Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ghost Stories From Ancient China -- Series Six

(1) Old Li Chiu

In Northern Liang, there lived a man known as Old Li Chiu.

One night, Old Li, somewhat tipsy, returned home from town. He was accompanied by a shapeshifting ghost which had gleefully impersonated Old Li's nephew all the way back to the old gentleman's residence. En route back home, the ghost constantly berated Old Li for having drunk over his limit, much to the latter's indignation.

Once home and once the effects of alcohol had worn off, Old Li summoned his nephew, scolding him, saying, "I'm like a father to you! I'd expect you to be more loving towards me! How dare you lecture me about having drunk too much on the way home last night!"

The nephew, tears in his eyes, knelt before his uncle, and said, "There's been a huge mistake, Uncle! I didn't do that! I wasn't even with you. Last night, I was in town requesting the repayment of a debt. You can go ask the debtor if you wish!"

"Ha," said Old Li, "now I know what happened! Some ghost attached himself to me on my way home last night.Yes, I've heard of such occurrences before."

The next night found Old Li inebriated once again in town. He was armed this time, determined to kill any ghost that dared to bother him.

When Old Li's nephew, fearful for his uncle's safety arrived to escort the old man home, Old Li assumed the young man was the ghost reappearing to harass or menace him. Old Li then took out his sword and cut down the young man, his actual nephew, thinking he had successfully dealt with the annoying shape-shifting ghost.


"Li qiu zhangren" by Lu Buwei in Guihua [Talks on ghosts], Li Mengsheng, ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Shiji Chubanshe, 2010;  p. 1.

This story, from the Age of Warring States (475-221 B.C.)  is one of the oldest--maybe the oldest--in which the Chinese character for "ghost" ÚČ╝ appears. Previously, I had thought "The Tale of Uncle Ju" (see 3/26/09) held that spot. This tale, however, predates "The Tale of Uncle Ju" by at least several hundred years and seems to be in terms of theme and plot the clear forerunner of "Uncle Ju."  Perhaps not coincidentally, Li Mengsheng, in his survey of old Chinese ghost stories through the centuries, placed "Li qiu zhangren" as the first story in his anthology. The characters in this story, like those in the later variant "The Tale of Uncle Ju," live in an age when "ghost," "demon," and "vampire" seem undifferentiated and when a "ghost" may yet be "killed."   

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

(2) The White Bones

A certain Mr. Liu, over sixty years of age, a native of Heshuo (an area north of the Yellow River), was returning from visiting Shangfeng Temple (in Hunan Province) when he got caught in a downpour. It was getting dark, and he quickly needed to take shelter.

By the road he spotted a large tomb mound. There was an entrance, so he went in and fell asleep until the rain stopped.

When he awoke, he saw the entire interior of the tomb was completely illuminated by the moonlight which had crept in. The spotlessly clean glazed tiles of the tomb shone brightly.

And then, there, on the other side of the tomb floor from him,  Liu saw a skeleton--a complete set of bones from head to foot. Nothing else was there but Liu and the skeleton.

Liu slowly rose to his feet.

As he rose, so did the skeleton.

Then, the skeleton ran pell-mell towards him and embraced him. Liu exerted every ounce of energy he had to free himself from the skeleton, and finally he broke free, causing the decayed bones to fall apart onto the floor in a pile.

Liu fled the tomb. He told everyone he encountered about his adventure.

Such an occurrence is not at all that strange, he was told.

from "Bai gu" by Guo Yu; Guihua, p. 39. 

From the Song Dynasty (960-1229 AD).

What Liu did would have been unthinkable according to traditional culture. It would have been considered extremely bold and foolhardy at best and suicidal at worst. However, since there are characters like Liu, rash people who "push the envelope," we can thus have ghost stories, the results of their heedless actions--related by the very protagonist if he/she survives. No wonder he was told that "such an occurrence is not at  all that strange"! What had he been thinking?

Motif: E422.1.11.4, "Revenant as skeleton."

(3) Ghosts Don't Torment the Poor!

Luo Liangfeng, a man of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, spoke of how he could see ghosts.

He said he could see ghosts at sundown, when the streets would be absolutely full of these entities that are much shorter than the living. There they would be on streets, avenues and boulevards, their facial features blurred, congregating so that they would resemble a black shadow cast over everything. So many of them would be on the street that they would walk into and out from the walls along the way. Like living people, many of them would be observed chatting while walking along, while others would walk along without any visible emotion, and while still others might  find a living human to walk behind and to follow that person to wherever he or she may go.

These and other ghosts, according to Luo, always enjoy the noisy, bustling, popular spots favored by people, thinking apparently, in their ghostly way, that wherever there is a popular gathering place, there shall one find people, not so much, though, in the empty grasslands of shepherds.

No wonder scholar Yang Xiong (53 BC-18 AD) wrote, "Ghosts always peep on what the affluent are doing."

In actuality, humans and ghosts belong to different realms but must share the same physical space. Ghosts normally don't pose humans any harm unless they, the ghosts, are out for vengeance or just in the mood to do some haunting. Consequently, it is usually very difficult for a person to see a ghost.

Since most ghosts enjoy frequenting busy, prosperous areas and since most are unable to change their habits, they tend to stay away from the shabby, depressed locations visited by the poor. This is why we have the old saying "Poor ghosts don't drop in [for a visit]." How true.

from Zi bu yu in Gao shenme gui, Yuan Mei, ed. Annotated by Wang Yuan. Taipei: Guanxue She, 2004; pp. 8-9. 

Zi bu yu [What the Master (i.e., Confucius) did not discuss] is the ghost story collection of Qing Dynasty writer Yuan Mei (1716-1797 AD). "Poor ghosts" is a play on words, meaning either literally poor, possibly "hungry" ghosts or people who are impoverished. Of course, the conclusion reached by Yuan Mei, that ghosts prefer to flock near the prosperous and seldom ever go near those who are poor, is debatable. 

The description of ghosts on the street reminded me of a story in Zhongguo yaoguai shidian [Dictionary of Chinese goblins] by famed Japanese artist and chronicler of the bizarre, Mizuki Shigeru (Taipei: Zhenxing, 2004). That story is "Gui shi" ["Ghost market"]. The gist of that story is as follows: 

    A servant was on an errand away from town. Since the daytime weather had been 
   unbearably hot, the servant decided to travel at night. One midnight, while still on the road,
   the servant stumbled into a very bustling, humming marketplace crammed full of people buying
   food from stalls. Hungry, he bought a bowl of soup noodles, devoured it, and continued on his 
   journey. He completed his task and made it back home, whereupon he came down with a sickness.
   He vomited up a toad and coiled worms . . .  (pp. 42-43). 

Such is what happens when one, in traditional thought, interacts with ghosts. The servant had more than likely stopped by a ghost market in a desolate area of tombs where spirits appear and recreate the world they had known when they were alive, using the spirit money that had been burned for them to buy whatever is available in their realm. 

No comments:

Post a Comment