Friday, March 22, 2013

The Earth Demon, Yaksha (Han)

Our story occurred during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908) in Xinye, Henan Province. In Xinye there lived a prosperous jeweler, antique seller and craftsman, Lu Bancheng. Lu was extremely well-read in calligraphy and very enterprising, always scouting for valuable items. Not surprisingly, he took many business trips.

On one such trip, he was returning to Xinye from Hankou when the riverboat he was on made an emergency call to a river port due to some strong winds. However, the winds weren't strong enough to deter Lu from leaving the shelter of the berth to do some sightseeing. A temple by the river had caught his eye, and so that was where he headed.

Arriving at the gate, he discovered the temple was dilapidated and abandoned. There were weeds growing everywhere, and paint was peeling from the walls. Doors and windows were missing. Worst of all, the statue of Buddha was tilting. The whole place manifested a deep sense of gloom.

Then, Lu saw the painting.

A painting was still attached to one of the decayed walls. Lu looked at it. The painting style was definitely ancient and the style of the artist was somehow familiar to Lu, who had seen and had handled a great many such paintings in his time. The painting itself depicted Yakshas, demons or spirits from the bowels of the earth; a particularly hellish demon with a green face was wielding a bronze pitchfork.

Yes, I've seen this work before. Wu  . . . Wu Daozi . . ., thought Lu. This has got to be an original painting by Wu Daozi!

Lu had seen copies of this very same painting, with the original attributed to Tang Dynasty master muralist Wu Daozi, whose works by this time were now extremely rare. Who would have guessed that a painting by this giant of Tang art would be found in a run-down, abandoned temple? As such, it would fetch an enormous price . . .

Like a feverish madman but one still sane enough to be careful, Lu took out the artist's knife he always carried and gingerly used the blade to extract the painting from the wall. He carefully rolled it up and took it with him back to the boat.

Lu Bancheng was delighted with his find. He sat on the bow of the still-docked ship and ordered a warmed pot of wine and some food for himself to celebrate. There he sat, enjoying the wine, admiring the view, and reveling in his latest acquisition, one sure to bring him great riches!

He turned his head. Someone was on the dockside of the boat, looking at him and then at the food he was eating.

It was an unkempt, emaciated female beggar, whose lion mane of disheveled hair blew in the breeze.

Lu got up and beckoned to her. He approached the side of the boat, extended his arm and helped her aboard. He then handed her a plate of steamed buns, each of which she wolfed down. He also allowed her to eat the other food, which she did without bothering to use chopsticks.

Once she had finished eating, Lu asked her about herself, where she was from and so on.

She was a local, she told him, the daughter of a hog butcher. Her mother had died young; she and her father lived off the meat he didn't sell. Eventually, her father died, and she was then adopted into a household as a "little daughter-in-law," one who, once marriageable age had arrived, would marry the young man of the house. Things didn't work out so well, however. Since she was literally addicted to eating meat, she wouldn't touch any dish that didn't meat. Her adopted parents decided she was a burden, too expensive to raise as their future daughter-in-law. So, they turned her out. With nowhere else to go, she took refuge in the abandoned temple Lu had visited earlier that day and before long became a beggar.

Poor child, thought Lu. What if one day she runs into a vicious beast or a beast in human form? 

"Listen, young lady, " said Lu, "begging daily for a meal is no way to go through life. Why don't you work for me as one of my household staff? You'll have daily square meals and clothes to boot! You can have what others have, a home."


That was the sound of the beggar's head hitting the deck of the boat as she kowtowed before Lu out of deep  gratitude and joy. Lu gently helped her rise and escorted her into the cabin, where, before taking leave of her, he had someone provide her with a tub of water in which to bathe, a brush for her wild hair, and a change of clothes.

An hour or so later, someone knocked on the door of Lu's private cabin. He opened it to find a very enchanting servant girl carrying a tray with a teapot and cup. Exquisite eyes and lovely brows; brilliant white teeth and ruby lips; yes, she was gorgeous, indeed.

He stared at her. She was none other than the beggar!

He decided then and there to take her as his second wife, not as a household domestic.

Five days later, they were back in Xinye. Lu Bancheng immediately proceeded with the wedding plans. At the ceremony, all were impressed by the second Mrs. Lu's beauty. Lu himself couldn't get over his fortune and this new wife who had become his very precious darling, someone for whom he would spare no expense. 

All was well in the Lu house . . . for a while. 

The new Mrs. Lu had made many new fans with her grace and winsomeness. Yet, there was something decidedly odd about her. In all regards but one she was wonderful; when it came to eating meat, she was   a downright miserly glutton who demanded each plate of meat for herself. "Sharing" didn't seem to be a concept that she understood. 

She began to eat more and more meat, and as she did so, her personality underwent a change. Gone was all her humbleness. She now treated the household staff with oppressiveness and disdain, causing the servants to gnash their teeth in resentment as they went about their duties. 

The day came when Lu Bancheng wished to throw a lavish dinner party for clients. He had had more than twenty jin (more than ten kilograms) of pork cooked and placed in the kitchen on platters to await the guests. At midday, when the cook entered the kitchen to prepare the vegetables, he was astonished to find that the meat was gone, every slice of it.

Lu was called and he first suspected a member of the servant staff. He interviewed each one, and more than a few said the same thing--he or she had seen the new Mrs. Lu enter the kitchen alone sometime in the forenoon. 

Aha, he thought. But could she have actually consumed all that meat? 

The next day, Lu ordered half of an entire cooked hog brought into the kitchen. Lu then hid himself in a corner of his spacious kitchen. 

There, he waited . . .

Not long after, the "little beauty" tiptoed into the kitchen. The second Mrs. Lu then looked around and locked the kitchen door from the inside. Suddenly, her face and body underwent a transformation. Her hair turned red as her face turned a sickly green. Her eyes had become a baleful gold. With her hands, now long-nailed claws, she attacked the half hog lying on the pallet, ripping its flesh, stuffing the meat into her now bloody mouth and doing so over and over and over. 

Within minutes, the hog was gone; the pallet, as dry as a sun-bleached stone. 

Lu Bancheng watched the spectacle in horror and disgust, riveted to his hiding spot, too terrified to move. He watched the demon pat her gut in delight after finishing off half of a hog . It was a good while after she had left when he was able to get up and leave the kitchen. 

He went to his shop and gathered up ten of his stoutest, hardiest workers. He armed them with knives and guns.

"We're going to drive out and kill a demon," he informed them. 

He led his party back to his house, from where not only the demon had now fled but all of Lu's own family and servants as well. Lu had to dismiss the men and think of a plan to eradicate the demon he had brought into his own home. 

In town he sought the services of a Taoist priest who was reputed to be a very effective exorcist. 

For the next three days, the priest performed his rituals. While he did so, however, the demon went on a rampage as she searched for food. Not only pigs but sheep, cows and horses were being devoured alive.

After three days, the priest had to acknowledge all his efforts had been in vain. 

"This is a very powerful malevolent entity," he told Lu Bancheng, "one that has apparently invaded our community from somewhere else, one that has been honing its evil power for a thousand years. Thus, I'm afraid I don't have the ability to destroy it."

Reluctantly, Lu and the Taoist priest parted. 

Lu was at a loss about what to do. A powerful exorcist had no effect on a demon running amuck. What could he, Lu, possibly do to stop it? 

Then, it dawned on him. He had seen the face of the kitchen demon before--one of the faces of Yakshas on the temple painting he had brought home. He himself had brought this demon to his community. His willingness to steal a temple painting, a painting that had undoubtedly been placed in the temple to neutralize the power of these demons, had unleashed all this destruction. 

He ran into his house and into the room where he had hidden the temple painting. He grabbed the ancient, valuable work of art and headed outside. He went to a glazed well that had been built on the order of Han Emperor Guangwu (5 B.C.- 57 A.D.). The well was rumored to be bottomless. Without the slightest regret, he threw the painting down into the well. He next hired some workmen to drop a millstone down the well. For good measure, he had the well filled with earth.

The Yaksha, the second Mrs. Lu, was never seen again. 

Qianqi baiguaide minjian gushi, Wang Fan, ed.; pp. 276-278. (See 2/21/13 for full citation.) 

Wu Daozi (A.D. 680-759) was an actual artist.

This legend, the product of an earlier, less sensitive time, doesn't mention anything about the first Mrs. Lu. And like many legends, it has a cautionary tone not unlike urban legends of today, which, in many cases, are just updated versions of cautionary tales from the medieval ages or even earlier periods. The didactic message attached to the end of the tale warns young readers not to take anything without having earned it and that nothing good comes from ill-gotten gains. The demon's father had been a hog/pig butcher, an inauspicious occupation in a tale with an anti-meat eating subtext. Like today's urban legends, the story also suggests to beware of hurriedly befriending strangers of the opposite sex.

 Yaksa (夜叉) comes from Sanskrit, with a number of meanings: "ghost that can eat," "ghost that can bite," "ghost that swiftly brings disease," but also "light and quick," etc. In Hindu mythology, Yaksas are friendly, benign attendants to the gods. They are associated with the air, water or land. Once Buddhism entered China, however, the Yaksa became identified with ghosts or gui (鬼), in earlier eras that catchall phrase for any revenant or demon that hated the living and that devoured human flesh but despite its supernatural powers, could be destroyed by humans . Consuming flesh, in fact, became one of their chief characteristics.  

Motifs: D435.2.1, "Picture comes to life"; F402.4, "Demon eats ravenously"; F496, "Demon of gluttony"; G11.15, "Cannibal demon"; G81, "Unwitting marriage to cannibal"; and cH461, "Cannibal nature of woman recognized when she devours dead buffalo raw."  

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