Introduction: The “strange” seems to be very much a part of my fiction writing career. In some strange way, my training as a historian of ancient China prepared me for a career in fiction writing. In 1985, I received my doctorate in Chinese history and almost immediately started to study fiction writing with my first story published in 1990. All the stories in this book were written over a ten-year period, starting in 1987, and recently revised for this collection.
What is strange is that I felt compelled to write fiction when I had created a niche in the field of Chinese studies for the local history study of medieval Chinese Buddhism. My area of expertise was a collection of monastic biographies produced in the sixth, seventh, and tenth centuries. I had been applying the information in those biographies to mapping the religious geography of medieval China. Yet, another not so academic influence was also at work.
Over the decades I spent reading, studying, and translating these texts, I had come to envision a fantastic world of distant, mystical landscapes replete with rivers, mountains, lodgings, and their occupants—who were not always human. This reading of ancient historical texts was further reinforced first hand as I bicycled over the mountains and crossed the rivers of Taiwan to discover the actual monasteries and hermitages of some very unusual people. It was among incense and candlelight that I practiced and talked with these amazing representatives of that medieval culture. Some of these stories flowed forth in that enchanted environment—stories historical study would not condone.
Added to all this anti-historical influence was my penchant for Chinese wuxia (heroic fiction) and ghost-story cinema. This interest started early in my career as a historian with my introduction to the Toho Theater in Honolulu’s Chinatown as a young graduate student—a historian could date that to 1968 or so. This enjoyment of wuxia/ghost-story films greatly increased when I moved to Taiwan in August 1971. Further visits to both Mainland China and Japan, deepened my love for ancient Chinese architecture and the landscapes where my stories would be set.
Zen Buddhists characterize the enlightenment process as “mountains are mountains, then mountains are not mountains, and then mountains are mountains.” My enlightenment process, however, has been stuck for decades in those extraordinary Chinese mountains! In fact, seven of the eight stories in this collection involve these magical mountains and their relationships to the strange.
All of the stories in this collection are set in a China constructed either from my study of ancient Chinese texts or from my actual presence in a Chinese environment. And all of the stories explore the Chinese idea of the strange. One of those stories, the first story I ever wrote, “Leaving,” is about the enlightenment experience of a young Chinese monk. Two stories, “The Blue Raven” and “The Jia-sha,” involve a Westerner’s interaction with “strange” China. Three stories, “The Painted Fan Pavilion,” “The Wedding Gift,” and “Natural Harmony” take a strange view of love. And the last two stories, “The Game” and “The Screen,” consider friendship and its karmic relationships. With all these references to the strange, including the title of this collection and its dedication, a few words must be devoted to its understanding.
This collection of short stories in the traditional Chinese style is dedicated to the great Chinese writer, Pu Songling (1640 -1715 C.E.) author of Liaozhai’s Records of the Strange (Liaozhai zhiyi; also translated as, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio). It is a collection of nearly five hundred tales about ghosts, spirits, and strange human experiences. Pu Songling styled himself Yishi shi (Historian of the Strange). The yi (strange) referred to here might simply be translated as that which is different from or not normally occurring in everyday life, like the supernatural. But the idea of the supernatural, as something above, apart from or beyond the natural occurring order of life, is both a Western and a relatively new idea in human intellectual history.
In the West, it was after the European Renaissance that a rational/scientific view of Nature arose. Rationalism creates a uniform natural order in which daily occurrences could be logically/scientifically explained. All those events that did not fit within that nice, neat order were claimed to be beyond the naturally/logically occurring reality and thus the supernatural was born. Ghosts, for example, were no longer natural occurrences, but manifestations outside of Nature. According to the rational explanation, they were more likely to be forms of mental hallucination—not real.
The traditional Chinese, however, not initially subjected to the insights of the Renaissance mind, continued to view Nature holistically not dividing the rational from the irrational, the natural from the unnatural or supernatural. Ghosts or other such anomalies, such as those that populate my stories and their Chinese literary genre, were simply anomalies—things/events/occurrences that were unusual, yet within the circumstance of the Natural world. They were strange and the great Chinese writer, Pu Songling, set about to collect and study these anomalies as a historian would the events of the natural world.
The “Dragon Gate Inn” in my title refers to the classic Chinese wuxia movie and the name of my website—to which, gentle reader, I offer you an invitation: www.thedragongateinn.com.
Enjoy your visit to the strange where an exotic fan opens a portal to past lives, a monastic cloak is the gateway to hell, and a silk painting provides transportation to another world. Yet beware, for Pu Songling claimed that his collecting of the “strange” was an obsession. He believed that the “strange” draws in the reader. Ultimately, it is not that “strangeness” exists in objects and events, but in ourselves, that we find in the strange a sort of homecoming…welcome home.
Albert A. Dalia
The Dragon Gate Inn