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Painted Skin -- a translation

Moderator: hansioux

Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby Hokwongwei » 26 Dec 2014, 16:40

Painted Skin 畫皮 is perhaps the best known story from one of the greatest works of classical Chinese literature, Liao Zhai Zhi YI 聊齋誌異, 17th century China's answer to the X-files. You can read more about it at Wikipedia or feel free to ask me any questions you may have (I wrote my MA thesis on it and like to think of myself as sort of an expert). This is a translation I made because why not. Instead of the pedantic strategy used by most Sinologists of trying to stick closely with the original text (and inevitably ruining the fun of the story), I embellished a lot of details, particularly descriptions of people's emotional states, to make it a more interesting read in English. My goal was to make the first "for-fun" translation. Prominent scholars like Giles, Minford, and Mair have their own academically-oriented translations you can check out. The Chinese text can be found here.

I've split this into two parts because it's so darned long. Here's the first half. It's unpolished, so think of it as a rough draft. I may update it a little bit. PS I thought of a new title: "China's First Heart Transplant"

-----------------------------------------------------------------
Painted Skin; or the Monster in the Study
-----------------------------------------------------------------

She was walking alone on the outskirts of Taiyuan when Mr. Wang spotted her. The girl, no more than 16 by the looks of her but already a remarkable beauty, struggled along the dirt road as her tiny feet labored to support a small but shapely frame weighed down by a bag filled with her earthly possessions.

“What is it that could bring a young lady like yourself to venture out all alone before dawn’s light?” He was already enamored as he tried, and failed, to make eye contact through the slow dawn.

She kept walking. “No traveler chancing across my path can solve what troubles me. Do not burden yourself with my woes.”

“I implore you, please tell me your problems. If only I can be of the slightest help, I vow I will not refuse.”

The girl stopped and met his gaze. “My parents’ greed…” she began, dejected. “They sold me to a lustful old rich man, but it was his furiously jealous wife who I could bear no longer. Every morning brought new insults and every evening promised new beatings.”

“Where will you head now?”

“I’m not heading anywhere,” she said flatly. "I’m on the run."

Motivated by compassion -- or perhaps passion -- Wang extended an enthusiastic invitation to his home. The girl offered a timid but engaging smile at his kind offer and took off with Wang, who hoisted her belongings onto his shoulder as he took the lead. By the time they had arrived, the sun was being held firmly in the sky. But the girl noticed an unusual silence in the place for the early hour.

“Sir, have you no family?” she asked.

“This is but my study,” he chuckled as he admired her youthful radiance in the morning light.

“It is a fine place for me. If, perhaps, you could… find some use for me here,” she offered, “I ask only that you keep my presence a secret and tell not a soul.”

Wang agreed eagerly and proceeded to bed her just as eagerly.

In secrecy the girl stayed for several days without a single person learning of her presence – that is, until Wang could resist no longer and let his wife, Ms. Chen, in on the secret. Chen worried – not because her husband had taken a concubine, for this was the norm in those days, but because the girl had made it clear she belonged to a rich and powerful patron – and she pleaded with her husband to send the runaway back where she came from lest trouble arise. Wang would hear none of it.

----

And so Wang found himself quite occupied for several days, after which he took a break from the busy activities of his home to wander through the local market. It was there that he crossed paths with a holyman who stopped in his tracks upon making eye contact.

“What have you gotten yourself involved in?” the Daoist inquired urgently, but the scholar dismissed the question with a simple “nothing.”

“Sir,” the Daoist insisted, “you must know that an aura of wicked enchantment consumes you!” But Wang would hear none of it.

The Daoist tired of their exchange and took his leave, but it was his parting remark made to nobody in particular that caught Wang’s attention: “How strange that there are those in this world who stare death in the face and are none the wiser!”

Wang wondered at the phrase. His mind began racing as he tried to identify any possible threat to his wellbeing before it finally settled on the only big change in his life recently: the arrival of the girl. But she was an elegant beauty, certainly not some hellish ghoul out to claim his soul, and he rationalized the Daoist’s strange ravings as the words of a con man seeking to cheat a meal out of an unsuspecting sap. His ability to thoroughly snuff out his misgivings was nothing short of enviable.

----

He casually made his way toward home -- and the young girl’s bed -- unconcerned by the encounter, but his ambition was interrupted by a barred door. He began to wonder as he headed around and over a half-wall to try the door from the bedroom, but it too was locked. The man just barely managed to keep his nervous, heavy footsteps quiet as he approached the last remaining entrance to the study: the window. His oblivious nature had left him entirely unprepared for the scene that met his eyes.

A twisted creature defiled the sanctity of the place of learning, busying itself with something as it leaned over the bed where Wang and his beautiful consort had made love for days on end. Skin of sickly green leather drooped down its skeletal face to a mouth lined with jagged fangs sharp as sawblades. Its boney hand held a paintbrush with unsettling elegance as it went to work touching up the details of its grotesque masterpiece: an emptied human skin draped across the bed like a rug.

The man spied with frozen terror as the monster set aside the brush and in a single swift and practiced motion slid the skin to a snug fit over its skeletal frame like any ordinary gown. In an instant, the green beast had retreated to its dark place hidden underneath the skin of the young girl.

Wang had finally seen well more than enough to know that he should be afraid as he crawled away on all fours to avoid being spotted.

----

The Daoist whose advice Wang spurned not hours earlier was reluctant to slay the monster in the study.

"We can chase it away," he said after Wang had tracked him down outside the city. "But this creature has endured its fair share of hardships as well. It has found a replacement and is now so close to being reborn into this world; I cannot bring myself to do it harm at this point."

Instead of a weapon, he handed Wang a brush of fine animal hairs on a long wooden handle, the kind that ascetics use to ward off flies in favor of killing the pests, and instructed him to hang it on his bedroom door. He instructed Wang to find him next within the gates of Qingdi Temple and headed off on his way.

Returning home, Wang took care to stay as far away from the study as possible and bunkered down in his bedroom instead, affixing the flyswatter as he had been told. There he and his wife hid in an uneventfulyl dull unease until after dinner, the time of the first watch.

A rustling sound, faint but steady, cut through the silence. Wang was too scared to move and nominated his wife to investigate. Through a crack in the door, Chen saw the girl who had seemed an innocent victim just a day before cutting through the dark with a determination in her eyes. She -- no, it -- stopped just inches from the entrance to their sanctum, grinding its teeth as it stared for some time at the lone brush, all that stood between the hellish ghoul and the vulnerable couple on the other side. In a sudden flurry, it angrily turned away.

Wang and Chen were still holding their breath when the beast-in-beauty’s clothing returned in a rage.

"Some Daoist priest thinks he can scare me away with this brush? I'm not giving up this piece of meat now that I've sunk my teeth into it!"

The demon crushed the warning to pieces in one hand as its other burst through the door. Within seconds it clawed its way arm first across the floor, up the bed, and straight into Wang's chest. One swift motion carved the man’s still-beating heart from his open chest as Chen shuddered in a convulsive dread that climaxed with a scream before settling into a numb dismay.

A dim candle rushed in at the tip of a maidservant’s arm, sending dancing waves of light flickering over the cleaved-opened corpse, now gushing blood from its cavity into a sloppy mess that trailed from the bed down to the floor.

The monster had disappeared without a trace.

(To be continued)
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby Hokwongwei » 26 Dec 2014, 16:41

Part two!

====

Morning came after the long night, but still nobody dared enter the scene of the crime. As Chen tried to come to terms with what had happened, her husband’s younger brother set out to locate the Daoist.

The cleric was livid at the news of Wang’s unpleasant end. He had spared the ghoul’s life out of pity, and it showed its gratitude by murdering an innocent man. A fool perhaps, but innocent nonetheless.

"It can't have gotten far," the Daoist said as he searched the estate. He pointed to the compound south of the main house. "Who lives there?"

"Why, I do," the younger Wang said, surprised.

"Then that is where our prey is hiding. Have any strangers come by lately?"

"I honestly don't know,” he said. “I was out by Qingdi Temple searching for you all morning. I'll go ask."

Several minutes passed before the victim’s brother raced back urgently.

"Someone did come by after all! An older woman asking to find work as a housekeeper. She is still there with my wife."

"It is this thing we seek!" The Daoist had not yet finished his sentence as he began drawing a wooden sword and sprinting off. He stopped in the dead center of a courtyard.

"Hear me, ungrateful goblin!" he shouted. "Return my flyswatter to me at once!"

The ghoul knew what this meant – the holyman had withdrawn his promise of causing no harm. An elderly woman pale with fear stumbled through the door as she desperately scurried for an escape route from the mage. But the Daoist was right behind her and struck with his weapon as he gave chase.

One swing of the blade, and the woman's human skin peeled off with at once with rubbery sound. The naked green monster fell to the ground, where it groveled like swine. But the Daoist had learned from his prior attempt at compassion.

A second swing, and the weapon separated the creature's wretched head from its body, both of which evaporated into coils of dark smoke floating listlessly just above the ground. He produced a flask fashioned from a gourd and removed its cork, sucking the dark fog in one mighty breath until not a whisp was left, sealing the creature's essence safely away from any future victims. As the initial excitement died down, everyone turned their attention to the discarded human skin, pristine in detail from the eyelashes to the fingers and toes, folded over itself on the ground.

The Daoist picked up the fine piece of worksmanship, wrapped it carefully but casually like an everyday scroll, and stuck it in his bag. He was preparing to take his leave when the newly made widow Chen kneeled by the doorway, begging from behind curtains of flowing tears for a way to bring her beloved back to life. The mystic insisted that he simply did not have the power to do so.

"I am but a novice of the mystic arts and truly am not capable of that which you ask," he said. She continued to bawl and so he inevitably spat out the word "however." As the woman perked up with cautious hope, the Daoist continued: "There is one man who may have such an ability who you can seek. He is a madman, completely of unsound mind, often seen lying atop a dung heap at the market. Prostrate yourself before him and follow his every instruction, no matter what he might to do humiliate you. You must listen and do not by any means get angry."

The younger Wang, who had seen the strange beggar before, promised to take his brother's widow to the market as the Daoist headed off on his next adventure.

====

The man's appearance was nothing short of appalling. Covered in filth, he lay on the dirt road with a song coming from his mouth and a trail of mucus a meter long dripping from his nose. He was, in a word, unapproachable.

"My, my, is this pretty little lady enamored with me?" he said, unmoved by the urgency in Chen's explanation of her situation. "Any man could be your husband now, so why worry about the dead one?" he taunted.

"How strange! A man has died and you ask me to grant him life! Do you take me for the lord of the underworld?" Taking cane in hand, he struck Chen with a firm blow as a crowd began gathering to see the commotion. She endured and continued to plead her case.

Elated by her spirit, the man's face lit up as he put his hand to his mouth and spit out a considerable wad of phlegm, which he then offered to the desperate woman. "Here, eat this."

Chen flushed red -- from anger or embarrassment was anyone's guess -- and found herself entertaining thoughts of ending the ridiculous encounter then and there. But she reminded herself of what the Daoist had told her and reluctantly, slowly, accepted the lunatic's gift. She could feel it work its way down her throat, a lumpy mass like a wad of cotton moving one gulp at a time until it suddenly stopped somewhere in her chest.

"So she is enamored with me!" The vulgar vagrant laughed so hard he fell backward, but immediately shot up and started walking through the market without so much as a second glance at the humiliated woman. He skirted down alleys until arriving at the entrance to a temple, where he disappeared in an instant. Inside and outside Chen and her brother-in-law searched in the hopes of answers, but to no avail: the mysterious man and the stench he bore were gone. They returned home angry, ashamed, and filled with more than a little regretful for having let themselves get so hopeful.

====

Alone and disgraced, Chen cried mightily as she wished for nothing more than a swift death. But she was first and foremost a loving wife to her husband, even in his death, and so she took to the unenviable job of cleaning up the mess of his murder even as other members of their house looked on from a distance in pity and curiosity, though far from enough of either to convince them to get any closer.

Anger and love mixed together in the tears that streamed down her face until her throat grew coarse and she could wail no longer. But it was no ordinary coarseness. There was a movement in her esophagus, an unmistakably organic thud of something alive, something that was not a part of her. A sudden urge to vomit overcame her so quickly that the thing flew out of her open mouth before she could even turn away from her husband's corpse and it landed square in the dead man's gaping wound.

Nearly in shock from the incident, she saw what was unmistakably a live heart sitting in the once empty cavity with hot steam rising from it on each beat. She thought quickly and threw her hands over the wound to close it together as she hurried to embrace Wang's body with all her strength. As the steam began slowly rising from between them, Chen quickly wrap his torso with bandages to find his body warm and getting warmer by the minute. The now exhausted woman wasted no time in covering Wang with a blanket before finally collapsing herself.

She awoke in the middle of the night to find Wang not just warm but breathing under the covers. By morning, he was both alive and awake.

Disoriented, he said he had felt numb in a dream-like state over the past day's time, but for an incessant scratching pain in his chest. Everyone stared dumbfounded at the place that had been opened and bleeding, where now the only testament to the ordeal was a scar the size of a copper coin. And within days, this too faded into memory.

====
The Historian of the Strange offers his commentary
====

What fools mortals can be! This man looked upon a demon and saw it as a beautiful woman. What a fool is a man in lust! This man heard good advice and took it as nonsense. He gained a tryst with a beautiful woman while his wife had to swallow the saliva of a strange man. They way of heaven is to reap what one sows; a pity that the foolish and adulterous do not recognize this.
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby yuli » 26 Dec 2014, 17:11

[Deleted] (Sorry, I had accidentally posted the draft of a PM here. :wink: )
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby hansioux » 26 Dec 2014, 17:21

Great translation. You've added some interpretations so that the story could be more colorful, but overall it stayed true to the story. Although my take on "睹此狀,大懼,獸伏而出" is that Wang being so afraid of being noticed, he crawled on all fours in low profile and snuck out in hopes of avoiding detection.

I can't say for certain that my take is right. Honestly, many of the word choices aren't easy to understand. Sneaking out adds suspense to the story, though I assume Wang probably sprinted like a wild horse to find help after he got out of the place.
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby Hokwongwei » 26 Dec 2014, 17:23

hansioux wrote:Great translation. You've added some interpretations so that the story could be more colorful, but overall it stayed true to the story. Although my take on "睹此狀,大懼,獸伏而出" is that Wang being so afraid of being noticed, he crawled on all fours in low profile and snuck out in hopes of avoiding detection.


Crawling away actually my understanding at first but I felt the image didn't make much sense for someone who just wants to escape with his life. I hadn't thought about him doing it to avoid detection -- that makes a lot more sense. I changed it in the story.
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby tango42 » 26 Dec 2014, 18:16

thank you for sharing. truly enjoying.
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby Hokwongwei » 26 Dec 2014, 21:03

Updated with part two. Lots of spelling and grammar errors that I'll edit out when I get a chance. Thanks for your patronage.
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby HualienOutdoors » 28 Dec 2014, 20:07

Thanks so much for these! Loving them.
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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby Mucha Man » 29 Dec 2014, 01:27

Great stuff, Hok. :thumbsup:
“Everywhere else in the world is also really old” said Prof. Liu, a renowned historian at Beijing University. “We always learn that China has 5000 years of cultural heritage, and that therefore we are very special. It appears that other places also have some of this heritage stuff. And are also old. Like, really old.”

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Re: Painted Skin -- a translation

Postby hansioux » 29 Dec 2014, 09:30

Hokwongwei wrote: Thanks for your patronage.


Interestingly I've never heard of that sentence until I saw it on a city bus in Taiwan.
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