Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series One

(1) The Song of Old White Bones

During the reign of Tang Emperor Gaozong (650-683 A.D.), some travelers took a trip to Baxia (now in Fujian Province).

At midnight, the riverboat they were traveling on moored for the evening by a riverbank. The passengers and crew turned in for the night.

Shortly afterward, a male voice was heard singing the following song in a very heart-broken tone:

It's autumn and I'm on a short path.
The mounds of withered leaves grow higher and deeper.
Within this frosty white mist,
I suddenly hear the mournful cry of a monkey,

Crying once and then fading away.
Down the cheeks of this traveler,

One can see the tracks of tears!

The singer repeated the song nine more times, each time in the most tragic, plaintive voice.

All on board the boat then drifted off to sleep, each assuming someone amongst them had gone on deck to sing a song to amuse himself, albeit a rather depressing song.

In the morning, all passengers and crew members left the boat to stretch their legs and view the scenery they had missed in the darkness of night.

Someone soon discovered that their boat was gone--all traces of the riverboat, missing. It was around that time someone else discovered on the shore, lying on top of a crag, not far from where the ship had been moored, a pile of old white human bones.


from Zhongguo qitan (Strange stories from China), Lin Yaochuan, ed. Taipei: Changchun Shujufang, 1977. p. 33-34.

Originally from Jiwen (Records of what has been heard) by Niu Su.

The exact year this story was written is unknown; however, the author flourished during the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.).

The narrative of this story in its original elliptical Chinese requires us to infer the passengers and crew left the moored boat to stretch their legs. The only other alternative, less satisfactory in my opinion, is to assume the passengers and crew spent the night outdoors on the riverbank only to discover the boat was missing once they awoke. Otherwise, everyone would have had to disappear along with the boat, without leaving behind anyone who could have passed this story to others. Particularly chilling in this old ghost story is the lament full of death symbols/metaphors: frost, autumn, tears, withering and short (i.e., terminal) paths.

Motifs: E334, "Ghost haunts burial spot"/"Strange occurrences seen [by] spot where bones are later discovered"; E402.1.1, "Vocal sounds of ghost of human being"; E632, "Singing bone(s)."

(2) Eating a Ghost

During the reign of Dali (766-779 A.D.), there lived an intrepid fellow named Wei Pang. His physical strength was legendary among his peers, and he was also brave, not fearing to walk alone at night. Moreover, he was an excellent marksman with the bow and arrow. He was known to shoot just about anything that crawls or flies with his arrow. He was also not above eating snakes, worms and maggots, though he most likely didn't need his bow and arrows for this kind of prey!

In any case, it was well known that Wei Pang would eat just about anything.

Now one day Wei Pang journeyed to the city of Chang'an. He arrived in the evening and began searching for a place to spend the night. He came to an inn and fancied spending the night there. It seemed to be full, though. He did find the proprietor and his family in the process of moving out of their own inn, hastily shutting the door behind them once all their belongings had been removed.

"If you don't want that room," he told the proprietor, "I'd be happy to take it."

"Now just a moment. Let me explain something to you," said the owner. "Next door to this room is a sha ghost. You don't want to meet one of them; they're very dangerous. For their safety, I'm taking my family members to spend the night at another relative's. I'll probably return here alone tomorrow morning. I'd suggest you find another room. I'm sorry."

"Let me stay here," said Wei Pang. "Nothing will happen. If the sha ghost does appear, I can handle it."

"Fine, fine. Go ahead, then. Inside you'll find everything you'll need for tonight."

Wei Pang had one of the inn servants take his horse to the stable. He then had a meal and went back upstairs to his room for the night. He placed his bow and arrow quiver next to the wall, extinguished the lamp light, lay down and waited for the ghost that was surely supposed to appear.

Then around midnight, something bright and shiny, the size of a washbasin, suddenly appeared floating in the north side of the parlor, just as if it had dropped or had been lowered from a hole in the ceiling. It was very much like a small ball of fire.

Wei Pang was aware of this, and he was delighted. He grabbed his bow and arrows and immediately shot at it, hitting it with his first arrow as it hovered in the air. It still moved and emitted a bright glow. He hit it again with another arrow. This time it stopped moving, and its luminescence gradually faded to a dull gray.

Wei Pang walked over to the object and plucked out his arrows. The object immediately fell onto the floor. Wei Pang then stepped out to the hallway and called for the servant on duty to bring in a lantern.

Once he had a nice and bright light to use, Wei Pang studied the object, the sha ghost, he had shot. He discovered it was actually a rectangular chunk of meat, and each side had an eye that gave off a phosphorescent glow.

"Ha!" laughed Wei Pang. "So the legendary sha ghost is real after all!"

He had the servant immediately cook up the meat of the sha ghost. Oh, it was savory, succulent! Wei Pang devoured half of the cooked meat and saved the other half for the proprietor.

When the proprietor returned in the morning, Wei Pang recounted his adventure during the night and presented the man with the cooked remains of the sha ghost. The proprietor was simply speechless and flabbergasted.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 94-95.

Originally from Yuanhuaji (Records of the origins of transformations) by Huangfu Mou, year and dynasty uncertain.

"Sha" as in "shashen" means "malignant deity that brings about a calamity." Presumably a "sha ghost" would be a similar entity, though not a ghost in our Western sense of the word. The ancient Chinese use of the term "ghost," while the same character as that in modern Chinese, is more like our term "revenant," encompassing more than just visitations by those now dead who were once humans. Motif: E281.3 "Ghost haunts a particular room in house."

(3) The Tale of Zhang Anru

Zhang Anru, a man of Dongluo (now, Henan Province, Luoyang County East) during the reign of Eastern Han Emperor Shun (125-144 A.D.), was a merchant in Huai'nan and did a very brisk trade. He and his family were well off.

On a business trip from Guangdong back to Luoyang, Zhang Anru fell ill near home after one of his heels became swollen and infected. He quickly sent a servant to notify his son and to bring his son to him. His son heard of his father's distress and traveled a long distance without rest to be at his father's side. Indeed, he was at the foot of his father's bed for ten days when the unfortunate Zhang Anru died.

Zhang's son had his father borne back home, where the remains were received by the rest of the heartbroken clan.

The dead man's body was being prepared for his coffin and funeral when someone suddenly entered the funeral chapel. It was a woman totally in white, wearing a tall-brimmed hat. When members of the family asked her who she was, she said not a word. Instead of stopping to reply, she walked right up to the corpse and started warbling like a bird beside it.

The family members and attendants were dumbfounded at this behavior in the midst of their grief.

The woman in white next took of her hat and simply threw it upon the floor.

Everyone looked at her: she was dark and hideous.

By now, everyone one there to prepare Zhang's corpse and to pay their respects to him had been unnerved. Such behavior towards the dead was just too eerie and spine-chilling to watch, even if it was one's own family member. Each one fled the building and waited just outside the front door to see what would happen next from a safe distance.

Once Zhang's son, the rest of the family and the attendants were outside, the woman in white then locked the front door.

Not long after, sounds drifted out the front door--the sounds of the woman and Zhang Anru conversing and then of the two drinking wine and singing. All this was followed by what sounded like a quarrel and then an actual physical fight, punctuated by the smashing of objects upon the ground. Then--total silence.

Those outside were frightened, but by now curiosity had gotten the better of them. There were those who wanted to enter to see what had happened but still would not dare to do so.

Finally, after sundown, the son of Zhang Anru and some of his relatives could not stand waiting any longer. Together they broke the front door down and entered.

What did they find?

The body of Zhang Anru and that of the mysterious woman in white were no more; both bodies had dissolved and were now commingled ashes and dust . . .

Notesfrom Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo (Goblin short stories from the six dynasties of the Han-Wei), Yeh Qingbing, ed. Taipei: Guojia Chubanshe, 1993; p. 39.

Originally from Soushen ji (Records of the search for the supernatural) by Gan Bao (d. A.D. 336).

The woman's demeanor and choice of clothing mark her early on as a ghost, all white clothing traditionally being reserved for those in mourning and corpses.
Motifs: E422.4.4(a), "Female revenant in white clothing"; E460, "Revenants in conflict."

(4) The Holy Tree

In Luoyang there lived the son of a scholar; his name was Zhu Men and he was a sculptor.

One day he went off to another town, and while on a mountain road, he came across a very large locust tree; its shade easily covered five or six ping. What really caught Zhu's attention, however, was something else--the roots. Scattered on the roots were four large tumors. The artist inside Zhu Men desired those tumors. However, he hadn't brought any tools with him, and there was absolutely no way he could remove those tumors by hand alone. He was also worried someone else might have the same idea he did and beat him to the punch by taking the tumors first.

He came up with a plan.

From his bag he took out three slips of paper and on them, using his skills, painted characters so that the slips of paper resembled money. He then attached the "bills" to the tree so that any passerby who was saw them would assume that the tree was a holy tree and exempt from being cut, sliced or molested in any way.

Finished, he returned home. After returning to Luoyang, he spent several months recruiting a gang of workmen who could cut down the whole tree instead of just the four tumors and then carry the tree back to Luoyang.

Finally the day came when Zhu Men and his men had arrived at the spot where Zhu Men had last seen the tree. You can imagine his surprise when he saw that the four tumors were now all covered by many, many printed bills, actual paper bills of money! Not only was there money on the tree but also the remnants of many sticks of burnt incense circled the tree.

"Ha!" he snorted, shaking his head. "Are the people of this region ever ignorant! How easily fooled they are!"

He and his men had their axes out and were approaching the tree when suddenly from out of nowhere a spirit in a purple robe appeared and sternly shouted, "This tree is not going to be cut down!"

Startled, Zhu Men stepped back and responded, "Truth be told, I'm the one who first put false money on the tree! I did that to discourage others from taking those tumors. There's no spirit or god in this tree! Why are you trying to stop me?"

The spirit responded: "Yes, you were the first one to post something on this tree, artificial money! Afterwards, others in this area noted the money and came to the conclusion that this was a holy tree. Many flocked here, hoping heaven would smile upon their lives, even if just a little. In time, the numbers of people grew and grew; tens became hundreds and hundreds became thousands! Soon the area was flooded by people, so many that the rulers of the netherworld sent me here to watch over the tree. So here I am. If you cut anything from this tree, you will be visited by calamity!"

Zhu Men remained unmoved by the spirit's tale.

"Do you still insist on chopping the tree down or cutting off its tumors?" the spirit asked.

"I really want just the tumors. I'm a sculptor and plan to fashion utensils out of them."

"Suppose I bought the tumors from you for a good price. Would you be interested?"


"How much would you be willing to sell them for, young man?"

"Mmm . . . ten ounces of silver."

"Very well. Now half a li up the road from here is an old, now neglected cemetery. Inside is one particular tomb. Upon it you'll find one hundred bolts of silk. Go over there now and take the silk as your own. If you have any trouble finding the tomb or if there is no silk there, come back here and let me know."

Zhu Men left and headed for the cemetery, which he found easily enough. Sure enough, inside the disused plot of land was one tomb. Upon it rested one hundred bolts of silk and not one bolt less!


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 96-98.

Originally from Yuanhua ji.

Can true ghosts be created? If you attach fake money to a tree, will ghosts be summoned? ("If you build it, they will come"?) Though not a ghost story in the strictest sense of the word, this tale reminded me of the so-called Philip Phenomenon, in which a group of Toronto experimenters decided to see if they could create a ghost, Philip, through seances, and such. In "The Holy Tree," a tree becomes holy when enough people will it to be so--a very interesting experiment in psychology and the power of belief, predating the Philip Phenomenon by about 1ooo years. Motifs: E701.3, "Soul of a tree"; H1151.10, "Tree guarded by ghost."

One "
ping" is equivalent to about six square feet.

(5) The Tale of Uncle Ju

In Langyeh Prefecture (now, Linyi County, Shandong Province), there lived a man of sixty named Qin Jubo, or Uncle Ju.

Now Uncle Ju was fond of drinking, and one night he was on his way home after doing precisely some of that. He was passing by Pengshan Temple in a somewhat shaky fashion when suddenly his two grandsons came running after him to accompany home.

They hadn't gone more than one hundred paces when the two grandsons suddenly took turns pinching the old man's neck.

One of them shouted: "Old geezer! You hit me the other day, and for that I'm going to kill you!"

"Did I really hit him?" Uncle Ju asked himself. "When, though?"

He quickly thought over his situation. He suddenly turned silent and fell in a heap onto the ground. He played possum, shamming that he was dead.

The pair were apparently fooled and ran off.

As he lay on the ground, continuing for some time to pretend he was dead, Uncle Ju said to himself: "Wait until I get home and get my hands on them!"

He finally reached home and called for both grandsons. Both knelt before him. He prepared to deal with them harshly.

"Grandfather!" one of them said. "How could any grandson behave that way towards his own grandfather! Please believe us when I say it must have been some ghost stirring up trouble! Please, Grandfather, ask around and see if that is not so!"

Uncle Ju thought about his grandson's words and decided that they had some merit. He dismissed them without punishing them.

He had a plan, though.

A few nights later, he again made his way home after a night of drinking; however, on this night he was actually stone-cold sober. He hadn't had a drop. He merely mimicked the lolling gait of an inebriated man.

Once again, just as he was passing the temple, a pair of boys who were his grandsons or ghosts who could perfectly imitate his grandsons rushed out to him.

He immediately grabbed each in a headlock; struggle as they might, Uncle Ju wouldn't let them go. He dragged the flailing pair back home. In the light of his house, he recognized them, sure enough, as his grandsons--or were they?

His anger overflowing, he grabbed something hot--a torch or, perhaps, a white-hot poker--and burned the two front and back until both sides of their bodies were scorched and smoking. He then hog-tied both up, left them right there in the house and went to bed.

Early the next morning, he got up to check on the ghosts and discovered their ropes were there but they themselves were gone.

"Why didn't I just kill them when I had the chance?!" he cried to himself.

From this day on, he became obsessed with catching and killing those two annoying ghosts.

One night, like many, he had drunk some wine and though somewhat drunk, he deliberately walked in shaky, lurching manner, hoping to catch and to kill the two ghosts. He also carried with him a concealed knife to do the deed.

He had been out a little too long this particular night, for his two grandsons became worried that their grandfather had been abducted by the ghosts. They went out into the dark streets to look for him.

Off in the distance, he saw the two grandsons rushing towards him. He readied his knife. When they both came within striking distance, he killed them both. However, their bodies did not dissolve; he had killed his own two grandsons.


from (1)
Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, pp. 30-31; (2) Tanhu shuogui lu (Records on discussing werefoxes and speaking of ghosts) by Lu Runxiang; Hong Kong: Chunghua Shuju, 1990; pp. 6-7.

Originally from
Soushen ji by Gan Bao

This very grim story again reveals a type of ghost that might be best termed "goblin" and that no longer reflects the definition of "ghost" we have come to know since the worldwide codification of what a ghost is supposed to be from popular literature and film. "Ghosts" at this stage could still apparently be killed.

Motifs: D42.2, "Spirit takes man's shape"; E332.2, "Ghost(s) seen on road at night."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Carp Maiden (Guangdong)

Years ago, in the port of Jiazi, Lufeng, the province of Guangdong, there lived a kindly, hard-working fisherman, a widower, who lived alone with his seventeen year old daughter. She was a very clever, filial girl who brought much joy to her father and helped him by fishing with him, side-by-side. The fisherman loved his daughter so much, and she loved him equally as well.

All would have been well in this neighborhood of close knit fishing families if it hadn't been for the local feudal ruler, the overlord, who stopped at nothing to squeeze every coin he could out of those who lived in his territory much like the way a meat eater sucks the last drop of marrow from a bone. Never one to forgo the smallest debt, he had the bereaved fisherman continue to pay compounded interest on a small loan stemming from the year the fisherman had lost his wife. Regularly did the fisherman pay both installments on the principal as well as high interest, but no matter how much he paid, he still owed the overlord a debt. With every payment given to the landlord, the fisherman felt he was right back where he had started.

Now, on a morning when the storm clouds were overhead and the sea was slowly becoming angry, the overlord was around again, but this time he was asking for something other than money.

"You know that you still owe me a lot," said the overlord, "and I'm tired of receiving pittances from you every month. I want the balance . . ."

"The balance? Surely you don't mean . . . How could I possibly . . . ?"

"Let me finish. I want the balance in three days. Find some way--any way--to repay me the balance in three days' time, or else I'll take your daughter as payment." The overlord turned and looked at the billowing waves. He then turned back to the fisherman. "You owe me a great deal of money. I suggest you don't tarry here on land but get out there and catch some fish! See if you can bring in a catch as great as three days' worth of fishing. Ha, ha! Now that would repay the debt quite well."

"Catch fish, with the sea the way it is, with a storm coming?"

"I don't know, old man. Maybe you'll be lucky today . . . "

The overlord left. The speechless old fisherman watched him leave. Holding back his tears, he prepared his fishing gear and left with his daughter for the sea, on this day of all days, when only the foolhardy ventured out on the water.

While on the rolling ocean, he spiritlessly went about his fishing chores. His daughter noticed something was not right and asked him about it.

He broke down and told her the local ruler's demand.

"To return to shore or to stay here--both mean death!" he cried.

No sooner had he finished his anguished cry than the wind stopped blowing and the waves ceased roiling. From out of the sea shot a brilliant ruby-red shaft of light. From out of this light, something appeared and was heading towards them. A golden carp was swimming their way. It stopped swimming and turned into a beautiful maiden who then walked right up to the old fisherman and his daughter in their boat.

"Do not worry. I will help you," she said.

"But . . . But how?" asked the astonished fisherman.

"Just spread your net once more. I'll take care of the rest," she replied.

The carp maiden then drove huge schools of fish right into the net. The net that day was bursting with fish!

"I hope this helps. Come back again tomorrow for more fish," said the carp maiden. She returned to her carp form and slid beneath the waves.

The next morning, bright and early, the fisherman and his daughter were out on the sea, their net unfurled. Once again the carp maiden appeared and drove an even bigger school of fish into their net.

The fisherman and his daughter returned to port. After selling their two days' bounties of fish, they had enough money to pay well over half the debt owed to the overlord. Now all he needed would be one more day of the carp maiden's help, and then he'd be able to repay the overlord in full with plenty of profit left over!

When asked by the fishmonger how just he and his daughter could bring in so many fish while other fishermen were finding it nearly impossible to catch one-third that number, the old fisherman told how the carp maiden appeared at sea and drove the fish into the net.

Well, that was a mistake! The fishmonger told a customer and the customer told his friend and his friend told someone else . . . Before the day was over, the overlord had heard the news, and he was not happy. He didn't want the fisherman to be able to repay his debt; he really wanted instead to keep the man's daughter!

Early the next morning, the overlord released his falcon with the order to find the carp maiden and to stop her from helping the fisherman and his daughter.

The keen-eyed falcon spotted the golden carp. It swooped down right over the golden carp and said, "If you are planning to help the fisherman and his daughter catch more fish today, you'd better not. If you do, my razor-sharp beak will rip you to shreds! Farewell for now . . . You've been warned . . ."

The golden carp--the carp maiden--was both deeply angered and afraid. She sank below the sea.

Soon the fisherman and his daughter arrived in their fishing boat. They sailed up and down, looking for the carp maiden, but she was nowhere to be found. They waited and waited for her, but she didn't appear.

"Carp Maiden, Carp Maiden, come to us, please!" they cried.

After no response, the pair became very nervous. This was the third day, the day they had expected to bring in the final big catch of fish. What if the carp maiden didn't appear? How would the fisherman be able to pay off the overlord and to stop him from taking his daughter away?

"Carp Maiden, where are you?"

"I'm over here!"

The fisherman and his daughter turned and looked. The telltale red shaft of light appeared, and then, from out of that light, came a large golden carp, which then turned into the beautiful maiden.

"This may be the last time I can help you," she said. "I've been threatened by your overlord with death if I help you one more time. Anyway, I am here, so let's get to work. Get your net ready for the fish I send your way."

She submerged herself. Shortly after a huge school of fish entered the fisherman's web.

Her work done, she came to the surface as the golden carp and was swimming out to the middle of the ocean when suddenly, from seemingly out of nowhere, the overlord's falcon swooped down from the sky and ripped into her with his talons and beak. The falcon had witnessed the carp maiden help the fisherman and his daughter. All along, this evil bird had been lying atop a rock jutting out of the ocean, flattening his body against the rock to appear to be part of it.

The fisherman and his daughter watched from afar, powerless to stop the falcon.

They returned to port with heavy hearts. They sold the final catch of fish, and now the fisherman had enough to pay back the local master. But at what a price--the loss of the carp maiden who had valiantly helped them, even though she knew very well doing so would likely cost her her life.

So the local ruler was handed all the money that was owed to him. What could he do? What excuse could he come up with now to keep the girl? The fisherman had now presented the remainder of the debt with interest. The overlord frowned and took the money. The fisherman had saved his beloved daughter from a life of misery and slavery.

The father and daughter had not forgotten the sacrifice of the carp maiden. Not far from the shore, among the ocean outcrops that included the one the falcon had hidden itself on and nearby the spot where the carp maiden had lost her life, was a particular rock that very much looked like a large shimmering golden carp. In fact it even had a surface that resembled fish scales. The fisherman and his daughter decided that by this rock they would forever more memorialize the carp maiden by lighting incense and praying for her spirit.

The overlord's sleepless eye, the falcon, saw this and reported back to the overlord.

"The carp maiden's back!" he said.

The overlord was incensed. He wanted to destroy the carp maiden once and for all. He commandeered a small vessel and, followed by his trusty falcon, went over to this rock. He leaned over closely to the rock and took out a large hammer.

"Nice disguise," he said. "Let's see how much of a rock you really are!"

He then brought down the hammer upon the surface of the rock with all his might. The top of the rock shattered, and the "scales" turned into deadly arrow-like shards. One pierced and then split the overlord's head like a melon, while another "scale" drilled a nice-sized hole right through the falcon. Both falcon and master pitched forward into the deep sea.

What's left of what later became known as "Carp Maiden Rock" can still be seen jutting from the ocean today.


from Jia Zhi & Jian Sunbing, eds.
Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, pp. 183-185

It would be difficult to overstate the prominence of the carp in Chinese iconography. Determination, bravery, doggedness, prowess, manliness, perseverance--all these are qualities that have come to be associated with the carp. (To the above list, the Japanese would add "stoicism." The carp, once finally caught and placed upon the cutting board, supposedly no longer resists, suggesting to the rest of us the proper to die, by being dispassionate and manly.) The carp's ability to swim up rapids endeared it to generations of students who sought inspiration to pass their examinations.