Tales of the New Strange (1870-1890) : Wang Tao's Zhiguai Writing

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2015


TitleTravelling Text/Image/Media: The Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature Conference
Period18 - 20 June 2015


Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi聊斋志异 (hereafter referred to as LZ), the masterpiece of zhiguai writing, is often seen as the only gem of the genre produced in the Qing dynasty. However, zhiguai writing had been consistently popular in the two centuries following LZ and enjoyed a proliferation in the last decades of the empire. These works are often disregarded by scholars who view them as mere imitation of LZ; without the latter’s stylistic brilliance, these later texts offer the worst features of a superstitious China soon to be replaced by the Republican Era’s scientific enlightenment and vernacular prose. This critical judgment, however, repeats an artificial schism between a classical China and a modern China. It also overlooks the diversity and originality of zhiguai collections that emerged during this period. The old potent genre, tales of the strange, when conjoined with earlier Chinese journalism and Western-influenced literati, can function both as a way to know the new world and to interrogate and cast doubt on a social and political status quo. Wang Tao, a typical late Qing intellectual in this period of transition, wrote three zhiguai collections (Dunku Lanyan遁窟谰言, Songyin manlu淞隐漫录, Songbin suohua淞滨琐话) in a conspicuous LZ style; yet simultaneously these collections are imbued with the ethos of the time. In line with what the name “zhiguai” suggests— to record the strange— it is scarcely surprising that things from the West and dealings with the Westerners as the new strange found their place in contemporary zhiguai tales. Indeed, the zhiguai genre in its hybridized interaction with early Chinese periodicals sometimes functioned as a way for the Chinese readers to assimilate an otherwise incomprehensible knowledge of the West. As one of the first Chinese literati who had extensive exposure to the West, Wang Tao certainly offered a picture of this “new strange” in his tales, albeit in the dreamlike language of fantasy. If to know objective truth and master new knowledge are the aims of journalism, the knowing Wang Tao’s stories offer leads not to the confidence but to deep anxiety and doubts. While the familiar genre of zhiguai suggests a way to experience and articulate the new world in a language that is comprehensible to the Chinese — every encounter with unknown wonders is a re-cognition with what has long been recorded in The Classic of Mountains and Seas, thus reaffirming the legitimacy of history and Chinese centrality — Wang Tao plants doubts within this cognitive structure. The validity of The Classic is challenged in the preface of Songyin manlu, and history in his narrative re/turns uncannily as reanimated corpses. In Wang Tao’s texts, the tales of the strange become a genre of the fantastic that constantly plays on and undermines the boundaries between belief and disbelief, the supernatural and the real. This strangeness is new not only because it comes from the West, but because it represents fissures in the old cosmos through which a reconsideration of self is envisioned. These fissures are forms of evidence to what Wang Der-wai may call “repressed modernities”.

Citation Format(s)

Tales of the New Strange (1870-1890): Wang Tao's Zhiguai Writing. / FU, Meng Xing.
2015. 216-220 Paper presented at Travelling Text/Image/Media: The Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature Conference, 上海, China.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review