The sense of sound is one of the most prioritized senses in Chinese culture. This can be seen from a linguistic angle with Chinese being a tonal language, and in historical importance where music is integrated with ritual. Philosophically and cosmologically, “hearing the Dao” (wendao 闻道) is synonymous with “understanding the Dao.” An innovative treatment in the prioritization of sound is especially prominent in Pu Songling’s (1640-1715) Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. In this well-known collection from the genre of “strange fiction” (e.g. the supernatural), Pu Songling enriches the prioritization of sound in his literary descriptions of beauty and love through sensory imagery. Furthermore, these descriptions are also aligned with that of the zither, a stringed musical instrument that has been a literary vehicle for understanding the Dao, especially through the companion muse-like figure of a “zhiyin” 知音, or “one who knows the tone.” In this context of a kinship of true minds, the listener “appreciates” the zither music that is played because of “understanding” the music. In Chinese cultural memory, the zither is typically a man’s instrument, and the origin parable of the zhiyin refers to the inseparable cosmic connection solely between two men. This thesis argues that through the use of auditory sensory imagery, Pu Songling effectively communicates the notions of beauty and love, and especially creates a more complex and nuanced characterization of a beautiful woman. More significantly, Pu Songling breaks from the traditional gender roles and innovates the zhiyin as both a woman and lover. This concept not only bypasses the conventional Chinese formula but the female archetype is empowered beyond literary type. Perhaps of significance is that innovative representation of women and ideas such as love and beauty are framed only in the late imperial fictional arena of the “strange” and deviate from the normal. In contrast to Pu Songling’s use of auditory cues, this thesis also includes a literary sampling of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), an author who wrote similar tales but through the Western lens. A comparison of Poe’s ideas of “horror” and projection of beauty delineates an emphasis on the visual sense. Contrasting Edgar Allen Poe’s use of visual imagery targeting a human’s sense of sight helps provide a contrastive context for appreciating the uniqueness of Pu Songling’s use of auditory sensory imagery and the prioritization of sound in the Chinese culture. Pu Songling was one of the Qing writers who introduced audiences to the world of the “strange.” He spent much of his early life studying for exams in order to become successful and hopefully enter into career as a distinguished official. However, Pu Songling found much failure in what was known as “examination hell” and chose instead to spend his time reading and writing fiction. The inspiration for his stories was drawn from his own experiences from the rebellions and uprisings during his early life, to the arduous examinations in his middle life, and his later life spent in the mountainous north-eastern province (Minford xii). He died in 1715, but his collection of stories, known in English as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, carry on his literary legacy.

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