Stories travel with the human beings who tell them. In the early modern period, stories spread, except in writing and through the printed book, mainly by way of oral communication, via people traveling. From late imperial China, we have numerous large-scale collections of tales, the most celebrated among which likely is Liaozhai zhiyi (Liaozhai’s chronicle of the strange; earliest printed in 1766) by Pu Songling (1640-1715). Pu who collected the tales for this project throughout much of his life, became posthumously famous for them due to his inventive and fanciful art of narration. While he rarely disclosed his sources, he is assumed to have written down, or rewritten, tales that he had received from others, either through writing or via oral storytelling. But from what geographical places and regions originated the stories that this author collected? This is the guiding research question that we will pursue in this talk. Methodologically it will involve the emerging transdisciplinary field of literary geography and cartography that hitherto has only preliminarily been explored for late imperial China.

Most of the about 500 stories collected in Liaozhai zhiyi include some indication of place, such as characters’ places of origin or, for characters who are travelling or living away from home, the different geographical setting of the events recounted. A systematic study into the place names mentioned in the stories offers insights into the geographical reference space of this author. The stories in Liaozhai zhiyi indeed refer to large parts of the early Qing empire, and in a few cases even beyond. Nevertheless, since Pu Songling travelled rarely and in his life was closely tied to his region of origin, Zichuan county in Shandong province, it can be expected that most of his stories came from his home county and its environs. Assuming a concentric model of distribution, we generally might expect that the frequency of regions referred to decreases with increasing distance from Zichuan. An analysis on the three levels of provinces (empire), prefectures (Shandong province and vicinity) and counties (Zichuan and neighborhood), however, does not generally confirm this assumption. As an alternative way of explanation, we will propose a more dynamic model of stories’ traveling that takes into consideration also the main lines of traffic and communication.