translated by Judith T. Zeitlin
This brief story is one of nearly five hundred pieces included in Pu Songling’s famous collection Strange Tales from Liaozhai. Falling between tale and anecdote, “Mister Sea” is narrated in a deceptively straightforward manner in the objective stance befitting “The Historian of the Strange,” the sobriquet that Pu adopted for himself. Causality between events is hinted at rather than stated directly, and the dangerous pleasures of the island, which dazzle the senses, are vividly conveyed in just a few swift strokes. Since Hai (“Sea”) is a relatively common surname in China, and gongzi (“Mister”) archaically denotes “Lord,” the double meaning of the title and the true (sinister) identity of this mysterious figure is only revealed midway through. There is no mention of porcelain in the original tale, which makes Geng Xue’s adaptation of it into a stop-motion animation composed entirely of this substance and its magical interactions with light, liquid, and sound all the more original. The main (and brilliant) change Geng makes in the film is that rather than having the shape-shifting seductress simply disappear when “Mister Sea” makes his entrance, as befits the materiality of porcelain she abruptly shatters into pieces.
In the East China Sea, off the coast of Shandong, lies a place called the “Isle of Ancient Footprints,” which is covered with millions of varicolored camelia flowers that bloom year round, unfazed by the seasons.
The island had long been uninhabited, and few people ventured there. A young man from Dengzhou, Zhang by name, was curious by nature, and had a passion for wandering about and hunting. Upon hearing about the island’s beautiful scenery, he provisioned himself with food and drink and rowed out in a little skiff.
When he reached the island, the flowers were blooming in such profusion that their fragrance drifted for miles, and there were trees so huge that their trunks measured over ten armspans in girth. He lingered in the spot, unable to tear himself away from a place that so gratified his delight. He poured himself a cup of wine and began drinking, regretting only that he had no companion to share it with.
Suddenly, a stunning young woman emerged from the flowers, clad in a dress of dazzling red; he had scarcely ever seen her equal.
She smiled at him.
“I thought my own sensibility was quite out of the ordinary. I never expected someone so in tune with me would have gotten here first.”
“Who are you?” he asked in surprise.
“I’m a call girl from Jiaozhou. I happened to accompany Mister Sea here. He’s gone roaming in search of other vistas, but my walking is hampered by these tiny feet, so I’ve remained behind.”
Zhang had just now been suffering pangs of loneliness. Thrilled to have found such a beauty, he invited her to sit down and join him for some wine. Her conversation was soft-spoken and charming, and she intoxicated all his senses.
He was deeply enamored. Worrying that Mister Sea would come back before he could fulfill his desires to the utmost, he pulled her down next to him and got right to business. The girl happily went along with him. Before they had reached the end of their pleasure, however, they heard the rustling of the wind and the sound of vegetation toppling and breaking. The girl abruptly pushed Zhang away and stood up: “Mister Sea is coming!” By the time he fastened his clothes and looked around him in alarm, the girl had vanished.
Presently he saw an enormous serpent slither out from the bushes, thicker than the most gigantic bamboo tube. Terrified, Zhang took cover behind a big tree, hoping the serpent wouldn’t see him, but the serpent advanced and began coiling its body around man and tree together; after several circles around, Zhang’s two arms were pinned straight against his thighs and he couldn’t bend them in the slightest. The serpent lifted its head and pierced Zhang’s nostril with its tongue; the blood flowed out, spilling to the ground and forming a puddle. The serpent then bent its head and began lapping it up.
Zhang believed he was doomed, when suddenly he remembered that the pouch he wore around his waist contained some fox poison. So he pinched open the bag with two fingers, poked a hole in the packet, and piled some of the powder in his palm. Then inclining his head to one side and looking downward, he let the blood from his nostril drip onto his palm; before long, a handful had accumulated. The serpent, as expected, moved toward his palm and started lapping up the blood there, but before it was even all gone, the serpent’s body abruptly straightened out, and then, its tail, with a sound like thunder, struck the tree, which collapsed in half. There, outstretched beneath it like a roof beam, lay the dead serpent.
Zhang, for his part, was so dizzy he couldn’t get up, and it was only after some time that he fully came to. He took the serpent’s carcass back home with him, where he was seriously ill for over a month.
He suspected the girl had also been a snake demon.