Tang chuanqi (literally “transmitting the strange”) is a term coined in China during the 1920s for short stories, anecdotes, and tales with fantastical, mystical, and legendary elements written in classical Chinese. The Gujing ji (Notes on an ancient mirror), a collection of twelve extraordinary tales written by the early Tang poet Wang Du (b. ca. 584), is among the earliest known Tang chuanqi. A century later, in the mid-Tang period (early to mid-eighth century), chuanqi became an established and flourishing literary genre.
The Tang (618–907) was a period in Chinese history when the economy and culture developed at an unprecedented rate. This prosperity formed the basis for fiction writing and the maturation of Tang chuanqi. The civil entrance examination for officialdom in the Tang mainly tested for excellence in poetry and fu (rhyme-prose or poetic essays), and this led to the formation of poetry competitions as a social pastime and the valuing of literary talent above all other skills. Many men of letters emerged, and the writing of chuanqi flourished. In content, Tang tales dealt with such themes as the lives and status of women, the propagation of religion, and the political and social turmoil of the mid- and late Tang periods. The growth in the production of Tang tales was also inseparable from other literary genres such as biographies in histories, anecdotal accounts, ancient-style prose, as well as the folk music and art inherited from past dynasties.
Tang chuanqi can be broadly divided into four main groups by subject matter: cautionary tales or legends that instill moral lessons, tales of romance or marriage between young scholars and alluring maidens, tales lamenting the rise and fall of dynasties, and tales about wandering knights or heroes who expose evildoers and restore justice. Cautionary tales that admonish people to be moral were mainly inspired by stories about extraordinary people or strange events from the previous Wei (220–265), Jin (265–420), and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) periods. In the mid-Tang outside the imperial court military governors were establishing their own separate regimes while entrenched eunuchs inside the court were seizing the power of the throne, resulting in political and religious conflicts and anxiety throughout the land. Concerned writers responded by churning out chuanqi that told strange and fantastical tales on the surface yet alluded between the lines to real people and events in Tang society. The chuanqi writers used the dreams of the characters in their tales to satirize corrupt officials, to comment on current events, and to admonish evildoers. Shen Jiji’s (ca. 750–797) Zhen zhong ji (Tale of the pillow) and Li Gongzuo’s (778–848) Nanke taishou zhuan (The governor of the southern branch) are among the best works of political commentary. Tang chuanqi about talented literati and beauties fall into two categories: the realistic and the supernatural. The realistic group focuses on romances between young scholars and comely maidens in a believable setting and in real time. Representative works of this group include Jiang Fang’s (ca. 792–835) Huo Xiaoyu zhuan (Tale of Huo Xiaoyu) and Yuan Zhen’s (779–831) Yingying zhuan (Tale of Oriole). The supernatural group focuses on love stories between men and immortals, ghosts, or supernatural beings disguised as women. Such tales are rich in strange events and fantastical settings as well as in portrayals of colorful characters. Representative works in this group include Liu Yi zhuan (Tale of Liu Yi) attributed to Li Chaowei (ca. 766-820) and Pei Hang (Tale of Pei Hang) by Pei Xing (825–880). Literati favored anecdotal chuanqi that lament the rise and fall of dynastic houses. From the Kaiyuan era to the time of the An Lushan Rebellion, the political situation of the Tang changed radically, providing a wealth of material for writers of political chuanqi. The masterpieces of this period are Bai Juyi’s (772–846) Changhen ge zhuan (Song of everlasting regret) and Chen Hong’s (n.d.) Dongcheng laofu zhuan (Old man of the eastern wall). After love stories, tales about knights errant form the biggest category of Tang chuanqi, with a great number of masterpieces such as Xu Yaozuo’s (n.d.) Liu shi zhuan (Tale of Miss Liu) and Du Guangting’s (850–933) Qiuran ke zhuan (Tale of the curly-bearded guest).
Tang chuanqi exhibit distinct characteristics. Compared with earlier anecdotal accounts, in Tang tales the subject matter has been enlarged, and they are of greater length. They also have vivid portrayals of characters, complex plots, descriptive details, and literary elegance. They are self-consciously created fiction, in which writers have purposely created aesthetic works of art. They have much more imagination and fictionality, and are essentially different from the objective historical accounts. The Tang chuanqi writers also enhanced the artistic quality of their stories, and greatly increased the romantic features and expressive force of the stories. Their stories are also distinguished by the beauty of their complicated, intricate plots. It is fair to say that fiction writing matured during the period in which Tang tales were produced, and that Tang tales are a maturation of Chinese literary language fiction.
Tang chuanqi has had profound influences on later generations. The tales not only provided models for writing fiction in classical language, but also left a rich legacy of artistry for emulation. Moreover, it has supplied a repertoire of themes and subject matter for writing fiction in vernacular Chinese that led to the flowering of fiction writing in pre-modern China. The poignant tales of love between young scholars and beauties, the exploits of itinerant knights, and the moral hazards of bad behavior continued to exist as topics for writers of later Chinese fiction. The allusions to people and places mentioned in classical Tang chuanqi also still exist in the popular imagination of Chinese today. The modern city of Handan in Hebei has a town called Huangliang meng (Yellow millet dream) and a temple named the Immortal Lu Shrine. Both sites were named after places from a famous Tang tale. The names of people and places in the Huangliang meng (Yellow millet dream), Nanke meng (Southern branch dream), Zhangsheng tiao qiang (Mr. Zhang jumps over the wall), and Hongniang zuomei (Madame Hong the matchmaker) are still known and commonly cited in China today.