I feel very fortunate and honored to be the one to finish the first complete English translation of Prince Liu Yiqing’s (403-444) monumental collection of zhiguai (“accounts of anomalies”), Hidden and Visible Realms, and publish it in the distinguished series of “Translations from Asian Classics” by Columbia University Press.
Liu Yiqing, the nephew of Liu Yu (r. 420-422), the founder of the [Liu] Song dynasty (420-479), is beyond a doubt one of the most influential figures in early medieval Chinese history and culture. His importance lies not only in his princely social status, but also in the two tale collections attributed to him–the Shishuo xinyu (New Account of Tales of the World) and the Youming lu (Hidden and Visible Realms). The former is the quintessential work of zhiren (accounts of men) and the latter a representative work of the zhiguai. Both genres are considered the earliest forms of Chinese fiction and both collections by Liu provide invaluable information on the history of China from the late third to early fifth centuries.
Liu’s New Account of Tales of the World was translated into English by Professor Richard B. Mather over four decades ago (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), giving him great fame and recognition. Professor Albert Dien states in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 37 (1997): 423-27, “All who are interested in this pivotal period of Chinese history owe a heavy debt to Mather for his dedication and skill in producing this fine translation.” Though my translation cannot compare with Mather’s in many ways, I am still very pleased that Prince Liu’s Hidden and Visible Realms is finally available to western readers.
Of all the early zhiguai collections, Hidden and Visible Realms is distinguished by its varied contents, elegant writing style, and fascinating tales. After reading a few stories from the beginning of volume one, “The Wonder of Love,” I hope you will agree with that statement. Of these tales, “Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao” is the most influential one in the history of Chinese literature, “The Girl who Sold Face Powder” is a deeply touching love story, and both “Pang E and His Infatuated Lover” and “Dream Adventure inside a Cypress Pillow” are innovative and fascinating.
Most importantly, Hidden and Visible Realms is among the earliest tale collections heavily influenced by Buddhism. Alongside traditional themes that appear in other zhiguai collections, new themes bearing Buddhist beliefs, values, and concerns appear in this collection for the first time. Tale 122, “Disaster from Stealing Coffin Boards,” shows a new form of karmic retribution, “retribution in this life”; tale 215 provides a vivid picture of transmigration: a man must repay a debt from his previous life; tale 170, “The Shaman Shu Li,” and tale 175, “Zhao Tai Travels in Hells,” portray Buddhist hells in detail; tale 98 has Buddha appearing as a new savior and contains the first appearance of Buddhist ghosts, raksasas, in Chinese literary works.
In closing, I would like to emphasize the value of Hidden and Visible Realms with Professor Wilt L. Idema’s remark: “The nearly three hundred miracle tales that survive of Liu Yiqing’s compilation offer fascinating insights into China’s society and imagination of the late third to early fifth centuries. This complete translation will be eagerly welcomed by all students and scholars of Chinese literature, religion, and thought, as it was precisely in this period that Buddhism had become part of Chinese life.”