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Soushen ji 搜神記 Puglia, Francesca


The Soushen ji 搜神記 (“Annotations on searching for spirits”) is canonically considered to be the first example of the zhiguai xiaoshuo 志怪小說 literary strand, which comprises novels or stories about extraordinary events, characterized by the presence of spirits, ghosts, and supernatural phenomena. The Soushen ji has been compiled during the first half of the IV century (more precisely, around the year 350) by Gan Bao 干寶, writer and historiographer at the Jin 晉 court (265-420) during the reign of Emperor Yuan 元. Since the Soushen ji is the first real anthology of passages on supernatural events that has come down to us, the first written records of numerous well-known Chinese legends, as well as the first descriptions of real and mythological characters that inspired later texts, can be traced to it. It not only influenced the later evolution of the zhiguai genre, but it also laid the foundation for the development of the later chuanqi 傳奇 (reports on extraordinary events) that developed during the Tang 唐 dynasty (618 – 907). As with most texts from ancient China, we do not possess the original edition of the text, but the work of later editors, and it is therefore impossible to determine precisely how the original text was structured. Regarding the contemporary audience's perception of the anomalous themes dealt with in the Soushen ji, not much is known, yet the affiliation to the zhiguai genre is undoubted, based on some peculiar characteristics of the text: - the title reflects the classic structure that usually characterizes anthologies on the subject: a verb indicating the research or narrative (sou 搜), followed by a noun explicating the supernatural, spiritual or anomalous content (shen 神), and, at the end, a character indicating the collection of documents itself (ji 記), since it consists of numerous independent pieces and not of a continuous and organic narrative; - the prose is classical but lightened by the insertion of non-essential grammatical particles that make it reminiscent of the spoken language, yet never trespassing into the vernacular; - the narrative is focused on extraordinary events, juxtaposed against a context of everydayness and normality. Regarding the dating of the work, the almost complete absence of references to Buddhism suggests that the collected stories are dated between the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Moreover, none of the dates or events mentioned are later than the year 323, so it can be assumed that all the events narrated are prior to that year. Yet, some interpolations on the text and the specification, through the insertion of the character Jin 晉, of the affiliation of the various emperors and eras to that dynasty (unnecessary for a reader belonging to the same historical period) prove its redaction by a later editor. Some references to the Soushen ji found in immediately later works confirm a dating around the year 350. These texts are: the Shui jing zhu 水 經 主 ("Commentary on the Water Classics"), the Soushen hou ji 搜 神 後 記 ("Subsequent Annotations on searching for spirits") by Tao Qian 陶 潛 and the Hou Han shu 後 漢 書 ("Book of the Posterior Han") by Fan Ye 范 曄 , whose thirteenth and fourteenth chapters find almost complete correspondence in the sixth chapter of the Soushen ji. The intent behind the writing of the Soushen ji, clarified by Gan Bao himself in the preface to the work, goes far beyond entertainment and is historical-didactic, stimulated by the author's strong interest in proving the great power of supernatural forces in a rational and coherent way. Thanks to the author's biography in the Jin shu 晉 書 ("Book of the Jin"), we know the peculiar circumstances under which Gan Bao is said to have decided to start gathering the material for the drafting of the Soushen ji: some extraordinary events seem to have affected his family, namely at the death of his father and at the time of his brother's illness. Although the historicity of such events has not been proven, nor it is certain that such stories associated with Gan Bao's biography actually involved his family (and have not even been elaborated on after the author's death and associated with his name only later by historiographers), such facts are traditionally considered to be the prerequisite for the realization of the work. The structure of the work is very simple, the excerpts are collected into chapters based on a thematic rather than chronological choice, and the literary finesse is less accurate when compared to later works pertaining to the same genre (e.g.: the Liaozhai zhiyi 聊 齋 志 異 written by Pu Songling 蒲松龄 in 1740). Moreover, unlike other later zhiguai or chuanqi works, it is not declared to be literary fiction: it is defined as a chronicle of extraordinary events, mostly gathered from older sources, and, to a lesser extent, also from contemporary events. The bibliographical sources from which the author certainly drew are at least thirtythree and among the various titles, one can mention the Zuozhuan 左 傳, the Guoyu 國 語, the Han shu 漢 書, and, above all, the Yijing 易經. In the preface to the text, Gan Bao states that none of the facts narrated were invented by him. The repetition of some anecdotes, which unequivocally represent different versions of the same event or references to the same folkloric tradition, supports the author's assertion. Again in the preface, Gan Bao justifies the possible presence of errors or imprecisions due to eventual inaccuracies in the sources: this is a typical problem of historical and historiographical work in relation to the accuracy and truthfulness of the testimonies. This emphasizes Gan Bao's goal of discussing the supernatural through the tools of chronicle and historiography, to prove the veracity of such events to the skeptical contemporary public. Based on Gan Bao’s biography in the Jin shu 晉書, Gan Bao wrote a text in 30 chapters entitled Soushen ji, while the received text consists of 20 chapters. Scholars agree that the original work was lost in the early years of the Song 宋 dynasty (960 - 1279) and that the version consisting of 464 passages, divided into twenty chapters, is actually an accurate Ming-era reproduction, based on collections of passages from the periods of the Six Dynasties, the Tang, and Song Dynasties. It was Hu Yinglin 胡 應 麟 (a Ming scholar, historian, poet, literary theorist, and owner of one of the most well-stocked libraries of the time) who recompiled the text based on various sources accessible to him. The oldest account of the Soushen ji in 20 chapters is part of the collection Bice Huihan 秘册彙涵 ("Collection of Secret Volumes"), compiled by Hu Zhenheng 胡 震亨 and engraved on wood in 1603. The reduction in the number of chapters from 30 to 20 is presumed to be due to the gradual loss of passages during the various recompilations of the text. None of the passages included in the collection are particularly long, the shortest being less than ten characters, while the longest does not exceed five hundred characters. The language used is the classical language (as for all tales of anomalies from the Chinese Middle Ages): although some of the material included was evidently taken from oral sources, in fact, the text was written to be read in the same way as historical texts. Some of the many themes that emerge in Soushen ji: hagiographic accounts of the lives and deeds of immortal beings; good and bad omens associated with pre-Han cosmology based on the interaction between yin and yang and the Wuxing 五行 (five phases); dozens of different types of spirits and demons; unusual and miraculous births; encounters with the death and resurrections; medical and magical prescriptions; accounts on metamorphoses, demonic possessions and exorcisms; strange animals with unusual powers.

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