St Petersburg University has held an international research conference ‘Issues of Far Eastern Literatures’. This marked the 380th anniversary of the Chinese novelist Pú Sōnglíng. The event was supported by Nanjing University and Confucius Institute.

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The international research conference ‘Issues of Far Eastern Literatures’ has been held annually  since 2014 (Russian, English, and Chinese).

In 2021, the conference was held in distance mode. It brought together the scholars in Chinese studies from 16 countries, including Russia, China, Australia, Belarus, the UK, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Canada, Latvia, Malaysia, Poland, the USA, Uzbekistan, France, and the Czech Republic.

In his opening address, the Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies Mikhail Piotrovsky said that throughout its history of 16 years, the conference ‘Issues of Far Eastern Literatures’ has gained a recognition of being one of the largest platforms that has brought together philologists in literatures of the Asian countries. 'This conference primarily focuses on Pú Sōnglíng. 2020 marked his 380th anniversary. Pú Sōnglíng was born in a splendid place known as Shandong, a coastal province of the People's Republic of China and a part of the East China region. Among those who were also born in Shandong are Confucius and Mencius. Among today’s novelists and writers is Mo Yan who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He follows Pú Sōnglíng in many ways,’ said Academician Piotrovsky. ‘The short stories by Pú Sōnglíng narrate about marvellous events, bibliophiles, foxes and werewolves. Although they were written four hundred years ago, they are still capable of mesmerising their readers from China and across the globe.’

Among those who were the first to study and translate the short stories by Pú Sōnglíng was Academician Vasily Alekseev. He was an outstanding scholar in Chinese studies and Head of the Department of Chinese Philology at the University. His translations have become a classic and are regularly published. Yet many of the short stories by Pú Sōnglíng are awaiting to be translated. Academician Alekseev was merciful as to leave us ample opportunities to conquer this mountain.

Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University and Academician of the RAS Mikhail Piotrovsky

In his welcoming speech, Director of College of Literature of Nanjing University Xu Xingwu spoke about a long-standing partnership with St Petersburg University and expressed hope that this collaboration would be expanding. Professor Xu said that, on the one hand, Pú Sōnglíng had inherited the traditions of the Chinese ‘mythical’ literature and, on the other hand, he enriched them with how he saw the world. In his works, the widespread narratives about spirits, foxes, and conflicts between the world of spirits and the human world reflected how complex and sophisticated we and our culture could be. Besides, in his folk tales he exquisitely intertwined Buddhism, Taoism, and other philosophies, said Xu Xingwu.

Regardless of the pandemic and all the changes it has brought to our life, it has opened new opportunities for how we communicate, said He Fang, Director of the Confucius Institute at St Petersburg University. The conference is an excellent example. Today, even after 400 years, Pú Sōnglíng remains most popular in China, she said. His works are regularly published, translated in other languages, and adapted for TV and theatre. ‘The literary heritage of Pú Sōnglíng is a national treasure of China,’ said He Fang.

The first key speaker on the literary heritage by Pú Sōnglíng was Aleksandr Storozhuk, Professor and Head of the Department of Chinese Philology. He translates the short stories that are still unknown to the Russian readers. It is universally acknowledged that Pú Sōnglíng metamorphosed classic literary plots as to make them up-to-date by instilling elements of satire, said Professor Storozhuk. This can explain why his books include works by his predecessors as he is presumed to have relied on them. Professor Storozhuk also shed light on the biography of Pú Sōnglíng as it is heavily reflected in his works. His childhood and adolescence are associated with hardship and endless rebellions and wars at the time when the Ming dynasty was succeeded by the Qing dynasty.

His most famous collection of novels is Liaozhai Zhiyi. It is traditionally regarded as ‘a studio of the loser’. This translation was proposed by Academician Alekseev. The collection includes over 400 short stories. The setting for all stories is Shandong during the 17th century. They are based on Chinese folklore.

'What made him famous as a novelist of enormous talent is not only Liaozhai Zhiyi, but a wide variety of other stories. Yet the most popular Liaozhai Zhiyi remains the jewel in the crown,’ said Professor Storozhuk. This collection was not initially intended to be compositionally complete. It is thematically diverse. The collection comprises stories about spirits, stories about everyday life accompanied by philosophical recollections, stories about quaint people, and detective stories. They depict foxes, living dead, monsters, ghosts, ordinary people in difficult situations, and just quaint people who attracted his attention. His stories unfold everything that somehow had caught his eye,’ said Professor Storozhuk.

A special focus was on the literary style of Pú Sōnglíng. A perfect combination of an ability to imitate colloquial speech, mixing rhyme and prose, ample allusions to and quotations from the ancient texts, and his feeling of language brought him a lasting fame, said Professor Starozhuk. Some writers of the 21st century rely on the prose by Pú Sōnglíng.

Among them are Mikhail Uspensky, Victor Pelevin, and Vyacheslav Rybakov and Igor Alimov who work under a pseudo-name of Holm van Zaichik (they graduated in Oriental Studies from St Petersburg University).

A landmark in how Pú Sōnglíng’s stories were translated was works by Academician Vasily Alekseev. During his lifetime, he published four collections of his translated works by Pú Sōnglíng in 1922, 1923, 1928, and 1937. What makes his translations iconic is the style Academician Alekseev used to translate the stories. It is ideally close to the original. It is both archaic and vivid.

Aleksandr Storozhuk, Professor and Head of the Department of Chinese Philology at St Petersburg University

'The style has brought an enormous popularity. The stories by Pú Sōnglíng as translated by Academician Alekseev are still being published,’ said Professor Storozhuk.

The plenary session also featured a report ‘A Study of Pu Songling and His Liaozhai Zhiyi in China in the First 20 Years of the New Century’ by Professor Miao Xuaiming from Nanjing University. Since 2001, about 110 monographs on Pú Sōnglíng have been published in China, he said. Most concern his narrative art and how they correlate with the folk culture and religion. Additionally, scholars study the models of how these stories are spread and translated worldwide.

The international research conference ‘Issues of Far Eastern Literatures’ was held in distance mode 28–30 January 2021. It had 25 panel discussions in Russian, English, and Chinese.

Professor Ong Siew Kian from the University of Malaya, Malaysia, had a report on how the works by Pú Sōnglíng had been spread across the Malay Archipelago and how the language specifics of the region influenced this process.