Friday, November 17, 2017

Song Qiong Returns (Han)

Long, long ago, when traveling from village to village, let alone across a province, was difficult and dangerous, there lived a man named Song Qiong. He was an unmarried man all alone in the world, his parents having passed on some time earlier. Life in his village was hard as his crops had failed. So, he decided to do what for many was the unthinkable--to leave his native village and journey beyond the Shanhai Pass, where the easternmost section of the Great Wall meets the ocean, to the land beyond.

So, along with a companion, he left his home, exited the Pass, and journeyed farther still to a place he would remain in for a period time. In this new village, he worked very hard for a number of years by the sweat of his brow, and scrimped and saved until he had amassed a small fortune, 500 hundred silver coins. Now in his early fifties, he decided to return to his native village, like many, maybe even most, sojourners.

And so he, now alone, set off for his own village, a place he had not seen for years. The cold wintry weather did not deter him as he trudged through the increasing snow covering the ground. On and on he plodded through the falling snow that would not let up.

He had trekked for more than a couple of weeks and was now up in the mountains when he discovered he just could not go any farther. The snow had become a blizzard that enveloped the mountains, blocking the path. Not only that but his two legs were killing him. There was a village up ahead; he would stay there and wait out the storm as he regained the strength in his legs.

He entered the village, made inquiries, and located a vacant room he could rent. In time, he got to know the people of the village, and they got to know him. He was there long enough for everyone to know him because the weather had remained icy, prohibiting foot travel out of the area. By and by they came to see he was of good, honest character and learned he had never married. Before long, the villagers introduced him to a local widow, a Mrs. Ma, who was in her forties and already had four grown children. All in all, the villagers considered them a good match because their respective ages were not very far apart and because Mrs. Ma and her children, though far from wealthy, lived comfortably and always ate well. Perhaps most of all, Song Qiong was a downright decent fellow, a good man to marry.

And so they married, and Song Qiong no longer needed to fret about returning to the village of his birth.

Around a year after the wedding, Song Qiong was struck down with a heavy illness that left him bedridden on the kang, the brick oven the top of which served as a warm bed in this extreme Northern climate.

It had been no secret to Mrs. Ma that Song Qiong possessed 500 silver coins. It now occurred to Mrs. Ma that Song Qiong didn't need to get better. She planned to poison him and take his silver coins for herself.

Mrs. Ma poisoned the food in Song's bowl. The unwitting Song Qiong ate the meal and soon died. Within three days, he had been hastily dressed in a cheap, flimsy coffin and, in the midst of a snowstorm, carted off to a desolate, frozen hill where the unlamented dead were dumped. There, Song's coffin was likewise dumped in an icy snowbank and hastily covered up by the abundant snow.

The harsh winter finally gave way to a warm spring, and, with that, the snow and ice over and around Song's coffin finally melted.

A farmhand who had been hired for the harvest was passing the hill and saw Song's coffin out in the open. He heard a gudong, stopped in his tracks, and looked at the coffin. The lid slowly creaked open, and out from the coffin leaped Song Qiong, who strode over to the farmhand, blocking his path.

"Are . . .  are . . . you . . . a . . . p-p-person?" asked the farmhand.

"No. I'm a ghost," replied Song Qiong.

"W-w-what do you w-w-want?"

"Do me a kindness. Take me to the village. To the home of the Widow Ma."

The farmhand wasn't about to argue with a ghost as Song Qiong's ghost climbed up onto the man's back for a piggyback ride into town. The ghost climbed down off the man's back once he was in front of Widow Ma's front door. The farmhand didn't tarry for a second and ran for his life away from there.

The ghost pushed the door open and entered.

It so happened that Mrs. Ma and her four sons were all crowded around the table, eating lunch. They looked up when they heard the door open and shut. The five were thunderstruck to see who was standing before them.

Slowly, her bones rattling with fear, Mrs. Ma raised herself from her chair. "Y-you're s-supposed to b-be dead, aren't you?"

The ghost laughed a cold snicker from the grave. "When there's been a great wrong, there'll be a corpse," he said, "and there'll be a culprit. A great wrong demands redress, and I'm here to collect. Now, give me my 500 silver coins and a full year's wage for all the work I've done."

Mrs. Ma knew the ghost had her over a barrel. Her face collapsed with sorrow as she went to retrieve the money that the ghost had demanded. The ghost of Song Qiong took the coins, including the year's wages, bundled them up, and left the Ma house.

The ghost next headed for the crossroads. By the intersection stood a wine shop. The ghost entered the shop and spoke to the owner.

"Boss, do this for me. I'll pay you for setting up ten tables of fine wines and delicacies so that for the next ten days any and all travelers coming by this spot may refresh themselves and eat free of charge. I will be seated at one of the tables to welcome anyone who comes by."

The ghost paid the owner a deposit for the order, and the owner, receiving the payment, snapped his fingers for his shop clerk to set up the tables of food and wine immediately. Each table, according to the ghost's order, would have ten dishes, a large bowl of soup, and a selection of wines.

For the next ten days, the ghost sat and wined and dined all who came his way. He made sure to inform them of Mrs. Ma's treachery so that the news of her evil spread through the nine provinces and one hundred eight counties.

As the saying goes, "Ten told one hundred, and one hundred told a thousand." In time, the news reached the local magistrate in the yamen. He promptly sent yamen guards to arrest all five members of the Ma family, including Mrs. Ma.

By this time, the ten days had passed, and all the money the ghost had taken from Mrs. Ma had been spent on food and wine. The ghost of Song Qiong, no longer needed to entertain travelers at the crossroads, lingered around Mrs. Ma's house and took satisfaction at seeing each of the Mas, one by one, led out of the house to be delivered to the yamen to await certain punishment.

His vengeance achieved, the ghost left the area, and this time "died" somewhere for sure.

Ghost Stories [鬼故事], Xu Hualong, ed. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenhua Chubanshe, 2017; pp. 50-52. 

The ghost of Song Qiong is lifelike and three-dimensional enough to resemble a living person. This is no legless, semi-transparent apparition. Furthermore, the story implies the ghost roams and interacts with people day and night. The ghostly manifestation appears to be caused by the violation of an obscure funerary taboo: burial in a cavity packed with snow and ice. There are many Chinese funerary taboos, and some vary according to location (e.g., Northeast China, Taiwan) and ethnicity (e.g., Han majority and minority peoples such as the Muslim Hui, Mongols, etc.); however, I have not been able to find it listed in various compendiums of Chinese taboos. However, in any case, burial of a murder victim in a cheap coffin dumped into an icy, snowy ditch would be obviously terribly disrespectful, just begging for vengeful haunting. 

The story also hints at how in ancient times the area outside the Shanhai Pass, where the Great Wall meets the sea, was regarded as far beyond the pale of civilization. 

The ghost's busy activity of hosting a ten-day banquet seems to be a rare motif. Also interesting is his needing a man to carry him to Mrs. Ma's house when he seems otherwise perfectly mobile. Also noteworthy is Mrs. Ma, somewhat impoverished, has all that money on hand when the ghost demands it. 

Motifs: E230, "Return from the dead to inflict punishment"; E231, "Return from the dead to reveal murder"; cE235, "Return from the dead to punish indignities to corpse or ghost"; E236.8, "Ghost seeks repayment of stolen money"; cE238, "Dinner with the dead"; E420, "Appearance of revenant."

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