Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Five

(1) From Behind the Veil

The prefect of Hongdian, Henan Province, had a lovely daughter, and when she was twenty eight, she became engaged to a man surnamed Lu. On the day she and her family were preparing the wedding at their home, a woman who had often come into their home, a magician, a practitioner of the secret arts, showed up.

"My daughter is on her way to be married tonight!" said the mother to the magician. "You've seen her fiance several times. Tell me--what is his fortune like?"

"Let's see. . . Mr. Lu, you say? The Mr. Lu with the long beard?"


"He is not to be your son-in-law. No, your son-in-law will be a man with a medium build, clean-shaven and light complexioned."

The mother was flabbergasted. "No, no. How could that be? Don't you see my daughter is dressed for her wedding ceremony? She is to belong to the Lu family. There can be no mistake about this."

"There is no mistake indeed. I am correct," replied the magician.

"Can you please tell me why Mr. Lu is not to be my son-in-law then?"

"I do not know why, madam. All I can tell you is that Mr. Lu will not be your son-in-law."

At that very moment, the "bride price," gold and other valuable gifts, arrived, brought over by special couriers ahead of the wedding entourage of the groom-to-be. The prefect's wife was now completely irate.

"Look! Look at this gold, these jewels," she said to the sorceress. "Can you still say my daughter is not to wed Mr. Lu tonight?"

"The wedding is to be tonight, madam, not this very instant. A lot can happen before the night is over."

By this time, the ruckus attracted the attention of the prefect himself and the rest of the wedding party. He ordered the magician to leave immediately, which she did.

The Lus had finally arrived! Father, mother and son climbed down from their sedan coach and entered the prefect's house. There, they exchanged both pleasantries and then, gifts.

But then, as the time for the service to begin, as the future groom and still veiled bride faced each other for the first time, from out of the blue . . .

"Ahhhh!" Young Mr. Lu screamed. He was completely gripped by overwhelming panic.

And then, to the utter amazement of everyone present, he leaped upon a horse and fled the scene! More than one person there also climbed upon a horse to chase the frightened man. Once they had caught up with him, no one could convince him to return to the prefect's house.

As one could imagine, the prefect was beside himself with rage, which he felt all the way to each root of hair on his head. He looked at his daughter, so beautiful in her silk gown, destined this day to be dressed for a wedding but to remain unwed. He turned to the gathered guests.

"How can this be?" he asked. "How can this be? Behold my daughter." She now stood before everyone, unveiled. "You can all see her very clearly, can you not? Is she truly so hideous? If she doesn't marry today, lies will spread that she has the face and body of a beast! I shall not have that! Do you hear me? I shall not have that! So, gathered guests, hear what I have to say. If any man among you wishes to marry my daughter tonight, to marry her right now, you may do so with my blessings! Well? Is there a man among you who would take my daughter as your wife home with you tonight?"

A young man, a guest, named Zheng, stepped forward. He had admired the prefect's daughter. Yes, she was, by any standard, beautiful. Not only that she was also graceful and gentle.

"I would like to take your daughter as my wife, Excellency!" said Mr. Zheng. "I desire the honor of calling you my father-in-law!"

This Mr. Zheng--he was of medium height, beardless, rather pale--just as the magician had foretold. And that night, he became the prefect's honorable son-in-law.

Several years passed.

One day Mr. Zheng ran into Mr. Lu, his old friend whom he had not seen since that night.

"Please tell me," said Zheng, "what happened to you the night you were supposed to marry the lady who became my wife? Why did you run off that way?"

"Believe it or not, " Lu responded, "she appeared to me as a ghost. Her two eyes were a fiery red, and her face, from behind the veil, very dark, a greenish black. I had never been so frightened before in my life!"

Mr. Zheng laughed and called for his wife, who was actually nearby. She walked up to join her husband and Mr. Lu.

"Does she still look like a ghost now?" asked Mr. Zheng.

Mr. Lu was obviously deeply ashamed and hung his head low, unable to speak. He had to walk away.

From this we can see that only those truly meant to be together shall be wed and that to expect otherwise would be all in vain.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 172-174. (For original citation, see 3/26/09.)

This tale is originally from the Tang dynasty anthology by Li Fuyan, More Amazing Records of Oddities (Xuxuan guailu). Brides in China have been wearing veils at least since the Northern and Southern Dynasties (A.D. 420-589). Anthologist Liu Yiqing (A.D. 403-444) in his famous New Chats on Worldly Happenings (Shishuo xinyu) related a tale of a groom who retired to the "marriage room" with his bride to remove her veil only to storm out unwilling to return because of her extraordinary homeliness. The character Lu's description of the bride's appearance tallies with traditional descriptions of ghosts. For a tale with a somewhat similar theme, karma and the inviolable sanctity of marriage, see 5/4/08, "The Old Man Under the Moon." Motifs: E338(b), "Female ghost seen in house"; E421.1.1., "Ghost visible to one person alone"; E363.1.1., "Ghost substituting for bride."
(2) Pretty White Dress
Zhong Yao, a man of Yingchuan, Henan, had already stopped seeking out his friends for eating and drinking engagements for several months now. He had just dropped out of sight. When some of his old pals finally ran into him, they noticed a change had come over him. He just didn't seem himself; he seemed burdened. So one of his friends asked him if he was all right.

"Well . . . " he replied slowly, hesitantly, "a girl . . . a girl often comes to visit me."

In those days, such things were just not likely to happen. Moreover, Zhong Yao appeared anguished. The friends put two and two together.

"Listen, Yao," said one of the friends, "you're being visited not by a human but by a ghost. Don't fall for her charms. She means you harm. Next time she comes by, you need to kill her."

The friends parted. Zhong Yao returned home.

That had been some mighty drastic advice! The suggestion left Zhong more confused, uneasy than ever. To kill her! Yet, to let her grow upon him, as a ghost does like a cancer, weakening him, sickening him . . . That was hardly an acceptable alternative as well. He was torn up about what to do; the choices were both eating him alive. He knew his friends had been right; she was an evil spirit. But the solution! He couldn't stand the thought of what he must do.

Not many days later, the girl, wearing her pretty white silk dress and red vest, showed up at his front gate. This time, though, she just stood there, unwilling to enter.

"Well, why don't you come in?" asked Zhong Yao.

The girl paused before answering. She finally spoke. "You're planning to kill me."

"What? How could you even say such a thing?" He motioned for her to enter, which she did, ever so hesitantly.

She was now inside his home. Zhong Yao felt his head would burst. A knife lay on the table. Should he step quickly over to the table and grab the knife? He clapped his hands onto his head; he felt his veins throbbing. Should he just let her go? Then what? She'd return again and again, and he'd grow sicker and sicker; eventually he'd waste away to nothing . . .

Meanwhile, she stood there, watching him.

He gritted his teeth, ran to the table and grabbed the knife. He attacked her and they struggled. She was somehow able to get away, though he had nicked her leg, making her cry out in pain. She made it outside and escaped into the street, patting her wound with cotton liner from her vest, trailing blood in the street.

The next day, Zhong Yao had a friend follow the bloody trail. It led all the way into the cemetery and ended at a tomb. When Zhong Yao heard this, he mustered his courage and went with a couple of his friends to the cemetery. There, they dug up the coffin from this tomb where the trail of blood had ended. They opened the coffin to find a beautiful but dead young woman, whose flesh was totally uncorrupted, who looked as fresh and alive as the last time he had seen her, clothed in a white silk dress under a red vest made even redder by stanching the flow of blood . . .


from Hanwei liuchao guiguai xiaoshuo, p. 64. (For original citation, see posting for 3/26/09). Originally from Sousenji by Gan Bao.

In this grisly tale, the friends of Zhong Yao are correct in identifying their friend's lover as a ghost/vampire partially due to her unseemly behavior in presenting herself at his house. (The term "vampire" is used very loosely here, as the Chinese version doesn't lust for blood. Rather, it mechanically attacks and slashes people, even devouring them.) Ghost (
gui) or vampire/zombie (jiangshi)? That is a blurred distinction in old China, as zombie-like revenants, jiangshi, propelled by their hatred for and need to kill the living, also appear in ghost-story anthologies. Both ghosts and vampires are classified as guiguai, which means something like "ghosts and the hideous and bizarre," a catchall phrase for evil revenants much like the Japanese bakemono, i.e., vengeful, murderous ghosts and "things capable of transforming," or "shapeshifters." However, the young lady here possesses a consciousness that is usually lacking in the robotic jiangshi. She is anything but the unthinking, killing and grisly looking automaton that characterizes Chinese vampires, or "stiff corpses." . Motifs: B511.1.3, "Vampire sheds blood"; E422.4.4(a), "Female revenant in white clothing"; H56, "Recognition by wound."

(3) Youchang's Wife

The scholar Jin Youchang, originally from Henan, had been living on Zhongtiao Mountain, Puzhou, Shanxi Province, for five years, when he saw from his yard a country girl carrying a bucket of water from a stream. She was a total beauty, and so it became a habit of Youchang's to tarry by his gate every day so that he could catch a glimpse of her as often as possible as she returned from her trip to the stream. She did not disappoint him; she came to fetch water from the stream daily.

On this day, he decided he would finally speak to her, so he waited once again by his gate. Sure enough, the girl soon showed up on the path, lugging her heavy pail of water.

"Young woman!" he accosted her as she passed by. "Why should a rare beauty like you have to carry pails of water?"

The girl, not very shy, laughed and replied, "Why shouldn't I have to carry water? I need water too. Truth be told, I'm an orphan and live with my aunt and uncle. I fetch the water for them."

Then, rather boldly, Youchang said, "If you are not already spoken for, which would be difficult to believe, I hope you'd consider being my wife, if you find me at all to your liking!"

"If you don't mind, I'll return after sundown and we can speak more of this."

Well, she did return that night and they had their talk. In very short time, they were husband and wife! They were very happy and affectionate as newlyweds are, and each day and night was a joy for them to be with each other. It was her habit to be at her husband's side as he studied way into the early hours of the morning, when he would nod off with his nose in his books. He would stagger off to bed, lie down and fall fast asleep. Only then would she lie down by his side and join him in sleep.

Life was like this for half a year.

Now one night in the study, Youchang was busy reading, his wife standing nearby. She showed no intention of sitting down next to him.

"Oh?" he asked. "You're not going to sit with me? Come! Sit and rest. You have been up and about, pacing since I came in."

She slowly turned around and looked down at him. "I am going to bed early. I have to ask you something."

"Certainly." He returned to his book.

"When you come to bed," she said, "whatever you do, please don't bring the lantern with you."

"Fine . . . Fine . . . " He was now concentrating on a challenging passage in the book.

"I'll be very happy--it'll be good for me--if you don't bring the lantern."

"Good . . . Fine . . . "

She went to bed. He continued to pour all his attention to his reading and soon forgot what she had told him. After a while, his eyes sore; he got up and headed for the bedroom.

In his hand, he carried the lantern.

He entered the bedroom. The lantern showed him very clearly--there on his bed was not his wife but a pile of bones.

The shock and the horror! He did what others might have also done--he covered up the bones with a blanket, whereupon the bones once again quickly grew flesh and hair and became a living person, or so it seemed, once more--his wife.

She came out from under the blanket.

"All right, so now you know," she said. "I am no longer a person, just the spirit of those lifeless bones you saw."

"Who are really you then?" he asked.

"I am one of the spirits that belong to the southern side of this mountain.. On the northern slope is the king of the local spirits, King Hengming. Each month, we spirits and ghosts must pay our respects to the king. I have not done so since marrying you, not for six months. For that I am being punished. A shade was sent to beat me, whip me with an iron whip, which he did one hundred times! You could not see this, but I surely did and felt it! I could not sit down without crying out in pain and had to come in, lie down and rest."

Youchang was speechless.

"And now," his wife continued, "I've been discovered."

"You . . . you are my . . . wife . . . "

"I cannot be now! Listen to me, Youchang! Please leave me and this place! Tonight! Now! Don't be so wrapped up in me that you lose your life by staying here!"

"But. . . "

"No! Listen! Everything on this accursed mountain belongs to King Hengming--everything! If you stay here, you will meet a horrible end! Leave . . . now . . . while you have . . . the chance . . ."

With that, she vanished before his eyes.

Youchang cried a small river of tears. Now, with his wife gone forever, he deeply regretted carrying that lantern into the bedroom. He gathered up the things he could carry, and though it was dark and the middle of the night, he left the house and went down the mountain.


from Zhongguo qitan, pp. 198-200. (See citation for 3/26/09). Originally from Jiyi ji by Xue Yongruo. (See 5/04/09).

In this version of the supernatural spouse tale, the wife is a ghost, not an animal or a shapeshifting goddess. Jin Youchang apparently doesn't sicken and die for cohabiting with a ghost. Motifs: C932, "Loss of wife for breaking tabu"; E1, "Dead brought back to life"; E481, "Shadow people"; E481.3, "Abode of dead in mountain."