Friday, September 12, 2014

The Beggar and the Ghosts (Han)

One dark night, a young mendicant knocked on the door of a house.

"Yes?" asked the old woman caretaker who opened the door. "What do you want?"

"Would you have a spare room to put me up for the night?" asked the beggar.

"Normally we wouldn't mind and wouldn't turn you away, but you wouldn't want to spend the night here."

"Why not?"

"Because this place is haunted! Besides, the owner has recently died, and there's no one else here but me and a young lady lying ill in bed. Do you still wish to spend the night here?"

"Why not? I'm not afraid of ghosts," replied the beggar.

"All right . . . you've been warned. Suit yourself. Come in."

The beggar entered the house and was shown a spare bedroom.

"This will do nicely." He thanked the old woman and lay down to go to sleep.

Around midnight, the young beggar was woken up by voices. He got up to investigate. The voices were coming from the main hall. Instead of going over there, he opened the window and climbed up onto the roof, where he could easily look down and see the main hall.

And there they were.

From his vantage point, he spotted four ghosts, cavorting, raising a ruckus in the main hall.

He could see them, but apparently they did not notice him. Maybe he didn't see where he was stepping, or maybe he craned his neck too far to get a good look. In any case, he lost his footing and fell right off the roof.


He landed into a vat of lime powder, such as that which is used to prepare plaster or whitewash. He emerged bathed in white powder from head to foot. The ghosts looked at him and stepped back, afraid.

"Who . . . Who are . . . y-you?" one of the ghosts asked.

This young vagabond and beggar was quick-thinking, so he replied in a booming voice, "Who am I? Why,  I am the White Grandfather of Penglai Mountain! Now, each of  you . . . one at a time . . ."

The ghosts all together dropped to their knees and faced the beggar.

"Who or what are you?" the beggar asked the first ghost.

"I . . . I am the spirit of a cleaning cloth, Grandfather . . ."

"And you? Who or what are you?"

"T-The bamboo whisk b-brush, G-Grandfather . . ."

"And you?"

"The b-broom, Grandfather . . . "

"All right. And you over there?"

"The tortoise, Grandfather . . ."

"I see. Very well."

Morning finally came, and all was still in the house.

The beggar informed the old woman who watched over the house what had happened and how to rid the house of the ghosts.

"It's quite simple," he said. "Gather up the cleaning cloth, whisk brush, broom and tortoise shell." After she had done so, he added, "Now, take them outside and burn them!"

She did and the ghosts never returned again. What's more, the young lady bedridden by illness, the daughter of the late owner, completely recovered. The young beggar was asked to stay on, and before long he wed the house owner's daughter.

Gu Xijia. 中国民间故事类型研究 [Research in the types of Chinese folktales], Liu Shouhua, ed; Wuhan: Huazhong Shifan, 2002; pp. 288-299.

This is an ancient tale with a widespread distribution. It belongs to the Chinese classification of "Catching Ghosts in a Haunted House" 凶宅捉鬼. , and belongs to folktale type AT326E, which Chinese-American folklorist Nai-tung Ting labels "Fearless Man Defies Demons in the Haunted House" (Folklore Fellows Communication No. 223, A Type Index of Chinese Folktales, p. 58). Gu has reconstructed the ur-form of the tale presented above. Other variants with other settings exist. 

The story hints at the death of the owner and his daughter's debilitating sickness as being tied to the hauntings. This would be in keeping with traditional Chinese ghost lore. Penglai or Pengcai Mountain was reputed to be the abode of immortals in the middle of the sea. It is not clear as to whether an actual tortoise or just the shell is burnt. Of course, I hope it was the latter . . .

An interesting motif also found in Japanese folktales is the animation in the form of spirits of lifeless objects (e.g., broom, cloth, etc.). Professor Noriko T. Reider identifies such haunted or spirit-animated objects as  tsukumogami 付喪神, or to use her English translation, "tool specters." (Gu Xijia  just identifies the objects as jingguai 精怪,normally defined as "demons" but here differentiated from "ghosts" as former "animals, plants and other objects" now transformed into spirits [289].) The idea here is if a (normally) inanimate object could attain an old enough age, it would then become animated by a spirit now housed within it (see Noriko T. Reider,  Animating Objects: Tsukumogami ki and the Medieval Illustration of Shingon Truth. Asian Folklore Studies 64, p. 207. [2007]). For another story of tool specters, see "The Abandoned House," the first story in "Ghost Stories From Ancient China--Series Two," 5/04/09. 

Motifs: E265, "Meeting ghost causes sickness"; E265.3, "Meeting ghost causes death"; E281, "Ghosts haunt house"; E293, "Ghosts frighten people (deliberately); E431.13, "Corpse (objects) burned to prevent return; E432, "Ghosts deceived"; and E530ff, "Ghosts of objects."

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