Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Weird & Eerie Stories From Old China -- Series Two

The weird, bizarre, and inexplicable from old China--just about everything anomalous except ghosts.  

(1) Fox Pearl

The following is a story told by Mr. Liu Quanbai.

Liu's wet nurse had a son named Xing'ai, who, when he was young, would hide himself beside some country path and set up a net as a booby trap to catch boars and foxes.

Liu's estate was at the foot of a mountain, and so on one evening, Xing'ai set his net up to the west of the estate, half a li down the road. Xing'ai was patiently sitting by the road, hidden, when he heard footsteps on the road.

In the darkness he could make out some kind of small figure on the ground near the net. By and by, the figure slowly stood up, revealing itself to be a young woman clad in red. The woman then sidestepped the net and ran towards two old disused carts by the road. There, she stopped and grabbed a rat, which she devoured alive.

It was then Xing'ai sneaked up on her, dropping his net over her, ensnaring her. Xing'ai then gave her a clubbing, which would normally kill a fox. However, the fox woman remained alive, and this gave Xing'ai pause for some thought. He had seen her transform herself from a smaller figure into that of a human; however, the transformation had largely been in the dark, in the shadows. In the back of his mind, there was still some doubt she could very well be an actual person; on the other hand, if she did happen to be a shape-shifting fox, it would be too dangerous and irresponsible of him to let her roam the roads. And then there was the fact that he had seen her eat a live rat on the spot, an act people were not normally known to do.

He decided to throw her, enclosed in the net, into the [dried, empty] pond for the night. He then went home and told his parents about what had happened.

Early the next morning, Xing'ai returned to the pond, where he discovered the woman had long since revived. Convinced she was a shape-shifting fox, he struck her with an ax. Immediately, she fell to the ground and turned back into a fox.

Xing'ai was overjoyed. He had subdued and killed a noxious being, and so he carried the fox back home.

On the road back home, he encountered an old monk, who pointed out to Xing'ai that the fox was indeed still alive.

"Don't kill it," the old monk said. "Let it live. In the mouth of such a fox, there is a 媚珠 (meizhu, "a pearl of attraction"), which would make the owner, if he can obtain it, the most beloved, desired person around! Now, allow me to tell how you may extract this pearl . . . "

Xing'ai took the fox home, bound her front paws and then her back, and placed her in a cage, where he kept  and fed her for the next several days. Then, the old monk came over and outside Xing'ai's home, buried some bottles in the ground so that the mouths of the bottles were level with the dirt. In each bottle were two
slabs of fresh roast pork.

Xing'ai  next let the fox loose near the bottles.

If there's one thing a fox loves, it's eating roast pork. The fox instantly ran towards the mouths of the buried bottles. The fox, however, could not retrieve the pork from the bottles, for the openings of the bottles were much smaller than her own mouth. She lay before bottle after bottle, her mouth locked onto each opening, desperately trying to get the meat.

The slabs of pork grew cold, so while the fox was restrained,  Xing'ai added some fresh, sizzling roast pork to each bottle.  Once again the fox attacked the mouth of each bottle, attempting to get to the pork but all to no avail.

The process was repeated over and over. Soon, each bottle was nearly full of savory pork that the fox could not reach. Finally, the fox lay before one bottle, again tried to reach the pork, and salivated copiously. A small object rolled out of her mouth, and she put her head down and died.

Xing'ai bent down to look at the small round object, no bigger than a weiqi, or go, tile. Before him lay the fox pearl.

Xing'ai gave the fox pearl to his mother, who kept it on her person. It is said that Xing'ai's father, for the first time or not, became totally infatuated with his wife.

Guangyi ji [Record of broadly odd things] by  Dai Fu in Zhongguo qitan [Talks on bizarre matters in China],
Lin Yaochuan, ed. Taipei: Changchunshu Shufang, 1977; pp. 68-69. 

I wish to thank Dr. Ulrich Theobald, a specialist in classical Chinese history, literature and technology, for his very kind help and time spent in providing me information about Dai Fu. For those interested in Chinese culture, technology, literature and art prior to the establishment of the Republic, I highly recommend Dr. Theobald's encyclopedic website: www.chinaknowledge.de

Dai Fu was a writer who flourished between the Tang Tianbao and Zhenyuan eras (respectively, A.D. 742-756 and 785-805), dying at the age of 57. A biographer and short story writer, he came from what is now Anhui Province.  Liu Quanbai was a scholar who likewise lived during the Tang Dynasty. 

Foxes are prime shape-shifters in East Asian folklore and possess an alluring essence. They can turn themselves into men or women, usually women, though, and do great  harm to those they encounter and bewitch, the result of which is often a fatal encounter for the incautious human. While the Japanese have two attitudes towards foxes--reverence towards the fox spirit Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and agriculture, and fear and avoidance towards the arch-trickster Kitsune of folktales--the Chinese attitude in popular secular literature and folklore is less ambiguous. The fox shape-shifter is regarded as a malevolent enchanter/enchantress and troublemaker, though, to be fair, there are also Northern Chinese traditions in which the "fox immortal" (狐仙) is respected. Specific shrines exist where offerings are made to this spirit. 

The shape-shifting fox in this story, unlike those in many other stories, doesn't utter human speech. She doesn't attempt to beguile Xing'ai with sweet words or her alluring charm, hallmarks of the fox enchantress. 

Pearls in general are linked to the moon and water and are reputedly aphrodisiacs and symbols of feminine nature and romance, not to mention all the different applications of pearls in Western religious iconography. A pearl is, of course, a priceless object, and those pearls which do not exist in nature, even more so. A single dragon pearl, for example, was supposed to be worth a king's fortune or more. However, a dragon pearl or, here, a fox pearl, like the elusive blue rose of European alchemists, does not occur in nature; hence, the high value placed on that which we can never own but which we can in our imaginations cherish as representations of various unattainable ideals. 

Motifs: D313.1, "Fox transformed to person"; D1355.3, "Love charm"; H481, "Fox in human form betrays identity."  

(2) Night Watchman

In Hedong Prefecture (now in Shanxi Province) during the reign of the Tang Emperor Wenzong (A.D. 836-840), there lived a young man who served as night watchman. He very energetically and earnestly applied himself to his job, eager to, in his small corner of the empire, uphold the order of the mighty Tang Dynasty.

It was on a night when the moon shone like a mirror in the sky that the night watchman found himself patrolling the area just outside the gates of the Jingfu Temple. Nearby, he spotted someone all in black, or painted in black, sitting on the ground, head tilted forward, knees drawn up to the chin and with arms hugging his forelegs, someone the night watchman suspected was sleeping.

"Hey, you!" he shouted. "This is a public place with strict laws against anyone sleeping here! Don't you realize how badly you are reflecting the great Tang Empire? Do you hear me? Hurry and get up! Outside the city wall, there's an abandoned temple you can sleep in! Don't let me catch you here again!"

The figure remained in the same position,  not moving a muscle.

The night watchman looked about; he and the figure were the only ones around at this time of night. The night watchman was a bit worried but girded up his courage.

"Did you hear what I just said? If you don't beat it, I'll bang this gong, and moments later every guard in the prefecture will be here! Then, you'll be in for it!"

The night watchman stood near the figure and dramatically waved the gong mallet around to scare the figure into getting up and leaving.

The figure indeed suddenly jumped to its feet and, instead of fleeing, headed towards the night watchman. The whiteness of the figure's face contrasted with its black, seemingly painted body and the night. Equally visible were the figure's long teeth. The night watchman was petrified as the figure rushed him, picked him up and threw him upon the ground like a rag doll. The figure then trampled the gong, crumpling it.

The night watchman, with great effort, managed to get to his feet and flee for his life as the figure laughed insanely behind him in the growing distance.

The next day the night watchman told everyone he knew about his encounter with the strange being the night before, but no one believed his story.

A few months later, the main gate of Jingfu Temple was being replaced. Digging a hole for the new gate's foundation, workmen excavated a bizarre painted manikin. The night watchman happened to be there and caused a one-man uproar. That dirt-caked, lifeless black manikin with the white face was the very thing that had attacked him that night!

Xuanshi zhi (Records of the revealed room) by Zhang Du in Meiying zhixia (Small box of bewitching shadows), Chen Peng, ed. Guizhou: Guizhou Renmin Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 194-195. 

Zhang Du was a chronicler of the strange and flourished during the Dazhong period (A.D. 847-860) of the Tang Dynasty. 

Motifs: cD1620.0.1, "Automatic doll"; cD1639, "Automata"; and F990, "Inanimate object acts as if living." 

(3) Fruits of the Forbidden Valley

When the official Li Lun was traveling through Qizhou (today, Jinan, Shandong Province), he passed the time doing some hunting in the countryside. He happened to come across a temple, where he took a room and rested. While there, he suddenly smelled the powerful sweet scent of a fruit, most likely peaches. His curiosity got the better of him, and so he asked a monk about the fruit with the strong fragrance. The monk handed Li Lun a couple of the fragrant peaches.

They were small, about the size of chicken eggs and had an irregular shape. Li Lun, as it turned out, was hungry and ate one of the peaches.

"These are not ordinary peaches, are they?" he asked the monk.

He told Li Lun that the peaches were an offering from the owners of a private orchard.

Li Lun wasn't content with only knowing about the peaches' general location of origin. He pressed the monk for more information about them.

"Well," said the monk, laughing, "this place is about ten li from here, in a deep, dark valley. There, you'll find several hundred peach trees, each bearing the most incredibly sweetest peaches you've ever eaten, peaches like these! By chance, your humble poor monk has actually been there, picked a few peaches and returned with them. Sadly, everyone just about ate them all up, leaving none for me . . ."

"Take me to this place."

"No, that's not possible," said the monk. "The place is too inaccessible; there's not even a road there. It would be too arduous."

Li Lun was so insistent that, finally, the monk relented.

So, they set off!

For the first five li,  they did nothing but navigate through and cut down brambles and thorns. Then, they came to roaring river which would normally discourage nearly anyone from crossing.

"Are you up to this? Is this where we turn back?" asked the monk.

"Don't underestimate me," Li Lun replied. "I'm not some weak, effete scholar!"

"All right, then," said the monk, "let's jump in!"

"Wait! Hold on. I don't know how to swim. Will you carry me across?"

The monk nodded, and Li Lun hopped onto his back as the monk swam across the river. Fortunately, this monk could swim like a duck, and so they made it to the other side.

Reaching the opposite river bank, the monk then led Li Lun in a northwest direction. The pair now had to cross two streams, climb a tall mountain, and ford a water-filled ravine. After several more li along a mountain path, they finally arrived at the hidden valley, a place blanketed by clouds and resounding with the sound of trickling spring water.

And there were the peach trees, hundreds of them.

The monk and Li Lun climbed down and began to pick peaches from the tree, eating peach after peach as if there were no tomorrow.

When they were full and ready to return, the monk caught Li Lun stuffing his robes with peaches.

"Sir, you mustn't do that!" said the monk. "This place is the realm of immortals! You mustn't be too greedy. After all, you are an official, not someone planning to open a fruit stand! My abbot told me that once before someone attempted to take back as many peaches as you have there. He almost ended up getting lost and dying out here!"

Li Lun thought about what the monk had just told him and decided it had merit. Before leaving that place, he decided to take back only two peaches.

They returned back to the temple. Before parting, the monk made Li Lun swear never to tell about what they had done or to reveal the location of the valley. Li Lun agreed.

Once back at his government office, Li Lun took out one of the deep valley peaches  to eat. He was suddenly overcome with the desire to have more and more peaches; the two he had with him would not satisfy him. He sent a courier to the temple to tell the monk to fetch him more peaches. However, the courier came back with the news that the energetic, strong young monk had already passed away while meditating in the lotus position.

Youyang zazu (Sundry offerings from Youyang's chopping board) by Duan Chengshi in Meiying zhixia; pp. 13-14. 

Duan Chengshi (A.D. c.803-863) lived during the Tang Dynasty and came from what is today Binzhou, Shandong Province. The son of a former prime minister, Duan Chengshi became a proofreader and later found renown as a poet. 

Peaches are important symbols of spring time and immortality. The particular peaches in this story are in a restricted, tabooed area, and one of the two men who enter that area pays the ultimate price for the taboo violation of taking/eating food from fairyland. The magical power of the peaches in this story is implied. The description of the peach orchard accentuates its otherworldly, supernatural nature.

Motifs: cC211.1, "Eating in fairyland forbidden"; cC225, "Taboo to eat certain fruit"; c*C621, "Forbidden fruit"; D950.3, "Magic peach tree." 

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