Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Three

(1) Father Comes Home

In Wuxing (Wuxing Town, Xinye County, Henan Province or Wuxing County, Zhejiang Province), there lived a farmer, his wife and their two sons.

Now one day this farmer went up to his two sons who were plowing in the fields and started berating them. Not only that but he proceeded to beat them mercilessly. The sons, hurt and bewildered, left the field and went straight home. There, they told their mother what had happened.

Later, when the father had returned home, the mother asked him about it.

Simply put, he was devastated; he would never treat his two sons that way. No, he insisted, he had not been the one scolding and beating his two sons in the field. It must have been some devilish ghost playing a prank in the manner they were known to do so, by impersonation.

He took his two sons aside.

"Listen," he said, "if someone who is my spitting image should ever again come up to you while you two are at work and try to harm you, take an ax and kill him. It will be a ghost overstepping his bounds, and you will teach him a lesson."

That seemed to take care of that.

Some time later, though, the farmer had time to think over his words. The more he thought about what he had advised his sons, the more alarmed he became.

Why, he thought, my sons might mistake me for a ghost anytime I go out to help them with the plowing! No, I'd better caution them about acting too rashly.

He then went out to where they were plowing. Before he had gotten too close to them, his sons, assuming the ghost had once again impersonated their father, immediately cut him down with an ax. They then buried the body under the tall grasses.

Now the real ghost had witnessed all this. He just simply transformed himself into the likeness of the farmer and returned home at the end of the work day.

"Congratulate our sons when they return home," he told the unsuspecting wife. "They took care of that annoying ghost once and for all!"

The sons soon came home and, like their mother, never suspected the older man in the house was not the farmer whose body lay decaying under the soil but rather the cunning ghost impersonating him. As if all this weren't bad enough, the ghost stayed with the family for many years without raising anyone's suspicions.

One day years later, a traveling Taoist priest happened to pass by the ghost masquerading as the farmer. The priest went directly to the farmer's wife.

"Madam, I need to tell you something," said the priest. "Your husband has an evil qi about him."

The two sons overheard this conversation and instantly ran out to tell the "farmer," who was absolutely enraged. He returned to the farmhouse as the priest had just stepped outside.

"That liar!" he screamed to the wife. "That priest is spreading filthy lies!"

The priest heard this and stormed inside the house.

The "farmer" immediately changed back into his original form, that of an old fox. The fox then scurried under the bed. Everyone in the house cornered the fox in its hiding place and succeeded in pulling it out and killing it.

The two sons then made sure their real father was exhumed and buried properly.

That's not the end of the story, however. Not long after, one of the sons took his own life, while the other son sank into deep despondency, became ill and eventually died.


from Guiguai xiaopin, pp. 51-52.

Originally from Bowu zhi (The Annals of Strange Things) by Zhang Hua (232-300 A.D.) of the Jin dynasty (265-420 A.D.)

This story is reminiscent of "Qin Jubo" (see "The Tale of Uncle Ju," in "Ghost Stories From Ancient China--Series One," 3/26/09), and like other ghost stories, it shows the inevitably fatal consequences of interacting with ghosts. Here, however, as with the Qin Jubo story, the term "ghost" must be used flexibly. The "ghost" in this story is not yet in the codified form recognizable to most people around the world--the misty and/or partially transparent image or form of a recently or long ago deceased person. It can also be "killed," an ultimate fate that escapes the already dead ghosts. Here, the "ghost" is the malevolent shapeshifting fox goblin known throughout Chinese, Japanese and Korean folklore. There is no intimation of this "ghost's" connection to a dead human. However, one thing remains true: this entity is a thoroughly evil and implacable foe of the living, qualities traditionally ascribed to many, if not most, East Asian ghosts.

The compilers of Guiguai xiaopin write that ghosts (presumably those that are shapeshifters or
revenants) are "bored" and thus mercilessly torment and kill for fun (53). To this we can add that ghosts, as the dead, are the polar opposite of the living and, therefore, if they manifest themselves after death, are very much unresigned to their status and harbor ill will to the living.

Motifs: A13370.2, "Disease caused by ghost"; D42.2, "Spirit takes man's shape."

(2) The Wedding Must Go On

Zhang Yacheng, a licensed scholar of Xinjian County, Fujian Province, had a peculiar hobby when he was younger: he enjoyed making miniature suits of armor, hair clasps and the what-not out of gold foil paper and using them as playthings, keeping them in his room, never letting anyone see them. Apparently he possessed some skill, though no one else was supposed to know about it.

Imagine his surprise when one day a thirty-something year old woman knocked on his door.

"Yes?" he asked. "How may I help you?"

"I want to commission you to make some gold foil ornaments for me."

"Oh? What kind of ornaments?"

"Hairpins, bracelets, pearl ornaments for the hair . . . "

"I see," said Zhang. "May I ask what for?"

"Wedding ornaments . . . for my daughter to wear."

Zhang thought the woman had to be joking, but she appeared very earnest and assured Zhang he would be paid for his work. He accepted the job and said no more about it as she left.

The young woman returned the next day.

"My surname is Tang," she said, "perhaps related to the family of the mandarin surnamed Tang who lives in the nearby village. I need to ask a favor of you."


"On this strip of paper, please have someone write in a nice calligraphic hand the name of that official, my kinsman, so I can place it on one of the wedding lanterns, as is the custom."

Again Zhang thought the woman was joking with him. Why would she need him to do this? Why not approach her distant relative, the local official, herself and have him or someone else do this? But he played along.

"Allow me, please, Miss Tang. I shall write the name for you."

Supressing his mirth, he went ahead and wrote the name of the official on the strip of paper. The woman, satisfied, then left.

Several days passed. The designated day for the woman to pick up her daughter's wedding accouterments had arrived. Zhang handed them over to her; she in turn paid Zhang very handsomely with hundreds of certificates redeemable in silver and many lucky wedding biscuits. They thanked each other and the woman left.

That was that, or so Zhang had thought.

Early the next morning, after arising Zhang went to look at the payment he had received from the woman. What had been many fancy gourmet biscuits were actually individual little clods of dirt. What had been silver certificates were actually partially silver-foil embossed "hell bank notes," the money reserved and then burned for the dead.

Now Zhang Yacheng realized the truth; the woman had been a ghost.

Several days after that, everyone in town was woken from his or her dreams at an unholy time early in the morning by musicians blaring trumpets and beating drums. The racket went on and on, and it all seemed to emanate from one place: the top of the hill where there no houses but only a cemetery with its forlorn graves.

A lonely hilltop cemetery with loud music in the wee hours of the morning . . . nobody in his right mind would be up there . . . nobody but ghosts . . .

Some local foolhardy teenage boys decided to creep up the hill to look at the ghost musicians performing for what--a ghostly funeral? They did so and saw that the spectral musicians were wearing the red sashes worn by those attending a wedding, and on the dragon lantern illuminating the show was the strip of paper written in the nice cursive writing of Zhang Yacheng, displaying the name of an official, a local mandarin, a man surnamed Tang . . .


from Guiguai xiaopin, pp. 75-77; Yuan Mei, Gao shenme gui. (What the devil are you doing?). Wang Huan, ed. Taipei: Guanshe chubanshe, 2004; pp. 58-60.

This not terribly ancient story is from Qing dynasty (1644-1911) writer Yuan Mei (1716-1797), a collector and compiler of ghost lore. We first get the impression that Zhang Yacheng is inviting trouble with his habit of playing with foil paper, a medium used in preparation for "Bank of Hell" ghost bills burned as offerings to the dead. His misuse of such an item ensures a visit from a ghost.

Yuan Mei himself, commenting on this story, suggests it shows that the world of the dead is not far removed from that of the living in that the desire "to keep up with the Joneses," to maintain a front or to keep face, is an undying human need for both the living and the dead. Here, the ghost mother, originally from a less wealthy background, desperately wishes to have the aura of respectability and affluence attached to her daughter's name through the imprimatur of a living or (more probably) now dead mandarin.

Apparently Zhang Yacheng comes out none the worse after his repeated encounters with a dead woman. Yuan Mei notes that later in life Zhang Yacheng entered the ranks of the licentiates after passing his literary examinations and went on to become a renowned local scholar.

Motifs: D476.2.1, "Food changed to dirt"; E334.2, "Ghost haunts burial spot"; E402.4, "Sound of ethereal music"; E554, "Ghosts play musical instruments."

(3) The Disciple of Shixu

In Wuxing (now, Wuxing County, Zhejiang Province) there lived a very influential man named Shixu who had a student whose name is lost to us.

This student was a very stubborn fellow, always blathering about his opinions and never diverging from them. One of his favorite topics with which to argue was ghosts. "There are no ghosts!" he would say.

One day, probably by the road, this student encountered a traveler wearing a white upper garment. They exchanged greetings, and the traveler stopped to chat. Before long, the student of Shixu brought up his favorite topic--the non-existence of ghosts--and a debate soon commenced. They argued and argued, well after the sun had already set behind the trees.

In this debate, the student got the better of the visitor.

During a lull in the argument, the visitor turned to the student and said, "You're a real tongue wagger, aren't you? I suppose you think you know just about everything. You've got me where I can't reply to your position. Very well.

"In any case, allow me to tell you something. I happen to be a ghost myself. What do you have to say about that?"

The student chuckled and dismissively asked, "So you're a ghost. Very good. Answer me this: what do ghosts want out of us?"

"What do ghosts want? It's very simple. We collect lives, lives from those about to die. In fact I'm here to collect your life. Tomorrow noon your time shall be up."

Now the student was scared, where before he had been smug, cocky.

"Please spare me! Don't let me die!" he pleaded.

"Hmm . . .," said the ghost. "Is there anyone around here who resembles you?"

"Yes! Yes! At Shixu's estate there's a military officer who looks a great deal like me!"

"All right. Tomorrow we shall go there together, and I'll have a look . . . "

The next day the student led the now invisible ghost to Shixu's estate. There, the student announced his intention to visit this military officer he was supposed to resemble. The student was admitted inside with, of course, the invisible ghost following him all the way. The student sat down on a chair across from his friend, the officer, and the two began to chat.

While they were chatting, the ghost took out a metallic needle and, stepping behind the officer, jabbed the needle right into the man's skull.

Immediately the officer cried out, "I have a headache!"

The headache grew worse, and by noontime, the poor man had already died.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 46; originally from Soushenji by Gan Bao.

Motifs: *D1855.2, "Death postponed if substitute can be found"; E247, "Ghost kills man"; E421, "Invisible ghost"; P316, "Man killed in friend's place."

(4) An Unnamed Husband and Wife

Long ago there once were a couple whose names have been lost through the years.

Early one morning the wife got out of bed earlier than her husband and went outside to wash her face. Unknown to her, her husband got up shortly afterward to bathe.

Neither one encountered the other outside.

The wife returned inside and peeked in the bedroom. Sure enough, she saw what looked like her husband still sleeping. Not wishing to disturb him, she quietly got ready to leave to do some chores.

As she was ready to go out the door, however, the servant boy came inside the house and took a mirror.

"What are you doing with the mirror?" the woman of the house asked.

"The master said I could use it," replied the boy.

"Now how could that be? He's inside the bedroom sleeping. How could he give you permission to borrow the mirror while he is asleep?"

The boy looked befuddled.

"I was outside just now and asked him! He's still out there. Let me go get him!"

Before she could say anything, the servant boy shot outside and immediately came back in with the husband, who looked very concerned.

Together the husband and wife entered the bedroom.

There, on the bed, was the split image of the husband, still sleeping away. In complete disbelief, the husband approached his twin lying motionless upon the bed. The husband bent down to touch his counterpart; as he did so, his hands, arms and the rest of him gradually merged with those of his lookalike until both were once again one person.

Needless to say, both the wife and husband were totally shaken and left speechless by this event.

Shortly after, the husband suddenly came down with an illness from which he was never to recover.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 48; originally from Soushenji by Gan Bao.

By now we can see it is just about axiomatic that to encounter a ghost or, here, a doppelganger, is usually a fatal occurrence. The doppelganger phenomenon is also highly unlucky, frequently fatal, in German folklore as well. A similar story of bilocation, but one with a much happier outcome--"Chunmei's Journey"--can be found at the posting for 7/15/07.

Motifs: A13370.2, "Disease caused by ghost"; E723, "Wraiths separate from body."

(5) Chen Jia

Chen Jia had lived in Beixiangting, Wu Prefecture, Haiyan County, Jiangsu Province, and then, sometime during the reign of the Jinyuan emperor (276-323 A.D.), he moved to nearby Huating.

Just outside Huating, by the eastern marshes, he spotted a huge snake while hunting. It was enormous, being six, seven or even eight zhang long, lying just below a ridge. It looked like a long boat turned on its side, and it was black, yellow and other colors.

He shot an arrow at the creature, killing it, but then turned and left the area in a great hurry.

Back at home, he thought about his encounter with the huge serpent and was overcome with an inexplicable uneasiness over the matter. He decided not to tell anyone about what he had seen or done.

Three years passed . . .

Chen Jia, along with a local Huating man, was again out hunting in the marshes near the same area where he had killed the huge snake three years before.

Remembering the event that had so shaken him up several years before and without really thinking, he turned to the Huating man and said, "You know it was right over here that I had once killed a gigantic serpent a good number of zhang long!"

His companion was astounded that such a thing had happened; he had known Chen Jia for some time and had never heard him say a word about the serpent.

That night, Chen Jia had a dream. In that dream, a man in black with a black scarf wrapped around his head approached him.

"I was once resting on the path along the ridge," said the man in black, "minding my own business and not harming a soul, when you came along and killed me. Why? What had I ever done to you?

"I had just been sleeping off after being drunk. I never saw the face of the man who had killed me. I pledged to myself to wait for this enemy of mine who had done this to me. Now, three years later, you returned to the spot to brag openly of your deed! Today, you brought all this upon yourself . . . "

Chen Jia woke up, trembling and soaked with sweat, his heart madly palpitating, his intestines in knots. Before the day was over, he was dead.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 56; originally from Soushenji by Gan Bao.

Snakes are generally looked upon with suspicion and dread but also acknowledged to be wise, due to their proximity to the ground and knowledge of what lies beneath the earth. Snake or serpent spirits supposedly can foretell the future and may take human form, as so many Chinese folktales and legends attest. The most famous is, of course, the legend and opera, Madame White Snake.

One zhang is 3 1/3 meters.

Motifs: B731.10, "Multicolored serpent"; D391, "Serpent transformed to person"; E265.3, "Death caused by ghost"; E526, "Ghost of snake."