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Vol. 7, No. 1 Late Imperial ChinaJune 1986 PU SONGLING AND THE QING EXAMINATION SYSTEM Allan Barr* Admirers of Liaozhai zhiyi, the collection of strange tales by Pu Songling (1640-1715), have long considered the author's failure to fulfill his career aspirations as a critical factor inspiring the composition of the work and influencing the form which it took. As early as 1723, the painter and poet Gao Genghan (1683-1751) commented in a postface to the anthology , "At an early age Liaozhai displayed brilliant talent but, unfavored in the examinations, he received no recognition, and to express the stifled feelings that filled his heart, he had no other recourse but to write this book."1 These remarks have often been echoed by later critics as they relate Pu's experiences in the examination hall to his preoccupations in Liaozhai. The present study attempts to provide an answer to a question that is central to our understanding of Pu Songling's examination life: why did he fail? It is a question on which scholarly opinion is divided: the Japanese historian Miyazaki Ichisada has concluded that, given the institutional factors governing the examinations results, it was hardly surprising that Pu never passed,2 whereas two recent biographical studies by Maeno Naoaki and Gao Mingge suggest that choices or blunders made by Pu Songling himself largely shaped the course of his career.3 Of these two * I am indebted to Glen Dudbridge for valuable comments on early drafts of this article. I am also grateful to Ian McMorran, Jonathan Porter, Edward Rhoads, and Piet van der Loon for their suggestions and encouragement. 1 "Geben xu ba tici" (Collected prefaces, colophons, and dedications), p. 31, in Liaozhai zhiyi huijiao huizhu huiping ben (Strange Tales from Liao Studio, variorum edition), ed. Zhang Youhe (Shanghai: Guji chubanshe, 1978, repr.; hereafter abbreviated to Liaozhai). For the circumstances under which this postface came to be written, see Yuan Shishuo, "Zhuxuezhai he Zhuxuezhai chaoben Liaozhai zhiyi" (The Molded Snow Studio and the Molded Snow Studio Manuscript of Liaozhai zhiyi), Pu Songling yanjiu jikan 1 (1980):155-156. 2 Miyazaki Ichisada, China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations ofImperial China, tr. Conrad Schirokauer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), p. 59. 3 Maeno Naoaki, Ho Sh'orei den (Biography of Pu Songling) (Tokyo: Akiyama shoten, 1976), pp. 67-77; Gao Mingge, "Pu Songling de yisheng" (The Life of Pu Songling), Pu Songling yanjiujikan 2 (1981):234-237. 87 88Allan Barr conflicting views, Miyazaki's is much the more persuasive, but his case can be documented in greater detail if we focus our attention on the conditions prevailing in Pu Songling's own time. The first half of this article thus sets out to identify the chief external factors that affected Pu Songling's candidacy in the late seventeenth-century provincial examination . The second concern of this study is to reassess Pu's response to the examination system, as reflected in Liaozhai. Ever since Yang Liu classified "satire and attack on the examination system" as one of the four major elements in the "ideological content" of Liaozhai,4 the characterization of Pu Songling as a fierce critic of the examination system has become a commonplace of academic discourse both in China and in the West.5 As later discussion will show, a careful reading of Liaozhai leads one to conclude that Pu's dissatisfaction with the system was accompanied , or even overshadowed, by a deep sense of the omnipotence of fate, and that any evaluation of Pu as a commentator on the examinations must be modified accordingly. Pu Songling as Examination Candidate An outline of Pu Songling's examination record will be a valuable preliminary ' to further consideration of these issues. As a boy, Songling was gifted with a retentive memory and a lively intelligence, and was regarded by his father, a man of scholarly leanings but modest social and economic status, as the most promising of his four sons.6 This judgement was vindicated when in 1658 the eighteen year old student passed top of the list in the district examination. Pu went on to collect the highest position in the prefectural examination and repeated...


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