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China’s Ghostwriter: The True Story Behind Jackie Chan’s New Movie “Knight of Shadows”

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In the upcoming Chinese blockbuster, Knight of Shadows, Jackie Chan takes on the supernatural as Qing-era folklorist Pu Songling. The high-profile holiday flick is directed by Jia Yuan, whose only other credit was the 2014 schlock fest Bugs.

In his latest picture, Chan as Pu Songling tracks down terrifying beasts with his knowledge of the supernatural and the help of a team of protégés and friendly monsters. Think: “Fantastic Beasts and where Jackie Chan Found Them.”

But Pu Songling was a real figure, and his 聊齋誌異 Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio) — a collection of over 500 stories with many involving ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural — has been an inspiration for dozens of TV shows and movies over the years.

china ghosts literature pu songling

The real Pu Songling (1640-1715) was born in troubled times. Just four-years-old when the Manchus conquered China, he grew up in an era of uncertainty and anxiety. Pu Songling, like many men of his class, tried to serve the new dynasty but like too many young scholars he found himself trapped in examination hell. Despite passing the first rung of the exam ladder with distinction at 18, he was never able to pass the higher levels of the exam which would have meant an official career. For his entire life, Pu Songling lived as a perpetual student finding work where he could as a tutor and secretary to more successful men.

Erudite but unemployed, Pu began reading widely in a variety of traditions. He was particularly fascinated with strange stories and tales of the unexplained, both those found in literary collections and memoirs composed by the elite but also the rich body of folk tales and fables passed down orally by common folk.

While the legend of Pu Songling recording the stories of travelers while sitting at an inn is probably apocryphal, in 聊齋誌異 Liaozhai Zhiyi, he gave a high-brow spin to macabre, the grotesque, and the paranormal tales which had in some cases circulated for centuries. His characters were often richly drawn, sometimes tragic, figures, and the stories also contain thinly veiled critiques of Chinese society at the time.

There was also an erotic element to Pu’s stories. While not as ballistically graphic as the acrobatic and exhaustive descriptions of sex found in Late-Ming works such as the Jinping Mei, sexuality plays a central role in many of Pu Songling’s tales. In the story Lotus Fragrance, a single man becomes involved with two women. For a while, he manages to juggle both booty calls until he finds out that one is a fox spirit and the other is a ghost.

Think about that the next time your night-before-mistake is blowing up your WeChat for a week.

In another of Pu Songling’s most famous stories, a scholar named Wang meets a former imperial concubine who has been cast out of the palace. Falling in love, the scholar takes her home where it turns out his new lady friends is, in fact, a green-faced monster wearing a skin of human flesh who then rips the scholar’s heart from his chest.

Ultimately, a Taoist priest helps Wang’s wife restore Chen’s heart although why the wife would want to revive this cheating moron is not totally explained.

Pu Songling’s own hang-ups tend to inform both his choice of story and the fate of his characters. And even cursory reading would suggest that there was a considerable amount of anxiety over the dangers of unrestrained female sexuality. In a famous tale, Nie Xiaoqian, who is also a character in the upcoming film, is a beautiful female ghost who preys on men until she meets the right guy and ultimately redeems herself… by marrying him.

That said, there is a great deal of wry humor in Pu Songling’s stories. While many focus on the world beyond, Pu was not above pointing to the foibles of the world we live in. Besides, you have to love an author who titles one of his chapters “The Fornicating Dog.”

While Pu Songling — a man with a lot of time on his hands as he prepared for his next failed attempt to pass the exam — recorded and wrote his stories over many years, the book wasn’t finally published until 1740, possibly by his grandson. It has since become a classic and literary favorite for generations. Several translations exist in English, including a Penguin Classics Edition translated by John Minford and available on Kindle.

But based on the trailer of the new movie, it would appear that much of the subtlety of Pu Songling’s stories is going to be a casualty of CGI.

Knight of Shadows: Yin and Yang debuts next month in theaters around China.

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.

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