The Frog Bride

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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
China Heritage
8 September 2018

***

Reading Strange Tales:


Introductory Note

 

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.


《聊齋志異》

青蛙神

 

江漢之間,俗事蛙神最虔。祠中蛙不知幾百千萬,有大如籠者。或犯神怒,家中輒有異兆,蛙游几榻,甚或攀緣滑壁不得墮,其狀不一,此家當凶,人則大恐,斬牲禳禱之,神喜則已。

楚有薛昆生者,幼慧,美姿容。六七歲時,有青衣媼至其家,自稱神使,坐致神意,願以女下嫁崑生。薛翁性朴拙,雅不欲,辭以兒幼。雖故卻之,而亦未敢議婚他姓。遲數年,崑生漸長,委禽於姜氏,神告姜曰:

薛崑生,吾婿也,何得近禁臠。

姜懼,反其儀。薛翁憂之,潔牲往禱,自言不敢與神相匹偶,祝已,見肴酒中,皆有巨蛆浮出,蠢然擾動,傾棄,謝罪而歸。心益懼,亦姑聽之。

一日,崑生在途,有使者迎宣神命,苦邀移趾,不得已,從與俱往。入一朱門,樓閣華好,有叟坐堂上,類七八十歲人。崑生伏謁,叟命曳起之,賜坐案旁。少間,婢媼集視,紛紜滿側,叟顧曰:入言薛郎至矣。數婢奔去。

移時,一媼率女郎出,年十六七,麗絕無儔。叟指曰:此小女十娘,自謂與君可稱佳偶,君家尊乃以異類見拒。此自百年事,父母止主其半,是在君耳。崑生目注十娘,心愛好之,默然不言。

媼曰:我固知郎意良佳。請先歸,當即送十娘往也。

崑生曰:諾。
趨歸告翁。翁倉遽無所為計,乃授之詞,使反謝之,崑生不肯行。方誚讓間,輿已在門,青衣成羣,而十娘入矣。上堂朝拜,翁姑見之皆喜,即夕合巹,琴瑟甚諧。由此神翁神媼,時降其家,視其衣赤為喜,白為財,必驗,以故家日興。

自婚於神,門堂藩溷皆蛙,人無敢詬蹴之,惟崑生少年任性,喜則忘,怒則踐斃,不甚愛惜。十娘雖謙馴,但善怒,頗不善崑生所為,而崑生不以十娘故斂抑之。十娘語侵崑生,崑生怒曰:

豈以汝家翁媼能禍人耶?丈夫何畏蛙也。

十娘甚諱言蛙,聞之恚甚,曰:

自妾入門,為汝家田增粟,賈益價,亦復不少。今老幼皆已溫飽,遂如鴞鳥生翼,欲啄母睛耶。

崑生益憤曰:

吾正嫌所增污穢,不堪貽子孫,請不如早別。

遂逐十娘。翁媼既聞之,十娘已去,呵崑生,使急往追復之,崑生盛氣不屈。至夜,母子俱病,鬱悶不食。翁懼,負荊於祠,詞義殷切,過三日,病尋愈,十娘亦自至,夫妻懽好如初。

十娘日輒凝妝坐,不操女紅,崑生衣履,一委諸母。母一日忿曰:

兒既娶,仍累媼。人家婦事姑,吾家姑事婦。

十娘適聞之,負氣登堂曰:

兒婦朝侍食,暮問寢,事姑者,其道如何?所短者,不能吝傭錢自作苦耳。

母無言,慚沮自哭。崑生入,見母涕痕,詰得故,怒責十娘,十娘執辯不相屈。崑生曰:

娶妻不能承歡,不如勿有。便觸老蛙怒,不過橫災死耳。

復出十娘,十娘亦怒,出門逕去。次日,居舍災,延燒數屋,几案牀榻,悉為煨燼。崑生怒,詣祠責數曰:

養女不能奉翁姑,略無庭訓,而曲護其短。神者至公,有教人畏婦者耶?且盎盂相敲,皆臣所為,無所涉於父母。刀鋸斧鉞,即加臣身,如其不然,我亦焚汝居室,聊以相報。

言已,負薪殿下,爇火欲舉,居人集而哀之,始憤而歸。父母聞之,大懼失色。
至夜,神示夢於近村,使為婿家營宅。及明,齎材鳩工,共為崑生建造,辭之不止,日數百人相屬於道。不數日,第舍一新,牀幕器具悉備焉。修除甫竟,十娘已至,登堂謝過,言詞溫婉,轉身向崑生展笑,舉家變怨為喜。自此十娘性益和,居二年,無間言。

十娘最惡蛇,崑生戲函小蛇,紿使啟之,十娘色變,詬崑生,崑生亦轉笑生嗔,惡相抵。十娘曰:

今番不待相迫逐,請從此絕。

遂出門去。薛翁大恐,杖崑生,請罪於神,幸不禍之,亦寂無音。積有年餘,崑生念十娘,頗自悔,竊詣神所哀十娘,迄無聲應。未幾,聞神以十娘字袁氏,中心失望,因亦求婚他族,而歷相數家,並無如十娘者,於是益思十娘。往探袁氏,則已堊壁滌庭候魚軒矣。心愧憤不能自已,廢食成疾,父母憂皇,不知所處。忽昏憒中有人撫之曰:

大丈夫頻欲斷絕,又作此態。

開目,則十娘也。喜極,躍起曰:

卿何來。

十娘曰:

以輕薄人相待之禮,止宜從父命,另醮而去。固已受袁家采幣,妾千思萬思而不忍也。卜吉已在今夕,父又無顏反璧,妾親攜而置之矣。適出門,父走送曰:「癡婢不聽吾言,後受薛家凌虐,縱死亦勿歸也。」

崑生感其義,為之流涕,家人皆喜,奔告翁媼。媼聞之,不待往朝,奔入子舍,執手嗚泣。由此崑生亦老成,不作惡謔,於是情好益篤。十娘曰:

妾向以君儇薄,未必遂能相白首,故不敢留孽根於人世,今已靡他,妾將生子。

居無何,神翁神媼著朱袍降臨其家,次日,十娘臨蓐,一舉兩男,由此往來無間。

居民或犯神怒,輒先求崑生,乃使婦女輩盛妝入閨,朝拜十娘,十娘笑則解。薛氏苗裔甚繁,人名之薛蛙子家,近人不敢呼,遠人呼之。