How to Get New Ideas (In Ancient China)

Pu Songling, maybe doing a Buddhist or Daoist mudra with his hand – or maybe holding a cigarette in the peculiar manner of old Chinese men. I can’t tell which.

A story from Chinese history gives us an interesting and effective way to gather new ideas.

蒲松龄 Pu Songling was a teacher and writer during the Qing dynasty. He’s remembered today for being the author of the 聊齋誌異 Liaozhai ZhiyiStrange Tales From A Chinese Studio. It’s rather like a Chinese version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and contains some five hundred stories.  The book was made into a television program in China years ago. Here is how the author got many of his stories:

Pu Songling owned a tea house, and the tea house had a policy:  You could pay for your tea like a normal customer, or you could have your tea on the house – but you had to sit down and tell a story. Songling did this for years, slowly amassing his marvelous collection of tales.  Long before the internet or kickstarter, he crowdsourced his book, not by collecting money, but by collecting stories.

I was thinking about whether it would still be possible to use this method today. If anyone wants to try, next time you’re at Starbucks or your neighborhood cafe, get a french press and some espresso cups, and offer a free mini-cup of coffee in exchange for a story.  You could even record them on your phone and podcast them, or transcribe them and publish them as “Strange Tales from an American Cafe,” or wherever you happen to be located.


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