Sunday, June 29, 2014

Weird & Eerie Stories From Old China -- Series Three

From A-Z, an ongoing series of the strangest stories from old China, with everything but ghosts. 

(1) Rat Demons

During the era of the Northern Song (A.D. 960-1127), there lived a man in Jiankang (now, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province).

Now one day, this man was eating and threw a fish head upon the floor.

Immediately, from out of a rat hole in the wall emerged a tiny man mounted on a small horse, with horse and rider together no longer than one chi (about 13 inches)! As small as they were, the rider, wearing a full set of gleaming armor, still possessed an undeniably gallant, dashing bearing, and the horse showed itself to be nothing but a noble heavenly steed, miniature though it was.

The rider speared the fish head with a long lance, lifted his catch off the floor, made a full circle with his horse and galloped back into the hole.

The onlooker was dumbfounded. After he gathered his wits, he went to tell his neighbors about what he had just witnessed. Not surprisingly, no one believed him. He felt he had no choice but to buy another fish. He cooked the fish and then, with all the doubters gathered around him, he tossed the fish head upon the floor.

As expected, the tiny rider and horse shot out of the rat hole like lightning, speared the fish head, and escaped back into the hole.

The man repeated the experiment three more times, and each time the same thing happened: the tiny rider and horse appeared, successfully snatched the fish head, and fled back into the hole.

Now it was the turn of all the other witnesses to be stupefied. After some hesitation, the man and his neighbors dug about three chi into the wall, starting from the rat hole. Inside the wall, the people found several huge, unfriendly-looking rats munching on fish heads. The rats took a look at the man and his neighbors and fled. The humans chased after them but were unable to catch a single one. Left behind in the rat lair were what looked like scattered chopsticks; upon closer inspection, they appeared to be the lances seen earlier. Gone without a trace were the horse or horses and the armor.

Everyone there came to the conclusion that this was a monstrous and, thus, evil event. All of them but the original resident of the house moved away to escape the deadly curse that was sure to follow. The man who lived there paid no heed and refused to move. However, he soon came down with a violent illness and died shortly after.

from Meiyingzhi yixia 魅影之一匣 [A box of beguiling shadows]; Chen Peng, ed. Guizhou: Guizhou Renmin Chubanshe, 2011; p. 62;  梦魇照进现实:中国古代那些稀奇古怪事 / 魇之侠 / 第58页-[天涯]

This is a story from Jishenlu 稽神录 [Records of research into spirits], a collection of strange stories compiled by Xu Xuan (A.D. 916-991) of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Rats, malevolent chthonian animals privy to secrets in the earth and walls and having a predilection for shape-shifting ("Rat," A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Wolfram Eberhard; New York: Routledge, pp. 246-247) were, in ancient times, thought of as important bellwethers of a family's fortune. Rats vacating a home meant something akin to "rats deserting a ship" ("Rat," Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann; New York: Facts-on-File, pp. 279-280). This story, however, suggests just to leave well enough alone, not to fool around with the bizarre, the inexplicable, for doing so only brings about misfortune. 

(2) Chicken Dreams

Over in Dongping County, Shandong Province, there once lived an old man named Dong Yingjian. All his life he refrained from eating meat or fish, and he remained an open-minded gentleman with a sweet attitude and respect for all. He told everyone he met the reasons why he never ate flesh. It all had to do years before with a bizarre occurrence involving his father.

Mr. Dong's father had once been county magistrate of Lingchuan County, Zechou (today, Lingchuan County, Shanxi Province). Now in those days, Lingchuan County had been a wild, desolate place, an impoverished region. Magistrate Dong was himself an honest, upright official, so he and his family, like the people in his county, lived frugal,  hardscrabble lives.

Despite the frugality, Magistrate Dong liked to eat, especially meat, sending his servant out to the local market to buy all kinds of meats. However, on this particular day, not really a market day, there wasn't any meat to purchase. Magistrate Dong was disappointed that there would be no meat.

Also on this day, the chief of the prefecture had heard that Dong's younger sister was about to marry, so the chief had thirty eggs delivered to Dong's house as a way of expressing his congratulations.

Thirty eggs!

Magistrate Dong was practically drooling in anticipation of eating something with meat in it, so he had his chef immediately cook seven of the eggs. He had the remaining twenty three eggs packed in a padded quilt and placed on a beam in the house for safekeeping.

That very night, he had a bizarre dream. In his dream, children he didn't recognize, twenty three of them, were leaping off the beam where the eggs had been placed. These children all came up to him with tears running down their faces, kneeling before him, begging him to spare their lives. Among them was a memorable girl in a skirt who walked with a limp.

Magistrate Dong woke up feeling uneasy but couldn't really figure out what exactly was bothering him as the details of the dream started to fade away.

That morning, he received word from a servant that his future brother-in-law was on his way over.

That put Magistrate Dong in a fix: What would he feed his little sister's fiance? Would Magistrate Dong, the servant asked, consent to having the remaining eggs cooked for breakfast? Dong nodded his assent.

Suddenly it dawned on him as he saw the servant girl bring the eggs down from the beam--twenty three eggs and twenty three children, begging for mercy. . .

He ordered the eggs to be well cared for, finding someone to incubate them properly. As it turns out, all the eggs hatched, and among the chicks was a lame one that grew to be a hen!

From that day forward, Magistrate Dong never again ate meat or killed a living thing. His legacy became the practice observed by each later generation of the Dong family.

from Meiyingzhi yixia, pp. 17-18;  夷坚丁志卷十六 鸡子梦

This story is from the Yijianzhi 夷坚志 [Intimate Annals of Barbarian Tribes], a compilation of strange stories collected by Hong Mai (A.D. 1123-1202) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1229). This tale is reminiscent of two from Japan: "Oshidori," which appears in Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan (see
Oshidori, by Lafcadio Hearn, 1904), and "Enough Is Enough!" from Japanese Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library), translated and edited by Royall Tyler (New York: Pantheon, 1987: pp. 114-115). In the former, a hunter kills one of a pair of ducks and later dreams of a beautiful but grieving widow who castigates him for having killed her lover. In the latter, a new homeowner whose villa is infested with foxes instructs his servants to hunt down and kill all the foxes. A dream about an apologetic old man who begs that his descendants be spared prompts the homeowner to call off the hunt. The cancellation of the order turns out to be a wise move. 

(3) "Now . . . Trade Faces!"

In the year 418, at the very end of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 317-420), there lived a soldier and tactician named Jia Bi, originally from Hedong (now, Shanxi Province), serving at the prince's palace in Langya (perhaps in Anhui Province). Our annals tell us that he was one exceedingly good-looking man.

One night Jia Bi had a weird dream. In his dream he came across a fog. Then, from out of the fog stepped a man whose ugliness was unrivaled. This man was more hideous than any possible person could be in real life: He had a face full of pimples; a big "wine trough" nose (i.e., a nose with prominent rosacea); red eyes with eyelids swollen with pus; and an unkempt beard resembling weeds.

The face wobbled before him, giggling, saying, "Jia Bi, you are so handsome! How about you and I trade faces?"

"Brother," replied Jia Bi, "I've suddenly been thrust into the midst of a marvelous dream. How about not trading?"

"Don't try to stall me with that fancy talk about dreams. Now, let me have a more pleasing reply! Are we trading or not?"

"Come now. Our flesh, our bodies come from our parents! We can't do such things as you wish without violating the rules of filial piety! Each person's face is his own. How could someone possibly trade his for someone else's? Your request is absolutely impossible to grant."

The hideous man resorted to cajolery in his quest to trade faces. The pestering continued.

"I am to trade faces with someone impersonating a demon in some kind of . . . ahem . . . fabulous dream?" asked Jia Bi, trying a different tack. "No, we're not trading!"

The dream then started  to unravel as the fog dissipated; the bizarre man started to fade away; soon, Jia Bi was awake. He got up, remembering the details of the odd dream, and he felt deeply anxious.

As it turned out, Jia Bi was to have the same dream several nights in a row, with the weird, repulsive man pestering him over and over to trade faces.

Night after night, Jia Bi endured relentless entreaties and demands to trade faces, and gradually this harassment from the dream world began to take its toll.

One particular night, Jia Bi, now mentally exhausted by the stranger's incessant demands, blurted out without thinking: "Very well! If you can take my face and trade it with yours, then do it! Just make sure you never  bother me again!"

That morning, Jia Bi woke up, rolled out of bed, dressed, left his quarters and reported for duty at the palace. When he showed up, the servants who first encountered him reacted with such fright and caused such an uproar that the Prince of Langya himself appeared.

"Who are you, ugly man?" the Prince asked, recoiling as he faced Jia Bi. "Where do you come from?"

Instinctively, Jia Bi raised his hands and started groping around his own face. "Ahhh!" he screamed. He ran back to his quarters and looked into a mirror.

What he saw made him want to faint: His face was that of the repulsive man in the dream.

The Prince personally led a detachment of guards to Jia's quarters, where they subdued and arrested him. The Prince then spent some time with Jia Bi, talking to him, listening to him. The Prince came to the conclusion that this very homely individual was indeed Jia Bi.

"Jia Bi," said the Prince, "you've always been so clever and handsome, much more handsome than I. What happened to you? Did you do something, something perhaps stupid?"

With that, Jia Bi began to weep copiously.

"Jia Bi, whatever has brought this about won't be cured by your crying," continued the Prince. "You only look very ugly; it's not as if you've turned into an idiot! What are you worried about, then? Do you not still have your wits about you? Come on, now. Is it not said, 'A great man has great contributions to make'? So what if you're somewhat homelier now! I know you still want to be that handsome young man you once were! Well, don't fret. Your Prince is not going to turn his back on you now just because you don't look the same way you used to."

Jia Bi dried his tears.

"Your Highness," asked Jia Bi, "if I ask you a question, would you please tell me the truth as you see it?"

"Ask," replied the Prince.

"Very well. Your Highness, does my present appearance make me . . . perhaps . . . look somewhat . . . tougher?"

The Prince stifled a laugh and nodded vigorously. "Indeed, it does."

Hearing that, Jia Bi felt faint and passed out.

Not long after, there was some upheaval. An emperor passed away, and his successor took his place. The region suffered heavy rainstorms. Many wondered if all these events were presaged by what had happened to Jia Bi.

Jia Bi's new face remained for the rest of his life. However, with his new face he seemed to develop new talents. He could, for example, laugh with one half of his face and cry with the other half. Perhaps more noteworthy was he became a renowned essayist, able to wield the ink brush and to write in different styles which could appear to have been written by totally different people.

"Anyone who can write like five individuals deserves a huge pay raise!" said the Prince.

from Meiyingzhi yixia, pp. 216-217; Anye qianyu 暗夜千羽[A thousand wings in the dark of night]; Lin Suwei; Beijing: Beijing Kexue Jishu Chubanshe, 2011; pp. 117-123;  换脸_魇之侠_新浪博客

This story is originally from the Southern Dynasty (A.D. 420-589) collection of strange stories, Youminglu 幽明录[Records of the Nether Regions], compiled by Liu Yiqing (A.D. 404-444). 

This story could probably be included in an anthology about ghosts. It's included here, though, because this particular series excludes more traditional types of ghost stories, such as hauntings, dead lovers and spouses that interact with the living, and revenants, all of which I write about elsewhere. 

 Lin Suwei comments on the undeniable reality of how handsomeness/beauty is a great asset in life. She also likens this old legend to the 1997 Hollywood film Face/Off, which starred John Travolta and Nicholas Cage (117-118). In that movie, a criminal and an FBI agent have plastic surgeries to resemble each other, with the criminal now resembling the law officer and the officer, the criminal. However, the legend made me think of a marvelous Philip K. Dick story, "Impostor," in which a man is accused of actually being a totally human-looking android housing a powerful bomb in its chest. The accused man, the scientist (or engineer?) Olham, vigorously protests his innocence, especially when he, being considered too much of a hazardous risk by the authorities, discovers he is scheduled for instant termination. Apparently, this story inspired Dick to write a series of stories exploring the theme of what makes one a human. We see some of this theme when Jia Bi seems to change after acquiring his new face, developing talents that had never before been evinced. Perhaps those with a Freudian bent might see this as a meditation on the breakdown of the superego.

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