The Frog Bride 青蛙神 translated by John Minford from Pu Songling’s (蒲松齡, 1640-1715) Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異 is the latest addition to Nouvelle Chinoiserie 奇趣漢學 and Wairarapa Readings 白水札記 in China Heritage. These selections celebrate the variety and vibrancy of China’s literary heritage.
In Nouvelle Chinoiserie we introduce literary texts and translations aimed at students of traditional Chinese letters who are interested in the world that lies beyond the narrow confines and demands of contemporary institutional pedagogy. They also reflect the long-term interest of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology in ‘cultivation’ 修養.
The translation is followed by the Chinese original.
— The Editor
8 September 2018
Reading Strange Tales:
- John Minford and Tong Man 唐文, ‘Whose Strange Tales?’, East Asian History, Nos.17/18 (June/December 1999): 1-48
- Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異, translated and edited by John Minford, Penguin Classics, 2006
- The Tiny Bird-Track, in The Year of the Rooster, On Reading, China Heritage, 15 January 2017
- John Minford, Herbert Giles (1845-1935) and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a lecture in the series ‘A Lineage of Light’, China Heritage, 25 May 2017
- Weird Accounts 志怪, in Spectres in the Seventh Month, China Heritage, 4 September 2017
- P.K.’s Strange Tales 也斯聊齋, China Heritage, 6 September 2017
- Pu Songling, The Dog Lover (Dog Days II), trans. John Minford, China Heritage, 24 February 2018
- Pu Songling, The Midget Hound 小獵犬 (Dog Days VI), trans. John Minford, China Heritage, 11 May 2018
- John Minford, Nouvelle Chinoiserie & the Obsessions of Master Pu, China Heritage, 1 June 2018
- Pu Songling, A Rake’s Progress, trans. John Minford, China Heritage, 18 June 2018
- Pu Songling, The Golden Flower, trans. John Minford, China Heritage, 12 August 2018
The contemporary Mainland scholar Liu Liemao 劉烈茂 writes at great length about this story in the four-volume compendium of tales and commentaries edited by the Peking University professor Ma Zhenfang (馬振方編,《聊齋誌異評賞大成》, 麗江, 1992; 臺北: 建安, 1996).
In Liu’s predictably sociological reading, Pu Songling’s main concern is to highlight progressive views of marriage in the eighteenth century. The Frog Spirit father is grudgingly praised for according fifty percent of the decision in such a ‘weighty matter’ to the couple themselves (actually in the text this ‘half of the decision’ is only accorded to the young man): while feisty Decima, the Frog Bride herself, is held up as a shining example of feminine independence, refusing to comply with feudal marriage expectations, doing nothing to help around the house, and generally offending her mother-in-law. She represents, according to Professor Liu, the finest flower of the Chinese people’s tradition, its belief in the cause of true love.
For Decima, after having experienced repeated marital strife and rejection, the easy option would certainly have been to obey her father, give up on the unstable Xue Kunsheng and marry into the Yuan family. But instead she follows her heart and returns to her repentant and now ailing husband. And they finally learn how to lead a peaceful and happy life together.
It is certainly true that in this beautifully crafted tale Pu Songling is not really concerned so much with the supernatural as with the psychology of a real, ordinary human relationship. And Professor Liu’s concluding comment is a valid one (even if it does sound a bit like something from a column in the Woman’s Weekly) — that even though a couple may fall passionately in love at first sight, they can only find out whether or not they are well suited to marriage when they actually experience life together.
Perhaps it is best simply to accept the story on its own terms, as a remarkably vivid and touching account of a turbulent love affair involving two highly temperamental individuals. The frogs crawling all over the house are certainly a vivid image for the ‘family drama’ that the Frog Bride brings with her to her husband’s house, they are the family fetish that no one is even allowed to mention by name! And when Kunsheng later on deliberately provokes Decima with his mean ‘snake-in-the-casket’ trick, knowing full well that she will panic, and thereby goading her into storming out of the house, it all seems so very human!
As Feng Zhenluan (馮鎮巒, 1760-1830) writes in his general guidance notes to Strange Tales, ‘Grasp the human qualities of the author’s characters and value his innermost thoughts: then this book will transform your character, and purify your heart’ 變化氣質, 淘成心術. In brief, he says, ‘grasp the author’s spirit, and you will be strong’ 領其氣則壯. Those who allow themselves to get ‘bogged down in details’ (? Professor Liu) end up ‘possessed’ 泥其事則魔.
— John Minford
The Frog Bride 青蛙神
Pu Songling 蒲松齡
Translated by John Minford
In the region between the Yangtze and the Han rivers, the Frog Spirit has its most devout followers. In the Frog Temple are to be found countless thousands of frogs, the biggest the size of a bamboo basket. If ever the Frog Spirit is offended and stirred to anger, strange things start happening in the household of the offending person. Frogs of every different shape and size swarm all over the tables and beds, scramble up the smoothest wall without falling. Any household thus afflicted can expect calamity. The family usually panics, offers sacrifices, prays for deliverance, until the spirit is placated and life returns to normal.
In this southern region, known as the land of Chu, there lived a youth by the name of Xue Kunsheng, who had always been intelligent as a child, and had grown up to be a handsome young man. One day, when he was still only six or seven years old, a woman dressed in the black dress of a servant had come to his home, claiming to have been sent by the Frog Spirit. She sat down and communicated the Frog’s message, which was that he wished to marry his daughter to Kunsheng. Old Mr Xue, the boy’s father, a simple, straightforward soul, was extremely unhappy about this unusual proposal, and said no to it, on the grounds that his son was too young. But although he had rejected this match, he nonetheless refrained from pursuing any other. Kunsheng grew up, and several years later he was duly betrothed to a girl of the Jiang family. The Frog Spirit had a word with the Jiangs:
‘Xue Kunsheng is my son-in-law! How dare you lay claim to what is not rightfully yours?’
The Jiangs were scared and immediately sent back the Xue family’s betrothal presents. Old Mr Xue was most distressed. He prepared the choicest offerings and went to pray to the Frog, protesting that he was not worthy to marry his son to the Spirit’s daughter. When his prayers were finished, he beheld a host of huge maggots writhing and wriggling all over his offerings of meat and wine. He threw the offerings away and earnestly begged forgiveness from the Frog Spirit. Then he went home, more afraid than ever, and waited to see what would happen next.
One day, Kunsheng was out walking when he saw someone coming towards him on the road. The stranger said he was a messenger from the Frog Spirit and that he was commanded to bring Kunsheng into the Frog’s presence. Reluctantly, Kunsheng went with him. They walked through a vermilion gateway, passing the most splendid galleries and pavilions, and entered a hall where an old gentleman of seventy or eighty years of age sat in state. Kunsheng fell to his knees but the old man ordered him to be helped to his feet, and honoured him by bidding him sit by his side at the table. In a little while, a crowd of maids and serving-women gathered around to look him over, chattering all the while.
‘Go in,’ the old man ordered them, ‘and tell your mistress that young Master Xue is here.’
A number of maidservants hurried off, and presently a matron appeared leading a young girl of sixteen or seventeen, of dazzling beauty.
‘This is my youngest daughter Decima,’ said the old man. ‘I thought you and she would make an excellent match. Your parents unfortunately rejected the idea of your marrying a creature of a different species. But in such weighty decisions, parents only account for half; the other half depends on you.’
Kunsheng was at once greatly smitten by the girl’s beauty. He stared at her transfixed, and was incapable of uttering a single word by way of reply.
‘I’m sure he wants to marry her,’ cackled the old matron. ‘Let him go home, and I’ll take the girl there later.’
Kunsheng agreed to this immediately, and hurried home to tell his father. Old Mr Xue was thrown into a great fluster, and tried to tell his son what to say in order to decline the proposal. But this Kunsheng refused to do. Father and son were still arguing about the matter when a sedan-chair arrived at the door, and a flock of serving-women ushered Decima into the Xue home. She paid her respects to Kunsheng’s parents at the head of the hall, and they were pleasantly surprised to see how pretty and well-mannered she was. [Trans.: I suppose they were expecting her to look more like an actual frog…] The wedding ceremony took place that same evening, and from the very first the couple enjoyed a happy and harmonious relationship. Decima’s parents, the Frog Spirit and his consort, occasionally dropped by to visit them. If they came wearing red, it portended happiness, if they wore white, it portended wealth and prosperity. This always came true, and so the Xue family flourished.
From the time of the marriage, every corner of the Xue property — every doorway and hall, every enclosure or washroom — was over-run with frogs. [Trans.: My favourite commentator Feng Zhenluan 馮鎮巒 (1760-1830) remarks curtly about the frogs everywhere: ‘What an unbearable state of affairs!’ 不堪。] No one dared say a thing against them or trample on them. But Kunsheng, who had always been an unruly child, occasionally lost his temper and cruelly trampled a frog or two to death. Decima was a mild and well-bred young woman, but she too was given to fits of temper and gave Kunsheng a telling-off whenever he behaved badly. [Trans.: The commentator Feng Zhenluan makes a witty reference here to the ‘angry frog’ 怒蛙, in the story from Hanfeizi about the King of Yue paying his respects to an angry-looking frog in his path, to inspire courage in his troops.] But he did nothing to mend his ways. Once, when Decima had been scolding him, he retorted angrily:
‘Do you really think your father and mother could do a man any harm? What has a grown man to fear from a frog?’
Decima had banned the use of the word ‘frog’ in their household, and she flew into a rage.
‘Ever since I married you, your family’s crops have prospered, your wealth has increased. You have done very well for yourselves. And now that your whole family’s warm and well fed, I suppose like the fledgling owl you want to peck your mother’s eyes out!’
This made Kunsheng angrier than ever.
‘Why, I loathe the filthy lucre you’ve brought us! I’d rather not hand down such vile stuff to my sons and grandsons? Why don’t you just get out of here!’
And he drove Decima out of the house. By the time Kunsheng’s parents learned of their dispute, she was already gone. They berated Kunsheng, telling him to go after her and fetch her back. But he stubbornly refused. That night, both he and his mother fell ill. They felt a heavy weight of oppression, and could eat no food. Old Mr Xue was afraid for them. He went to the Frog Temple and offered an abject apology, praying to the Frog Spirit and expressing the deepest remorse. After three days, the two invalids showed signs of improvement, Decima re-appeared, and the young couple had a joyful reunion.
Decima sat all day in her finery, never lifting a hand to do any sewing or household chores, with the result that all of Kunsheng’s clothes and cloth-shoes had to be given to his mother to mend. One day his mother complained bitterly to her son:
‘You have a wife now, and yet I still have to do all the work! It should be the daughter-in-law who waits on her husband’s mother, not the other way round. But in our family things are all topsy-turvy!’ [Trans.: Feng comments — 生波 — that this is one of the turning-points, or climactic moments, in the story.]
Decima overheard this and came storming into the main hall.
‘During the day-time I wait on you at meals, I bid you good night in the evenings — what more do you expect of me? If you weren’t so mean you’d hire servants and not oblige yourself to do the work yourself.’ [Trans.: Feng comments on how Decima is here challenging the whole conventional role of women, or 婦道.]
Kunsheng’s mother said nothing but sat there crying disconsolately. Kunsheng came in, and seeing traces of tears on his mother’s face, he asked her the cause. He berated Decima angrily, but Decima was unrepentant and gave back as good as she got.
‘If a wife cannot please a man’s parents,’ cried Kunsheng, ‘it would be better for him not to have one! I don’t care if I offend old Frog-face! Let him do his worst, let him strike me down with the plague if he’s capable of it!’
Once again he drove Decima out of the house, and she left without a moment’s hesitation, stalking angrily out of the door.
The next day, their house caught fire, the fire spreading to several rooms, and reducing the tables and couches to ashes. Kunsheng went angrily to the temple and began abusing the Frog Spirit.
‘Your daughter was brought up in ignorance of a wife’s duties to her parents-in-law! And now, look how you protect her faults! Spirits such as yourself are supposed to stand for justice and truth, they’re not supposed to teach their daughters to terrorize their husbands! Besides, any quarrels between us were my doing, and had nothing to do with my parents. Send your weapons down on me, not on them! Otherwise I shall burn down your house and pay you back!’
He carried bundles of kindling to the temple, and was about to set them alight. But the people nearby gathered round and pleaded with him, and in the end he stomped home in a sulk. When his parents got wind of what he had been doing, they were scared out of their wits.
That night, the Frog Spirit appeared in a dream to the people of the neighbouring village and bid them build Kunsheng a new house. The very next day, at dawn, building materials started arriving and the workmen began their work, despite Kunsheng’s objections. Several hundred men passed to and fro, and the house was finished in a few days, complete with new furnishings and fittings. As soon as it was ready, Decima arrived. First she went into the hall and offered her apologies to Mr and Mrs Xue, speaking in a most meek and winning tone. Then she turned to Kunsheng and gave him a beaming smile, and all the family’s bitterness instantly evaporated and was turned to joy.
From now on, she was all peace and light, and for two years there was not a harsh word exchanged between them.
Now Decima had a particular aversion to snakes. Kunsheng, for a joke, put a little snake in a casket and teased her by asking her to open it. [Trans.: Feng: ‘another turning point’ 又生波.] She received a terrible shock and took Kunsheng to task for it. He grew angry and then they started quarrelling again.
‘This time,’ snapped Decima, ‘I shan’t wait to be asked to go. And I’m never coming back!’
And off she went.
Old Mr Xue was greatly afraid of the possible consequences. He gave his son a good thrashing and commanded him to beg forgiveness from the Frog Spirit. But as it turned out, this time the family were not afflicted in any way. And there was no further news of Decima.
A year or more passed, and Kunsheng began to feel Decima’s absence sorely. He regretted his folly, and went secretly to beg the Frog Spirit to give her back — but received no response. Shortly afterwards he learned that the Frog was now marrying her to a young man of the Yuan family, and on hearing this he grew despondent. He too thought of taking another wife, but none of the many young ladies he considered stood comparison with Decima, and he ended up longing for her all the more. He went to call on the Yuans, and sure enough they had already painted a room and cleaned out a courtyard in preparation for the arrival of their Frog Bride in her palanquin. Kunsheng was beside himself with remorse. He refused all food and fell ill. His parents were at their wits’ end. And then he dimly heard a voice comforting him and saying:
‘A big fellow like you, to keep driving your wife out of the house — and look at you now! What a pitiful state you are in!’
He opened his eyes and wept as he beheld Decima before him. Overjoyed, he leaped up, crying:
‘Where have you been?’
‘Well, I should have paid you back for your cruel behaviour, obeyed my father, and married someone else. In fact the Yuans sent the betrothal presents long ago. But after thinking things over and over, I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. The wedding is due to take place this very evening. My father has refused to return their presents, so I have had to do it myself. When I left home to do so, father shouted after me: “Silly child, to disobey me so! If the Xues treat you badly again, don’t think you can come running home. You’ll just have to stay there and die there!”’
Xue was overwhelmed by her devotion, and broke down in tears. The Xue household rejoiced, and when one of the servants went to tell Kunsheng’s parents the good news, old Mrs Xue hurried over herself to her son’s apartment and took Decima by the hand.
Kunsheng behaved himself properly from that day forth, and treated her well. Their love grew deeper and stronger.
‘I used to think you were a heartless person,’ said Decima one day, ‘and that we would never grow old happily together. So I never wanted to give you a child, to bring more unhappiness into this world, a cause of further bad karma. But now I know I can trust you, and I want to bear your child.’
Shortly afterwards, the Frog Spirit and his Lady Consort descended clad in vermilion robes and the very next day Decima gave birth to two boys. From that time on, visits from her parents were a frequent occurrence. If ever one of the local inhabitants caused some offence to the Frog Spirit, they came to Kunsheng for help, or they sent their smartly dressed wives to plead with Decima in the women’s quarters. One smile from Decima was all that was needed to deliver a person from calamity.
The Xue family multiplied and prospered. People called them the ‘Froggy Xues’ — or rather, strangers did. Close friends and relations never used that expression.