Thursday, October 1, 2009

Two Ghost Stories (Series Four) & A Shapeshifting Tale From Ancient China

(1) The Tale of Ji Kang

Ji Kang was a renowned scholar of the third century A.D.; he was also an inveterate traveler, often on the road, visiting all the places he fancied seeing.

One time he walked in a southwesterly direction out of Loyang for more than ten li and found himself in a town called Huayangting. There, he decided to spend the night. He found lodging for one in an inn.

In those days Huayangting had a bad reputation as a dangerous place, many murders having been committed there. Ji Kang was aware of this but not concerned. In the middle of the night, he took out his lute and started strumming some tunes.

Suddenly a sound, much like a mumbling of pleasure, drifted through the room like a breeze of air.

"Who is there?" asked Ji Kang, continuing to play and not missing a chord.

"Just someone who died in this room long ago," said the voice. "When I heard you play, I had to come back. Your music is so beautiful. You'll have to excuse me. I didn't die a pretty death. I want so much to come face to face with you but wish you won't be revolted by what you see."

"It's very late and dark outside. Come on and appear," replied Ji Kang. "You might indeed not look very pretty, but, anyway, what do I care about how you look!"

The ghost instantly appeared and grabbed Ji Kang by the head.

"Your music has made me very, very happy, more than you can ever know. It makes me feel alive again."

Ji Kang did not act afraid. Instead, he and the ghost carried on a lively conversation about music for the rest of the night.

"Say, may I borrow your lute and play something?" asked the ghost at some point very early in the morning.

Ji Kang handed him the lute. The ghost began to play.

He's not very good at all, thought Ji Kang.

Suddenly, though, the ghost started playing a melody that undoubtedly no mortal had ever heard before, and he handled it exquisitely. Ji Kang was enraptured throughout the rest of this performance. He asked the ghost to teach him this tune. It took much of the early morning, but Ji Kang finally learned how to play it.

Of all I have ever learned to play, thought Ji Kang, nothing comes close to being as beautiful as this unearthly song.

The ghost knew how much Ji Kang valued this melody but told him he must never pass the song or its technique on to any other person. He also refused to tell Ji Kang his name.

When the darkness began to give way to light, the ghost said, "Although you and I can never meet again, I will never forget you. I now have to leave you, and it makes me very sad to do so."

With that, he disappeared.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, Yeh Qingbing, ed. pp. 84-85. Originally from Liu Yiqing.
Liu Yiqing (403-444 A.D.) was more famous for another work, Shishuo xinyu (New Chats on What's Happening in the World).

Motifs: E378, "Ghost continues to remain in usual surroundings after death; E402.1.1.; "Ghost speaks"; E402.1.3; E554, "Ghost plays musical instrument."

(2) An Old Man and His Daughter

During the time of the Eastern Jin, in Guzhang County (now Northwest Anji County, Zhejiang Province) there lived an old man and his beautiful and unmarried daughter. They lived together up on Shen Mountain, and there they were utterly devoted to each other.

Now, a certain young man named Guang of nearby Yukang County approached the old man and asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. No. The old man refused.

And so, for a while, that was that.

One day the old man died, so his daughter had to go into town to purchase a coffin. On the road into town, she encountered Guang, who had not lost one whit of his passion for her.

"Look, " she said to him, "I'm all worn out to the bone with what I have to do to prepare for Father's funeral. If you would so kindly watch Father's remains until I can come back with a coffin, I promise to marry you." Guang quickly agreed. "Feel free," added the daughter, "to slaughter any of the pigs in the pen outside our house."

Well, that was also fine with Guang, so he hurried up to the young lady's house.

Guang had no sooner reached the front door of the Shen Mountain home when he heard from within the house the sounds of applause and laughter.

He took a peek inside.

The room was full of ghosts surrounding the old man's body, poking, pulling, disturbing and, worse, mocking it!

Guang found a long piece of wood that could be used as a club, rushed in the house with a loud roar like that of a madman, and scattered the ghosts. The ghosts scattered, running in all directions.

He then took his place by the corpse and began his vigil, breaking it once to go outside to slaughter a pig.

Near midnight, as Guang was feasting on some pork ribs, a long hand--the hand of an old ghost--reached out to Guang to beg for something to eat. Guang turned around and grabbed the old ghost by the shoulder. The more the ghost resisted, the tighter Guang held.

Outside, the rest of the ghosts had gathered.

"You greedy devil," they chanted, mocking Guang, "unable to part with one bite! You'll have your comeuppance, your heavenly payback! Just wait and see!"

Guang turned to the old ghost and said, "It must have been you who had killed this nice old man!
I bet you stole his life essence. Well, if you stole it, you can also return it! Give it back, or else I won't let go of you."

"I am not the one!" cried the old ghost. "My children are the ones who killed him." The old ghost then tilted his head towards the direction of his ghostly children. "Give 'im back his life!"

Then, moments later, the old man who had been lying virtually dead started to breathe and then to stir. Guang let go of the old ghost.

Then not long after, the daughter arrived back home, with porters in tow in carrying a coffin. Imagine her surprise to see her dear old father sitting up, alive and well!

And so a tragedy was turned into a joyous occasion.

And yes--the daughter still kept her promise. Guang and she were promptly wed!


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 168. Originally by Liu Yiqing.

The old ghost in the story and his mob are reminiscent of the so-called "hungry ghosts," though he and the other specters are not specifically described as such. Suppose they are indeed hungry ghosts, otherwise known as "wandering ghosts" or the euphemism used by rural Taiwanese, "the good brothers." They are the ghosts for whom there is no one left to offer sacrifices; hence, they wander the earth vainly in search of food and drink. Hungry ghosts, the preta of Indian Buddhism and the Hinduism that preceded it, have been popularly depicted as having ultra thin necks, pinhole mouths and huge extended abdomens, all indicative of those who are starving, craving food but physically unable to ingest it (see Gods, Ghosts & Ancestors by David K. Jordan [Berkeley: University of California Press], pp. 34-35). Author Lin Liming writes that there are thirty-six varieties of hungry ghosts. Among them are the following: ghosts that "eat water," "drink blood," "eat the wind"; and ghosts of "the wide open spaces"; "the social world," and "filthy alleys" (Guiyu shijie [The world of the ghostly domain]; Xiamen: Xiamen Daxue Chubanshe, 1993, p. 60).

Motifs: E337.1.3.1., "Sounds of ghostly party"; E402.1.1.3.,"Ghosts cries & screams"; E499, "Meetings of the dead."

(3) A Filial Son

In the time of the Jin, there was an impoverished young man whose mother had just died. Because he had no money to pay for a proper funeral, he had the coffin taken up Mount Liang. There, he located a plot of land, dug a hole, and began to construct a tomb for his mother. In the evening, he slept by the fire in his makeshift camp.

He worked day and night on the tomb. He was still working on the tomb early in the evenng when a young mother carrying a baby stumbled into his camp. Could she and her baby spend the night next to the warmth of his fire? He of course said yes and continued to work on the tomb well into the darkness.

It was now late at night, and the filial son decided to turn in for the night, to go to sleep in his little camp by his mother's grave.

He turned to look at the woman and child sleeping by the fire; he didn't, however, see a woman and child.

No, what he saw was a fox cradling in its paws a black crow!

He crept up to them and beat them both to death. He then threw their remains down a pit.

The next day a man came by the camp and tomb.

"Excuse me," he asked. "Last night my wife and child were here. Do you know where they are?"

"There was no woman or child here last night. There were just a fox and a crow, and I killed them both."

"You killed my wife and baby! How can you now turn around and say that you killed a fox and a crow? Very well, then. Can you show me where you put the two bodies?"

"Follow me."

The filial son led the man to the pit. The son looked down, expecting to see the carcasses of two animals. The fox and crow were gone! Lying in the pit were a dead woman and a baby!

The husband of the dead woman grabbed the son, subdued him and tied him up. He then dragged the young man to the local government house and demanded the filial son pay with his life for the murder of the woman and her baby.

"Please, Your Honor," he told the magistrate, "don't believe this man! This is obviously a case of shapeshifting! Please bring out your best bloodhound! It will get to the bottom of this problem!"

The magistrate thought about what the filial son had said, snapped his fingers and had a bloodhound and a tracker brought in. The husband took one look at the bloodhound and promptly turned into a fox right on the spot. Before the fox could get away, though, the tracker shot it dead with an arrow.

The magistrate ordered the son released.

The son returned to the mountain and to the pit. Lying in the pit were the small carcass of a fox and the even smaller one of a crow.


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, pp. 169-170. Originally by Liu Yiqing.

This is a very early example of what would become a staple of East Asian supernatural lore, the shapeshifter. Here the primary beast is the fox, a creature that can combine the characteristics of cunning, dangerousness, voluptuousness, and charm. For two folktales about shapeshifters--respectively a tiger and a wolf--see the postings for 6/8/07 and 3/26/08. For still other stories, especially those about were-foxes, see the famous
Ming dynasty anthology, Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, available in many English translations.
Crows and ravens have traditionally been considered ominous throughout the Western world but not necessarily in the Far East, where in ancient times the crow or raven was considered to be a sun symbol and a model of filial piety for the belief that it feeds its parents (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, p. 789; see 2/26/2008 for full citation.) However, folklore expert Professor Ren Cheng writes that while Manchus might revere the crow or raven and set out a sacrifice for it, the majority Han Chinese of Nanjing, Jiangsu region, would in former times upon hearing a raven or crow cry early in the morning recite a special seven-character formula to avert ill luck (Zhongguo minjian jinji [Chinese Folk Taboos], Taipei: Hanxin, 1996, p. 564).

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