Strange Tales: Female Sexuality in Strange Beings
The discourse that surrounds female sexuality in Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinse Studio represents it as is something to be feared. Exploring the short stories “Fox Enchantment”, “The Painted Skin”, and “Twenty Years a Dream”, it is clear that the representation of female sexuality within the collection portrays it to be dangerous, evil and even deadly. Luring you away from the straightened path that society has deemed appropriate, lust takes the form of different illustrations of the female form, such as a fox spirit, a ghoul, and a ghost, with the mystical creatures themselves embodying their second-class status. Sensuality as expressed by female characters within these three short stories exemplifies the ideal that lust conveyed by these characters can only lead to risk and jeopardizing your own safety.
In Chapter 38, “Fox Enchantment”, female sexuality takes the form of a fox spirit who encounters Dong, an intelligent gentleman, and enchants him with her sexuality and beauty. Over the course of a month, the fox spirit essentially depletes him through sex and Dong becomes haggard and starts wasting away (Pu 145). Consulting a physician on his condition, Dong is told that he is bewitched and that there is no cure for his eminent death (Pu 146). Dong, a former gentleman, dies because of an excess of erotic intimacy with the fox spirit that he has decided to share a bed with. This thinly veiled moral lesson conveys the idea that sex and excess, which has manifested itself in the female’s sexuality, leads to death. Even when he no longer wants to make love to the fox spirit, Dong dreams of her and being able to be intimate with her, alluding to the domination and danger associated with female sexuality. Once a man has been trapped by the danger of a woman’s carnal desires, there is no escape, even outside the realm of reality. Worthy to point out is the idea that a man is actually seen as being trapped and bewitched rather than it being his fault. Dong is portrayed as having been ensnared by the evil doings of a fox spirit. He is never really shafted with blame, and is only charged with the sin of excess, which was caused by the bewitchment of the fox spirit, by the courts of the Nether World (Pu 147). The fox spirit, who is synonymous with the embodiment of female sexuality, is found guilty of the bewitchment and takes a majority of the blame. While Dong is not cited as being punished, the fox spirit loses her Golden Elixir, which was the product of many years of labor, and loses her physical form because her body was destroyed (Pu 147). Despite being found guilty of sin, Dong is not punished nor truly blamed for his death, while the fox spirit is both responsible for his death and penalized for it. With the expression of female sexuality comes punishment and with the expression of male sexuality comes little to no consequence.
Continuing through the same short story, Wang, who is a friend of Dong’s and another respected gentleman, is also enchanted by the same fox spirit and makes loves to her after seeing her and all her beauty. In an attempt to conceal her identity, the fox spirit expresses her condolences for Dong’s death and tells Wang to guard himself from fox spirits that might want to take advantage of him (Pu 147). This statement contextualizes female sexuality as something to guard against. Sexual prowess embodied by a fox spirit and expressed by a woman is seen as dangerous and to be feared. Even the fox spirit herself sees it as hazardous to a man’s health and wellbeing.
Paralleling Dong, Wang also falls ill after sharing a bed with the fox spirit for some time and is warned by Dong in a dream that his life will be taken from him if he continues to have sex with the fox spirit (Pu 147). This is another example of her sexuality as being a danger to others and a direct effect of her expressing that sexuality is misfortune and illness to the men she sleeps with. Wang is also not able to escape the temptations of the fox spirit and continues to have sex with, though he is filled with guilt afterwards (Pu 148). Just as Dong was haunted by her in his dreams, Wang is not able to stop having sex with her despite the warning he was giving and his worsening health. This repetition solidifies the message of the story: a woman’s sexuality is dangerous and once a man’s resolve has crumbled, there is no escape. In the end, Wang does not die because of his good luck and other worldly intervention and the fox spirit is given all blame. Both men’s sexualities are never seen as a problem and they are never punished for the expression of it. The men even had spouses and they are never seen as cheating on them and their wives see nothing wrong with them having sex with the fox spirit because their sexuality is praised rather than punished. The fox spirit’s sensuality is inherently wrong simply because it is her sensuality, despite the fact that both men lusted over her and wanted what she gave them.
Moving on to the next short story in the collection, Chapter 34, “The Painted Skin”, tells the story of a female ghoul that disguises herself by creating a skin that looks like a beautiful woman and tricks a man named Wang to care for her and keep her safe. After sleeping with her and giving her refuge, Wang encounters a Taoist monk that tells him he is bewitched and being wrapped in an evil aura (Pu 127). This is a direct an unshrouded claim that allows us to connect female sexuality to evil and alludes to the fact that she is trapping him with her offering of sex and is therefore dangerous.
The female ghoul and her sexuality embody evil not only because of the claims that the Taoist monk makes but also because of the actions she takes towards Wang. This green monster physically attacks Wang and rips his heart straight out of his body (Pu 129). In ripping out his heart, Pu Songling makes a statement. Not only is he dead, but a woman has taken away the organ that is synonymous with love. Pu Songling shows that a woman’s evil sexuality has the ability to take away a man’s ability to love a supposedly worthy woman. The evil in the ghoul’s sexuality translates to her character, especially when she shows no remorse after being forced to stop having sex with Wang by incense and even voices her resolve in never giving up with her quest (Pu 129). Her sexuality and her character are so shrouded in evil that she is not even allowed to be pitied by a monk, who calls her an evil one twice and murders her. In fact, her murder is not even seen as a murder but rather as a necessary action to be taken over her evil spirit so that the characters in the story can be rid of her and her influence.
The female ghoul also embodies trickery and deceit. She creates the skin of a beautiful women by painting it and then wears, using the skin to entrap Wang with her simulated beauty and using a fake story to elicit pity from Wang as well. In this story, female sexuality is also seen as being used for a woman’s personal gain. Sex allows her to take advantage of Wang and eventually leads her to be able to steal his heart. When her sex can no longer trick and distract Wang from the truth, she tries to entrap Wang’s brother by disguising herself as an old woman who wanted to work for him to get away from the consequences of stealing Wang’ s heart, which is another example of her trickery (Pu 130). This use of trickery is what allows Wang to be viewed as a victim that has been taken advantage of by a woman’s evil sexuality rather than a man who willingly had sex with a female ghoul. The representation also creates her as an actualized monster that is pure evil and deserves the death that she receives. In the end, she is the only one that receives consequences for their sex because Wang is revived by his wife, who can be viewed as the idealized woman in the story as she is self-sacrificing and never finds blame in her husband, who chose to have sex with another female creature.
The last short story on Chapter 65, “Twenty Years a Dream”, is quite different from the previous two, though the moral derived is the same. This narrative follows Yang Yuwei, a man who falls in love with a female ghost and becomes enchanted by her beauty. The difference between the previous two stories and this one is the fact that the ghost refuses to have sex with Yang Yuwei because the sex would result in his death (Pu 281). Her sexuality will result in literal death and destruction for the men she has sex with, rather than it being a result of excess of sex, depletion of health, or direct harm by the female character.
Another extreme difference between the ghost and the fox spirit and ghoul is the fact that the ghost fall in love with each other, where the fox spirit and the ghoul have a complete absence of love in each of their perspective stories. However, regardless of their love, her and the possibility of the expression of her sexuality are still dangerous for him. Yang Yuwei becomes distracted from his studies and the expected path that he is supposed to take in the contemporary society, and instead starts to focus all of his attention on the ghost and slowly becoming obsessed with her. When she leaves him, he can only think of her and wastes away to skin and bones (Pu 283). He risks his own life to save her from a suitor that wants to keep her as his concubine and he falls ill and almost dies when they do eventually have sex (Pu 285). Yang Yuwei does all of this because of his obsession with the ghost and her sexuality is portrayed as dangerous to his health. He cannot help himself because he has already been trapped by the possibility of her sex. Even when her sensuality is not being used to accomplish something or used to trick
someone, it is still seen as dangerous and negative simply because it is expressed by a woman.
Each story expresses female sexuality in the form of a mystical creature, whether it be fox spirit, ghoul, or ghost. When women are viewed as temptation to society’s straightened path, they become nonhuman and subhuman, which is why all of these women are presented as mystical rather than in human form. The stories represent women in this way because they aren’t good enough to be human if they express their sexuality. This inspires pity, pity for the fox spirit who is forced out of her own body, pity for the ghoul that needs the heart and is killed, and pity for the ghost who cannot be with her love. This is all because they are viewed as less than human and those who are less than human deserve to be pitied. Pu Songling views these women as less than if they express their sexual desires and writes the characters as such. These women are demonized, which is in direct correlation with the mystical creatures they inhabit.
Women are made weaker by their sexual prowess, and are therefore made weaker when they become fantasy creatures that are synonymous with their sexuality. This is in direct contrast with the way men are portrayed as fantasy beasts. While women become weaker, men become stronger, like the male fox spirit in “The Merchant’s Boy”, because their sexuality is seen as a strength rather than a vice. While women are a danger to themselves and others in their sex, men are empowered with their display of sexuality and praised for the actions they take in this context.
Though each story follows its own narrative, the same message pervades throughout Pu Songling’s collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. In each representation of female sexuality, the mystical beings are doomed to be the downfall of themselves and others, and inhabit negative characteristics that force them to become evil and less than human. These short stories exemplify Pu Songling’s truth: the expression of female sexuality is nothing short of dangerous and to be completely avoided, lest you fall into the traps that it entails.
Pu, Songling. 1640-1715. “Fox Enchantment”, “Twenty Years a Dream”, “The Painted Skin”, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. London; New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.