Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Friday, April 1, 2016

Trinidadian Smut


The word smut generally carries nasty associations. Apart from referring to pornography in a belittling tone, it denotes filthy ruined grain. Yet in the sunny Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago at any rate, smut refers to a genre of calypso (and some soca) which, like the hokum songs of the blues, celebrates sexuality in a cheerful, good-humored, even innocent way. Calypso, like many blues, country music, and reggae songs foregrounds the lyrics and, while calypso songs may comment on politics, food prices, or cricket, they often portray the relations of men and women with clever and high-spirited double entendre. Far from the love-longing so prominent in much love poetry from antiquity to the present and from China to southern France, these songs celebrate physicality with joy and wit.

In the oeuvre of the Mighty Sparrow one finds the classic “Big Bamboo,” [1] a sort of phallic paean enriched with gleeful nonsense syllables, richly humorous symbolic manipulation, and the peculiar inclusion of the line “working for the Yankee dollar,” presumably as a counterpoised reality principle balancing the deeply satisfying bamboo of the title. Among the songs mentioning “cock” in the title are Sparrow’s “More Cock” and “Benwood Dick,” Lord Raburn’s “Cock and Pull It,” and Crazy’s “One Foot Cock.”

Women’s genitals, too, receive praise in "Bag ah Sugar Down Dey," “Saltfish,” and “When It Bald, It Better.” In the Duke of Iron’s tune “Miss Constance” the eponymous lady boasts, “I may be small, and yet/I can take on any runner when the track gets wet." The actual suffering of poverty is temporarily obscured when Sparrow sings “Sell the Pussy,” urging his girlfriend to the street to earn money for food. The slang usage of pussy enables a list of other songs as well: Sparrow’s “Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me,” Lord Kitchener’s “My Pussin,” Calypso Rose’s “My Little Pussy,” Lord Blakie’s “Hold the Pussy,” and Lord Brynner’s “Roslyn Pussy” among them. Calypso also contributes to the widespread motif of songs which play with the suggestive possibilities of describing a tattooed lady [2] with the Sparrow’s relentlessly physical song about the woman who has his image on her backside: “She Sits on Me.” The hazards of intimacy result in Lloyd Simmons warning about the problem of “Hair in Your Teeth.”

Though a good number of smut songs are quite straightforward, depending only on the affective dynamo of sexuality to insure their energy, the finest tunes are those in which the lyrics are developed with ingenuity and originality. Among these I would count Lord Kitchener’s “Muriel and de Bug” [3] which recounts how the bug must have been “very intelligent to find that area” while never hinting at the actual sensations associated with bedbugs. Similarly George Symonette’s “Don’t Touch Me Tomato” [4] sketches a market lady altogether in control of her inventory and irritated at the customer “hard as a coconut” who keeps poking and squeezing without being able to make up his mind. Lord Melody and Sir Lancelot’s “Shame and Scandal in the Family” ignores any possible suffering that might be associated with real world extra-marital philandering with its deftly turned plot [5] and effective punch line. The amused listener accepts as natural the assumption that everyone is likely to be sleeping around. Even mortality is lightly treated in Lord Intruder’s “Jumbie Jamborie” [6] in which the speaker’s principal fear at witnessing the rising of the dead is a certain amorous deceased female. Intruder manages to include lines commenting on such current topics as Brigitte Bardot and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

But the specter of the undead and the threat of Armageddon cannot alter the buoyant tone of the music, its infectious danceable rhythms, and its humorous, self-mocking jocularity. The relations between the sexes may at times be rocky and all sorts of misery can intrude on human lives, but there will always be a party beckoning at which all is played for laughs. Just as tragedy by embodying true horror in beautifully metrical lines worked out with every sort of poetic device can enable people to continue living, so in comedy everything becomes a well-turned jest and the rhyme guarantees that no one is ever really hurt, and Buster Keaton and the Roadrunner and Inspector Clouseau will reenter the fray in spite of having repeatedly made fools of themselves.

And they will hardly be deterred by tropical moralists such as the author of an article titled “Soca Music and Moral Decadence” [7] to whom “immorality and public sexual vulgarity have surpassed the nadir of their bottomless pit.” While “back in the day” “’smut’ in Calypso was respectful of and to women” and featured “a serious, message-oriented story-line.” As an example of the more wholesome fare popular a generation ago, the writer cites the Mighty Sparrow’s “Mae Mae,” a song in which the persona meets a “girl” and they immediately proceed to sexual activity. After a heated encounter, “Sparrow humbly and respectfully suggests that Mae Mae should take the remainder of the rum and give it to her ‘man’ when she got home.” This, to the critic of contemporary immorality, is an example of “civilized, respectful, moralized and enjoyable ‘smut.’” To this Caribbean Cato the woman in Lord Kitchener’s “Sugar Bum Bum” is treated “with utmost respect and human dignity.” [8]

If even its critics are reluctant to condemn Trinidadian smut, its fans are nothing less than fervent in its support, feeling, perhaps, intuitively, that to dance to these tunes is to dance to the rhythms of life. Quite willing to leave to other genres the mysteries, tangles, suffering and ambiguity of male-female relations, the fan of this bright and bouncing music revels for a time in an Edenic innocence where one may dance with delight, glorying in the fundamental facts of human biology.




1. See Klaus de Albuquerque, “ In Search of the Big Bamboo,” Transition No. 77 (1998), pp. 48-57 for a survey of the myth of the “big bamboo” said to be possessed by those of African ancestry.

2. Such songs include Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” sung by Groucho Marx in At the Circus as well as the “The Tattooed Lady” popularized by the Kingston Trio. It sounds like a music hall song (even without the singers’ use of comic English accents), but this “Tattooed Lady” seems to have folk origins in Arkansas or Missouri though it has been collected from British sailors as well. (Might it have been a vaudeville or medicine show number?)

3. Irwin Chusid, the veteran collector and broadcaster of smut calypso as well as other genres of music, used Muriel’s Treasure as the title for one of his shows on WFMU. The “Bedbug Song” was also recorded by the Mighty Panther, Lord Invader, and others.

4. Covered not only by Calypso Mama but also by Josephine Baker.

5. Bested, perhaps, only by Latham and Jaffe’s novelty tune “I’m My Own Grandpa.”

6. Often called “Zombie Jamboree” or “Back to Back and Belly to Belly,” the song was covered by many artists, notably by Harry Belafonte and by the Kingston Trio. The song was originally worked out in an improvisatory performance.

7. By university lecturer Kwame Nantambu in the March 25, 2008 Trinidad and Tobago News Blog at http://www.trinidadandtobagonews.com/blog/?p=477.

8. Indeed this professor is far from alone in his indulgent attitude toward what might seem to some sexist or unseemly. The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian for February 28, 2014 reports another scholar, this time described as a feminist, celebrating “the social value of Sparrow’s oeuvre.” As a personal testament, she recalls the liberating effect of Sparrow’s performance of “raunchy” songs when he performed at her high school. Another unlikely fan is the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, once a calypsonian with the sobriquet The Charmer, who not long ago praised the ingenuity of rap poetry, comparing it to calypso, and proceeded to begin improvising with a broad grin supported by the inherent joie de vivre of the genre.

Afloat on the Ocean of Words



Every artist in every medium is in effect shouting out “Look at me! Turn to me from all other phenomena!” And consumers of art collaborate with the considerable ego implied by this cry. Certainly in literature, whatever the theme, the author is always the hero. The critics, indeed, all readers, acknowledge sufficient value in the writer’s moves to follow every decision recorded on the page with careful attention. The creative artist’s abilities are fetishized, often considered mystically resistant to analysis and attributed to talent or inspiration. Yet at times the figure of the author can seem suddenly a specter, an insubstantial illusion shimmering even as it threatens to vanish altogether.

If the proposition sounds incredible, that is because one if the most persistent of our Romantic received values is the celebration of individual Genius. Though that word is not attested in the sense of exalted intellectual power until the late eighteenth century this use seems now only natural. The nascent Romantic Edward Young celebrates the “man of genius” for his originality, comparing him to the less impressive imitator. According to Young only such an innovator “raises his structure by means invisible.” For him and for many today the genius “partakes of something divine” since “genius is the god within.” [1] In his best-seller titled Genius Harold Bloom refers with approval to Emerson’s description of genius using the very same phrase “the god within.” Bloom begins his book with the “unique” “supreme” genius of Shakespeare which he defines as evident from the poet’s “universality,” “the pervasive illusion (is it illusion?) that he has peopled a world, remarkably like what we take to be our own, with men, women, and children preternaturally natural.” The concluding oxymoron epitomizes the broader paradox that the individual most marked off from the rest of us has somehow earned that singularity by his ability to represent the lives of all.

Yet prior to the Romantic era the successful artist was more often regarded as the best trained, likely the one who had spent an apprenticeship emulating the work if a master and the models of earlier eras. Thus according to Winckelmann “the only way for us to become great, and indeed, inimitable – if this is possible – is by imitating the ancients.” [2] Here again the neat confidence of the formulation is offset by the self-contradiction. Only by imitation do we get free of imitation, that is, become inimitable. Little wonder that the great art historian felt moved to include the qualification “if this is possible.”

In more recent decades advanced thinkers have questioned the concept of the autonomous god-like creative author. A couple of generations ago Barthes declared “The Death of the Author” [3], citing Mallarmé as a predecessor and claiming that every "text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations," that every work is "eternally written here and now," and that the “meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader,” and not the writer at all. At about the same time, Foucault asked “What is an Author?,” [4] noting, as though it were an established fact, that “criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance –or death - of the author some time ago” and concluding with the question “what difference does it make who is speaking?” The case against what might be called the authority of the author by these two and their fellow travelers is weakened by the fact that they mean to displace the artist as the creative fountainhead only to step into the same role themselves as enlightened post-modern critics, juggling conundrums for the amusement of their less celebrated peers or cracking the whip and exasperating their more commonsensical critics into growls and roars. Few readers are likely to be willing to trade Shakespeare for Derrida.

Long before the rise of deconstruction and allied theories, though, the artist’s status had been discounted or questioned. Most early poets and sculptors were anonymous. Homer does not emerge as an individual. Only after a certain date do we begin to see ancient Greek ceramic artists sign their work. We have no clue as to exactly which caryatids of the Erechtheum were crafted by Socrates’ father. Even in the Middle Ages anonymity is the rule in early lyrics and stained glass. In traditional societies the local carver is rarely celebrated as a “genius,” but rather is regarded as a craftsman like a carpenter or a potter. Folk songs and fairy tales are generally not attributed as original work by the person from whom they are collected. After all, according to the Grimm brothers’ dictum, the people as a whole compose (“das Volk dichtet”).

Indeed, who can name the author of the myth of Oedipus? Sophocles certainly, though Aeschylus and Euripedes both wrote lost plays on the same theme. But Oedipus appears as well in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Homer and as the tragedians had doubtless learned the story orally in childhood. It was the common possession of the Greek people. Though the view that authorship of folk works was in some mysterious way “collective” was championed by Francis Gummere among others, it had steadily lost favor and was finally supplanted by the careful and innovative work of Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord. [5]

What Parry and Lord found was that the singers of epics in the Balkans in the 1930s were able to improvise oral poetry by using a set inventory of phrases, formulae, and lines, most of which were common to many “authors,” but that their performances varied widely in quality and content, even between successive recitations of the same piece by the same singer. The poet might say, and might in fact think that he is exactly reproducing his own version or the version of his mentor, but the texts invariably showed pervasive and significant differences. Though working in a genre in a way collective, some performers were talented and others pedestrian. The audience and the occasion always influenced the poem.

The insights of Parry and Lord allowed for the first time an understanding of previously obscure characteristics of Homer as well as proving useful in the study of Beowulf, Pentecostal preachers, blues, and other oral forms. These works are demonstrably shaped by an entire community and a tradition though any individual work is also the product of the skill and vision of an individual. Just as art regularly both questions and affirms received ideas, it can only arise from a social consensus but through a single subjectivity.

That dialectic is evident though less marked in non-oral work as well. Every writer shapes work in part with audience in mind. Each uses phrases, images, and conventions (sometimes twisting or altering them) learned from earlier texts. The concepts that populate a particular vision of reality are based on those borrowed from others. Even opposing sides of issues in a given era are generally founded on the same basic vocabulary and assumptions. The assumptions of one’s own era are virtually invisible, while those of earlier periods are more easily discerned. [6]

The notion of genius is fostered by the supposed opposition of tradition and innovation in literary production. In all periods art is produced by crafting altered versions of the inherited templates. While during many earlier eras past masterpieces provided the model the artist could aspire to equal, for two hundred years novelty has been privileged. The radical has been admired. Yet in fact the author who defies, opposes, or omits a recognizable convention makes use of it just as much as the one who repeats it. Each use of convention – in any of these ways -- allows for the more efficient expression of information. A writer who rebels against an established trope or other device by defying it is governed by the same code as the writer who employs it. No inherent value accompanies either use of conventions or defiance of them.

The themes in literature and the language people use to express them evolve over the centuries with their own dynamic, finding expression through the agency of people active in each era. Thus one might say that Doctor Johnson, rather than being the author of his poetry, is himself written by the eighteenth century English Zeitgeist while James Joyce is an inevitable product of the altered intellectual atmosphere over a hundred and fifty years later. Just as the leopard’s fur appears in a spotted pattern without conscious planning and the clouds assume a particular aspect in every moment of the day, people’s writing is generated by the entire population of thinking humans in a grand polyphonic symphony continuing now for thousands of years. [7]

Of course, the secondary symbolic elaboration of literature only intensifies the opposition inherent in all language. One can only make use of words and phrases which a listener or reader can understand. Every utterance is based on earlier listening experiences, yet each combines the pre-existing elements in a new way. A wholly original composition could only be meaningless gibberish. On the other hand a work that exactly repeats an earlier one like Borges’ Pierre Menard whose “translation” of Don Quixote exactly reproduces the original might seem equally otiose, but Borges insists to his readers that Menard’s Quixote is “almost infinitely richer” as it includes the new author’s own experiences. Surely he was only saying in a whimsical way that meaning accumulates, that a Horatian ode today is more meaningful than when it was written, though its increase in significance has nothing to do with Horace.

Borges’ playful fancy resembles T. S. Eliot’s celebrated insight about the whole of literary history changing with every new work. To Eliot “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it . . .the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted.” After complaining about the modern tendency to privilege “those aspects of [the poet’s] work in which he least resembles anyone else,” he insists on the contrary that “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” but rather that “his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” [8]

Finally, and perhaps most destructive to the myth of the semi-divine author, literature cannot be said to occur until the text is received by a listener or reader. Barthes was quite right in locating the consumer’s interaction with the text as the moment when significance arises. Thus the reader may well be said to be the actual composer of the work. Though some texts are comparatively rich in possibilities or may arrive already well-plowed with a history of past readings, the mere words are barren until they are read. In a sense they provide only potential arenas for constructing meaning; they cannot deliver it ready-made.

The problematics of authorship are then rather complex. The causes of literary works must be shared it seems by the writer (who might be called the “efficient cause”) with the uses of language that the writer has heard or read, the assumptions of the era of its composition, and the literary tradition preceding (and, later, following) its date. Add to these the interpretations, reactions, and allusions of others, all dynamically evolving from the work’s first appearance onwards, inevitably compounded by misunderstandings, the imprecision inherent in all language, and the data lost to noise in every transmission. Where then can the author be located?

Perhaps the choice between the multiple authors responsible for the text is a problem better transcended than solved. The identity in Buddhism between viewing the world as reality and as illusion or in Hinduism between the individual and the Whole may provide a model for that between the writer and the entire corpus of human words. [9] This link may provide the base for the scent of the divine which underlay the intuition of Young and Bloom when they imagine “the god within.” Hovering above the alternatives, the reader may embrace both or neither or may select the one with the greatest heuristic value in a given analysis.

As readers we float atop the ocean of words, each text a whitecap, briefly rising and then sinking into the vast body of language beneath, leaving it ever so slightly changed. From the perspective of an individual the whole is never in sight and one cannot even take exhaustive account of the waters in which one paddles, yet in every human society people engage artful language in a vigorous and ever-new interchange which by dint of constant effort keeps us for a time buoyant. Our babble goes on, though we know in the end that we and our words with us will fail and fall into the general ferment not to vanish but to suffer a sea change and later return reshuffled and refreshed.




1. Conjectures on Original Composition (1759).

2. Thoughts on the Imitation of the Painting and the Sculpture of the Greeks (1755).

3. Originally published as “La mort de l'auteur” (punning on Le Morte d'Arthur) in Aspen 5-6, 1967, reprinted in Image-Music-Text in 1977.

4. A talk originally given in 1969, the essay appears in Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. pp. 124-127.

5. See Milman Parry, "The Making of Homeric Verse." The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 and Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

6. The forgeries of Han van Meegeren, for instance, which fooled many connoisseurs and experts when they were new now can be seen to have obvious affinities with the styles of the nineteen-thirties.

7. A clear parallel exists with certain technological developments, such as the invention of automobiles, motion pictures, or nuclear weapons in which a number of researchers all but simultaneously develop what is fundamentally the same idea. The invention of the electric light need be attributed neither to the inexorable processes of impersonal history nor to Edison’s singular genius.

8. The concept of a sort of super-organism of literature resembles the Gaia hypothesis advanced during the 1970s. See James Lovelock’s popularization Gaia: A new look at life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005) and Lynn Margulis’ The Symbiotic Planet (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

9. Perhaps the best initial texts for these views are Nagarjuna for Buddhism and Gaudapada for Hinduism.

Tang Stories

A popularizer of Chinese culture notes that the Chinese are generally regarded as “humanistic, non-religious, and non-spiritual.” [1] Indeed the national sage Confucius sounds as though he has scant regard for the imagination when says with pride that he transmits without creating. [2] Apart from the very worldly and prudential counsels of the national sage, one finds the mercilessly pared-down preaching of Zen which contrasts so dramatically with the florid mythological tendency of Buddhism in Tibet. Reading even the highly fanciful Zhuang Zhou it seems clear that all the magic is metaphor and that the fundamental basis of philosophic Daoism involves nothing supernatural. Yet the traveler in China will find putatively Buddhist temples animated by no end of representations of semi-divine characters having nothing to do with Buddha, many so lovely and frolicsome or so fierce and menacing that they seem to belong more in fairy tales than in myths.

Similarly, Chinese fiction seems to arise from a combination of factual historical chronicles and narratives full of marvels of the sort represented today by horror and science fiction stories. Some date the first flowering of Chinese fiction to the same era most celebrated for lyric poetry, the Tang. In his groundbreaking history of Chinese fiction Lu Xun proposed the name chuanqi for Tang Dynasty short stories in Classical Chinese in which the most fantastic events are presented with realistic frames in setting and time, with the narrator frequently claiming either personal or second-hand experience of their truth. [3]

Apart from this pretense of veracity (familiar to readers of Defoe, Swift, and even Samuel Richardson) the stories share the appetite for the marvelous one would expect from the generic name which might be translated "tales of strange events." Many are didactic with more or less explicit moral or philosophical themes. One of the earliest and most widely available collections of such stories in English translation is Tang Dynasty Stories. [4]

Virtually all of these tales are concerned, often centrally, with the main character’s twists of fate while possessed by romantic love. This may seem surprising, given that for Confucius ren, often translated virtue, altruism, or humanity, but sometimes as love, focuses on filial piety and defense of family as a whole. [5] Marriages were thus arranged by senior relatives and “romantic” behavior (as in ancient Greece) often relegated to relations with courtesans or extra-marital lovers.

Yet in the Tang Dynasty Stories, the supernatural is generally associated with women and even on the “natural’ register of experience, men are often totally infatuated after only a first glimpse of a female beauty. As in the literary worlds of ancient Greece and the European Middle Ages, the Tang lover appears possessed by a potent force beyond his control.

In Shen Jiji”s “Ren the Fox Fairy,” the first story of the collection, the beloved is a fox fairy (huxian). [6] Though such beings may be malevolent, in this story Ren, whom Zheng had encountered by chance while traveling, becomes his exceedingly loyal wife. Her fidelity and obedience become her undoing, however, when her husband, ridiculing her “superstition,” insists on bringing her on a trip she knows will be fatal. Passing a pack of hunting dogs, she reverts to fox form and is torn to pieces. In a lovely and poignant image, her clothes are left on the ground like a discarded cicada shell. Her fidelity is praised (“few women nowadays are equal to this!”) and Zheng is criticized for simply appreciating her beauty without inquiring more deeply into her nature. Her name is the same character as the Confucian word for virtue, humanity, or charity. As a paragon of faithfulness, Ren recalls heroines such as Sita in the Ramayana or the Griselda of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale.”

This story is exemplary for the collection, and presumably the genre, as a whole. Supernatural women of various sorts appear in one narration after another often causing the hero to fall utterly in love with her after a first sight. [7] In five of the stories [8] the woman is in fact a supernatural being, while in most of the others she is diminished though only to the level of a noble.

Three of the stories in this collection have themes other than male/female relations. In Li Gongzuo’s “Governor of the Southern Tributary State” Chunyu Fen, passed out from drinking, spends an entire career in a mysterious land which he finds upon waking to have been a single afternoon in the kingdom of ants. The narrator assures the reader he has confirmed the details of the story from Chunyu himself and has relayed his story as a reminder of the insubstantiality of worldly glory. Slyly evading direct reference to people, the author notes, “If even the mysteries of ants are so unfathomable, what then of the changes caused by big beasts in the hills and woods.” [9]

In Li Fuyan’s “The Spendthrift and the Alchemist” the potentially disruptive power of affection appears in another form. The wastrel Du Zichun eventually gains prosperity through a magic helper. Following the dictates of this advisor, he remains silent while enduring many trials including being transformed into a woman. He is about to become an immortal when he sees his child killed and cannot resist calling out. The magician laments that, having conquered all the other passions, he could not rise above love.

Whereas both of these anomalies could be considered Daoist themes with their reminders of the vanity of ambition and the pitfalls of desire, the final tale in the volume, “The White Monkey,” in which Ouyang’s wife is abducted and impregnated, seems to rely on fantasy alone for its appeal. Lu Xun is of the opinion that it was meant to insult a specific family, claiming its prominence could be traced to a monster in the family tree. [10]

In most of these Tang stories, though, the most accessible implications of these themes include the power of eros expressed in the projection onto female figures, the significance of fidelity in love relations, and at times the conflict of power relations and passions. Daoist themes questioning desire appear as well. The stories indulge a strong preference for the marvelous and the unlikely in both the inclusion of supernatural elements and coincidence while at the same time regularly framing the narrations with details of time and place and specific identity in pursuit of verisimilitude. Arising from earlier anecdotes illustrating philosophical teachings, legendary annals, and leading toward the highly episodic structure of Chinese novels, these chuanqi paralleled the development of the vernacular bianwen during the Tang.

As in Europe fictional narratives were not valued as were philosophical or poetic writing, allowing the authors of these short stories imaginative license in style, theme, and plot. They shed light on the universal taste for the marvelous and on the origins of fiction in legend and elaborated anecdote. In theme they suggest the prodigious power of sexual desire with its concomitant pleasures even while suggesting the vanity and peril of love. Though they were written during a time in which marriage was often arranged on the basis of financial and familial strategies, the stories prominently feature immediate attachment and passionate love while also valuing fidelity. As forerunners of the “four great Chinese novels,” Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber, these tales provide ta necessary foundation , apart from their own value as divertissements, curios, and psychological sketches.



1. Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of China and India. In this marvelous Modern Library Giant (over a thousand pages for $2.95 when I acquired it) I read for the first time many texts to which I returned in mature years. Lin in fact dissents in part after noting this commonplace.

2. Analects VII, 1.

3. During the Ming Dynasty many chuanqi were made the basis for operas. See Lu Hsun [Xun], A Brief History of Chinese Fiction (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1964). During the same period a different genre, the bianwen or “transformation texts,” were composed in the vernacular by literate storytellers who were not classically educated. These often combined poetry and prose. Their content, originally Buddhist in character, came to include a variety of material.

4. Trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang intro. by Zheng Zhenduo, Panda Books edition 1986 originally published as The Dragon King’s Daughter (Foreign Languages Press, 1962). Gladys Yang, who had been raised in China by missionaries, became the first Oxford graduate in Chinese. She married fellow student Yang Xianyi and the couple returned to China as supporters of the revolution. In 1968 they were accused of being “class enemies” and both were imprisoned for four years before being sent to remote factory farms as laborers.

5. See Analects XII. Similarly Bollywood films, produced for an audience for whom arranged marriages remain the norm, unfailingly celebrate romantic love.

6. Huxian (fox spirits) or húli jīng (fox immortals) are common in Chinese legend. The latter term is used today to refer to a woman who seduces a married man. Similar figures appear in Japanese and Korean narratives with the names kitsune and kumiho. Such fox fairies may be blamed by traditional medical practitioners treating cases of koro.

7. This motif appears clearly in seven of the thirteen stories in the book: “ Ren the Fox Fairy,” “The Dragon King’s Daughter,” “Prince Huo’s Daughter,” “Story of a Singsong Girl,” “Wushuang the Peerless,”” The Kunlun Slave,” and “The Jade Mortar and Pestle."

8. “Ren the Fox Fairy,” “The Dragon King’s Daughter,” “The General’s Daughter,” “The Jade Mortar and Pestle,” and “The Prince’s Tomb.” In addition in “Prince Huo’s Daughter” the principal female character is metaphorically called “a fairy has come down to earth” and in “The Spendthrift and the Alchemist” the main character is transformed into a woman.

9. The poetic skepticism of “Governor of the Southern Tributary State” is similar to that of Shen Jiji’s “The World Inside a Pillow,” a celebrated story whose author is represented by a different story in this collection.

10. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, 87.