We're delighted to welcome John Yu Branscum and Yi Izzy Yu to the blog, to tell us more about their translation of Ji Yun, and their work on Chinese anomaly tales, or zhiguai. You can read their translation of Ji Yun's Guests from the Sky in the September 2019 issue of Samovar, alongside the original Chinese. They are both writers and translators, and teach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. They are one of two finalists for the The International Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation & Multilingual Texts from Antioch University/Lunch Ticket Magazine.
'Guests from the Sky' is by the 18th century Chinese author Ji Yun, famous for his 'strange tales'. How did you first come across his work and what draws you to this type of writing?
[Yi Izzy Yu:] As a Chinese national, I grew up with Ji Yun in school. He's a huge cultural figure in China, with a name that’s synonymous with wit and integrity. You see him a lot in modern historical dramas on TV. He's like Varys in Game of Thrones: an advisor behind the throne whispering good sense in a court otherwise riddled with corruption. But respect for Ji Yun doesn’t extend to his writing. His stories are considered weaker versions of other famous Qing dynasty strange tales, such as those of Pu Songling. So, I didn’t read much of him until I met John around ten years ago.
[John Yu Branscum:] As for me, I got into Ji Yun and strange tales as an undergraduate philosophy major. By this time, I’d fallen in love with the fantastic as a vehicle for exploring metaphysical ideas. And Chinese history was filled with this sort of thing—from koans to philosophical anecdotes and fables. Thus I eventually discovered zhiguai and then Ji Yun who was one of the most famous practitioners of the genre.
That somebody like Ji Yun wrote zhiguai is wild. Confucian scholars are historically materialists and very dismissive of the paranormal. And the Confucians during Ji Yun’s time were even more so because they were reacting against the previous dynasty, the Ming, which was all about the metaphysical. And yet here you had Ji Yun. He was not just a highly respected Confucian scholar but the person who trained Confucian scholars, a model skeptic. Nevertheless, in his later years he started writing zhiguai—most of them centered on paranormal and occult phenomena. This would have been less a big deal if like some zhiguai writers he just saw them as entertaining fictions disguised as truths. But he was very harsh toward those writers who used the genre just to tell interesting tales and thought instead it should record actual experiences. Thus, while he appreciated the types of mythical truth that fables could impart, and also seemed to love a good satire, mostly he collected, analyzed, and even investigated strange events that he claimed were objectively true. To appreciate how shocking a thing this was, imagine if Benjamin Franklin, who was more or less Ji Yun's contemporary, acted as a paranormal investigator and philosopher of the strange in addition to his achievements in statescraft, literature, and science.
[Yi Izzy Yu:] Yes, this is a major difference between Ji Yun and Pu Songling who also wrote strange tales. Ji Yun didn’t see himself as a fiction writer. He was instead writing what John and I call “weird nonfiction,” and a lot of it was autobiographical. In fact, Ji Yun criticized Pu Songling for his disregard for the truth. This seems odd at first since both authors were writing stories about supernatural phenomena. But if you dig around, you realize that writers of strange tales tend to write from one or the other of two different traditions, zhiguai and chuanqi, and individually leaned toward one tradition more than the other.
Chuanqi, marvellous tales, were generally more classically literary. By this I mean their main emphasis was on the creation of full-blown narratives with well-developed plots and characters. Zhiguai on the other hand aimed to share truths, either mythological or literal ones, and were concerned with the epistemological function of the strange. In other words, it was thought that by examining strange true events as a kind of evidence, one could inductively understand important things about the cosmos. This is why zhiguai collections will often contain such diverse materials as personal accounts, philosophical parables, travel accounts, biographical sketches, reports of strange foods and plants, hearsay, insights into occult rituals and so on. These diverse materials are united by a shared aesthetic effect: an ontologically destabilizing sense of strangeness. They are united too by a shared aim, boxue, a term that means knowledge broadening. This function of zhiguai was commonly discussed and debated among Qing dynasty writers. The scholar Hu Gaowang, for example, writes in his introduction to Wang Xian’s 1791 zhiguai collection, Collected Discourses under the Autumn Lamp, that zhiguai is a respectable genre because it has the power to cultivate an understanding of reality’s deep principles. It does so, he maintains, through bringing to the reader’s attention things not ordinarily seen while simultaneously stirring their emotions—particularly the emotion of fear.
This emphasis on knowledge-broadening truth-telling in the zhiguai goes all the way back to its early history when zhiguai accounts were classified by scholars as both personal history and philosophy.
[John Yu Branscum:] And all of this is why we think Ji Yun is a key figure in the history of Chinese creative nonfiction AND a key figure in the history of the Chinese speculative fiction.
What are the particular challenges and rewards in translating classical Chinese?
We have found translating classical Chinese to be fascinatingly tricky. You have the usual problems of translating an older language, such as the meaning of words changing over time. So, for example, 走 (zou) means “run” in ancient texts, but in modern texts it means “walk.” And too there is the fact that words accrue a whole different constellation of associations over time at different times. Just consider how different Communist China is from Qing dynasty China when it comes to rhetoric about everything from religion to money or the state. So, you can’t just immerse yourself in a writer’s work alone. You have to immerse yourself in their times. That means we read a lot of books about the Qing dynasty and a lot of things that were widely circulated during the Qing.
But the biggest challenge for us in translating classical Chinese is connected to the issue of suggestiveness. Suggestiveness is ultimately the ideal of Chinese art, including literary art. Here, we’re borrowing a distinction made by the philosopher Feng Youlan. To be suggestive, he writes, is to be allusive, brief, aphoristic, to leave connections implied, and to turn a reader toward considering a wide range of meanings rather than spelling out just a few FOR them. As the old Chinese saying goes, “In good poetry the number of words is limited but the ideas that these words suggest are limitless.” One can see the privileged place suggestiveness occupies in Chinese art by considering how central koans are to Chinese Buddhism, by visualizing the differences between classical Western and Eastern landscape paintings, or by considering how highly valued calligraphy is in Chinese society and how much is read into the brush strokes.
Now the opposite of suggestiveness is articulateness. Articulateness has the virtue of being unambiguous and definite, like good science writing. Yet because of this it necessarily means less because its meaning is more circumscribed. In general then prose is more articulate and poetry is more suggestive.
Feng Youlan goes on to say that most translations of Chinese—particularly classical Chinese, which is even denser than modern Chinese because it was especially designed for literary purposes—fail in communicating such suggestiveness and so fail to translate a great deal of what’s going on aesthetically and cognitively in a translated text. To tackle this challenge, when working with classical Chinese we pay very close attention to what’s not said in a piece but which may be signified, and also to the spaces left in a piece for a reader to fill, as well as the potential connections left for them to make. We try to leave similar silences and spaces. At the same time, we also try to be gently explicit about matters of cultural subtext, such as theories of qi or reincarnation, and to create sentences which capture, for a contemporary and quite different audience, analogues of the rhythms, tones, and sensibilities of Ji Yun’s prose.
As far as the rewards of working with classical Chinese, these are very much the same as the challenges. There is something viscerally, aesthetically gratifying about trying to recreate the spare beauty of Ji Yun’s suggestiveness. Similarly, there is a sensual pleasure in trying to translate the “feel”, the atmosphere of his pieces, and to match their silences. It’s like striking notes on a metal bar until you get exactly the right sound. Or experimenting with the flavour of a dish until the seasoning is just right. It’s especially fulfilling too because in our humble way we can foster appreciation for the beauty of Ji Yun’s prose which for various reasons, including overly literal translations, has been written off in modern times although it was highly celebrated during his own time.
You make the link between this story and later alien abduction tales; could you talk a bit more about some of the rewards and pitfalls of this kind of comparative approach to Chinese texts, and are there other interesting convergences you'd like to highlight?
In terms of pitfalls, there are a few that we're especially careful about. One, we try not to reduce one thing to an instance of another. So, we don’t read tales of fairy abductions solely as early or primitive alien abduction tales or alien abduction tales as solely modern fairy abduction narratives. We attempt to let them be their own thing while at the same time acknowledging similarities between them, and being open to other things they may yet signify.
A popular Chan koan that really resonates with us in this regard is “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.” We read this to mean that there’s a difference between a representation (or a comparison) and a thing itself (or the things being compared). At the same time, if one treats a comparison as a pointing finger, a way of noticing certain things, there’s great value in it—even when working across cultures where cultural acts and images might have very different connotations and associations.
We also think that the best comparisons are aware that cultures are heterogeneous and not monolithic. Very different writers, thinkers, artists, and ideologies exist within the same culture, especially over time, so when you’re theorizing such subjects as zhiguai, qi, the purpose of art, animal rights, Chinese philosophy, the nature of reality, etc., you have to keep in mind there have been very different definitions and understandings of these things over time and that there are very different takes on them by different thinkers. That said, you can still point out, in the spirit of fuzzy logic, tendencies along a continuum. You just can’t treat these tendencies as exclusive or all-defining. This is very easy to do, really, if you’re interested in comparative work as a way to bring attention to aspects of stories that might otherwise go unnoticed or be underappreciated and not as a way to arrive at definitive, close-ended conclusions.
Ultimately, our favourite comparisons are those that put things, in a montage-like fashion, in dialogue with each other. Different stories, translator notes, titles, publication venues, images etc. can all cause new meanings to surface into visibility. The reader’s thoughts and subsequent conversations they have with others are also part of this dialogue. Ji Yun is a wonderful model for such a practice. A repeated move that he makes in his work is to place narratives side-by-side—including his own personal accounts, those of friends, and historical accounts. He then appends to this material references to ideas from ancient works, insights from his friends, and short meditations on connections that he sees. Furthermore, since zhiguai were often orally recited, open-mic style, at public gatherings as a way to spark conversations and elicit other stories, this comparative process would keep on going even after accounts were published.
A good example of this ongoing-comparative process in action happened after we translated Ji Yun’s autobiographical account of fairy abduction and appended to it a note that framed it as very similar to modern accounts of alien abduction. A few weeks ago, we were listening to an interview with a team that interviewed over 4200 individuals from 100 countries who claimed to have had contact with non-human entities, aka: extra-terrestrials. In this interview, the team mentioned that a very common trait of UFOs in witness reports is that they were somehow both objective and subjective. This is to say while they affected the physical world and individuals in concrete ways they also had characteristics that made them seem more like mental phenomena. For example, if you closed your eyes you could still see them as if you were seeing them with your imagination as much as your outer vision. Well, this is EXACTLY what happens in the Ji Yun account. His friend Tiechan sees these glowing inhabited orbs even when he closes his eyes. If we hadn’t had the idea already in our heads that Ji Yun’s account bears a similarity to modern alien abduction accounts then we probably wouldn’t have paid as much attention to this detail.
Outside of Ji Yun’s work, there’s all kind of other convergences that fascinate us. One is the connection between yin-yang metaphysics and computer binary code. Shao Yong (1011-1077), a Chinese philosopher active during the Song Dynasty, believed in a Pythagorean-way that the most basic level of reality was mathematical in nature and that everything in reality corresponded to numbers, including such things as birds fighting, how smoke rose from a fire, the day of the month, the time of the day, the color of the sky, etc. Therefore, in order to make a prediction about something, he would take into account all numbers relevant to the circumstances that he wanted to predict, add or subtract these numbers, and come up with a sum that corresponded to one of the 64 hexagrams in the I-Ching, the famous Chinese manual of divination. Shao Yong was credited with some pretty amazing predictions too.
This of course all sounds pretty ridiculous to most moderns. But here’s the wild, comparative thing. The I-Ching’s hexagrams are each made up of solid or dotted lines that correspond to yin or yang energies, kind of like how binary code works with 0s or 1s to represent different things. And if you do a bit of digging you discover in fact that the German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz credited Shao Yong’s mathematical ideas with his development of a binary arithmetic. This in turn contributed to what? Computer binary code. So, basically you can argue that the I-Ching is a kind of computer-in-a-book that does predictive modelling. And you could equally argue the computer, at least as far as predictive modelling goes, is a kind of contemporary divination machine that takes into account the yin-yang nature of the universe. When we realized this, it blew our minds.
What other authors or books would you recommend for readers interesting in exploring more Chinese anomaly tales?
From among early collections we highly recommend Gan Bao’s Soushen Ji, or In Search of the Supernatural (translated into English by Kenneth DeWoskin and J.I. Crump, Jr.). It’s a fourth-century collection of anecdotes and tales about gods, ghosts, dreams, divinations, and various forms of misfortune. It’s also probably the most cited book in discussions of the development of zhiguai. We also really like Notes and Reflections on Things in the World, by Zhang Hua (232-300 CE). This collection shows the diversity of zhiguai. It is filled with accounts of strange things—both natural and supernatural—drawn from fields ranging from biology to myth and history. Among some of its most interesting accounts are wind-propelled flying “carriages, and the earliest account of the yěnǚ 野女—a mysterious, all-female tribe of naked, white-skinned “wild women” warriors who lived in the forests of what is now known as Vietnam.
If someone is interested in more recent work, say from the Qing dynasty, in addition to Pu Songling’s famous Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (translated by John Minford), and Ji Yun’s work, Yuan Mei’s famous collection Censored by Confucius (edited and translated by Kam Louie and Louise Edwards) is very much worth reading—although it’s shockingly perverse. It’ll definitely change how most people see classical Chinese literature. Finally, we suggest Leo Tak-hung Chan’s Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts. It’s not a collection of zhiguai but rather a contemporary scholarly work on the genre and it has a beautifully exhaustive list of zhiguai collections published throughout history.
Does your translation work feed into your own fiction?
Absolutely. But the biggest impact on our work has been in the area of creative nonfiction. As we said earlier, after working with Ji Yun for awhile we became aware that he was basically writing, at least most of the time, a kind of “weird creative nonfiction.” Like Lovecraft’s weird, this is material that is deeply ontologically unsettling. It recounts a narrative in which a person encounters something strange—something beyond reason’s scope, something that traumatically undermines their understanding of reality. As a result, the person either succumbs to a sense of cosmic alienation or gropes toward a new understanding of reality and self.
Often, this kind of weird nonfiction prose involves paranormal or mystical experiences. But as long as the narrated experience is ontologically destabilizing, radically reframes reality and identity—particularly away from materialist models, and is beyond the power of human reason, it fits the bill. For this reason, we think of this work as essentially operating like a Chan koan. This is to say that the protagonist is presented with that which can’t be solved by reason alone and thus they are forced into another state of consciousness or awareness to try to deal with it. Such prose then nods toward the very beginning of the zhiguai tradition when they were used as textual tools to promote Buddhist and Taoist metaphysical takes on reality.
In playing around with this approach to Ji Yun’s work and zhiguai in general, we soon realized a second thing. Far from simply being a quaint body of Chinese miracle tales from days-gone-by, nonfiction narratives that could be classified as zhiguai were still being produced all around us. Sure, they commonly went by different names, such as glitch-in-the-matrix stories in the West or some of the liqigushi in China or kowabana in Japan. But otherwise they functioned the same and made many of the same rhetorical moves. Not only that but such stories were as unsettling for today’s materialists as they were for the ones during Ji Yun’s time. And so the same arguments and counter-arguments got made around them too.
For example, one common argument against the veracity of paranormal encounters is that they’re the product of credulous, uncritical, and troubled minds and not the products of educated or highly respected people. Ji Yun countered this argument by presenting accounts from the most acclaimed and respected scholars, politicians, and artists of the Qing dynasty, including himself. Similarly today, you can find such material being written by our most respected scholars, scientists, and writers too. In the West, for example, you have Barbara Ehrenreich, who received a PhD in cellular immunology and went onto become a myth-busting investigative journalist and best-selling author. She wrote a memoir about her encounter with a non-corporeal entity in Living with a Wild God. You have the neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor who in A Stroke of Insight wrote about her experiences with a mystical dimension of consciousness and identity after she suffered a stroke. Likewise, you have Cary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, writing about an experience with all the hallmarks of an alien abduction although he smartly argues that the alien abduction narrative is probably a frame imposed by his mind on a far stranger phenomena. You have Upton Sinclair’s book on telepathy, Mental Radio, which has an introduction written by no less a luminary than Albert Einstein himself. And more recently the memoirist Augusten Burroughs has just published a book on his experiences with witchcraft. The list goes on and on, and many of these narratives deal with the same topics as Ji Yun’s: near-death experiences, precognitive dreams, encounters with non-human entities, mystical encounters with nature, occult forces, mind-matter interaction, and so on.
Long story short, Ji Yun has considerably changed how we see creative nonfiction and made us aware of a tradition that we otherwise would not have noticed. And this has in turn led us to writing about such work as scholars, as well as writing inside this genre as creative writers, and collecting it as translators and editors.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on at the moment?
We’re putting the finishing touches on a collection of Ji Yun’s “weird” nonfiction, and doing more work related to conceptualizing zhiguai (at least one important stream of it) as weird creative nonfiction. Aside from this, we’re writing short horror fiction that’s strongly rooted in Chinese culture and enjoying the heck out of this.
Thank you so much for your time!