Monday, May 4, 2009

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Two

(1) The Abandoned House

During the era of Baoying (A.D. 762-763), at the end of the second month, a man named Yuan Wuyou took a trip by himself to Jiangsu Province. He arrived at the outskirts of Yangzhou just as it began to rain. It started as a drizzle and then increasingly came down in torrents.

Now, not long before, Yangzhou had been the scene of civil war, and so not many people were about. Many of the buildings were also abandoned. Yuan Wuyou dashed into one such building to wait out the rain, but the rain kept coming down. Soon it was evening, with a bright moon up in the sky, so Yuan Wuyou decided to stay the whole night.

He was quietly sitting by the window on the north side of the building when he heard the sounds of footsteps coming from the hallway which faced west. He got up and crept over to the door and peaked through a crack.

In the hallway there were four men, each dressed in strange, outlandish clothes.

One of the four said, "It's just like an autumn night with that beautiful moon, isn't it! Let's sing some songs."

"Fine," said another. "I'll begin." He then adjusted his hat and clothes and began to sing this song:

The states of Qi and Lu!
Is that frost? Or is it snow?
A brief view of beautiful scenery! And along with some melodious sounds too!
Oh, this is the land in which I was born!

The second man, short, and dressed from head to foot in black, then began to sing:

On this cold, crisp night,
The guests cheerfully come to the banquet.
The fire from the lamps dazzles their eyes.
This is the home in which I live!

Then it was the turn of the third man, who was dressed in shabby yellow clothes. He too was very short. He sang:

Oh, the chilly waters of the spring,
Every day I see you!
The country life--to carry over bucket after bucket of spring water!
Ha, ha! This is my small universe!

Finally the fourth man, dressed in slightly worn black clothes, started to sing:

That which burns is fire, while that which overflows is water.
Over there, that which is atop the burning flames . . .
It is none other than that which fills the empty stomach,
For me, who must labor tirelessly day and night!

Yuan Wuyou listened to the four singing through the night and wasn't very impressed. He found their impromptu songs to be rather shallow and conceited. Neither did he go out to introduce himself to the four "poets." Instead, he curled up in a corner, stopped paying attention to them, and soon fell asleep . . .

Yuan Wuyou awoke at daybreak. He was curious to see what the four looked like in the light of the day. He opened the door and entered the hallway where just shortly before they had been singing.

All he found were these obviously old items: a flattened stone block for laundry, a candlestick, a water bucket, and a frying pan. The four men he had heard in the night were not men but actually the spirits of these discarded objects.


Zhongguo qitan, pp. 116-118 (See the post for 3/26/09).

Originally from
Xuanguai lu (Records of the occult and goblins) by Niu Sengru (A.D. 780-848).

This story is apparently a spoof of supernatural tales. The name of the character "Yuan Wuyou" can be translated as "Originally nothing."

Despite this story's being a lampoon, belief that inanimate objects could be haunted existed in the Far East, perhaps more in Japan than in China. In Japan, any very old object, if allowed to exist long enough, could house a spirit. Hence, there are stories about haunted tea kettles. In one story that can be recounted briefly, a traveling Buddhist priest spends the night in an abandoned temple regarded to be haunted. In the middle of the night, a little
onyudo, a type of one-legged goblin, appears to do him harm. However, he turns the tables and beats the onyudo to death with his bamboo walking stick. He then picks the entity up by its leg and flings it down the temple steps. In the morning, he tells the villagers that have come to check in on him that they should be able to find the body of an onyudo at the foot of the steps. The astonished villagers report that at the spot where the onyudo lay is just one old wooden sandal, once one of a pair of geta. Motif: E530ff, "Ghosts of objects."

(2) The Maiden in White

One summer, a young man came to Guanghua Temple, located atop Culai Mountain in Yizhou County, Shandong, to rent a room. It was his intention to pour all his energy into the study of Confucianism.

On one fairly cool day, he left his room to stroll about the veranda of the temple and to admire all the many paintings and ink scrolls hanging there. While he was doing so, he noticed a young lady in white approaching. As she got closer, he saw that she must have been around fifteen or sixteen, and she was absolutely exquisite, just gorgeous beyond description.

The scholar was totally smitten and, rather boldly for the circumstances, asked her from where she came.

"My home is just down the mountain," she replied.

The scholar was familiar with the area and wasn't aware of a girl such as this living nearby; however, he didn't suspect her of lying. Instead, he fell in love with her, love at first sight.

They started a conversation to know each other better.

Very shortly, they became husband and wife.

The day they were wed, the bride turned to her husband and said, "We belong to each other now, and we shall be together 'when our heads are white in our old age.' This evening, though, I must return to my family home, but just for tonight! Starting tomorrow, though, we shall never be separated again!"

"May I at least go with you?" he asked.

"No," she said. She insisted she must return home alone.

Well, the young scholar, now the young groom, was disappointed, of course, but his bride remained unyielding. The arrangements would just have to be this way. So, before his bride left to go back down the mountain, the groom gave her the white jade ring he normally wore.

"Let the ring be a reminder to you whenever you see it," he said. "Let it remind you to return to me as soon as possible!"

They walked to the gates of the temple.

"May I at least accompany you to the door of your family home?" he asked.

"No. My family members will probably be waiting for me outside. It would be a bit awkward with you there, with our marriage and such. Please stay here and wait for me to return to you."

He said goodbye to her and watched her walk down the hill. She never turned back. Before she had gone one hundred paces, though, she suddenly vanished into thin air!

The groom was beside himself with fear and shock. He ran to the spot where his bride had disappeared. It was a fairly flat field that was on the slope of this mountain. He started scouring amidst the tall grasses way into the darkness of night without stopping.

And then it became just too dark, so he headed back to his room at the temple. Just as he started to turn back, he spotted a clump of brilliant white lilies in the vicinity of where his wife had disappeared. For some reason, he bent down and plucked them up by the roots and took the flowers back to his room.

Would they somehow hold the key to her astonishing disappearance?

Once in his room, he took the lilies--there must have been a hundred of them--and started to separate them. Out from amongst several stems fell the white jade ring.

He then realized the awful truth--he had been married to and in the intimate presence of a ghost. How he regretted what he had allowed to happen, but there was nothing he could do about it now. It was too late.

Not long after, he came down with an illness. Within ten days, he was dead.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 200-201.

Originally from Jiyi ji (Records of the Collected Extraordinary) by Xue Yongruo (flourished in the ninth century A.D.)

The original Chinese seems to imply that the pair became husband and wife that same night, which would be a courtship and marriage the speed of which to rival Romeo and Juliet's, a detail that stretches credibility.

This tale is reminiscent of urban legends--such as the Ghostly Hitchhiker--in which an object from the living, the ring, is received by the dead and then finds itself located in a place associated with the dead. This story, like so many other old Chinese ghost stories, also attests to the Chinese attitude towards ghosts as ultimately malevolent and fatally toxic, possessing an enmity that overcomes all who cross over and that targets those still living.

In any case, despite there being a huge corpus of ghost and supernatural literature (mainly the
Liaozhai of Ming dynasty writer Pu Songling, the Tang dynasty collections from which many of these postings come and modern anthologies of ancient works like Zhongguo qitan), many have an outright aversion to ghosts and even to the mere discussion of the supernatural. This attitude could be encapsulated this way: To discuss the unknown is to summon the unknown.

Motifs: A13370.2, "Disease caused by ghost"; E265.3, "Meeting ghost causes death"; E422.4.4(a), "Female revenant in white"; E470, "Intimate relations of dead & living"; E474, "Cohabitation of living person & a ghost"; E495.2, "Marriage of a living person to a ghost."

(3) Spotted Dog

In the southern part of Zhejiang Province, in a military garrison, there lived a soldier named Hu Zhizhong.

One day he was sent as a courier to the north of Zhejiang Province, to Huiji.

One night during his journey up north, he slept and had a dream. In this dream, somewhere up in Zhejiang, on the road at night, he spotted a bizarre creature--it had the body of a human but the head of a dog.

Now this creature approached him and said, "Look, I've already been a year without any food. You're on the road to Huiji, aren't you? Could you stop by my house and let me have some of your leftover rations?"

"No!" Hu Zhizhong roared in his dream.

The next day, he continued his trip with the dream already forgotten. He continued on the road to Huiji until nightfall, when he came across an inn. He decided to spend the night there.

"Well, traveler," said the innkeeper, "there is a problem with my building here. It is haunted by a strange creature so much though that not only people don't sleep inside but no one can sit down in the dining hall to eat. I do have an annex on the eastern side, untroubled by the spirit that haunts the main building. Would you like to stay there?"

"No, a room in the main building would be fine, " the soldier replied. "I'm an honest man and a man who doesn't fear evil. All who know me will tell you that. Let what evil spirit exists come, and I shall deal with it. I shall, in fact, kill it."

"Very well," sighed the innkeeper.

That night Hu Zhizhong had a boy from the inn bring him a meal. As the boy then left and Hu picked up his chopsticks to eat his dinner, an monstrous apparition suddenly appeared in the room. It was a man with an enormous head. This monster stood right before the table where the boy had placed Hu's food.

The boy wanted to flee but seemed riveted to the spot as the monster glowered at him. He just stood there, looking helpless at the giant creature before him.

Hu Zhizhong was not petrified, however. He leapt up and attacked the creature with his fists, pummeling him without a break.

If all this wasn't strange enough, what came next was even stranger. The monster started howling, like a dog. Then it cried like a man and spoke to Hu Zhizhong.

"Stop beating me! Stop beating me! If you hit me one more time, I'll be dead!"

Hu didn't let up, however. He kept striking the creature.

The creature then cried out a question: "Where's the spotted dog?"

From behind Hu Zhizhong, behind the standing screen, came something, a blur. It too attacked Hu Zhizhong, coming at him while he was still fighting the big-headed monster.

Hu Zhizhong, his hat knocked off his head and his belt askew, reached for the nearest weapon, a broom handle, and wielded it with effect. He soon battled his two attackers, pushing them outside all the way to the annex of guest rooms on the eastern side of the property.

All who heard the noise of fighting that night swore it sounded as if the whole building were collapsing.

And as odd as all this was, back in Hu's room in the inn's main building, Hu's hat, which had fallen during the battle in the room, climbed up and sat down right on the table where Hu had attempted to eat dinner. The hat looked to the east and seemed to sigh.

And then all was silent for the night . . .

The next day, Hu Zhizhong reemerged from the annex room and outside posted a sheet of paper.

"While I'm away, no one is to enter this structure. For one to do so before I return will be to invite a catastrophe upon one's head!"

He then left without looking back.

Ten days later he returned to the east annex. He had a servant bring him a scroll, brush and ink stone. Then, with tears in his eyes, he wrote out the following poem:

To engage in one rash act of bravery can bring about self-destruction.
To depend on my physical prowess can mean to encounter danger.
You are given this one thread of a precious life,
So why waste it combating goblins?
Your poor deluded soul!
Don't bother now reporting for duty at the
No, instead you shall remain here in this inn,
And walk on the dark road bound for Hades.

Upon finishing the poem, Hu Zhizhong simply threw the brush to the ground and there, in front of the astonished servant who had brought the calligraphy supplies, he disappeared into the air.

The servant later reported he had felt a rush of icy air that sent shivers up and down his spine as Hu Zhizhong vanished from the earth.

The prefect was notified. He sent men specially entrusted to look into the matter. They entered the now totally deserted eastern annex only to discover the bodies of Hu Zhizhong and two dogs lying in the northwest corner of the room.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 201-204.

Originally from Jiyi ji by Xue Yongruo.

There is definitely one very surrealistic motif in this story, namely the animated hat. This story, like the one above and most likely a number of stories yet to come, reflects the inevitable deadliness and futility of battling ghosts and other supernatural agents.

Motifs: E281.3, "Ghost haunts particular room in house"; E461, "Fight of revenant with living person"; *E542, "Ghost's nearness to person felt as a chill"; *E542.6, "Icy wind indication of ghost's presence."

(4) Xing Daodu

In Longxi County, Gansu Province, there lived a scholar named Xing Daodu who once traveled far and wide for his education. He once found himself in Yongzhou, in what used to be called Cao, or the country of Cao. Here he became short on funds and forced to beg for food on the road.

He was particularly hungry on this day when in the distance he spied a house. He walked towards the house. In the front was a girl in blue-green clothes.

"Miss," said Xing, "I'm Xing Daodu, a student from Longxi. I've traveled far and now find myself here without any money for food. I'm hungry and can't find anyone who will give me any money to buy food. Could I possibly trouble you for a bowl of something to eat?"

The girl excused herself to enter the house in order to ask her mistress, Madame Qin.

"Well," Madame Qin said, "since he's a student from far off and since he doesn't look like a bad man, just invite him in!"

Xing Daodu entered. Madame Qin bade him sit on the right-hand sofa and told the girl to feed him.

When Xing Daodu had finished eating, Madame Qin said to him: "I was the daughter of King Min of Qin. Betrothed, I came here to Cao, but before I could be married, I died. It's now been twenty-three years since then, and I've remained in this place all these years. Now you are here! I am willing to become your wife. Are you willing to become my husband?"

"H-How could I?" asked Xing. "You are of a royal house!"

But Madame Qin asked him, again and again. Finally he consented. They then became husband and wife.

Three days later, Madame Qin said to her groom, Xing Daodu: "You, my husband, are of the living, while I am a ghost. The longest we can live together is three days without grave harm befalling you. Think of our happiness we have shared these past few days! I shall give you something as a token of my love for you."

Madame Qin took a box from under her bed. She opened it and took out a golden pillow, which she then gave to Xing Daodu.

They both shed tears and said their farewells.

Xing Daodu left the house and walked down the road. He turned to look back, but the house was gone. In its place was was a tomb overgrown with weeds. He walked back and tended to the tomb, removing the weeds, tidying it up, and left.

He headed for the country of Qin. There, in the marketplace he offered the golden pillow for sale to the market-goers.

Passing by in her coach was none other than the royal concubine to the King of Qin. She saw the golden pillow through her window. She had the coach stop and asked Xing Daodu how he had come into possession of the pillow, her daughter's funerary pillow. He told her the truth--the whole story. The royal concubine became upset; she also suspected Xing was trying to carry out a fraud.

The royal concubine had Xing Daodu remain in Qin and ordered a squad of men to return to Cao to open the tomb of Madame Qin. They did so, finding everything except one item was intact. The missing item? Madame Qin's golden pillow.

As soon as she received the report, she summoned Xing Daodu before her.

"My daughter has been gone for twenty-three years, and now I learn that she was able to marry a living man. It is a miracle! To be sure, you are my son-in-law!" She wept.

That certainly meant one thing: Xing Daodu was the King's official son-in-law. The concubine presented Xing Daodu with horses, a coach and much gold and allowed him to return to Longxi.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, pp. 43-44. (See the post for 3/26/09.)

Originally from
Soushen ji by Gan Bao.

Now we are given a formula--a length of time--by which one may coexist with a ghost in close proximity, three days. A surprising detail: Xing Daodu decides to sell his ghost wife's golden pillow, probably a type of hard headrest. However, maybe he was suspicious about its origins . . .

The story may reflect a probably dying custom that once flourished on Taiwan and on the mainland (but under different guises there)--the so-called "infernal wedding" or "ghost wedding" in which the spirit, usually of a young woman who had died before being able to get married is placated by a symbolic marriage to a living man, already married or still single, who receives a payment for what is considered a totally unwanted honor. I think the best book on this subject is Professor David K. Jordan's
Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village (University of California Press, 1972).

We are not given the identity of Madame Qin's girl attendant.

Motifs: E363.5, "Dead provides material aid to living"; E422.4.4(c), "Female revenant in green clothing"; E451, "Revenant finds rest when certain thing happens"; E470, "Intimate relations of dead and living"; E495.2, "Marriage of a living person to the dead."

(5) News of the Next World

The philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) once visited the country of Chu.

While on the road, he came across a pile of bones that had once formed someone's skeleton. He picked up a bone and started talking to it. Of course the bone and the skull said nothing in return.

Zhuangzi then picked up another bone, placed it under his head and took a nap. Soon he was deep into dreamland . . .

Around midnight, he had a dream in which the skull said to him: "Would you like to hear about what life is like after death?"

"Yes," replied Zhuangzi.

"Well, after death," said the skull, "it is very, very wonderful! There is much freedom. There is no monarch to attend to; neither is there any official to enslave you. There is no year of the four differing seasons that make raising crops such an ordeal for the farmer. The years and time that pass belong to the individual. Even though here below every sacrifice is made for a king, the life of an earthly king can never compare to the life in the next world!"


from Guiguai xiao pin (A short sketch on ghosts and goblins), Chang Yangfeng & Ding Changqing, eds. Zhuhai: Zhuhai Chubanshe, 1994. pp. 25-26.

Originally from Zhuangzi (The Book of Zhuangzi) compiled by Guo Xiang (d. A.D. 312).
Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu, 369-298 B.C.) was the renowned exponent of Daoism (Taoism) perhaps most famous for his dream of being a butterfly. Upon wakening, he wondered if he had merely dreamed of being a butterfly or if he was actually a butterfly dreaming he was a man named Zhuangzi. Motif: E261.1.2, "Speaking skull."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these great ghost stories!
    Do you know of any collections of Chinese ghost stories available in English? I only know of one, Penguin Classics has a translation of Pu Songling's "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio."