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The Tale of Niè Xiǎoqiàn

Procursus:

This story is from the group of "Liáozhāi" 聊斋 stories by the Pú Sōnglíng 蒲松龄 (1640-1715). (Click here for a brief background note on Pú and this group of stories.)

The present story bears the Chinese title Qiàn Nǚ Yōu Hún 倩女幽魂, which can be translated “Fair Maid, Lonely Soul,” but in Chinese it is often called simply after the name of the ghost maid herself, and in English various transcriptions of that name are sometimes used, as well as “The Magic Sword,” “The Magic Sword and Bag,” and others. The popularity of this story (like that of several of Pú's other stories) has led to countless retellings, both in books and in visual media, often with significant variation. Click here for more detail.

The story concerns a ghost named NIÈ Xiǎoqiàn 聂小倩, or “Little Beauty of the Niè family,” who has been enslaved by a hideous demon, preventing her timely reincarnation. The demon uses her to seduce young men, whom the demon then devours.

The scene is set near the Orchid Temple (Lánruò Sì 兰若寺), an abandoned monastery in Zhèjiāng 浙江 province, near the town where author Pú briefly served the magistrate. The noble hero of the story, NÌNG Cǎichén 宁采臣, has stopped for shelter in the building, where he meets and eventually befriends a swordsman named YÀN Dàjiǎo 燕大佼). Swordsman Yàn warns him of the menace of the demon.

Meanwhile, the captive ghost Niè is assigned to seduce Nìng and deliver him to the demon. Instead, she instead falls in love with him. In the end … well … read the story.

To avoid copyright complications, the English version presented here is modified from an 1880 translation by Herbert A. Giles. I have very freely modified it to update some Victorian expressions and to accord better with the Chinese text here and there. Giles omits or recasts some of the overtly sexual aspects of the tale, including the sexual aggressiveness of Niè herself, whom he correctly represents as the demon’s victim, but who is hardly fading violet even without a demon behind her. (Her referring to Nìng’s parents as her inlaws is evidence enough of that.) The omitted or softened material has here been restored.

Pú’s original text uses a number of terms for ghosts and demons. The boundaries of these terms are vague in Chinese, and they map badly onto English in any case. The differences are rarely relevant here. Click here for more detail.

—DKJ

The Tale of Niè Xiǎoqiàn

by Pú Sōnglíng 蒲松龄

Dramatis Personae

NÌNG Cǎichén 宁采臣 = An upright gentleman from Zhèjiāng 浙江 Province. (Níng is pronoucned Nìng when it is a surname.)

Lady NÌNG = His Mother, a remarkably understanding soul.

YÀN Dàjiǎo 燕大佼 = A gentleman squatter from Shǎanxi 陕西 Province, but a secret swordsman. (Yān is pronoucned Yàn when it is a surname.)

A Wicked Demon.

NIÈ Xiǎoqiàn 聂小倩 = A beautiful maiden (unfortunately dead and under the control of the wicked demon).

Anonymous student from nearby Lánxī 兰溪 = A student on his way to take an examination, accompanied by his servant, both virtuous but subject to the wiles of beautiful women (and both victims of the wicked demon).



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Acknowledgements: Three versions of the text were taken from scans available on the Internet:

Occasional scanning errors were corrected in the Chinese texts. (For example, a “lonely spirit” is a gūhún 孤魂, not a húhún 狐魂, which would be a “fox spirit,” transforming the story. The error occurred in the scanned Traditional version, but not in the Simplfied version.) In addition, the punctuation was modified slightly to agree between the texts and to provide the breaks needed for the bilingual format.

The Pinyin version was mechanically created from the Traditional Chinese text using BabelPad software, then touched up. (For example, the reading níng was changed to nìng, which is the correct reading when the character is a surname.) All capitalization or joining of syllables was added, and punctuation was shifted to English rather than Chinese.

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