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Queer tales in the 17th century story collection “Strange Tales from Liaozhai”
Fox spirits, asexuals, bisexuals, male pregnancy and miraculous gender reassignment
Pu Songling was a 17th century folklore collector who interviewed many people, recording hundreds of tales of the supernatural and bizarre in “Strange Tales from Liaozhai”, also translated as “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”.
Many editions of Liaozhai published in modern times do not contain all of original Liaozhai stories. Although “Strange Tales from Liaozhai” is most well-known for its fox spirit tales, many other tales in Pu’s collection are more mundanely salacious in content and would not seem out of place in a modern tabloid newspaper. Some did not make it into modern print editions because of NSFW content. Other tales, only a few sentences long, were probably too short for the publishers of illustrated Liaozhai series.
In this post, we bring you a list of 12 queer Liaozhai tales, including 5 with fox spirits. “Queer” is perhaps an anachronistic, foreign concept. Bisexuality doesn’t seem to have been perceived as odd or unusual by the narrator.
It should be noted that there are many more Liaozhai tales portraying villains engaged in only heterosexual interactions than there are Liaozhai tales portraying negative characters engaged in same-sex liaisons.
To counter the harmful and often unquestioned framing of associating sexual and gender minorities with criminal behavior, we will provide an example of a non-LGBTQ story with cisgender heterosexual villains whenever we mention a LGBTQIA+ story that contains negative depictions of a queer character.
Changing into a Man
This is a short anecdote about a transgender miracle in a specific time and place with minimal editorializing.
9th Son of the Huang family
This story has a bisexual protagonist and a bisexual villain. The main character is a scholar who makes sexual advances towards two less-than-enthusiastic targets – male and female – on separate occasions. The villain is a corrupt government official who persecutes the main character.
At the end of the tale, the editor added his opinions on gay sex. We will be translating that opinion section in a future post.
CW: Sexual coercion, human trafficking, homophobic opinions
Third Daughter of the Feng Family
Fan, a young woman from a government official’s family, is approached by Feng, an admirer claiming to be the daughter of a humble family. Fan falls in love with Feng at first sight. Their bond is described as that of “spouses” 伉俪. A permanent polyamorous arrangement is suggested by one party but rejected by the other.
We might explore this story in a future post. CW: Heterosexual rape.
The Male Minor Wife
This is a short anecdote about how different men respond to a boy whom human traffickers passed off as girl for sale as a maidservant. We might explore this story in a future post. CW: human trafficking.
An erotophobic divorced man and a female courtesan become companions on a Buddhist pilgrimage and later enter a sexless marriage, keeping each other company for the rest of their lives. Their devotion to each other is accompanied by miraculous signs. We will explore this story in a future post. CW: self-mutilation, misogyny.
A Gallant Woman
The bisexual male protagonist has a mostly passive role in this story. The action is driven by the titular character, a woman who kills a minor villain, who is also a bisexual male. CW: revenge murder.
English translation by Dan: A Gallant Woman | world-of-liaozhai
Female bisexuality, polyamory
After a series of missed opportunities and unexpected reunions, a man ends up marrying two women. The junior wife Diandang tells her husband that she is also physically attracted to the senior wife Chang E. Later, Change E, an immortal, gives birth to twins in a miraculous manner: a daughter cut from her right rib cage, and a son cut from the left. CW: mature situations.
A Male Gives Birth
A military commander had both a female wife and a catamite. The catamite gave birth to twin sons who were miraculously cut from his left rib and his right rib. CW: homophobic comments.
We might provide a full translation of this story in a future post.
Young Master Wei
The villain protagonist of this tale is promiscuous scholar. In his youth, he made it a goal to consort with as many famous female courtesans as possible, refusing the discipline of his elders. Later in life, he enters into liaisons with younger sex partners on two different occasions, only to find that one liaison is his son by a courtesan and another one is his daughter by another courtesan. CW: murder, death penalty
Liaozhai contains other stories of men receiving karmic justice for the exploitative attitudes and disrespect towards other humans that they display in their quest for self-gratification. In “Sins of a Monk”, a Buddhist monk who misspent temple donations on prostitutes and gambling was subjected to the punishments of Hell while still in the land of the living. In “The People in the Pupil”, a man who has the habit of ogling and harassing women loses an eye.
Tales in which immoral straight guys get their comeuppance:
A sophisticated ring of swindlers employs a variety of tactics to con travelers. One member of the ring is a handsome youth of elegant demeanor. He uses his genteel bearing to gain the trust of a traveling scholar Wang, while offering sex to the scholar’s manservant to cover his tracks.
Another traveling scholar Wu would have fallen prey to the same gang if not for the help of a pair of friendly fox spirits appearing in the guise of a male human scholar and his boy attendant. Thanks to the intervention of the foxes, Wu enjoys the sexual favors of both the young male swindler and the swindler’s wife without losing any money.
CW: mature situations.
Male bisexuality, FtM gender-crossing disguise
The father of the titular character dies after a beating by the minions of a wealthy bully who happens to be bisexual. Shang Sanguan gains access to the bully to avenge her father by disguising herself as a young man. CW: revenge murder.
The Liaozhai collection contains another revenge tale similar to Shang Sanguan, but with a heterosexual villain and a male protagonist. In the story of Xiang Gao, the elder brother of the titular Xiang Gao was beaten to death by the lackeys of a wealthy bully who, in the context of the story, is heterosexual. Unable to get justice through the court system, Xiang Gao transforms into a tiger to take revenge for his brother.
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The Human Freak
Male pansexuality, polyamory
CW: rape, mutilation.
The titular “human freak” is Wang Erxi, a young man who presented himself as a woman offering healing massages to women. Wang was part of a 15th century ring of male sexual predators who allegedly disguised themselves as women to gain access to women’s spaces.
The pansexual protagonist of the story, Scholar Ma, is also a sexual predator. He conspires with his wife Mdm Tian to trick Wang Erxi into sleeping with him, not knowing that Wang Erxi was targeting Mdm Tian. The author of Liaozhai seems to judge Ma’s actions and Wang’s actions by different standards.
Another story of the crossdressing gang appears in an account collected by Lu Can in the early 15th century compendium “Tales of the Gengsi Year”. From the events of that story, it appears that AMAB rapists can expect to be judged different standards depending on whether they crossdress or not. That is only one interpretation of the tale though. The double standard can also be attributed to class differences been sexual predators and their targets. In many other stories, the consent of individuals of lower social classes is often considered a non-issue when the exploiter is from a more privileged class, regardless of gender. Advances made by a person of lower social station toward a person of higher station can result in severe reprisals regardless of the target’s gender. We may explore this dynamic further in a future post.
It cannot be stated often enough that the overwhelming majority of sex crimes against women are committed by men who DO NOT cross dress. This is also reflected in the Liaozhai collection. Another Liaozhai tale, “Married Woman of the Zhang Family”, recounted the self-defense measures of a woman in Shandong. In 1647, soldiers were passing through the province on their way to quell southern rebellions. These heterosexual cisgender men went out of their way to rape all the local women whom they could find. The titular character cleverly killed the soldiers who attempted to assault her.