- Real Life in China at the Height of Empire: Revealed by the Ghosts of Ji Xiaolan transed. by David E. Pollard
David E. Pollard's new translation of a selection of Ji Yun's Jottings from the Thatch Hut of Subtle Views (Yuewei caotang biji 閱微草堂筆記) should be first commended for its title. Real Life in China is a splendid name, aptly warning the reader that he is not to be merely taken into encounters with seducing fox spirits and exotic ghosts or other uncanny beings. Ghosts and vixens he will meet, of course, and there are superb pieces of Chinese literary storytelling in these pages. However, a lot of discussion will also be found in parts of the book that is by no means less entertaining and interesting.
The importance of the nonnarrative, somewhat didactic elements in the Yuewei caotang biji has been traditionally linked to the personality of its author. Ji Yun 紀昀 (Ji Xiaolan 紀曉嵐, 1724–1805), mainly remembered in the history of Chinese culture for having occupied the post of chief editor of the huge Siku quanshu 四庫全書 compilation commissioned by Emperor Qianlong, also wrote, rather late in life, five collections of random notes, collected afterward under the studio title Yuewei caotang biji. If Ji Yun places himself in the continuity of the zhiguai 志怪 (strange writings) tradition, his collection offers many singularities when compared to other works of the kind. Among the most striking is Ji Yun's taste for discussing and trying to rationally explain the strange—and not so strange—phenomena met along the course of his long career as an official, including his exile years in Urumqi. Ji engages in discussions with his informants, masters, fellow officers, and family members, and makes his whole cast of human and nonhuman characters extremely talkative and fond of arguing about the order of things. Those "talkative pieces" are by no means less entertaining or fascinating than the narratives. Ghosts, demons, and transformed animals mingle and speak freely with less supernatural citizens of the Qing Empire, about life, death, honesty, cheating, corruption, illness, and many other rather this-worldly topics. Listen to a lecture in eighteenth-century obstetrics given by a female fox spirit ("Fox Fairy as Tutor," pp. 61–63). Reflect on the case of an ordinary woman used by Yama, the king of the netherworld, to be his envoy precisely because, as a living being, she will be able to approach high-ranking officials protected against ghosts by powerful guardian gods ("The Grim Reaper," pp. 8–9). Hear Ji Yun's pondering about the psychological side of planchette spirit writing ("Planchette I," pp. 73–74). Witness the pitiful fate of a whole clan of Xinjiang's ferocious bandits and see how Ji Yun comments about it ("Bandits Destroy Bandits," pp. 315–319). One could quote dozens more instructive or touching samples from Pollard's choices in the collection, but this reviewer won't spoil any further the prospective reader's pleasure. [End Page 59]
Ji Yun's stories and reflections cannot be said to have attracted as many translators as Pu Songling's 蒲松齡 Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異, but there have been quite a few translations of it since the beginning of the twentieth century. In contrast to Liaozhai, however, no exhaustive translation of the biji 筆記 exists; it should be noted that it has nearly twice as many entries as Pu's book, with 1196; as they are generally shorter, Ji Yun's book is not longer. One of the earliest selections to have been published in Western languages seems to be Le Lama rouge et autre contes, which appeared in Paris as early as the 1920s. It had the peculiarity to have been translated by Chen Lu 陳籙 (then transliterated as Tcheng-Loh; 1877–1939), the Chinese ambassador to France beginning in September 1920, who was working with Lucie Paul-Marguerite (1866–1955), the daughter of then-famous novelist Paul Marguerite and a novelist herself...