Zhenjun Zhang on Liu Yiqing’s Hidden and Visible Realms

This week for National Translation Month we have been featuring Sinophone literature in English translation. As part of that feature, we have a guest post today written by Zhenjun Zhang, an associate professor of Asian studies at St. Lawrence University and the editor and translator of Hidden and Visible Realms: Early Medieval Chinese Tales of the Supernatural and the Fantastic by Liu Yiqing, published in our “Translations from the Asian Classics” series.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win this title or one of the other titles featured this week for National Translation Month. The drawing closes today, Friday, September 28th, at 1:00 pm EDT.

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I feel very fortunate and honored to be the one to finish the first complete English translation of Prince Liu Yiqing’s (403-444) monumental collection of zhiguai (“accounts of anomalies”), Hidden and Visible Realms, and publish it in the distinguished series of “Translations from Asian Classics” by Columbia University Press.

Liu Yiqing, the nephew of Liu Yu (r. 420-422), the founder of the [Liu] Song dynasty (420-479), is beyond a doubt one of the most influential figures in early medieval Chinese history and culture. His importance lies not only in his princely social status, but also in the two tale collections attributed to him–the Shishuo xinyu (New Account of Tales of the World) and the Youming lu (Hidden and Visible Realms). The former is the quintessential work of zhiren (accounts of men) and the latter a representative work of the zhiguai. Both genres are considered the earliest forms of Chinese fiction and both collections by Liu provide invaluable information on the history of China from the late third to early fifth centuries.

[Liu Yiqing] is beyond a doubt one of the most influential figures in early medieval Chinese history and culture.

Liu’s New Account of Tales of the World was translated into English by Professor Richard B. Mather over four decades ago (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), giving him great fame and recognition. Professor Albert Dien states in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 37 (1997): 423-27, “All who are interested in this pivotal period of Chinese history owe a heavy debt to Mather for his dedication and skill in producing this fine translation.” Though my translation cannot compare with Mather’s in many ways, I am still very pleased that Prince Liu’s Hidden and Visible Realms is finally available to western readers.

Of all the early zhiguai collections, Hidden and Visible Realms is distinguished by its varied contents, elegant writing style, and fascinating tales. After reading a few stories from the beginning of volume one, “The Wonder of Love,” I hope you will agree with that statement. Of these tales, “Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao” is the most influential one in the history of Chinese literature, “The Girl who Sold Face Powder” is a deeply touching love story, and both “Pang E and His Infatuated Lover” and “Dream Adventure inside a Cypress Pillow” are innovative and fascinating.

Hidden and Visible Realms is among the earliest tale collections heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Most importantly, Hidden and Visible Realms is among the earliest tale collections heavily influenced by Buddhism. Alongside traditional themes that appear in other zhiguai collections, new themes bearing Buddhist beliefs, values, and concerns appear in this collection for the first time. Tale 122, “Disaster from Stealing Coffin Boards,” shows a new form of karmic retribution, “retribution in this life”; tale 215 provides a vivid picture of transmigration: a man must repay a debt from his previous life; tale 170, “The Shaman Shu Li,” and tale 175, “Zhao Tai Travels in Hells,” portray Buddhist hells in detail; tale 98 has Buddha appearing as a new savior and contains the first appearance of Buddhist ghosts, raksasas, in Chinese literary works.

In closing, I would like to emphasize the value of Hidden and Visible Realms with Professor Wilt L. Idema’s remark: “The nearly three hundred miracle tales that survive of Liu Yiqing’s compilation offer fascinating insights into China’s society and imagination of the late third to early fifth centuries. This complete translation will be eagerly welcomed by all students and scholars of Chinese literature, religion, and thought, as it was precisely in this period that Buddhism had become part of Chinese life.”

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Below are three of Liu Yiqing’s tales from Hidden and Visible Realms, translated Zhenjun Zhang.

Tale 3: “Pang and His Infatuated Lover

How could it be that there are truly such strange matters as this in the world!

In Julu Commandery, there was a man by the name of Pang E who was handsome and carried himself well. The Shi family of that same commandery had a daughter who took a liking to him after she chanced to see him from the inner quarters of her house. Not long thereafter, Pang E saw this girl coming to pay him a visit.

Pang E’s wife was a very jealous woman, and when she heard this, she ordered her maidservant to tie up the girl and send her back to the Shi family. However, when they were halfway there, the girl transformed herself into a wisp of smoke and disappeared.

Thereupon the maidservant went straight to see the Shi family and told them about this. The father was shocked and said, “My daughter has never even stepped outside this house. How can you spread such slander as this?”

From then on Pang E’s wife took even more care to keep an eye on him. One night she came across this girl again in the study, whereupon she herself tied her up and took her back to the Shi family.

When the father saw her he stared dumbfoundedly and said, “I just came from inside and saw the girl working with her mother. How could she be here?” He then ordered a maidservant to call the girl to come out. As soon as the girl came out, the one who had been tied up previously vanished like smoke.

The father suspected that there must be an abnormal reason for this, so he sent the mother to ask the girl about it. The girl said, “Last year I once stole a glance at Pang E when he came to our house, and ever since then I have felt confused. Once I dreamed that I went to visit Pang E, and when I reached the entrance to his house, I was tied up by his wife.”

Mr. Shi said, “How could it be that there are truly such strange matters as this in the world! Indeed, whenever one’s sincerest feelings are affected, the spirit will manifest itself in mysterious ways. Thus the one who disappeared must have been her hun soul.”

After this, the girl made a vow that she would never marry. Some years later, Pang E’s wife suddenly contracted a terrible illness, and neither doctors nor medicines were able to save her life. Only then did Pang E send betrothal gifts to the girl and make her his wife.

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Tale 98: “Raksasas

Tale 98 has Buddha appearing as a new savior and contains the first appearance of Buddhist ghosts, raksasas, in Chinese literary works.

During the Song reign there was a state that was close to raksasas. The raksasas entered its territory several times, eating countless people. The king made an agreement with the raksasas that said, “From today each of the families in this state will have a special day of duty. On that day, the family on duty should send [a boy] to you. Please do not kill people randomly anymore.”

A family of Buddha devotees had an only son aged ten who was the next boy to be sent [to the raksasas]. At the time of his departure, his parents wailed bitterly, and then chanted the name of Buddha wholeheartedly. Because Buddha’s power was great, the raksasas could not get close to the boy. The next morning, the parents found that their son was still alive and they went back home together happily.

From then on, the calamity of the raksasas ceased completely. [Lives of] people in the state had indeed depended on this family.

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Tale 215: The Prince of Anxi’s Three Lives

Tale 215 provides a vivid picture of transmigration: a man must repay a debt from his previous life.

An Shigao, the marquis, was the Prince of Anxi State (Parthia). He became a monk together with the son of a great patron and studied the way [of enlightenment] in a city in Shewei. Every time a host refused to help them, the son of the great patron would become angry. Shigao always admonished him.

Having roamed for twenty-eight years, Shigao decided that he should go to Guangzhou. It happened that there was a revolt. A man met Shigao and drew his knife without a hitch, saying, “I have really got you now!” Shigao replied with a laugh, “I owed you a debt in a previous life; thus I came from afar to repay you.” Then the man killed him.

A teenager said, “This stranger, who came from a state far away, could speak our language and did not show any sign of reluctance. Could he be a deity?” The people all laughed in astonishment.

The soul of Shigao returned and was reborn in the state of Anxi, becoming the son of the prince, again with the name Shigao. At the age of twenty, the Marquis of Anxi gave up the lordship again so as to learn the Way [of enlightenment]. Ten and some more years later, he said to those who studied with him, “I shall go to Guiji Commandery to repay my debt.”

As he passed by Mount Lu, he visited his friends; then he passed by Guangzhou. Seeing that the teenager was still alive, he went directly to his home and talked about the events in the past with him. The young man was greatly delighted and followed him to Guiji.

While passing by the Monastery of Mount Ji, Shigao summoned the deity of the mountain and talked with him. The shape of the god of Mount Ji was like a python; his body was several dozen feet long, and he shed tears. Shigao spoke to him; the python then left. Shigao returned to his boat. There was a young man who got onto the boat, kneeled down, and went forward to receive an incantation; then he disappeared. Shigao said, “The young man you saw a moment ago was the deity of the temple, and he is now able to get rid of his ugly form.”

It was said that the deity of the temple was the son of the great patron. Later the temple attendant noticed a bad smell and saw a dead python. From then on the deity disappeared.

Shigao went on to Guiji and entered the gate of a market. It happened that there were some people fighting, and someone hit Shigao’s head by mistake. Thus he passed away.

Consequently the guest from Guangzhou worshiped Buddha more diligently.


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